Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day #2: Heading up the chute to Trail Crest at 13,600'

The sun came up at 5:30am and lit up the tent. By 6am we were up. Fortunately, in the full force of the sun with the granite heating up, the air heated up quickly and the morning wasn't as cold as I feared it might be. We cooked an oatmeal mixture for breakfast which was only so-so and then dumped everything out of our packs that we didn't need to take to the summit. We still needed a fair number of things: water, food, extra clothes (it can be really cold and/or windy up on the summit), first aid, ice axe, crampons, WAG bags, etc... But tent, sleeping bag, stove, and most of our food could stay here. Our packs were a lot lighter.

Our Camp by First Light - Whitney Peaks in the Background

The "chute" up to Trail Crest (45 degree slope of snow in front of the peaks)

By 7am, we were on our way to Trail Crest. This leg of the journey essentially consisted of three parts: 1) Hike up some switchbacks on the rocks, 2) then traverse over to the chute and 3) then climb the chute. We managed the switchbacks OK, but any uphill or rock scrambling at this altitude was still tiring. When we hit the place where the trail and rocks were covered with snow, it was time to put on our cramp-ons. I'd done it before at home, but since we aren't experts at this, it tooks us a little while to get this right, but we got them on firmly. We traded our hiking poles for the ice axes and started traversing up and over to the bottom of the chute. This was tough going. Not only was it uphill, but the snow wasn't very strong and we'd break through sometimes. The crampons gave us great traction though. A little while into it, we realized that our hiking poles would be better than our ice axes for this part of the climb so we swapped those. It takes quite a while to get over to the bottom of the chute. What looks like a simple traverse from far away actually has a lot of elevation gain in it and we have to take frequent breaks. We start out counting 50 steps and taking a break to catch our breath.

Other Hikers Making Their Way to the Bottom of the Chute

Finally, by 8:30am, we get to the bottom of the chute. We've been told that the bottom of the chute is 30 degrees and the top is 45 degrees. I don't know if that is hiker's exaggeration or not, but whatever the angles are, it does get steeper at the top and it's darn steep. There's a few people ahead of us and quite a few more day hikers behind us. Everyone seems to be going up the left side (there's some rocks in the middle and you can go to the left or right of the rocks) so we follow. The general idea is that you want to find a set of boot tracks that you can follow where some previous people have made footholds into the snow that you can step in. I'm leading the way and sometimes it's easy to follow a good path and other times, you just can't find an organized set of boot paths. What used to be 50 steps and then a rest is now 25 steps and then a rest. Soon that goes to 15 steps. Progress just seems to be agonizingly slow because Trail Crest is so far above, but if you look below it's easier to see how much progress you've made.

Kevin Making His Way up the Chute

When we reach the boulder field in the middle of the chute, we find a boulder that we can take a longer rest on and we have a snack. We been going for two hours now, but we can still see our camp area and it just doesn't seem like we've gone very long. We're both physically fine now, the chute just seems like such a daunting challenge and it's so hard to get enough air to go up such a steep slope that I really don't know if we're going to make it up or not. After a break on the boulders, we see four folks from above us turn around and start going down. While they do have crampons, they don't have hiking poles and they just don't think they can make it all the way up. Then, we see a woman coming down by herself. She explains that she made it to Trail Crest, but hurt her foot on the way up and doesn't think she can make it to the summit of Whitney so she's going back down. This is not an encouraging sign. For the length of the boulder field, we really struggle. We both need rests - sometimes it's me calling for the rest, sometimes it's Kevin. We can really only go about 10 steps before needing to rest.

I set a goal that we'll rest on the last boulder in the boulder field. When we finally get there, we take off our packs and just try to catch our breath. We're clearly a long ways up, but the chute has gotten significantly steeper. Without any more places to sit and rest and the additional steepness, I'm just not sure if I'm going to make it up. We just sit on this boulder for awhile.

You Can See What the Crampons Look Like in This Picture of Kevin

Other Hikers On Their Way Up Behind Us

A few other climbers go by. Then, we see this long group of day hikers coming up. When we're finally ready to move on, they are even with us. We get into line with them and something about the rhythm of the long group of people just works. Because the whole group really can't go any faster than the slowest person ahead of you, it ended up being a rhythm of five steps, pause, five steps, pause. It was a perfect cadence that just worked for us. I don't know if we were just trying to do too much before or if there was something psychological about being part of that larger group or if our adrenaline just started pumping, but we followed this cadence for 30 minutes right up to Trail Crest with no long breaks at all. Turn brain off - just follow the person in front of you. It just worked.

We were ecstatic to get to Trail Crest at 10:22. It had taken almost 3-1/2 hours to get up the 1500 feet to Trail Crest. Though there was still a long ways to go to get to the Whitney summit itself, this was the part of the day we were most worried about and we really thought we could do the rest of the trip. It seemed like the Whitney summit was in our grasp. Lots more work to do, but the most daunting parts were done. Of course, like most things at 14,000 feet, it wasn't all that simple. The view at Trail Crest is unbelievable. You can see both east and west - east into Owens valley and down to the town of Lone Pine and west over hundreds of other Sierra peaks and frozen lakes. It's also got quite cold. We were apparently sheltered from the wind on the chute (hiking in only a long sleeve shirt) and we needed both fleece and windbreaker as soon as we got exposed to the wind.

Off came the crampons, we took a few photos, mixed ourselves some powdered Gatorade (which tasted great) and had a good snack watching everyone else come up the chute. Not even a peep of altitude sickness in either one of us so somewhere around 10:30, we headed off to the Whitney summit.

Jubilant to Be At Trail Crest - The Chute Has Been Conquered

The View from Trail Crest to the West Over the Sierras

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