Thursday, June 21, 2012

Give me oxygen

 My car thermometer registered 102 degrees when I arrived at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor's Center in Lone Pine. A furnace wind whipped through the air as a motorcyclist pulled in beside me. His face and helmet were coated in ochre dust that was streaked with sweat, and he was wearing a leather jacket despite the heat. He told me he just rode in from Death Valley, where the mercury topped 120.

"Wow, I've only been to Death Valley in January," I said. "I should head out there just to see what it's like."

"Are you going that direction?" he asked.

"No, I'm here to get a permit for Mount Whitney," I said. "I'm hiking there tomorrow."

"In one day?"


"Have you heard of that race where people run from the bottom of Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney in a day?" he asked.

I laughed. "You mean Badwater?" I found it humorous that this random motorcyclist had heard of this esoteric 135-mile ultramarathon. "Yeah, I've heard of it. That's too hellish for my taste. I'm only interested in the last 11 miles on trail, which I get to climb tomorrow. I'm excited."

"I wouldn't even want to do that," he said. "It's cold in the mountains. I'm all for the desert, love the heat, even when it's 120. But a couple years ago I was driving through when those Badwater people were running. And I just thought, damn. Yeah, that's what I thought. Damn."

 Damn indeed. I'm endlessly intrigued by the world's extremes, even the scorched desert, although it frightens me even more than deep-frozen tundra. In a way, this fear makes the desert all the more alluring. After the motorcyclist left, I collected my Whitney permit and mulled what I wanted to do with the afternoon. Should I head out to the sun-baked lowlands of Death Valley, or stick with my original plan of another acclimation hike? I was genuinely torn. But I just didn't have time to do it all, and this short trip was about mountains. I purchased a map at the visitors center and studied nearby options. There was a trailhead right at the campground where I was planning to stay called Meysan Lakes, which climbed the next major drainage over from Mount Whitney. Perfect.

 Despite its proximity to Whitney Portal, the Meysan Lakes trail was almost deserted. I only saw two other hikers, both solo like me. The first was an older gentleman who lectured me for starting so late in the day, for wearing "sneakers," and for not carrying bear spray. He told me to watch out for a European man who was farther up the trail, and who would surely be half-dead when I came across him because, "He has no shirt, no hat, and he's not carrying any water."

"Perhaps he's drinking out of the streams," I said. "They do that in Europe."

The older gentleman just shook his head. "I can't believe how far up the trail he made it. I'm worried about him." A few miles later, I crossed paths with the European man, who I think might have been German. He was indeed shirtless, deeply tanned, not carrying a single bottle or backpack, and looked as happy as can be.

"Hallo," he said after I greeted him. "Is very nice, beautiful here."


 The Meysan Lakes Trail had a consistently steep grade, and since it started at 7,500 feet, I couldn't process enough oxygen to run. Still, my hope was to hike up and run down, which was about the pace I'd need to keep in order to reach the upper lake and make it back to the campground by sundown. The European man was right about the beauty of the canyon, surrounded by sheer granite walls and filled with bright wildflowers. It's still spring up here, and early spring at that. Even at 102 degrees in Lone Pine, the weather was great above 10,000 feet — low 70s, calm breeze, and sunshine.

 I scrambled to the upper lake, which filled an entire basin at 11,400 feet. There was a lot less snow than I expected, almost none, and I wished I had the forethought to bring overnight gear with me and allot an extra day. I felt so comfortable that I wished I could stay for a long while — on this windswept moonscape of crumbling granite, devoid of habitable terrain, and barren except for the icy water of a snowmelt lake. And yet, I felt content. What is it that's so endlessly intriguing about these extremes?

 What was left of the faint trail technically ended at the lake, and even though the sun was drifting lower on the horizon, the allure of extremes tempted me higher. I scanned the ridge for weaknesses that would allow easy passage for a clumsy solo hiker like myself, and found what looked like a ramp cut into the cliffs. As I approached it, I saw tracks in the talus that did not look like human tracks. They were too small and close together, and I wondered if I had found a goat trail. I followed the tracks, which turned out to be the perfect route to the ridge. Not harrowing at all. Thanks, goats.

I reached the ridge at an elevation of 12,300 feet, next to two peaks that definitely looked like the domain of more sure-footed mountaineers than I. Plus, it was getting late — and yet the forces of desire pulled at me to climb higher. The wind was fierce now, and noticeably cold. From my perch I could still see the 100-degree valley 9,000 feet below, bordered by the red Inyo Mountains, and beyond that the scorched desert. I pulled a jacket out of my pack to stave off shivering and gazed at the unknown peaks above me, wishing I was a climber.

 Still, the ridge afforded a stunning vista of Mount Whitney, with its steep and intimidating east face. It was also a sobering view of just how far I'd have to climb the following day.

 Looking back on the Lone Pine Valley and the approach to Mount Whitney. My lungs burned as I breathed the sharp wind, and for the first time I noticed that I was struggling with the altitude — which was encouraging, because I was already above 12,000 feet.

As soon as I descended the talus, boulders and more technical trail from the ridge to the lower lake, I tried running. My legs were strong and it felt great to move quickly down the trail, even though the downhill exertion necessitated gasping breaths. I finished with 45 minutes of daylight to spare, 12.5 miles and 4,900 feet of climbing — just a little warm-up hike. My lungs were burning. I set up my tent at the campground, altitude 7,700, and hoped I'd be able to get some sleep. 


  1. Fantastic photos. Please keep them coming!

  2. Love the posts! Curious, you look fair-skinned as am I. What strategies do you have to keep from turning a beautiful lobster red after some time in the sun?

  3. Enfermero: Lots and lots of SPF 50. Seriously, I go through an 8-ounce bottle a month here in Cali. I'm one of those people who actually misses living in a climate where I could wear skin-covering clothing all of the time. On the high altitudes of Mount Whitney I must have reapplied my sunscreen four times and I still came home with a few burn patches. My skin won't tan. It's all or nothing.

  4. I hiked Mt. Whitney as a dayhike on my time off when I worked for the USFS- it was incredible! This post really made me miss the Sierras and swimming in freezing cold mountain lakes. Nowadays I live in a very flat state and I just had my first child- seem like a lifetime ago. Thanks for bringing back such good memories.

  5. Yes, it`s true. We drink out of streams in the mountains.

  6. Breathtaking pictures! Incredibly beautiful!

  7. What an awesome trip! i love the freedom and beauty.

  8. Jill, I am so envious. It's been w-a-y too long since I've been back to the Sierras Some of the happiest times of my life have been spent tromping and climbing there.

    Thank you for transporting me to my "home."

    MikeS in Juneau

    PS: Going to be 80F in Juneau, this weekend!!

  9. I hiked Mt. Whitney as a day hike when I worked for the NPS. I met 2 very handsome men on the way down. They thought I was cool and bought me a hotel room in Lone Pine. When we walked into the hotel office the woman at the front desk screamed. One of them was a soap star from the Young & Restless apparently. We all went out to dinner and then went to our respective rooms and I never saw them again. Randomness on Whitney.

  10. Those are stunning photos! So beautiful! Thank you for sharing your journeys!


  11. Amazing photos, Jill. Can I ask what pack you're wearing? I'm looking for a hydration pack with bigger pockets on the straps like you have there.

  12. Amber,

    It's an Ultimate Direction Wasp hydration pack. I also love to be able to carry tons of stuff in front pockets. The only drawback to this pack is it can only accomodate a two-liter bladder. I've tried larger and can't make them fit.


Feedback is always appreciated!