Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Take me higher

Why is elevation so alluring? What is it about a distressing lack of oxygen, cold temperatures, rugged terrain, high winds, and harsh exposure that continually lure me to higher heights? I'm not even a rock climber and likely will never try to become one (too klutzy, oh so klutzy.) But like John Muir who once traveled these same granite mounds, the mountains are calling — and I must go.

Earlier this week, I went in search of ideas for two to three days of trail running possibilities around the Yosemite Valley, and stumbled across an open permit for Mount Whitney — a broad mountain that reigns over a beautiful cathedral of granite spires, and also happens to be the highest point in the Lower 48 United States. It was the sole Whitney opening in the entire month of June, a single day permit for June 19. Too serendipitous to bypass, I grabbed it and began scheming an acclimating/hiking trip instead.

I've been to Mount Whitney, elevation 14,505, once before, way back in 2001. That's also the only time I've been above 14,000 feet in my life — and I remember it being a harsh struggle, back when I lived at 4,500 feet in Salt Lake City. Now I live next to the ocean and know of other sea level dwellers who have developed high altitude pulmonary edema as low as 11,000 feet when ascending too quickly. I wanted to be cautious about the altitude and do a bit of acclimating on the way to the Eastern Sierras. Luckily, Yosemite National Park is right on route. On Sunday afternoon, I took on the climb to Clouds Rest. From the Sunrise trailhead on Highway 120, there's only about 3,500 feet of climbing in 15 rolling miles, and my plan was to run the runnable portions of trail. However, starting my run at 8,000 feet proved to be even tougher than I anticipated. I was sucking wind before the first quarter mile. After pushing hard for two miles I took much-needed "picture break," only to realize that I left the camera's battery plugged into its charger at home, 200 miles away. There was a spare camera in my car, but retrieving it necessitated four bonus miles. I debated it for a while but finally decided it was too beautiful of a day for no picture taking. I ran the two miles back and after that felt pretty deflated. It's interesting how quickly elevation can strip away my delusions of fitness — those four relatively flat miles could have easily done it for me in terms of perceived exertion. I knew I had 15 more miles in me, but it was getting to the point where limited daylight necessitated a continued strong pace.

I continued the attempted running until I surpassed 9,000 feet; then every breath felt like dragging a grater across my lungs. A pace I view as easy-going jogging at sea level just wasn't achievable for me at this elevation. Even hiking was extra tough. What that foretold for 14,000 feet in a day and a half, I tried not to imagine. I plodded to the top of Cloud's Rest, elevation 9,931 feet, and immediately lost all regret I had been feeling about my four-mile bonus camera run. It was a hazy day, but I still had great views of the Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point and Half Dome.

On the left is the area where I started running, Tenaya Lake, and a broad view of the eastern Sierras. As much as I love ascending to the top of mountains, my heart breaks every time I do so. From these heights I can see the true reach of places I will never experience, and realize just how insignificant of a bystander I am in this expansive world.

I ended with 19 miles in 5.5 hours, with about a half hour on the peak. But I had to work hard to average those 15-minute miles. I finished up about an hour before sunset and started driving east and south toward Lone Pine, in a slim valley wedged between the High Sierras and the low basins of Death Valley. I enjoy taking solo drives through scenic places, and the route from Yosemite to Lone Pine was one of the better drives I've had in a long time. This is Tuolume Meadows, a place where several long trails link together. Yosemite National Park is a trail runner's paradise, with an expansive network of runnable, scenic routes that stretch out for dozens and even hundreds of miles (John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail.) I'm developing more interest in linking up these long routes someday.

I stopped for a restroom break at this stream near Tioga Lake. An outhouse with a view.

Ellery Lake.

Highway 120 at Tioga Pass.

Waterfall near Tioga Pass.

Descending Deadman Pass, this was the view from my dash of the Eastern Sierras — the drier and in my opinion more stunning side of this mountain range. My destination for the night was the unspectacular town of Bishop, elevation 4,200, because Lone Pine was still hours away and I wanted a little time at lower elevation to recover from my high-altitude Yosemite run. I had one more day to acclimate and I was almost as excited about the possibilities as I was about my Mount Whitney permit. 


  1. Excellent pics (as always!) Jill! I've hiked Mt Whitney twice (both times doing the round trip w/ no camping gear). The downhill crushes my knees...those 99 switchbacks up the ridge coming down are just hell on knees. Even w/ hiking poles. I'm envious of your trip's an amazing hike (the 2nd time we did it was during the night, so we could make the summit for sunrise).

    Gotta tell you, the Whitney Burger at the little restaurant @ the portal (after you've come back down) might just be the TASTIEST BURGER EVER! And it's pretty huge..which is good after all the calories burned on the trip. Have fun and be safe...look forward to your pics (our last time up was prob about 10 years ago already...pre-Whitney area pass requirement).

    The Sierras are just SO AWESOME! And I know how you feel about altitude (and living at sea-level). We go backpacking on the east side somewhere every other year...(this year is THE ONE again too!)...we like to set up base-camp somewhere above 10,000 and day-hike/fish for a few days. I just LOVE being up high! Have a blast!

  2. Just flew over that area on my way to SF (Mt. Whitney that is and Death Valley) - Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful. Can't wait to see the rest of the pictures!

  3. Getting excited for my JMT trip from your photos!

  4. I was there in early November last year. I can't believe how different it looks with no snow!

  5. I love Tioga Pass and Tolumne Meadows - SO beautiful. Can't wait to go back there someday.

    I was up over 14,000 feet myself this past weekend, hiking up 14,420 ft. Mt. Harvard here in CO. Life is just better at high altitude! :)

  6. Did you stop at the Mobil Mart?

  7. Living down here near the mouth of the Mississippi where my GPS registers zero elevation for a sixty mile ride, I love having your photos to remind me that the world is not, indeed, flat. If I stare at the photos and breathe into a paper bag for a few minutes it's almost like being at 14,000 feet too!

  8. I've been reading your blog since the NPR wolf episode and I'm always amazed by the places you go and the pictures you post. Thanks Jill for showing me the sites I probably will never see on my own.

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  10. Your essay reminds me of my favorite Robert Service poem, which I memorized during my first years in Alaska back in the early 1970's.

    "Have you ever stood where the silences brood,
    And vast the horizons begin?
    At the dawn of the day to behold far away
    The goal you would strive for and win?
    Yet ah! in the night, when you gain to the height
    With the vast pool of heaven star-spawned,
    Afar and agleam, like a valley of dream,
    Still mocks you, the Land of Beyond."

    (had to delete this the first time, as it didn't post correctly!)


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