Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Marmot Country

The sun was up, the tent was down, and after a quick breakfast at the portal store it was time to start walking. My objective: the summit of Mt Whitney, the highest point in the United States outside Alaska, 11 miles away and 6,100 feet up from the trailhead at Whitney Portal on the other side of the John Muir Wilderness. Despite the peak's prominence very few people seem to have heard of it, unlike the giant volcanic snow cones of Mt Hood and Rainier looming behind Portland and Seattle or Mt Evans and Pikes Peaks facing Denver and Colorado Springs from the front range of the rockies or even Mt Shasta standing alone 10,000 feet above California's forests Mt Whitney is hidden back behind the edge of the Sierra Nevada, surrounded by mountains almost as tall as itself, watching over a harsh desert in one direction and thousands of square miles of roadless mountain in the other far from any major cities. Even visitors who drive through the nearby town of Lone Pine and know to look for it often mistake the closer and therefore apparently larger Lone Pine Peak for Whitney.

I weighed my pack at the trailhead scale, somewhat of a tradition for hikers going up Whitney: 33 pounds for 3 days, a bit heavier than usual due to bear canister tucked in the bottom but still light compared to the gear of 10 years ago. The old backpacker trick of hanging food from a tree doesn't work in the Sierras anymore, so many hikers come through here that the bears have had plenty of opportunities to figure it out. Instead we have to carry a heavy armored keg to store food (and anything else with a smell). Where I'm heading I'm more worried about marmots: bears don't usually go above 10,000 feet but neither do the trees and the bear canister will be just as effective at keeping these giant brown rodents out of my food. They will easily chew through fabric to get a meal and I've even read that tents and backpacks should be left unzipped and open when unattended in the camps so that the marmots can get in and poke around without causing any damage. The sign at the trailhead advising that rodents are known to carry the plague convinced me otherwise, if one of them is going to roll around in my sleeping bag I'm at least going to make him work for it. The other concern in such a heavily trafficked area is poop: with tens of thousands of hikers traversing the same corridor every year and no toilets along the way waste disposal has become a major problem. Hikers are issued "Wag Bags", heavy plastic zip-top bags containing a gel that supposedly deodorizes any deposits. I hope I don't have to find out how effective they are.

Most of the route up to Whitney is like a giant staircase: a series of meadows each usually containing a small stream and tarn whose outlet would pour down over the edge of the steep incline separating it from the next in a waterfall. Each lush meadow is surrounded by stark granite walls topped by impossibly high granite spires. Looking up it seemed almost unbelievable that if I successfully reached my goal I would be higher than all of them. The character of the trail is established almost immediately: switchbacks, lots of them. This particular method of trail engineering apparently hasn't caught on in the Northeast where trails head straight up even the steepest mountains in a direct line. Here in the West they zigzag back and forth up the faces, keeping the incline much lower but multiplying the mileage. Climbing from one meadow to the next required walking across the face dozens of times with each lap only a few feet above the one before it. After walking for hours while still in sight of my starting point I decided that I prefer the brutally direct New England method of trail construction better.

Camping is allowed nearly anywhere along the trail but there are 2 commonly used spots known as Outpost Camp at 10,000' and Trail Camp at 12,000'. Both of these are near water and in had solar toilets in the past, despite the toilets' removal and the availability of water elsewhere they have remained the popular and traditional camping spots. My original plan was to spend 3 nights on the mountain: the first would be at Outpost Camp and the second would be at Trail Camp where I would leave my camp site set up to summit with just a light day-pack and then return for a third night on the way back down. This required me to carry 3 days worth of food but would make for much shorter hiking days and would allow for more time to adjust to the altitude on the way up. I cruised past Outpost Camp at 2pm and felt great so I decided to skip my night at Outpost keep moving on up to Trail Camp.

I have come to understand why books, movies, and TV shows about the world's high peaks like Everest always use elevation rather than mileage to refer to points along the trail. On a long-distance hike mileage may provide a convenient measure of progress but on a mountain elevation makes all the difference. On Whitney it's the difference between a 95 degree day down in Lone Pine at 3,700' and a 29 degree night up in Trail Camp at 12,000'. For the hiker it's the difference between plodding along through a verdant meadow at 10,000' without a care in the world and collapsing on bare granite from altitude sickness at 12,000'. I finally started feeling the effects of the altitude as I climbed above Mirror Lake at 11,000' in the form of a mild headache, by the time I passed Trailside Meadow at 11,500' I was contemplating setting up camp right where I was, when I finally made it to Trail Camp at 12,000' I was utterly destroyed. Setting up my tent, normally a 5 minute affair, took more than 30 as I had to sit down and rest after pounding each stake into the ground. Finding enough air to inflate my air mattress without keeling over from dizziness was nearly impossible and the completion of this simple task warranted a nap before I could even be bothered to pull my sleeping bag out of its stuff sack. I fell asleep with the intention of spending a second night at Trail Camp to adjust to the altitude and realized that there was a very real possibility that I would have to retreat to lower elevations if I didn't feel any better in the morning (which would effectively eliminate the possibility of summiting without first returning all the way to the Portal to resupply). Despite the preceding 3 nights I had spend above 8,000' I was sure I had pushed too far too fast and jeopardized my chances of summiting.Pack Scale - galleryJohn Muir Wilderness - galleryLog Bridge - galleryLone Pine Lake - galleryBighorn Park - galleryFlowers - galleryWaterfall - galleryTrailside Meadow - gallerySnowpack - galleryConsultation Lake - gallery