Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sunday, July 6: Day Two of Zone Permit (Part 1)

Trail Camp to Summit, Round-Trip (Point 4 to Point 6)
~12,000' to ~14,500'
~10 mi, round-trip (~2500' elevation change)
Began from Trail Camp ~0545 hr
Summited ~1300 hr
Arrived back at Trail Camp ~1900 hr

Backpacking Notes: A ver-r-ry slo-o-ow and strenuous hike beginning in the Alpine zone and rapidly rising above it. This is the lunar-looking scape for which the Whitney trail is famous, and the altitude leaves even the twenty-somethings panting. Plenty of wildflowers are still in evidence, although very few types at this altitude. Left Trail Camp at ~0545; had to break for 30 min due to nausea from high altitude at ~13,000' and continue ascending like a SCUBA diver -- ~10' at a time. Arrived at Trail Crest ~0910; left ~0930. Arrived at summit of Mt. Whitney at ~1300. Spent almost an hour at the summit. Arrived back at Trail Crest at ~1615; had 30 min dinner break. Left Trail Crest ~1645 and arrived back at Trail Camp at ~1900--still light!

Click on map to enlarge (or any photograph, for that matter).

Part 1:
Trail Camp to Summit
(Point 4 to Point 6)
~12,000' to ~14,500'
~5 mi (~2500' elevation gain)
Began from Trail Camp (Point 4) ~0545 hr
Arrived at Trail Crest (Point 5) ~0910 hr; Left ~0930 hr
Summited (Point 6) ~1300 hr
Spent ~ 1 hr at summit

I woke up strangling. Not choking. Seriously strangling! I woke up FULLY and reached up to my neck. The cords from the internal closures in my mummy bag had not rolled with me quite so well in my sleep; they were now tightly wrapped around my neck. I shoved my thumb under the cord loops---I could feel the deep indentation from the cord on my neck---and pulled. And gave myself my most serious injury so far: an inch-and-a-half of the skin of my chin rolled up right under my thumbnail just as easily as if I'd scraped myself with a razor. OUCH! That stings! And it started bleeding, too. Wouldn't it be ridiculous if it leaves a scar?

To add insult to injury, I was unable to figure out the tangle of cord around my neck (had I stuck my head THROUGH it in my sleep?). I had the thumb forcing a gap so I wasn't in quite such dire straits, but the cord was still tightly wrapped around me. I had to wake DH and ask for help! Oh, the indignity of it.

After extracting me from the cord and indeed, the entire mummy bag, we decided to make a bathroom run and then hit the trail. The strong glow in the eastern sky let us know daybreak was just about upon us, and it's not likely we were gonna settle back into the rocks and drift back to sleep!

We discussed our plan for this second day as we packed up: we would leave most of our gear behind and just carry one backpack with a water bottle and Zipfizz, the hydration pack, and the jerky (plus the standard emergency gear of sunscreen, bug juice, water filtration, rain ponchos, solar blankets, GPS, and compass). We each had our cell phones, mine turned off and DH's left on. We would head up the more than 140 switchbacks and see if we could reach Trail Crest without any problems. Once there, we would assess time and physical condition and make our final determination of whether to try for the summit or not.

I reported what I'd observed about the length of time it was taking people to descend the night before, and at what time daylight was no longer of use and LED headlights became a necessity. Using that data, we established times by which we would need to reach the key points in our hike. We knew we had plenty of time, at least 13 hrs of daylight we could count on---as long as the weather stayed nice. But Whitney is known for the wild weather that comes out of nowhere in blue sunny skies to wreak havoc on hikers!

The ranger had already advised us the last water source was at a certain switchback, so we stocked up at the lake for the interim hike and then set off for the switchbacks. I had a pretty good idea of the layout of this section of the trail after watching the lights the night before, and had actually divided it up into three sections. The first section, closest to camp, was a mellow climb up. As long as you don't mind walking on dirt and rock, raising the dust, it's no problem.

Daybreak over the lake at Trail Camp.

As we rose up higher in elevation, the switchbacks started coming more frequently. This was the lower part of the "second" third of the trail I had observed. We found where the water crossed the was easy to do, as we had to walk IN the water for quite a bit. Ice still hid in the rocks and water, occasionally causing us to slip or stumble. The walking sticks were invaluable on this terrain.

Sunrise on the Pinnacles.

I could tell the toll the elevation was taking on my pace; I could only keep a slow steady pace to keep myself from going into an oxygen debt from which I could not easily recover. Wildflowers still entertained us along the way, but we were also shocked and offended by the number of people who had not bothered to adhere to the Leave No Trace policy or minimum 100 ft off-trail. Too many people didn't bother to get off-trail a'tall! Worse, some people thought it would be a GOOD idea to urinate (or worse) near the water source.

That's not ignorance; that's rude disregard for the consequences to others and all while shirking personal responsibility. (You use a WAG bag, but you leave it behind???) I had started off picking up others' trash and stashing it in my plastic freezer bag that I carry in one of my many pants pockets; but I quickly gave that up when I saw packing out others' trash that I came across would mean carrying OUT a 50# pack! I did continue to pick up the small stuff that I could fit in my Zipl*c, though. Still, be prepared if you go...the switchbacks don't offer places for people to get off-trail as they should, and it was easily the grossest part of the hike thanks to that fact.

As we picked our way up the switchbacks, we could see why certain parts of the trail were navigated more slowly by the night-lighters the night before. Not only did we have to contend with ice and a flowing stream on many sections of the switchbacks, we also had to navigate a large section of narrow, exposed section of rock that still had plenty of ice and snow on it. We were now where I would lose sight of the lights for awhile the night before, the "top" of the "second" third. No wonder! We were pretty much on the side of the granite ridge, looking out over a chute still filled with snow. Although this was not the scariest or most exposed part of the trail, it did have a cable "handrail" along it.

It struck DH as somewhat arbitrary that it was that section and not some of the others, but truthfully the snow and ice did warrant the extra measure. Of course, I just assume it's where someone died, so the USFS has to put something in to help protect against future lawsuits. I guess I'm just cynical like that.

Below us, we could see people glissading on their butts from Trail Crest above us toward Trail Camp below us. With lots and lots of boulders inbetween! Looks to me like any time saved glissading would be spent boulder-picking back to camp. And glissading on butts looked slow and uncomfortable; using anything else would probably cause one to pick up too much speed and not be able to avoid hitting the boulders. JMO. I'll be skipping that.

After that exposed patch and a few dozen more switchbacks, we were really quite high up. We were not far from where this second "part" would end, and the third "part" to Trail Crest would begin, based on my observations of the night before. We were certainly in noticeably thinner air.

Now, as a chemotherapy patient, nausea and headache are pretty much par for the course. So how is one supposed to ascertain if one is beginning to experience high-altitude sickness? I knew I had to pay particularly close attention to all my symptoms and make my best guess. Since nausea is still normal for me but headache is NOT, and headache is a giveaway symptom of high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE); I figured I'd really watch that.

The nausea I typically experience was with me this morning as we made our way up the switchbacks, but I made sure I stayed hydrated and went slowly. My lungs still felt good; I trusted I would feel the difference if I started to develop high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). My thinking and speech still showed alertness. DH showed no signs of problems, although confessed my slow pace was about right!

But I was moving slower and slower now, and had to, as I was really having to fight the nausea. I came to a stop, but I didn't even dare take another drink of water. I knew it would've just come right back up. That's when the dry heaves hit.

"I'm sick," I gasped. We've been through this so many times before; chemo is harsh harsh harsh. Even dry heaves racking my body physically exhausts me--and rapidly. Blessedly, I managed to get control of the dry heaves almost immediately; then sipped some water. Now was the time for the Dramamine I'd picked up last-minute at the Whitney Portal Store!

I chewed up the two tablets and just sat quietly, enjoying THAT VIEW and the fresh mountain air. I was able to completely catch my breath after several minutes, and settled into a meditative breathing rhythm not unlike SCUBA diving.

"We obviously need to sit here a bit and let me acclimate," I said; DH was already reaching for the jerky for our breakfast break. We popped the Zipfizz into the water bottle and drank that, too; the electrolytes would probably help if the nausea was caused by dehydration issues (though a check of the skin on the back of my hand showed dehydration was probably not the problem). I checked my finger: blood oxygen level seemed absolutely normal. I could see increased lymphedema swelling in my arm and fingers, which I had expected; but it wasn't hurting me, so I didn't bother to put on my compression sleeve and gauntlet. DH checked the GPS: we were ~100+ ft above 13,000 ft. Not bad.

I was restless to get moving but forced myself to really stay, and just stay in the moment and enjoy it. So we sat on the side of the mountain for probably 20 minutes. I would occasionally close my eyes and focus on Ayurvedic breathing patterns. Although I'd felt a tinge in my head when I'd had the dry heaves, I never did develop a headache. The nausea had now abated (smart last-minute purchase at WPS), and my breathing and heart rate were their regular low levels. I decided it was time to continue on up. Rested, I popped up off the rock on which I was sitting and hit the trail with genuinely renewed vigor.

And was promptly hit right back with a feeling of overwhelming exhaustion. My muscles ached that they were tired and oxygen-deprived, and my lungs felt like they just couldn't get a FULL breath. Hmm. I decided I better approach this like SCUBA diving; I'd ascend 10 ft and then pause and rest and catch my breath. So that's what I did for the next 500 ft of switchbacks and rocky trail. It was the slow and steady pace of a TORTOISE. (Didn't Aesop have something to say about that?)

But by going at that pace, I could do it! I
was doing it! We reached Trail Crest sometime after 0900. And let me tell you, that view alone was worth every bit of the roadtrip and hike we had done since leaving home. On the boundary of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest, Trail Crest of the John Muir Trail lies at an elevation of 13, 600' amid the dramatic Discovery Pinnacle and the Pinnacles/Mt. Muir that lie between Trail Crest and Mt. Whitney. Trail Camp and its lake were tiny dots below us; and on the other side, rocky battlements gave way to a stunning view of Hitchcock Lakes and the Sequoia National Park stretching as far as the eye could see (which was pretty darn far from up there!). No camera could ever capture this view like what we were seeing. (But I did use up a little of my precious battery snapping some pictures!)

And that's when I knew we had the right plan: if this was where we turned around, this point alone had made it
all worthwhile. This place was incredible; the colors amazing; the view unbelievable; the fact that I was standing there after being so close to death just 16 mo ago was priceless. These same lungs that could hardly breathe then, working so well up there. These same lungs that we know from imaging had a spot in them just 60 days ago. Wow, wow, WOW.

Trail Crest (Point 5), 13,600' elevation.

From atop Trail Crest, a look back (from Trail Camp to Trail Crest, Point 4 to Point 5;
(Consultation Lake in the upper right.)

Trail Crest of the John Muir Trail (Point 5), boundary of Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park.

Trail Crest, looking down on the Sequoia side at Hitchcock Lakes.

Discovery Pinnacle; Trail Crest: from Consultation Lake on the Inyo side
to Hitchcock Lakes on the Sequoia side of the John Muir/Main Mt. Whitney Trail.

Since it was still early enough, and my body was still dealing enough, we had nothing better to do than continue to head toward the summit of Mt. Whitney. We had plenty of time to walk and see how far we could get before our predetermined turnaround time. We lingered at Trail Crest for a bit, long enough to snap some pictures and drink more water and grab another strip or two of jerky. But it hadn't been that long since that acclimation break, so I wasn't eager to linger too long. We were back on the trail after 15-20 min.

Just as described to us, the trail after Trail Crest went downhill for a brief respite. Downhill or uphill, the rocks were relentless on the pads of the feet! We came quickly to the branch for the John Muir Trail, continuing through the Sequoia National Forest in the direction of Crabtree Ranger Station, and the Mount Whitney Summit trail. As we started up the Summit trail, we could see (primitive) campsites below us along the JMT. This would've been another possible option for camping the night before; but no water was available here, and I knew that resting my feet instead yesterday had been the right decision. I certainly was enjoying the fact that our hiking segments so far had spared me blisters; these rocks done yesterday might've left me with a different story.

I had intended to pull off my layers at Trail Crest, but it was still cool enough at this altitude and this early in the day that I decided to leave them on. With the cool temperature and the breeze, I didn't even have noticeable perspiration. The forecast had been for the temperatures to be 70/50 at the Portal and 50/30 at the Summit; so far, the forecast had been accurate.

We hiked along the backside (westside) of
Mt. Muir/the Pinnacles, heading north toward Whitney, which still remained hidden from view. The trail went up at a steady grade, but would occasionally become reasonable as we skirted around smaller, but still dramatic, rocky pinnacles.

The backside of Mt. Muir/the Pinnacles, Whitney Summit Trail.

Occasionally the trail would narrow with dropoffs on both sides, but the trail was always wide enough at those points that I could simply duck my head down, with help from my visor, so that only the trail immediately underfoot and a yard ahead was visible. I never had vertigo until after my first go-round with chemotherapies, when I was first diagnosed Stage 2 (5.5 years ago). But now, I experience it when I look down from heights (granted, I don't pick tame heights). The wide parts didn't bother me; the view was SPECTACULAR and made the walk so entertaining. But the narrow ones, I would sway if I tried to stop and look. So I learned to cross the narrow parts, plant my feet in a wide stable stance, and THEN look back at the dropoffs. Although the trail isn't HARD in a mountaineering sense; it is a HARD hike and certainly would not be for squirrelly children or the faint of heart.

The trail is often wide at the dropoffs.

The dropoffs are fantastic, but this trail is not for the faint of heart!

Now the entire time we've been hiking, we are constantly being overtaken. The dayhikers sprint past us like sherpas and alpine women, then the backpackers that set out from Trail Camp (or points lower) after us overtake us. Then the dayhikers sprint past us on their way back down after summiting. Then the backpackers that set out before us or not long after us pass us again on their way back down. I am always stopping and letting everybody pass by; I harbor no illusions: I am the slo-o-o-owest hiker on the mountain today. I took a little ribbing ["That's all the further you've gone?], but the most important thing was to hike successfully--avoid any need for medical attention or rescue. And slow and steady was working just fine. A time check said that although we were moving slow, we were still well within the time allotted.

Hitchcock Lakes.

Guitar Lake.

The grade didn't look especially steep or anything, but it's just THAT MUCH HARDER to walk at that elevation. It seemed like we had walked forever. It was only supposed to be a couple more miles after Trail Crest; were we really moving that slowly? All I could do was stay focused on not stumbling...plant the walking stick, check it, step, step; repeat ad nauseum. I wanted to be careful; I knew I was just tired--and muscle fatigued--enough that I was more vulnerable to misstep. Finally, we rounded a corner and got our first really good look at Mt. Whitney, its lightning shelter barely visible to our naked eyes in the haze.

Our first good look at Mt. Whitney!!! It is the most distant (left) peak.

Which was when I completely hit the wall, so to speak. As I took in the view, I couldn't help but assess the distance visually and weigh it against the aches in my body and the burning in the pads of my feet. I seriously doubted I had it in me to continue walking ALL THAT WAY and still make it ALL THE WAY back to Trail Camp. After all, the summit is only the halfway point of that hike! Lord have mercy, was I going to have to turn back NOW?

"Look, my feet have GOT to have a break," I said. We stopped and rested on rocks while I contemplated whether I needed to turn around or not. Finally I said something: "What time is it? Because I'm not sure whether I need to turn back now or not." Thankfully, the answer was that it was only 1100. Plenty of time to give my feet the rest and then see what's up.

While we were resting, people who had summited and were heading back passed by. "You're close," they told us; "Forty-five minutes to an hour from here." I calculated we'd take twice as long at my slowed pace; that still meant we'd summit by 1300. We could rest as long as 2 hr at the summit if need be, and still be on our time schedule to be back at Trail Camp before sundown.

Encouraged, we struck up again. But there was no denying I'd hit the wall physically; there was no conversation now at all. Talking felt like too much of a chore. I could never completely catch my breath, and my feet were really hurting and TIRED of walking on sharp rocks.

Which is exactly what people coming back down were telling me was how it was for them! And when we'd ask how long they'd been walking since leaving the summit, all estimates kept pointing to us summiting by 1 pm. So I just kept going. Slowly, carefully, inching my way.

I looked at the grade when we got actually, physically ON Mount Whitney. Oh Lord have Mercy!!! If I was already going this slowly, and breathing this hard, how the heck was I going to get up those last 500 m? I could hear DH behind me catching his breath anytime I stumbled or slid or twisted my ankle as unstable rocks gave way beneath me.

To make matters worse, we had to cross an icefield before we could reach the summit.
This high up, the wind carves even the ice into pinnacles! And they were waist-high. Only one way was I going to do this safely: by going slowly. Really really slowly. Like, the slowest I've ever walked in my life.

Crossing the ice-pinnacle field.

After the icefield, we rounded a bend and were essentially on the rump of Mt. Whitney. Oxygen debt plagued me as I huffed and puffed. I could only ascend 10 or 15 ft at a time before I would have to pause and catch my breath. I tried my normal trick of inching forward while catching my breath: no such luck. I had to stop and really focus on getting AIR into my lungs.

"Still going." Yes, by now, I was taking quite the ribbing about my slow pace. But no excuses; just being there was all good for me (and my lungs)! Thankfully, there were plenty cheering me on, encouraging me by letting me know that I'd see the summit in just five more minutes (for about 15 or 20 minutes). We inched up all that rock, exposed but still not quite at the summit.

And then suddenly, we COULD see it---the lightning shelter so synonymous with the summit! I stumbled up, gasping for air and somewhat in disbelief that we'd really made it.

The landmark lightning shelter near the top (seen from the summit).

A look around gave us the layout: beyond the lightning shelter was the summit and its plaque. A cairn to the left of the shelter was actually the stacked stones of a primitive campsite. The summit log was housed adjacent to the shelter. I chose the summit and its plaque as my first destination. And the view simply did not disappoint!

US Department of the Interior's plaque at the summit shows an elevation of 14,496.811 ft.
Subsequent measurement using modern methods places the actual elevation at 14,505 ft.

From the summit, Whitney Portal and the road to distant Lone Pine in the smoky haze.

A look from the summit toward Trail Camp (hidden by the ridge)
at all the pretty (and still icy) lakes.

Peering over the edge to look at a lake almost straight below...
the highest lake in the continental United States.
Parts of the icy water were a seemingly impossible color of turquoise.

From the summit, a look back at the way we'd just come
(SE-most of Hitchcock lakes in background).

The purple stick made it to the summit!!!

USGS stamp at summit.

Wales Lake as viewed from the summit.

Mount Russell as viewed from the summit.

From the summit, a look all the way back to Mt. Muir.
(The SE-most of Hitchcock Lakes can be seen.)

The video I took at the summit was posted previously here.

We hung around, just taking in the view, taking pictures and video, and sunning on the rocks. I could tell my appetite was reduced by the high altitude, but I was still hungry enough that I was ready for our picnic. I just didn't eat as much I normally would after a strenuous hike of that distance. After resting a good while at the summit and just ENJOYING IT, we headed down to sign the log.

The summit log.

Signing the summit log.

We explored as much west, north, and south as we could of the summit, peering over the edges as much as we dared in our fatigued state. But it was now 1345, and it was time to start back. Getting an hour-plus jump on our cutoff time for leaving the summit sounded like a good idea, especially since we had lingered enough to truly get as much of our fill as is possible (do we ever get our fill, or is that why we do this again and again?) and were rested.

As we were leaving and headed for the rump of the mountain, we ran across a gentlemen to whom we had spoken several times during our hike. "Did you sign the register?" he asked. "I did. This was one of the things on my bucket list."

"Mine, too," I told him, "Mine, too."

I was THRILLED to tears that we had made it to the summit against all odds except hope, but that was only half the trip. I still needed to make it back down safely.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure many who read your posts cannot appreciate what a task it was and the feat you accomplished in summiting Whitney. Those are the ones who did not see the shape your lungs were in just a few short weeks ago. For them I say, "Go back and read the post on May 9, 2008" and think about it!"

Having firsthand knowledge I knew what a task it would be for you to just hike in the Whitney area because of the altitude. I wasn't sure your lungs would allow you to climb Whitney but I knew if they could YOU WOULD!

I hope that your courage in taking on this goal and accomplishing it is an inspiration to others who must also fight the good fight. In the words of Dylan Thomas:

"Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

And Alexander Pope:

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast."

So continue your good fight and rage on - and never lose hope!

In admiration and love, Dad