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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Wandering in California

Date:   November 22 - 28, 2014
Mission:  Have fun on a California road trip and climb Mt. Whitney (elevation 14,505') 
Who:  Mark and  myself
Miles driven:  2000
Miles hiked:  40
Elevation gain: 10,000 ft..



About fifteen minutes after getting on the highway I was white-knuckling the steering wheel for an hour or two through a blinding snowstorm in the Colorado high country. 

I-70 on 11/22/2014
We were stuck behind a plow and playing the fun game of Avoid-the-driver-who-thinks-lanes-are-optional.  This wasn't my first time playing this game.  In a state with many Texas and California unwanted migrants, this was a game most Coloradans have been trained well at in recent years.  While I was playing Avoid-the-driver-who-thinks-lanes-are-optional game, he was playing the game of Match-the-speed-of-the-guy-in-the-lane-next-to-you.  This is a game I don't like. 
Not. One. Bit. 

As soon as Mr. Plow gave me a big enough gap, I punched the gas and passed this idiotic gamer and the rolling plow roadblock.  Mark let out a nervous... "Dude!" and I glanced down to see I was doing nearly 95 mph, in a snowstorm... in a Mini Cooper.  

I immediately slowed to about 70 mph or so and some guilt crept over me as I could see Mark silently asking himself if he'd just started a long road trip with a crazy person.  I had seen a sliver of this uncertainty earlier when I picked up Mark in Silverthorne, CO.  He saw that I had left the truck at home in favor of the new Mini Cooper and I immediately knew he was contemplating whether we'd be able to fit all of our gear in this car. 

Lots of gear (photo Mark)
We had somehow achieved level 19 in our game of Tetris, and squeezed an REI catalog worth of mountaineering gear into the back of my Mini Cooper which included multiple overnight packs, backpacking packs, boots, trekking poles, clothing, sleeping bags, crampons, etc.  After marveling at our accomplishment we had hit the road only to encounter heavy snow as soon as we hit Vail Pass.

The snow finally started to taper off, which was good since I was sure Mark had grown weary of my driving by now.  There would be one more scare later, in Death Valley, but we'll cover that eventually. 

Soon enough, we agreed to settle for the night at an unremarkable motel along the interstate in Richfield, UT.   

Death Valley

"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare. 

The answer is "a lot" I think.  Sometimes, we hear names and visualize things based on past experiences.  For example, I cannot hear the name Whitney without thinking about my ex-wife Whitney.  I also used to hear the name Death Valley and would just see in my mind a flat, boring, hot desert that shimmered into the horizon.  This is why someone else once said to not judge a book by it's cover.  Because, let me tell you, Death Valley is anything but boring.  It's remarkably scenic and not as flat as you envision.  Sure there are sections that are flat, but when in the valley, you can constantly see mountains, dunes, and yes even the occasional tree.  In fact, Death Valley National Park has elevations below sea level and mountains that rise to more than 11,000 ft. 

Death Valley, CA

As we were crossing Death Valley National Park, I think both Mark and I were surprised at how interesting the place was.  We had been driving non-stop since the morning with the exception of stopping in some ghost town neighborhood in Las Vegas for a sandwich.  Now, entering Death Valley, it was now late afternoon and Mark and I were getting a little stir-crazy so we just stopped and decided to hike up a big pile of sand to stretch our legs. 

Mark walking on the desert floor about ready to go fight my shadow, while I was on a hill a couple hundred feet above. 

We cut our Death Valley visit way too short.  We both knew we'd be stopping here on the way back, but first we had business with Mt. Whitney. 

Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous forty-eight states.  It stands at 14,505 feet tall.  The mountain was named in 1864 after a California state geologist named Josiah Whitney.  It just so happened that it was exactly 195 years ago to the day, on November 23rd 1819, that Josiah Whitney was born in North Hampton, Massachusetts. 

The Sierras at sunset!

We rolled into Lone Pine, CA just as darkness was battling to keep it's undefeated record with the fading twilight.  It was November 23rd, 2014 and the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  This time of year, Lone Pine resembled a disturbing corporatized-ghost town.  A Jake's Saloon here, a McDonalds there, a Budget Inn here, Mt. Whitney Motel there.  Ahhh yes... Mount Whitney, that's why we had driven 993 miles in the last two days.  Tomorrow we would go pick up our permits.  Tomorrow the real adventure would begin.

Mount Whitney - Day 1

Mark re-packing his pack after our route decision was made.
We were the first ones at the permit office, which opened promptly at 8:30am.  We went about discussing recent condition reports with the park rangers and Mark and I had a discussion about taking the standard route vs. a more challenging option named the Mountaineers Route.  The problem was there were no recent condition updates for the more challenging route.  We were concerned we might find ice in the couloir or on ledges that were impassable and would force us to turn back. 

As if he was some no-name defensive back talking to the media and guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory, Mark guaranteed a summit if we took the standard route.  For some reason I believed him.

Simply put, we didn't want to waste several days, a lot of money, and time driving 2000 miles round trip only to come home without reaching the summit.  This is probably part of the mindset that gets so many people killed on Everest.  Thankfully this was just a 14,505' mountain and not some ridiculous behemoth like Everest. 

On the trail again... (photo Mark)
After securing our permit, and stopping at the McDonalds drive through for breakfast, we drove up to the Whitney Portal trailhead, parked, gathered our gear, and locked our coolers in a shared bear box.  I was surprised to find these coolers, one of which was half full of beer, still untouched when we returned a couple of days later. 

We hit the trail about 11:30am and began the round trip hike that would eventually cover about twenty-three miles and would take us from a starting elevation of 8360' to 14505'. 

Our goal tonight was to make a camp before dark.  There are basically two good camping options along this trail.  There's one below the tree line just above 10,600'. and another spot at about 12,000'.  Clearly the higher one allows for a shorter hike on day two, but it's a longer backpack in. 
I can be seen in blue on the trail behind the enormous trees.  (photo Mark)

Some lake that Mark hiked down to and took a picture of.  I skipped it... stupid me.  (photo Mark)

We lumbered along the trail enjoying the scenery of the Sierras; huge granite walls, gigantic trees that had been there for hundreds of years, and pristine lakes.  Along the trail Mark and I stopped for the occasional break which would often include a short game of pinecone baseball.  This is where one person would pitch a pinecone while the other person would attempt to hit a home run with this pinecone using a trekking pole as a baseball bat.  There's a variation of this game with ice axes and snowballs too.

Somewhere around 10,000ft I wondered, "Can Mark's pack get any bigger?" 

Icy spot on the trail.  I think this was officially a creek crossing just above the first camp at 10,700'

The weather window we had for this trip was purely amazing for November in the Sierras.  There was so little snow that we'd left the snowshoes in the car and didn't even pack them in.  Early, it was sunny and warm as we powered past the first reasonable camping spot.  We briefly discussed it and agreed to go to the high camp, which was just above 12,000'.  

As the day got later and the elevation higher, a slight breeze picked up.  It began cooling down quickly even though it was still at least two hours until sunset.  Predictably, when that gorgeous yellow ball in the sky finally disappeared behind the giant granite walls, it got downright cold.  We piled on a couple layers, gloves, hats, and eventually reached our destination at 12,000'. 

My hands were getting cold, so I immediately began setting up my tent while Mark wandered down to a seasonal lake to see if we could filter water.  In a few minutes Mark returned to report that we were going to have to double back.   The seasonal lake here was frozen solid.  He had tried puncturing a hole with an ice ax, but it was a solid block of ice.  There was also not enough snow to melt for water, so we had no choice but to retreat.  My frustration was obvious as I threw my tent back into my pack yelling into the wind about my numb fingers at the same time. 

"Hammer Time!"  ~ MC Hammer

We began hiking back down the very same way we'd just hiked up.  We were retreating to some rock outcroppings that had tent sites just above Consultation Lake at 11,590'.  We knew that there we could filter water from this lake since it was only mostly frozen.  Lakes usually freeze from the middle outwards, and this lake still had water that was accessible on the edges. 

We hadn't seen any hikers all day since leaving the trailhead.  In fact, we were probably sharing this mountain with less than a half dozen others.  One of those other people was a guy we met briefly as we were walking back to Consultation Lake while I was still trying to thaw out my hands. 

Mark and I exchanged glances as we got closer to this guy since it was clear that this guy was clearly NOT a regular hiker. Let me remind you, I was freezing while wearing a synthetic base layer, a Patagonia R1 hoody, a lightweight down jacket, a hat, and gloves.  The guy we encountered was shirtless, wearing blue jeans, and sweating his ass off.  He looked a bit high or strung out on something.  He had a sleeping bag that was probably state of the art back in 1974 strapped to the top of his pack and it had come partly unrolled, not the he gave even 1/3 of a fuck about that.  The feature piece of this character's outfit though was the hammer. 

You heard me right.  This guy was carrying a huge hammer in his right hand. And this wasn't a normal hammer you'd be using to pound some nails into drywall.  It was a small sledge hammer.  And if that wasn't weird enough, it wasn't one of the rubberized dead blow types either, no no... this guy had a solid metal hammer.  It had to weigh at least five pounds. 

Even though this guy looked the look, we still stopped and mentioned to him that there was no water above.  He nodded like he either didn't give a crap about what we were saying or that he knew already.  He continued on, mumbling something we couldn't hear.  I gave the guy the typical "be safe out there" cliché.  Immediately I turned, took two steps, and saw an orange short-sleeve synthetic shirt on the trail that this guy had just walked from.  So I grabbed it and ran back to the guy.  

While keeping an eye on his right arm holding the hammer I said "Hey, did you drop this?" 

Without really making eye contact with me, he simply replied "Nope, not mine."

This was odd since Mark and I had just come through here maybe twenty minutes ago and nobody else had since.  I am not sure where this shirt would've come from if it wasn't his.  Oh well, his loss, because to this day it's still one of my favorite summertime hiking shirts.

Mark and I brainstormed what a crazy shirtless dude would be doing carrying such a huge fucking hammer up here.  We couldn't come up with any good ideas, although now when I think about it, I do think it would work as a proper marmot deterrent. 

Camp about 200 feet above Consultation Lake.

We setup camp, and both quickly got our tents situated.  We ate some less than appetizing freeze dried meals while watching the sunset.  After dinner we just sat outside my tent for a couple of hours in our heavy parkas and stared at the stars.  The Milky Way was remarkably bright.  On occasion we'd see an unexplained light flash to the east.  It would move, and go away, then reappear only to disappear.  Having no idea what it was, we humorously agreed that it was probably an alien spaceship.

We sat until our legs or feet got cold and then we'd go wander around our camps jumping from rock to rock just to warm up.  Then we'd go sit and chill for another 20-30 minutes.  Eventually we got tired of this cold/warm/cold routine and we agreed on a wake up time for the following morning. 

Boiling water for warmth

Before hiding in my tent for the rest of the night, I boiled a Nalgene worth of water for each of us and we then retreated to our respective tents. 

When you put a Nalgene, properly sealed of course, into the bottom of your sleeping bag on a cold winter night, it basically serves as a foot heater for the next 3-6 hours. 

As I drifted off to sleep, somewhere in the back of my brain was a twinkle of a thought that said "Why would someone be carrying a big-ass hammer above the tree line?"

Mount Whitney - Day 2

"I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one" ~ Ice-T

Morning light on the jagged ridge above.

Mark and I were awake and on the trail at first light.  We kept marched up a dry trail for the most part and crossed the occasional hard packed snow section.  The air was chilly, and before we knew it we had reached the infamous section of the trail that is noteworthy because it consists of ninety-nine switchbacks. 

If you don't know, a switchback is a trail that was going up hill in one direction that doubles back on itself to go in the other direction.  Trails are built this way partially to make the ascent easier and to reduce trail erosion that often occurs from direct assaults upwards on steep terrain. 

People that hike seldom generally like switchbacks because it makes their hike up the mountain easier. 

On the flipside, the majority of seasoned hikers would prefer to do without the foreplay and just get to the top.  Ninety-nine switchbacks to a seasoned hiker is torture, especially when you start counting them. 

Another switchback!?
Mark and I cruised through this section with ease occasionally slowing our pace to take photos of the terrain that was a lot different than the Colorado mountains that we are so used to. 

We stopped briefly to chat with a guy who was hiking down the mountain.  He had slept on the summit.  That just sounds incredibly cold, but to each his own I guess.

Just above 13,000' the trail cuts over a ridge to the scenic west side of the mountain.  Direct sunlight was now upon us to warm us up a bit.  Below to the west we could faintly make out the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  Little did I know at the time, the PCT would later become an obsession of mine. 

The traverse along the back side of this ridge is particularly scenic with many interesting rock features and spires; as seen in the pictures below.

Big rocks!

Fun rocks!

Me holding up some rocks. (photo Mark)
Domino rocks.
Fragile rocks.

When we were approaching the summit, I can remember thinking "Some ER doctor told me a little over a year and a half ago that I may never walk again".  Two surgeries, more pain than I ever want to recall, countless months of physical therapy, and mental torture that I endured were replaying in my mind.  Nevertheless here I was, about to summit the tallest mountain in forty-eight states.  The summit was within sight! 

Nine days out of nine, Mark hikes faster than me.  He's in better shape, he's taller, and he's younger.  Normally at this point he and I would race to the summit and I would usually lose.  Mark with summit fever can outrun most people when the summit is in sight... but not this time.  This time, I suspect Mark knew what I was going through emotionally and he just let me go on ahead.  He knew I was finally putting an exclamation point on a long, painful, and challenging recovery.  I ran... not jogged... RAN the last one hundred yards or so.  When I reached the summit, I closed my eyes and raised my arms in celebration. 

My triumphant summit celebration!  (photo Mark)

Then, almost immediately, the wave of emotion overcame me.  For a minute or two, I had the summit to myself and for that minute or two before Mark reached the summit, I cried.  Tears of joy?  Tears of relief?  Tears of sorrow?  Yes, yes, and yes.  This moment was a culmination of many things for me on a personal level and I just let it all go.

Thankfully a cold wind was helping dry my tears as fast as they were coming and by the time Mark reached the summit, I had mostly gathered my composure again.  We celebrated in our usual style with odd summit photos and Oreos of course. 

Summit register

Chilling on top of 'Merica (that is if you don't count Alaska).

We sheltered in the summit building for a few minutes to get out of the wind and then after signing the summit register, we began our hike down. 

Back at the trailhead. (photo Mark)
We still had 6100 feet in elevation to descend over eleven miles in order to get to the trailhead.  And at this trailhead was a car, and that car could take us to a place that made burgers, and burgers are good...especially with beer.   

Our descent was long and ran just past sunset.  Mark in his burger-laser-focus refused to stop, even to put on a headlamp. 

When twilight again lost it's battle with the darkness, Mark just followed me and if I ducked to miss a branch, Mark would duck too.  If I saw a tricky rock, I would say something.   And no... it probably wasn't faster than if Mark just stopped for fifteen seconds and got his headlamp out, but at this point it was just about the principle.  You have got to have principles.  Our principles were burgers.

Death Valley & Telescope Peak

The next day we awoke feeling good after devouring some much needed principles the night before. 

On this morning our recently hatched plan called for a partial rest day and then a hike up Telescope Peak the following day.  Telescope Peak is the highest peak in Death Valley and stands at 11,049'.  Our rest day found us exploring sand dunes.  Or more accurately I napped on a sand dune while Mark climbed to the top of the highest dune.  

We also learned about charcoal kilns, and searched for the perfect cactus in Death Valley National Park. 


Chinese workers in the 1800s made these kilns to aid in mining.  Why they put them here... nobody knows.

On this day, I again scared the crap out of Mark when I was screaming around some fun corners at about 100 mph.  And even though we were 20 miles from the nearest human existence, Mark probably wouldn't have used the word "fun" to describe these corners.  They were fun though, or at least they would have been had Mark not complained about my lead foot. 

Nevertheless, that road that was in the middle of nowhere led to a camping spot called Mahogany Flats.  Here's where this road turns to dirt, and then to "4x4 recommended".  So, why not take a brand new car that hasn't even had an oil change down a four-wheel drive road?  What's the worst that could happen?  We might have to walk 20+ miles across the desert to the nearest human dwelling. 

Don't ask why, I don't remember. Just dudes having fun!
Well, I'm here to tell you that you can in fact drive a Mini Cooper loaded with two dudes and a ton of gear to the campsite at the end of this 4x4 road.  It was slow, but we did it and I think I only slightly scrapped the bottom once.  Cars dig scars too. 

We made camp while the sun was setting, ate some dinner, built a campfire, and shared a level 3 conversation.  After some shenanigans around the fire, we were asleep just after hiker midnight (9pm) and ready for an O-dark-thirty wake up call.

We wanted to get an early start for two main reasons. 

1.  Still calorie deprived from Mt. Whitney, we were hoping to make it into Las Vegas for a real Thanksgiving dinner that next day. 

2.  I am always lobbying for ridiculously early starts in hopes of capturing photos of memorable sunrises.

A memorable sunrise to say the least.  These few pictures really don't do it justice.  

After starting at 4am or so, Mark and I saw the sky beginning to lighten and we knew that this was going to be a great sunrise.  We had a clear view to the east but we were still probably a mile from the ridge that offered views in both directions, east and west.  Mark and I covered that mile in possibly 10-12 minutes, and it wasn't exactly flat.  We were hauling ass by hiking standards.

It was starting.  I took this while racing to the ridge.

It's beginning!
We got to the ridge with less that 30 seconds to spare before the sun crested the horizon all the way across Death Valley.  What unfolded was possibly the best sunrise I have ever seen, but pictures speak louder than words. 

Hello Sun!

Me doing a handstand, because 'Merica that's why. (photo Mark)

Mark taking it in.

A decent view to the west at sunrise too.

After the sunrise, we continued onwards to the summit of Telescope Peak.  Honestly, the summit itself was a little anti-climatic after climbing Mt. Whitney two days ago and then witnessing such an awe-inspiring sunrise. 

Summit of Telescope Peak in Death Valley.

When I opened the summit register I immediately see a familiar name from the mountaineering community in Colorado.  Here I am in Death Valley reading a summit register signed by a guy that lives fifteen minutes from my house in Colorado. 

We engaged in some summit shenanigans again.  This is just how Mark and I roll. 

Mark getting ready to knock over a 7-Eleven or something.  :)

On the way back down the trail, in typical fashion, Mark went to summit some other unranked mountain along the same ridge, while I again took a nap. We do what we are good at.

My nap spot while waiting for Mark.  (photo Mark)

Eventually antics died down and fun was subdued by hunger.  We hauled ass down that mountain, packed up our camp, picked our way slowly down the high clearance road and put the pedal to the metal cranking Metallica all the way to Las Vegas. 

We arrived in Sin City right around sunset and quickly threw all of our crap into our room at the Rio and maybe our way downstairs to the famous Carnival World Buffet. 

To our huge disappointment we found an unbelievably long line that snaked it's way into the casino.  It was Thanksgiving Day and there were hundreds of people waiting to get into the buffet.  People probably would have thought we just came from a funeral judging by the despair and our hopeless body language as we took up our place at the end of the line.

We waited nearly fifteen minutes and the line hadn't really moved.  Hotel staff was walking by handing people bottles of water so they wouldn't have people dying of dehydration while waiting in line.  Again we were stuck in switchbacks.  This time roped off with velvet ropes, but dammit there might have been ninety-nine of them here too.  My mind quickly had a flashback to the switchbacks on Mt. Whitney.

A few of the ninety-nine Mt. Whitney switchbacks.

My brain was on fire.  We'd just spent four days away from it all and now we were in velvet switchbacks surrounding by loud tourists, cigarette smoke, and slot machine noise.  

I was at the point where I couldn't take it anymore.  Then, just before my breaking point, I spotted the small sign that read "express lane".  Nobody was in this lane so I had previously assumed it was closed.  But after inquiring, I discovered it was OPEN.  They told us it'd be an extra $15 per person which I paid immediately without any second thoughts or regrets.  That $30 was well spent. It probably kept me from going into a "Hangry Rage" in the casino where I would be just throwing chairs, fighting casino security, and yelling obscenities like some old man yelling at teenage punks from his front porch. 

But now we were in... and Mark and I were on a mission.  To steal a phrase from Carrot Quinn, we were on a mission to EAT ALL THE THINGS! 

Mark put away five enormous plates of food to my four.  I fell behind early as I devoured so many snow crab legs that it probably would've been more effective for me to load them up in a backpack than onto a plate.  By the time I was ready for a plate of something other than crab legs, Mark had already finished his second plate of food. 

I don't remember what Mark was eating other than the fact he had at least two pounds of stuffing on each of the first three plates of food he brought back.  Yes, I am saying in addition to all the other food on his plate, that Mark ate close to six pounds of stuffing by my scientific calculations. 

I however took the cake (pun intended) when it came time for dessert.  I finished off my meal with seven assorted cookies, a fudge brownie, some apple crisp thingy, a slice of pumpkin pie which was just average, a piece of carrot cake which was heavenly, a red velvet cupcake that was topped with white chocolate shavings, and a piece of good ol' American apple pie, a la mode of course.  And since my apple pie came with ice cream, I couldn't possibly say 'no' to the sprinkles on my ice cream. 

After finishing enough food to feed a village, we did the American thing and laughed about our gluttony.  We just sat there for a while in a food coma starring into nothingness. 

I for one had a serious food baby going on and from the look on Mark's face, I suspected he was having twins. 

On our way back to the room, we passed the poker room and I saw that a tournament had just begun.  I told Mark I was going to play cards for a while and would meet him back at the room later that night. 

I walked up to the poker room manager and asked, "How many people do you have registered so far?" 

She replied "You would be number 22, the buy-in is $60".


As I handed her my sixty bucks I added "Hang on to this, I'll be back to get it once I win this thing". 

She politely smiled and handed me my seat card.  I waddled over to my table and sat down.  Before I was even dealt my first hand, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was going to win this tournament.  It was the weakest player lineup I had ever seen in a poker tournament in Las Vegas.  Shockingly, more than one person at my table had no idea how to even play Texas Hold'em.  They didn't even understand how many cards you got dealt.  I played my role perfectly too.  These suckers would have sworn I was the most friendly and honest person at the table.  They had no clue about the countless times I bluffed them or outplayed them. 

By the time I had reached the final table and we were down to the final three players, my other two opponents still had no clue.  I actually felt a little guilty for winning when I knocked the last guy out of the tournament.  The $560 first prize helped silence my guilt.  I lumbered back up to the room with the food in my stomach now fighting with a few beers for a slot on the digestion schedule. 

The next morning we skipped our plans of stopping at Zion National Park and drove straight back to Denver mostly because my ankle was still angry after hiking for three out of the last four days, not to mention some wandering around the sand dunes on our rest day. 

Our road trip ended that day, but we brought back so many memories to Colorado;  a summit of the highest mountain in the lower forty-eight, memories of a creepy shirtless dude with a hammer, a UFO sighting, a badass campsite, an amazing sunrise over Death Valley, a once in a lifetime buffet, three food babies, and a friendship that was bonded in pinecone baseball, campfire antics, and one great adventure.