We woke up early from our campsite above Guitar Lake on the west side of Mount Whitney. Not hiker early like many people who start this leg of trail at 4 in the morning, but early for us at 6:30. There were already a number of people who had gone by our tent as early as 2:30 am on their way up to Whitney. (Betcha they had camp site envy 😉). The goal today was to crampon through several more miles of snow and ice while it was more firm in the morning before too much sun turned it softer and slushy. Our crampons are truly evil looking but the 2–3 inch long claw-like spikes really give you a lot of confidence going across the ice. We’ve learned to use them and move quite quickly with them thanks to some YouTube videos on techniques. It’s pretty different from regular hiking. Higher steps and landing the main 8 bottom spikes at the same time flat footed. When we are climbing, we stay on our toes and front ball of our feet and use the main front claws to kick our way up steep slopes. It took about 2 1/2 hours to reach the junction where the east side of the trail meets the west side of the trail just 2 miles below the peak.
It was about a 3500 ft gain in elevation overall to that point. The trail has turned from snow to rock as we get closer to the peak where it has had long sunny days up to now to melt. We met up with Duke again at the junction. One in his group couldn’t make it up further so they were just going to head out the east side portal trail. We were at 13,400 feet now. 1150 ft to climb now on broken and jagged rock. There was some trail via ground down gravel paths but you mostly knew where to follow by seeing people ahead of you and just climbing rock ledges around the edge of the mountain. Figure 8 had some fears and frights along the way. Not that we were in real peril or danger but the trail loomed ominous in front of us and was steep but several mini passes along the way were 2000-3000 ft drop offs just a few inches to our left. I put my hiking pole down into nothing but air a few times along the way which chills your stomach quick as you catch yourself leaning the wrong way. I was eager to reach the pinnacle but every time we came around a ridge line, we saw nothing but rock further ahead. We hadn’t seen the top of the mountain since early yesterday when we were still about 6 miles and 5000 ft below the top. The more we climbed, the less you could see straight above you. Now just 400 ft away, it was sunny, hot and our legs were burning. The other hikers congratulated us as we neared the top and gave us encouragement to climb the last few hundred feet. We didn’t need it since our adrenaline kicked in as you could see some of the people and flags at the top. A long grind up to 14,508 ft was worth it.
The 360 degree view was stunning. There were about 20 people at the peak when we also reached the tip of the mountain. Smiles, sighs, deep breaths, lots of photos, several different languages, a snack, some water and a rest to soak everything in was the routine for just about everyone. The sun was intense and the air was thin so we enjoyed our 10 minutes of sightseeing and began the very technical trek down. It was so much more difficult to boulder down the top 2 miles than it felt going up. A different type of hike down than up over the rocks was just the beginning of the story. As soon as we made it back to the east / west trail split, we saw our next challenge. 3000 of the 6000 foot decent was right in front of us and nothing but snow.
There were about 10 of us resting at the lead out of the trail down. I was eager to begin the glissade but scared shitless at the first step. A snow shoot dropped 10 feet straight down and then there was nothing to stop you for 1200 feet. I was the first to go. The initial drop wasn’t so bad because I landed in soft snow on my butt. However, I took off down the mountain a little faster than I expected. The speed came on quickly as I leaned back on my butt and the back bottom of my pack. I held my feet just a little above ground and used my two poles, shortened and in my hands, as a bit of a rudder and brake. A few times I dug my heels into the chute to shed some speed. It was a tough balance between being safe and the sensation of speed coming down such a steep slope so fast. I’ve skied down slopes like this when I was at my best, but never imagined myself coming down on my ass on purpose. At the bottom, I could finally turn and look back up the mountain to see Figure 8 and several other people coming down behind me. It was the first time I could catch my breath and was really happy to see the excited smile on Figure 8’s face as she caught up to me quickly. 1200 feet and about a mile or more of switchbacks saved versus coming down this way in the snow. As great as that was, we had many more miles to cover to reach the bottom trailhead. We had options of trying to follow the regular trail via gps or to use the snow and glissading to short cut some of the crisscrosses and zigzags on a much steeper decent. 3 more shorter glissades of several hundred feet each were connected by bouldering over exposed rocky ridges and traversing snowy hillsides. We passed several postcard worthy alpine lakes on the way below the the snow line and back into the pine and fir trees. We also needed to ford a few streams but nothing like the ones higher in the mountains. We connected with several day hikers as we came down and Eric and his buddy were great to offer us a ride into Lone Pine when we finally reached the trailhead. We piled in their car and I had a hard time not just passing out from the whole day’s events. One thing that helped me over the last few miles was knowing that we had a shower, warm bed and likely a margarita or three waiting for us in Lone Pine. Sure enough, we made it to Seasons in time to have a seat in their little bar and chat with Terri and Rod. Great couple to share stories with. Hope we see them again along the trail or in our travels. I’m minus one pair of beat up Revo Sunglasses but plus an experience that we accomplished together and will never forget. True survivors have a way of gaining greater confidence and respect for all things after being tested as we were in the last 7 days.