It’s the Rock

Mount Davis

Pennsylvania

October 2011

By all means, when you visit this low profile summit, climb the steel lookout tower.  The seven tiers of steps take you about 50 feet higher than the high point, and gets you up above the trees.  Now you’re talkin’!  From the tower, you’ve got a 360° view of the Mount Davis Natural Area and well beyond.  A bronze relief plaque affixed on top of the tower features highlights within your elevated view and offers an explanation of why other nearby peaks look to be taller than where you are standing, but aren’t.

Of course we ascend the 66 steps to the top of the tower.  Now we are higher than the highest people in all of the Keystone State.  And we can see stuff.  Look to the north.  There are the windmills of the Somerset Wind Farm.  Maryland is to the south.  Numerous unnamed lesser mountains are spread throughout.  To the east are the corrugated ridges of the Allegheny Front and to the west is Ohiopyle State Park, the land deeply carved by the Youghiogheny River.

If you ignore the tower, which you can’t do, the most prominent feature at this summit is the boulder.  Many rocks here are the size of your refrigerator, or your family vehicle, but there is one perched in the middle of the clearing and, by golly, you can’t miss it.  On top of the rock is a USGS marker and I notice that it is cemented in position.  The last time I was here, someone had pried it loose, leaving it jutting up several inches from the rock on its thin stalk.

One of my hikers who is here for the first time is lounging against this rock.  She idly comments, “I wonder where the high point is.”

“You’re leaning against it, Davy Crockett.  It’s the rock.”

The top of this rock is the high point.  While our semi-clueless hiker reclines on the rock, she wonders where the ground is higher than anywhere else.  When we tell her about the marker, she asserts that the top of the rock doesn’t count.

Since starting these high point adventures, and discovering how they are similar to one another, and how they are different, I myself have wondered what the folks who do the considering consider when they consider where the high point is.  At this summit of Pennsylvania, the highest land is a small clearing.  Within the clearing is this boulder.  Did the boulder grow here?  Or was it placed here by human intervention…

…possibly in preparation for the dedication ceremonies which were in 1921, right after the United States Geological Survey established Mount Davis to be the highest point in the land.

Seems to me that you could build a high point if you wanted to.  In fact, there was a movement in Connecticut to pile up a large mound of rocks on top of Bear Mountain so that it would be higher than the current high point, Mount Frissell.  Just find and haul up 65 vertical feet of rock and you’ve got a new high point.  Nah, that’s cheating.  It’s plain unnatural!

The high point must be natural, or it can be made by humans?  Either way, in Pennsylvania, you get to lean on it.

Ranger Mark

Baxter State Park

Maine

August 2012

We’re up on the mountain, halfway to our destination of the summit.  We dump our gear in the designated shelter for our stay and then check in with the ranger.  He gently introduces himself, “Hi.  My name is Mark Sairio and I am here to make sure everything goes smoothly for you during your visit on the mountain.”

Of course, he’s the Park ranger so the message we hear under the words he actually vocalizes is this:  “I am here to make sure everything goes smoothly for me while you are here.”  I get that.  If it goes well for the ranger, that means it goes well for everyone else.  Good plan.

During the evening and the next morning, we happily hear a lot of Mark’s story.  As they say, he cuts an impressive figure:  ex-marine, Search & Rescue, construction jobs.  Mark wears an earring, has a shoulder-length pony tail and lets his beard grow.  He is apparently letting his gut grow too.  Like I say, impressive.

At Chimney Pond, a teenage girl wades out ten feet and performs graceful dance moves while perched on a small round rock.  “Miss?  Miss?”  It’s Ranger Mark calling.  “Miss.  We ask that you don’t go into this water as this is the only source of drinking water up here.  Thank you.”  He was very nice.

Your typical gentle giant, Mark is all stories and laughs, almost goofy at times.  But under that exterior is a no-nonsense hombre who could not only take care of himself but could take care of any of us, especially in an emergency.  He’s the one we give all the chips and say, “I’m betting with you.”

There was a time, Mark tells us, when he was working search and rescue.  It was winter.  He and his partner were charged with heading out to find a missing hiker, complicated by being in the midst of a severe snowstorm.  After trudging about for some time, they finally found the missing hiker.  By then however, he was in bad shape.  Very bad shape.  It had become night and too dangerous to hike back out, especially with their lost hiker clinging to life.

Nothing else to do at this point, they built a snow cave and settled in for the night.  They huddled in tight for warmth and safely.  Some time in the night, Mark realized that he was sleeping with a dead man.  In the morning they had to carry the body out.

“I’ve slept with a corpse.  That was an experience.  I hope I never have to do that again.”  We hope so too.

Mount Whitney – part 8

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


Coming Off the Mountain

Whitney Portal Road.  One road connects Whitney Portal to the rest of the world, the town of Lone Pine in particular.  This 11.7-mile stretch from trailhead to South Main Street in Lone Pine is a relatively straightforward road with a few twists.  And who doesn’t have a few twists!

This environment, subject to the freeze/thaw cycle of the High Sierra seasons, is challenging to the integrity of a vehicle road.  Run two-ton vehicles up and back and the road will crinkle, rut and break, growing worse the longer it goes.  The mountain overlords, or at least the road masters, chose this summer to repair and repave the road.

“The road is closed from eight until eleven each morning,” the emotionless ranger told me on the telephone before our trip, “and from one to four in the afternoon.”  I try not to be judgmental about his lack of feeling while relating this information, the most important piece of data I need to know about our hike:  can we actually get there?  After all, the ranger probably speaks these words a few thousand times each day, and listens to a few thousand of us hikers bitch about the inconvenience.  He should be more friendly.

“And there are periodic half-hour, unannounced closures too,” he adds.  Well, that one puts me over the top.  No it doesn’t.

It’s past 4 p.m.  We expect smooth sailing back to town.  Smooth sailing in our cars.  We get smooth sailing for several miles until a portly gentleman dressed in a reflective vest wanders out on the road in front of us, idly manhandling a portable stop sign.  He props it up on the road and turns it to face us.  It is painted with the unmistakable word STOP in white letters in an octagonal field of red outlined with a white border.

We stop.  Soon enough, more than a dozen cars accumulate behind us on the road, all stopped.  “What’s up?”

Road Crew Guy explains that this is an unexpected delay.  We know this.  “The brakes on one of our electrical trucks caught fire and he crashed right at the bridge.”  We didn’t know this.

4300 feet of downhill.  Without brakes, you could probably get up to 600 miles per hour.  Brakes catching fire on this slope doesn’t surprise me.  It does surprise me that he tells us that this guy burned out and crashed.  Inconsiderate of the driver to block the road.  We had to wait for them to clear the wreckage.

After an hour or so, we are let through.  Portly Guy with the vest dragged his stop sign off the road and sat down in his folding lawn chair as we paraded through.

Down the mountain, instead of seeing the accident, the road that was blocked is now closed.  We are rerouted south and west onto a road that, likely, none of us motorists have ever seen before.  Crewman are standing around wearing their National School Bus Glossy Yellow* vests.  As the driver, Lisa leans out the window and asks a NSBGY guy about the detour.  “Take this road and turn left on Sunset Drive.  If you have any problems, just ask the locals.”

* National School Bus Glossy Yellow is actually the official name of this particular bright, reflective color.  Most of the time we just call it, “yellow,” or if we have the time, “bright yellow.”

In unfamiliar territory, we turn left onto Sunset Drive and in exactly two blocks, Sunset Drive ends.  I’m thinking, “Ask the locals?  What locals?  Knock on someone’s door?”  There are a few houses here, a few doors too, but no locals.

Lisa makes random turns through what appears to be an alien landscape.  Our very twisty road takes us through rock formations that I’ve heard described as Buttermilk rocks.  I can’t find the name of this narrow two-lane road but part of it parallels Tuttle Creek.  I’m guessing Tuttle Creek Road.

Full disclosure.  Lisa has her phone with her and she asks Siri for directions.  Siri responds with the electronic, cyberspace equivalent of saying, “Lisa, I have no friggin’ idea what you are talking about.”  Still a fan of maps, even when I don’t have one, I am quietly pleased.

Part of this area is BLM land, the Bureau of Land Management, whose self-stated mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

As far as this ten-minute jaunt on their land is concerned, the BLM has the enjoyment part down.  It’s primitive landscape, smooth mounds of brown rock piled up in fascinating patterns, looking like a pile of potatoes, alternating with rugged, lava-like stone fins reminding me of the condenser on the back of a room air conditioner.  The road is amazingly clear:  no stones or scree at all, cleaner than my living room.  Still, I find myself involuntarily ducking as we go around some tight turns with overhanging rock.

Confident that eventually, we’ll find something familiar, like the town of Lone Pine, we drive on in this is beautiful, strange country.

Tuttle Creek Road takes us back to the main highway, Whitney Portal Road.  We make a right turn and within moments we’re back in town and at our hotel.

This little chain lodge has a heated whirlpool.  Other than massage, the greatest invention in the world to loosen up overworked muscles.  This is one of the good parts of life:  lying in the foaming hot water of the outdoor pool with a clear view of the open Mount Whitney sky.

Mount Whitney – part 7

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


Descent

Rod and Diane, who hike about twice as fast as Lisa and I do, take off before dawn.  Their ambitious plan is to get up the 99 switchbacks, traverse the crest and continue their climb up to the top.  Spend a little time there, twenty minutes or so, and then come on back down.  And by “on back down” I mean all the way back down to their car which is at Whitney Portal.  That’s 4.7 miles and 2500 feet of elevation gain to the summit, and then eleven miles and a drop of more than 6000 feet coming down.

Lisa and I originally had a less ambitious plan which was to begin predawn, hike up and tag the summit and come back to camp here for a second night, then leave the day after.

Alas.

We two take our time breaking camp and leisurely begin our descent.  We’re seeing how, in my reduced state, I will be able to hike out of here.

Still above tree line, some hikers are being smart.  Smart, but not particularly attractive.  They have so much sunscreen slathered on their faces they look like bad clowns.  Lisa calls our encounters with these hikers “a walking yuckfest.”

A hiker approaches.  His mustache is thick and white, he wears a bomber hat and has three little dogs on leashes.  His voice is melodious, “Greetings, fellow outdoor enthusiasts.”

Really?

“Did you make it to the stream?  I haven’t been here yet.  I’m wondering what the golden trout interpretive display is.  Do the trout do an interpretive dance?”

What?

Lisa says, “If you see that, please report back to us.”

Next we pass a solo hiker, an Asian man.  He says, “Howdy.”  I wasn’t expecting that.

Farther down, two guys are leaning on a rock, their dog resting, lying on the trail.  One guys says, “Go ahead and step on his tail.  He’s too tired to do anything about it.”

Halfway back to trailhead, we take the side trail to Lone Pine Lake because we haven’t had enough beauty yet.

As soon as we get back on the main trail, approaching us at a fair pace are Rod and Diane, nine miles from the summit, on their way down.  I had a feeling that we would run into them again on the trail.  We pump them for information about their hike, about the summit, and understand when they tell us they are tired and sore.

Retracing our steps down to Whitney Portal, we arrive back at trailhead.  We use the latrine and splash our faces.  These are two entirely separate maneuvers.  We high five each other, dump our WAG bags in the appropriate containers and just hang around contemplating the size of the mountain we’ve just climbed, and for R & D, the mountain they just summited and the almost sixteen miles they hiked since pre-dawn.  And now it is time to drive back to town.

Mount Whitney – part 6

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


Trail Camp

Diane and Rod are faster hikers than Lisa and me, so they get to camp before us.  When we arrive, Rod is still bouncing around.  Their tent having been erected and organized, he and Diane go down to Trail Camp Pond to filter water for the four of us.  This is where I expect Diane to burst into song.  When we summited Spruce Knob in West Virginia, Diane, inspired by Jimmy Soul, serenaded us with…

If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life

Never make a pretty woman your wife

So for my personal point of view

Get an ugly girl to marry you

No explanation, no apologies.  Just pure entertainment.

Alas, no song this time here on Whitney, but we do get this story…

When Diane told her 21-year-old daughter that she was flying to California to climb a mountain, her daughter said, “You’re flying out there to do a hike and then flying home?”

“Yep,” said Diane.

“You’re flying out there to do a hike and then flying home?” her daughter repeated.

“Yep, that’s what we’re doing.”

“Does that mean that when you get married, I’m going to have to hike?”

Me?  I must sit down.  We are at 12002 feet and I’m feeling funky.

Okay, full disclosure, I’m hurting.  I have just come up this mountain carrying a backpack, something I have not been able to do comfortably for years.  Seems that one of nature’s tricks is that, as you get to the years where you understand better what it means to climb a mountain, your body becomes less able to do it.  Lisa must be shlepping a 60-pound pack, carrying most of our gear, while the meager amount of weight I carry would have embarrassed me some years ago.  And still, the pack has taken its toll on me.

So I sit down for a while.

But because we’re here, and “here” is as magnificent as a place can be, I take a few breaths, muster up some vigor and get up off my ass to cook dinner.  Um, um, freeze dried Pad Thai.  It’s not as good as it sounds.

We eat comfortably, watching the tiny specks of the colored jackets of hikers coming down from the summit, zigzagging their way on the 99 switchbacks, like little slow moving colored bugs, back and forth, forth and back, taking what seems like all evening to get anywhere at all.  The plan is for that to be us tomorrow, zigzagging our way up as we climb to the top.

It’s the beginning of September.  It has been obvious that the darkness comes earlier every day.  There’s not much light between cleaning up after dinner and full darkness.  What’s to do but hang out.  In Trail Camp, there are random flashlights bouncing around as hikers do whatever they need light to do, some not content to just be in the dark.  Also the temperature has dropped so much it made a noise.  We go to bed soon after.  I guess it makes sense to say, we go to bag.  So for now, good night.

Or not so good.  Neither one of us sleeps well.  It’s cold.  Lisa’s new sleeping bag works well, keeping her warm.  My brand new bag sucks.  I find myself shivering.  My body aches, my mood plunges.

On the other hand, when I get up to pee — who knows what time it is — I see more stars in one glance than in a whole summer at home in the northeastern city.  I remember the Milky Way from my childhood, and there it is arcing nearly across the entire sky, much brighter than I recall from childhood.

I look at the 99 switchbacks and see little dots of light slowly moving back and forth like slow pendulums at all heights on the mountain slope.  As planned, Rod and Diane’s tent is empty.  They got the early start they wanted.  One of those sets of flashlights high up on the mountain is theirs, their progress smooth, their pace steady and strong.

I go back to bag and try again to sleep.  Not much happens.  I feel miserable, my head, my stomach, my attitude.  Finally Lisa stirs, someone with whom I can share my misery.  We have breakfast.  I say quietly, “Today is not my day.  I don’t have it in me to summit.”

Lisa says, “Well, okay.  This is a great scouting trip though, isn’t it.  Now we have an idea of how to summit next time.”  She is almost cheerful.  Lisa is quite a good balance for my sometimes melancholy mood.  I’m depressed, she’s steady and pleasant.  Now I not only hate myself, I hate her too.

No I don’t.

“Shit!” I think.  “Shit, shit, shit.”

Shit?  I already talked about WAG bags.  In the scheme of my recreational life, this is one of the big disappointments.  I feel hollow inside.

But we will be back.

Mount Whitney – part 5

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


I gotta go

The 99 switchbacks ahead take you to Trail Crest where you cross over to the west side of Mount Whitney, the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In the distance to our left, way down there is, like everything else here, a lake that is a striking spectacle, a lake that defines the color blue.  Consultation Lake.  No snow today.  Rare.

Before we begin the many-switchbacks leg of this journey, we stop for the day.  We have reached our temporary home, the creatively named Trail Camp.  This mostly barren flat, rocky area in the shadow of Wotan’s Throne is a popular camping area, roughly halfway between trailhead and the summit.  There are a number of low rock walls, built by hikers, no doubt, to serve as windbreaks and also to afford some privacy.  We’re in the wilderness.  No outhouses, no plumbing of any kind.

So what do you expect?  Your bowels don’t stop working just because there’s no bathroom, right?  I mean, think about it.  We were pooping long before we made appliances to poop in.

This would be a good time to talk about WAG bags.  WAG stands for “Waste Alleviation and Gelling.”  Does that help you know what it is?

You probably don’t think about it too much but your body is digesting all the time, and thereby creating waste all the time.  In the city, eliminating that waste is easy.  You go into the smallest room in the house, sit a spell, spend a moment cleaning up and pull a handle.  Gone.  Done.

In the wilderness, like I’ve said, there are no such little rooms.  There are no handles and no places to sit.  It’s a whole ‘nother beast.

We’ve got it easy in the woods of the eastern United States.  We just do what cats do, those savvy creatures.  First they find a choice spot, a place for them to take care of business, preferably with a magazine rack.  If they are outdoors, they will choose a location where they won’t be attacked.  Indoors it’s the litter box.

Be like the cat.  To wit…

step 1      Dig a hole.

step 2      Position yourself over the hole.  Unless you are using a cat box in which case, dig the hole in the litter and then position your butt hanging over the outside of the box.

step 3      Discharge.

step 4      Cover the hole and its contents.  Unless you are using the cat box in which case, look around the litter, fail to find your product and walk away as if you don’t know that you just crapped on the floor next to the box.

For us humans visiting the wilderness, it is essentially the same process.  We are not so worried about getting attacked while in that compromising, squatting position.  But we want to get some distance from camp and away from water sources.  It only makes sense.

We find a good spot, preferably with a view, we dig a hole, we squat over the hole, we get surprised at how bad our aim is, we use some toilet paper, burn the paper and fill the hole up with the original soil.  Smooth out the area so no one can tell we were here.  Sweet.

Purists use leaves and sticks to clean themselves which usually works quite well, unless you don’t know what poison ivy looks like.

For us tree-huggers, this is all good.  What we leave behind will eventually decompose and possibly enrich the soil.  Not a lot, but more than if we had not been there.

Why do we bury it?  Two good reasons.  First, if you are spending time in the woods, there is very little in the world less attractive than communing with nature and coming upon a turd.  Especially someone else’s.  Seriously.

Secondly, we don’t want the forest residents, the animals, to come upon the feces, fuss with it a bit and possibly carry it to a water source.

Doing this procedure is actually not all as embarrassing, uncomfortable and humiliating as it may seem.  Novices go out on their first extended trip praying not to have to take a dump.  But the experience of one of my beginner backpackers is typical.  This is a true story.

The first morning, the urge was there.  She really didn’t want to yield but we still had all of today and tomorrow before us before we would be back to a flush toilet.  There was no way she was going to be able to pull that one off.  She had to go and she couldn’t talk herself out of it.

I handed her the plastic bag containing all the supplies she would need:  trowel, toilet paper, matches and a small vial of waterless soap.  She asked, just one more time, for an explanation of the process.  Then she hesitantly walked off into the woods.

When she came back — I swear — she was smiling and skipping.  “Hey, that wasn’t bad.  That wasn’t bad at all!”  Yep, that’s what I’m sayin’.

The coda to this story is a hike we took a few months later in a park.  She had need of an outhouse.  When she came out, she complained about how disgusting it was and how she would rather go in the woods.  “It’s cleaner,” she claimed.

However, we are not in the forgiving eastern United States.  In the west, the story is entirely different.  In many places, Mount Whitney included, a lot of territory is above tree line.  It is rocky above tree line and there is very little soil.  Lay down some human detritus here and it will stay here a long time.  Microbes necessary for decomposition are absent.  Your product will stay in its solid, stinky hot dog state for too long.  In addition, there is so much human traffic that the hillsides would become a field of refuse.  Our finest and most beautiful land would become fields of shit.

Hark.  In the early 2000s, there were solar-powered latrines at both Outpost Camp and Trail Camp.  They required so much maintenance that they were removed by the Inyo National Forest Service and the WAG bag policy was instituted.  Whatever it is, you bring it in, you carry it out, and that includes anything you manufacture during your stay.  Like poop.  In one year, 2007, more than three tons of waste was hauled off mount Whitney.  Every hiker must now carry WAG bags with them.

Like an impatient spouse, Mount Whitney was not the first place that didn’t want to deal with your shit.  Mount Rainier in Washington has had this requirement since the early 1980s.  Many other high wilderness zones now do the same.  Before this policy, there was one year when the Forest Service removed 5000 pounds of poop from just one campsite on Rainier.

I heard one story, unconfirmed, that on one of the western mountains, there was so much human waste that they would pick up the large collection containers and fly them off the mountain by helicopter.  The forestry division decided to go with the carry-out philosophy when the noise from the helicopters became too disruptive!

This presents a dilemma.  You’ve got to poop, but there’s no way to do that here.  N’wait, yes there is.  The solution, becoming more and more the rule, is to carry it out.  Yes, you can take it with you.  This is where the WAG bag, sometimes called a “clean waste disposal bag,” comes in.  Almost everything you need is in the package.  You didn’t ask, but I’m gonna tell you how it works.

Start by finding the perfect private spot.  Here at Trail Camp, that is not an easy task.  The area is open, the rock walls are knee-high.  One thing you’ve got going for you though is that this what all hikers must do.  So, we get it.

step 1      Open up the bag, take out all the items that are inside and spread them around within reach.

step 2      Unfold the plastic sheet with the powder in the center.

step 3 (the fun part)      Pee.  But just a very little onto the powder and then harmlessly empty the rest of what’s in your bladder on the ground.  Don’t pee on the plastic sheet because then you’ll be carrying around a load of urine that just adds to the yuck factor, and also adds weight to your pack

Your pee activates the “Poo Powder.”  It instantly reacts by forming a gel which absorbs moisture and theoretically also absorbs smell, or as everyone calls it, “stink.”

step 4      Position yourself over your target and go for it.

step 5      Use the toilet paper that came with the kit.  It’s a good four sheets so use it judiciously, whatever that means.  Better yet, before you leave civilization, pack a little extra with you.  Not to get too personal, but four sheets is insulting to me.  Who do they think I am!  A little bird?

step 6      Gather up and fold together the sheet.  By the third time you do this, you’ve gotten step 4 down but there is still a remaining step requiring finesse.  Tie a very tight knot in the bag, but not so tight that you can’t undue it for next time.  Yes, you can use this assembly two or even three times.

step 7      Put this bag in the outer plastic bag for more protection.  Affix this bag to the outside of your pack.  Some hikers advise that it’s better to carry the WAG bag on your pack than to be hiking behind the guy who is carrying the WAG bag on his pack, stink-wise.

Also some hikers just have a hard time with the whole WAG bag business and revert to digging cat holes.  In my opinion, get over yourself and carry it out.  You need to respect the rest of us.  Otherwise, I’m going to come over to your house and take a crap on your living room rug.

I mean, if you’re tough enough to climb Whitney, you’re tough enough to poop in a bag, and carrying your waste out will not make you barf.  Unless you already are.  Eh?

step 8      After you have left the hiking trail, toss the WAG bag into the designated WAG bag human waste refuse container at trailhead.  Be cautious opening up the container.  It’s not like in the bad horror movies where some vomitous shit-creature will jump out at you, but the smell will.  Now you are done with it.  You don’t have to think of what happens to your poop next.

Holy heck!

Mount Whitney – part 4

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


the Hike

Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.

— Andy Rooney

We set up a quiet little campsite with an annoying little hill from the car to the tent.  Life presents such trails trials.  In the scheme of things, since this hill is fifteen feet long and gains about eight feet of altitude, we’ll deal with it.  (Perspective;  Over the next two days, we’re going to attempt to gain 6145 feet on our hike, and then come back down.  I’m complaining about an 8-foot rise here.)

It is a quarter mile from the campground to trailhead.  As we move our car from the campground to trailhead parking, we stop to pick up a hitchhiker.  He crams into the back seat with his pack and thanks us for the whole five-minute ride.  You should see him struggle to get out of the back seat of the car.  He looks like he’s sixty with knees that have been around since Grover Cleveland was president.

We meet our hiking companions Rod and Diane at the Whitney Portal Store, a small shop of hiking, climbing and camping equipment, right by the parking area, the only store within twelve miles.  Store hours are described as “flexible.”

Besides the all-important things you’ve forgotten to bring with you, which can be found on the shelves of the store, they cook and serve food.  The cuisine is claimed to have an excellent taste, but when pressed, most hikers admit that it’s probably not all that excellent.  The taste, unquestionably, is enhanced by the altitude, and the fact that it’s the first real food they’ve had after a week or more of dehydrated food and Ramen noodles.  Hell, a fresh paper bag would probably taste pretty good by now.

Rod and Diane hadn’t yet had breakfast so they ordered a Whitney Portal Pancake which is kind of famous in this area.  You order it from the chef, he cooks it up right then and there, a pancake as a pancake should be, with one important variation from what you might expect.  This one is the size of a hubcap, a roulette wheel.  About the size of a Ford Escort.  The pancake overflows the plate upon which it is served.  It weighs as much as a small backpack.

Diane heroically eats half, Rod has some himself.  Our hitchhiker watches carefully from a respectful distance.  When Diane is stuffed, half the pancake is left on her plate weighing no more than a marmot.  “Would you like some?” she asks the hitchhiker.

“Don’t mind if I do,” he responds, already digging his fingers into his newly-found breakfast.  Who needs forks!  By the way he approaches the flapjack, I wonder if he’s eaten in the past few days.  Soon it is gone, his fingers sticky from dipping into the syrup.

Another hiker asks him where he’s bound.  “Happy Isles in Yosemite Park,” he says.  Gonna do the trail.  By “the trail” he means the John Muir Trail, all 211 miles from here to there.  “Expect it’ll take about three weeks.”  Judging by the grunting and the fact that he needs to grab his leg with his hands to get out of the car, I am a little dubious.  At his rate of travel, we figure he’ll need about 57 days.  Good luck, man.

Breakfast having been eaten, packs loaded and secured, loins girded, the four of us set off.  We begin to climb immediately after posing for our trailhead photographs.

 right to left, Diane, Rod, Lisa, my own self

We wind up out of the lush alcove of the campground/store/picnic area and come to our first creek crossing, the four-rock hop over Carillon Creek.  The climbing continues.  It’s what we do all day.  All day.  We’re used to going uphill, we’re used to climbing, we’re used to feeling the burn.  But this one is different.  This is not drama, this is not an exaggeration.  Never have I heard fellow hikers say the word “up” so often.  It’s what we do, all day long.  We go up.

Next is our uneventful crossing of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, this time on about a dozen rocks.  The bottoms of our boots barely get wet, testimony to the excellent design and maintenance of this trail.

Our path continues to gain altitude on loose gravel and dirt, occasionally bordered with rows of fist-size rocks, sometimes on the edges of steep drops.  The switchbacks begin.

Anyone who has contemplated climbing Mount Whitney has heard about the famous “99 switchbacks.”  These ain’t them.

We cross Lone Pine Creek a couple more times.  Lone Pine Creek and the Mount Whitney Trail run together, all the way from trailhead up to Consultation Lake at six miles and a tributary up to Trail Camp at 6.3 miles.  We run with them too.

I’ve noticed, for some reason on National Forest trails, distances seem to lengthen.  What seems like walking a mile turns out to be much less than a mile, much shorter.  On a break, we simply cannot believe it when a fellow hiker coming down the mountain tells us that our camp is still two miles away.  Today’s hike is only 6.3 miles and we’ve hiked about 35 so far.  Or so it seems.  Nonetheless, onward and upward.

To our right up ahead is Thor Peak and a little farther, Wotans Throne.  But there is a lot of trail before we reach these places.  We meet another creek crossing, this one on a log bridge, and then pass several trailside meadows of grasses, woody species I can’t identify, algae and dwarf shrubs, home of an abundance of rodents, insects and smaller reptiles.  The wildest thing we see at these meadows is a largish, heavily sweating hiker throwing his pack down on the ground and howling.  Must be carrying some hefty provisions, eh?

The stream meanders, the trail meanders, we meander, but with purpose.  In fact, Lone Pine Creek and Whitney Trail cross each other five times.  The terrain becomes more rocky as the vegetation begins to thin and the trees grow shorter.

We’re up over 10002 feet now, approaching Outpost Camp, an expanse of dirt, rock and some trees to the side of a meadow.  The place is mostly empty but we hear the happy shouts and screams of hikers playing in the 50-foot waterfall way over there.  We refresh our water supply.

It is lunch time.  It is lunch time because we are hungry, not because anyone is wearing a watch.

As we sit on a log in this open area, it feels like the grime of our regular lives — work, driving, city noise, inept service technicians — evaporates off our skin with our perspiration.  All four of us, we have wonderful lives.  You will never hear any of us wish for anything that we don’t have.  We are as lucky as you can get.  But still, there is the day to day routines which we appreciate more when we don’t have to do them.  It’s refreshing to take time off from the one you love.

Lisa prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch today.  This is my first PB&J sandwich in decades.  Hey, this is good!  I may recruit her to make my lunch again.

We finish our food and just sit for a short while, except Rod who has more energy than a bug in a windstorm.  He checks out the creek, he checks out the rocks, he checks out the waterfall.  Now he’s ready too.

The switchbacks continue and after climbing another 640 feet, we skirt Mirror Lake.  At first glance it’s obvious where the name comes from.  We’re not close enough to refresh, but heck, no issue, we just had lunch and we’re back into our hiking rhythm.

Another mile and Trailside Meadow comes up on our left.  These meadows, here in the high Sierras, are framed by rock walls.  The winter melt runs down the mountain and pools here.  The ponds lasts through the entire season.

These meadows, comprising one acre in ten in the Sierras, provide essential forage for numerous species of rodent, insect, reptile and livestock.  The resident Point Arena mountain beaver, Mohave ground squirrel, pocket gopher, Ord’s kangaroo rat and Tehachapi pocket mouse are all happy here.

We definitely want to keep this guy happy, because just seeing him makes us happy.

These meadows filter sediment from water flowing down from surrounding slopes.  Clean water for fish, amphibian, bird and human.  We gotta keep the amphibians happy, the Northern Pacific treefrog, the newt and slender salamander, the fish, the Little Kern golden trout, the California roach and the Sacramento sucker.

Not to mention just how darned pretty the meadows are, they serve as excellent campsites for forest visitors, such as us.

But dang, it’s that love-it-to-death thing again.  The meadows of the High Sierras are one of the most important elements providing support for the ecosystem of the mountain range but are also the most threatened by human activity.  At one point in our journey, Lisa and I have just begun climbing out of a bowl in the midst of steep slopes, a meadow at the bottom.  As we gain altitude, I look back to see two backpackers stripping themselves of their overloaded backpacks and dropping them to the ground.  With a great grunt, one of them zips down and pees, right there at the edge of the meadow.  He couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place to commune with nature, but the son of a bitch should have at least gotten off trail and away from this small and pristine paradise.

Our peeing hiker is one of the reasons it has been so difficult for us to visit this area.  The area is fragile and the powers-that-be have decided on instituting the permit system, limiting the number of jagoffs allowed on the mountain at any given time.

“Hey doofus!  Put it back in your pants and consider that your pee stinks.  In many ways.

Climbing, climbing.  Must have covered 48 miles by now.  And then we top out a rise and enter a large flat area (flat in comparison with the constant uphill) with towering mountains before us and to both sides.  That’s Wotans Throne on our right, Mount McAdie on our left and Mount Irvine far past that.  Directly ahead, what looks like a nearly sheer wall, that’s where our trail goes, 1700 feet up in less than two miles of trail distance, 0.7 mile as the crow flies.  This is where you’ll reverse direction 99 times.  These are them!  The switchbacks!

Mount Whitney – part 3

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


Badwater

After exploring the Lone Pine area, Lisa and I take the opportunity to visit Death Valley, the largest national park in the country outside of Alaska.  We figure that a day should be plenty enough time to enjoy all 5270 square miles.  How big is that?  Bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and throw in the District of Columbia too.  Yep, one day should do it.

We start at Badwater.  Here’s how Lisa figures it;  We plan to get to the highest point so why wouldn’t we go to the lowest point.  When you are standing on the salt floor of Badwater (among the cars and tour buses and hundreds of visitors) you can look high up the stone wall of the mountain to the east and see a sign on the side of the mountain.

can you read it?

SEA LEVEL

You are looking up 282 feet from the bottom of the country.  Yah, Badwater is the lowest point in the continental United States.

Did I mention it is hot?  We know that one thing mountain climbers must contend with is the cold, snowy freezing conditions.  This is the other way.  With names in Death Valley like Dry Bone Canyon, Hells Gate, Desolation Canyon, (dry) Lost Lake, Funeral Peak, Coffin Peak, Furnace Creek and Dantes View, you may begin to pick up on the hints.  Yeah, it’s hot here.

In fact, it is hot enough to be a living cliche…

Notice the egg residue on the rock and the nearby eggshells.

It was 100° at 9:55 this morning.  Not unusual.

We drive a bit and walk a bit.  Deserts of course, are more than sand and Death Valley, a very large desert, has salt dunes, springs, high mountains with an array of flora, snow and colors and textures that a city dweller may never see.  Snake, nine species of bat, fox, 50 species of tarantula, bobcat, lizards, bighorn sheep and, yes, mountain lion.  Hundreds more species inhabit Death Valley.  We saw exactly none.  Zero.  Rats.

Must have been the heat.  No, it was not the heat.  The temperature is regularly 100° or more and those who live here have lived here for a long time and this is the environment they live in.  They know how to do it.

Tourists don’t know how to do it, many of them making mention of the heat, as if it’s a bad thing.  This is not their accustomed environment, no.

Mount Whitney – part 2

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


Movie Road

Four blocks north of the Museum in the center of town, you can turn west onto Whitney Portal Road.  Drive 11.7 miles and you are at a campground.  We’ll do that later.  For now, make a right turn in 2.7 miles onto Movie Road.  Drive another 1.6 miles and park your car.  I would say, prepare to be amazed, but if you’ve looked out your window at all on your drive, you are already blown away.  Behold 30 000 acres (47 square miles) of a strange and wonderful area of rounded, sculpted granite rock.  Squint and a lot of them look like potatoes.  This is the Alabama Hills on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

This is the area often used to epitomize the prototypical “Wild West.”  Once Hollywood discovered the Alabama Hills, it became a favorite area for shooting films, television shows, commercials and still photographs.  Not only the Wild West, but the Alabama Hills served as the setting for northern India, the Gobi Desert, Arabia and in a couple of Tarzan Films, Africa.

What a place!  This is where Roy Rogers first found Trigger and where the Lone Ranger got his name.  Films ranging from Superman with Kirk Alyn in 1948 to Man of Steel with Henry Cavill in 2013.  From A Star is Born with Janet Gaynor in 1937 to Gladiator with Russell Crowe in 2000.  Possibly The Flintstones was shot here sometime before 1919 but this is unsubstantiated.

These are some of the more than 500 films, television shows and commercials that have been staged here, not including still photographs for advertising, public relations and promotion.  Must be one of the most famous places that nobody knows about.

Pop culture.  Movies, actors, videotape, streaming, stories condensed to bite-size for the general public.  But for Lisa and me, this is not the amazing thing about this place.  It is the landscape.  Admittedly it is the landscape that drew all the Hollywood activity here, but ask Lisa and me how many of these movies we have seen and our answer would be akin to how many curling players we can name who are in the Hall of Fame:  not many, near zero.  That’s okay.  We still get out a lot.

The land here is made of the same stuff as the stone spires, spiky formations and rocky slopes of Mount Whitney.  But lower down, here at four and five thousand feet, earthquakes covered the land with soil.  Water was forced up through the surface and smoothed the granite into the rounded field of rock we find today.

Higher, the freezing, expanding and thawing of rainwater and melting snow has caused the more chiseled splintering of the granite.

I’m going to quote this geek speak:

There are two main types of rock exposed at Alabama Hills.  One is an orange, drab weathered metamorphosed volcanic rock that is 150-200 million years old.  The other type of rock exposed here is 82- to 85-million-year-old biotite monzogranite which weathers to potato-shaped large boulders, many of which stand on end due to spheroidal weathering acting on many nearly vertical joints in the rock.

Due to the endless weathering, holes have been worn in some of the rocks, or as we like to call them, the rocks have formed arches.  At least 44 named arches are spread around here and there are no doubt hundreds more.

Mount Whitney – part 1

the Sierra Nevada

California

September 2016


Stoves

After an excellent flight from Pittsburgh to LAX — excellent meaning “not bouncy and it didn’t scare the hell out of me” — we crowded into a shuttle bus like a Steelers bar during the Superbowl, only without the shouting, the beer and the black and gold, and everyone had suitcases.  We were packed in like maggots, but very nice maggots.  This bus transported us to the rental car center where, after picking up our little economy something, we drove on the crowded highway in this most densely populated American city, Los Angeles.

Not surprisingly, soon after leaving the airport in this strange city, we drive past an enormous donut, possibly the largest non-actual-donut donut in the world.  It’s part of the Randy’s Donuts building where presumably Randy has his bakery and makes donuts.  Sucker is more than 32 feet in diameter!  I’m told the donuts are tasty.

Our next stop after lunch is the camping gear store where we stock up on stove fuel.  When you are on the mountain for days, potato chips just won’t do it — you’ve got to have real meals, involving cooking, and as we discovered roughly 400 002 years ago, give or take twenty minutes, we need controlled fire to do that.  In some places, like the slopes of Mount Whitney, our destination, you are not only not permitted to build fires, but there is very little material to build fires with.  You’re above tree line.

Our little four-ounce portable stove mounts on top of a can filled with various chemicals that burn very nicely when you place your pot of spaghetti noodles on top of it.

Why not just bring our fuel canisters from home, like we do with everything else?

While we call these items “fuel canisters,” the Transportation Security Administration calls them “bombs.”  Consequently, we do not put them in our luggage.  We buy them when we are safely away from our destination airport.

And speaking of bombshells, our drive takes us through Van Nuys, which Lisa tells me is the porn capital of the world.  I don’t ask her how she knows this and I try not to wonder how I didn’t know this.  “Could be filming going on in any one of these regular looking houses, right now,” she says.  Lisa is driving so I try to look through the window shades but I don’t see anything all that interesting.

We drive on the Ronald Reagan Freeway past Simi Valley, home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.  I try to peek through the window blinds here too but again, nothing remotely pornographic.

Continuing north through the little town of Mojave where gasoline goes for $4.79 a gallon.  Should use our little camping fuel canisters instead.

I get a jones for a milkshake.  I haven’t had a milkshake in years so this surprises me.  I tell Lisa.  She pulls into an In-N-Out Burger, which, even though they’ve been selling fast food since 1948, I had not heard of.  Already this trip is full of adventure.

I don’t often endorse products, especially with what they pay me, but I will say that this In-N-Out Burger milkshake is one of the best tasting things I’ve ever put into my mouth.  I can’t wait to do it again.

Further on, California City.  Interesting place.  Or in another perspective, interesting non-place.  In 1958, a sociology professor and would-be real estate developer named Nat Mendelsohn bought 80 002 acres of Mojave Desert land with the intention of building the state’s next great city.  Mendelsohn laid out housing developments, built roads and planned a lake.  For whatever reason, it didn’t take off.  But some believe there is still hope.  The mayor predicts that if she lives another 100 years, she might see the city finally catch on and become Mendelsohn’s dream.  They are in the desert.  Mayor Wood says, “There are more stars in California City than there are in Hollywood.”

Just 100 more years.

The rest of our drive includes true desert landscape, rolling hills of rock, sand, salt, volcanic lava and other minerals, plus nearly 2000 species of plants, the most popular of which is the Joshua Tree.

Unnatural growth in this desert includes thousand of windmills and miles of solar panel fields.  If you’ve got to be build something, if you’ve got to add things to this natural environment, better windmills and solar panels than refineries.

225 miles after stepping off the airplane, we stop at the Inter-Agency Visitors Center, the check-in point for our wilderness journey.  It has often been said that we humans have a tendency to enjoy our natural places so much that we “love them to death.”  So the number of visitors who are allowed into these natural places, such as Mount Whitney, is limited.  We are here to pick up our permits.

Seven months ago, in February, Lisa entered our names into the permit lottery to be allowed on the mountain.  This year, 2016, more than thirteen thousand applications were submitted, a record.  Of these, 100 people per day are awarded day use permits and 60 people per day are awarded overnight permits.  Last year, we weren’t so lucky, not getting in at all.  This year, we scored!  We’re on our way!

Here we are at the Center to pick up our permits, those valuable pieces of paper that allow us entry to the mountain.  We learn that we are three days early.  Permits may only be picked up within 48 hours of your hike.  We go next door to our hotel.  Long day.  Relaxing at the pool with a perfectly clear view of the highest point in 49 of the United States.

day time
at sunset

We make good use of the days before our immersion into the forest, getting to know a little bit of Lone Pine, the town at the eastern flats of the mountain.  Restaurants with good food, an over-crowded outdoor gear store with everything you could ever want (including gas canisters,) a Chamber of Commerce which seems to always be closed.  Lone Pine is a small town, about 2000 residents.  They’ve got the Lone Pine Film History Museum here.  It looks like a 1930’s movie theater and shows off exhibits and props used in movies from the past century.

Next chapter, Movie Road.