the Sierra Nevada
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.
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!