Preparing for Mount Whitney

When my mountaineering friends from Ireland suggested we climb Whitney together when they came to visit, I agreed on one condition – My Husband had to come with me. I guessed the camping element would put him off, he’d say “no” and I’d explain that I couldn’t go with him etc etc. We still had to “win” a permit in the permit lottery. I guessed the whole deal would flop, and they’d find a marathon or triathlon to do with another crazy-fit mutual friend who lives here too.

To get some perspective on how fit these guys are compared to us, let me put it this way. The visiting mountaineers are like Wonder Woman and Superman, the mutual friend and her fitness fanatic family are The Incredibles (without Jack Jack – unless you include their dog who also goes running with them!) By comparison, My Husband and I are the Flintstones – and I’m not even Wilma or Betty, oh no – I’m Fred and he’s Barney!

But I never win raffles and things like that, so I was quietly confident that we’d be grand – there’d be a road trip to somewhere nice and we’d have a great time, as it’s impossible to not have a blast with those guys.

Mrs. Incredible applied for the permit back in February and waited for the results. I completely forgot about it and was pretty engrossed in organizing my Irish Book tour for March to November, starting around Easter. I was actually in Ireland when she sent me an email. We’d won the lottery and gotten the damn permit!

I hoped at this stage that My Husband would still say no, but to my shock (and horror) he said, “Sure why not?”

There were lots of reasons why not, but ultimately, I had no excuses…I had committed to it, and if I say I’m going to do something, I do it (or at least give it my best shot!)

We were set for Whitney at the end of July 2015 with 13 weeks to train for it from pretty much a standstill! So I found a 12 week training plan, printed it out and put it on the wall. I need to do the “crossing off “thing to inspire me. We had a week to stand and look at the plan before we began…

Then we started the training together…

There are so many elements to Whitney…
There’s the distance – 22 mile round trip.
There’s the elevation gain. You start at about 8000 feet (2400m) and need to gain 6500 feet (2000m)
There’s the camping. We got a permit to camp two nights halfway up.
There’s the carrying all your food and gear for 2 nights/3 days. We’d never hiked with heavy packs before but now we needed to buy the right kind of pack and get used to “mountain food”.
There’s the lack of plumbing. We needed to filter the water that we’d get from streams and lakes.
There’s the lack of plumbing (part 2). There were no toilet facilities on the mountain so we’d have to pack out our solid waste – yes, that meant carrying our poo out in a bag!
And finally there’s the lack of oxygen... Mt Whitney is 14,505 feet (4,421 m) high. We’d be hiking higher than a Cessna airplane can fly. It’s the highest mountain on continental USA (lower 48 States) and the air is pretty thin up there. Altitude sickness was the big unknown. You can train and prepare for everything else, but not that…at least, not in the time frame (3 days) available to us.

Training for distance was fine – we followed our chart – ticked off our training schedule and basically had sore muscles for a solid three month period. At one point I wondered was it better to not train and just suffer the once! I hated the runs that had been scheduled. I learned to use the step machine while ironing and critiquing for my writing group – training is just so time consuming and hell, I have a life!

But My Husband and I found that we enjoyed the hikes, having hiked smaller easier hikes a lot, we liked expanding on this. It brought us closer too and we found we worked well as a team. The Incredibles were training too. The kids, 11 and 8, were getting some experience with backpacking and we kept up with their progress on social media, engrossed as we were on our own schedule.

It was hard to find high enough hills locally, but we did have a couple of hikes that had elevation gains of 3000-4000 feet. Since in any one day on Whitney we’d have no more than 4000 feet, we were happy to consider that as a good yardstick.

On April 26th we began with a loop of our local park clocking up an easy 3 miles and 630ft elevation gain.

Looking at our house from Santa Teresa Park.

As the weeks went on we donned packs, filled them with heavy stuff from our cupboards (the cans of soda exploded so we switched to bags of rice) and increased our hike length and elevation accumulation. By May 23rd we’d hiked the longest trail we’d ever hiked – El Sombroso – 11.8 miles and 3,083ft.

Mt Umhamum as seen from El Sombroso peak.

It was half the distance of the Whitney Trail and nearly half the total elevation we would need…we were making progress.

Then we attempted Murietta Falls – a “butt kicker” as described by the trail book, leaving from Del Valle Lake along the Ohlone Trail. We had 20lb packs and started off strong, but the steep descent of 500ft into a valley and ascent up the other side broke our spirits. We’d not been mentally prepared to descent mid-hike, and we worried that we’d run out of steam to make the 500ft ascent on the way home. So we turned back, a 1.5 miles short of our goal.

The turn around point on way to Murietta Falls.

Two weeks later, we struck out for Mt Sizer in Henry Coe with 35lb packs and did the full loop – a whooping 15 miles and 4200 ft accumulated elevation. 

Mt Sizer hike.

Yes, we’d arrived back at the car in pitch darkness, hearts pumping because we let ourselves worry about mountain lion attacks, falling down steep ravines and axe murderers – things that rarely happen but just might in the dark – well, maybe not the axe murderers, but we do watch too much TV!

Yes, we were nearly crippled the following day with aching legs, backs, arms … well, everything, but we knew that as far as distance and elevation gain went, we were well on course for Mt Whitney. We just had to figure out the camping, the food, and the plumbing!

The hikes that followed that were fun and easily knocked off the list – Mission Peak,

Me pointing at Mission peak summit were we’d just visited.

Mount Montara,

View from Mt Montara, near Pacifica, CA
 and a few blasts around Santa Teresa Park.

We decided to return to Henry Coe to practice backpacking. We only hiked far enough to find a campsite (1 mile!) and set up camp with a gorgeous view.

Campsite at Henry Coe

There were toilets too – so the plumbing was sorted out…or was it!

The pit toilet (called a long drop in some places) hadn’t been used in a while and there were spiders everywhere. They’d strung their webs right across the opening of the toilet. We found big sticks and put on our head lamps. As I looked down the toilet, the light bounced on something in the pit, in a flash of horror, I thought it was a toddler standing down there about three feet tall. (I do read far too much Stephen King!) I forced myself to look and saw that it was a tower of turds! What with the drought and the ultra dry conditions, waste moisture was being wicked away immediately but the poops were landing roughly in the same spot each time and staying there without a cesspit to slough about in. The turd tower was building up like a stalagmite in a limestone cave, except this was a stalagshite!

Over the weeks we’d been experimenting with the freeze dried food packs and had selected our favorites. My Husband had thrown himself into the tech side of the project buying a Garmin, a personal locator beacon and most importantly a Jet Boil stove. This thing can boil water in a matter of minutes and it proved to be amazing.

The Jetboil

To filter water, he got us a gravity fed micro fiber filter but all the springs in Henry Coe had dried up so we practiced using the tanked-in water they provided.

Everything worked like clockwork, except for the sleeping bit – our foam mats were not soft enough and we couldn’t get comfortable. We didn’t sleep a wink and got up just before sunrise, packed up camp and headed for home.

After some research we decide to buy some ultra light backpacking thermarests. Our pack’s weights were at their limit. We didn’t want to carry any more than 35lbs. The thermarests were pricey but still less expensive than a night in a hotel. My Husband, not a fan of camping, refused to go backpacking just to try out our new sleep system, so we decided to put the tent up at home for one night. Embarrassed to be seen by our neighbors emerging bedraggled in the morning, we put the tent up on the bedroom floor.

We needed to make a pillow too. It reminded me of that scene in Apollo 13 when the guy says “You need to make this work with this using that.” Only using what we were bringing, we shoved our spare clothes (there was very little to spare actually) and our puffa jackets into the stuff bags from our sleeping bags. The new mattresses worked well and by 1am we were both sound asleep in our tent on our bedroom floor. I awoke at 5am needing to pee. Getting out of the tent, I woke up My Husband. Since the purpose of the experiment was to determine if we could go to sleep on those mattresses and we’d proved that we could, we decided mission accomplished – it was okay to sleep in our own bed again. It didn’t take us long to scramble into the real bed!

Two days later we attempted Murietta Falls again. And failed! My Husband wasn’t feeling well. He’d developed a rash or been bitten by something on his hip. We suspected a spider bite… the wee monster had seemed to chow down, walk about and then chomp a little more. So my husband was feeling weak and sore, and we turned back, this time only one mile short of the falls.

The turnaround point for the 2nd Murietta Falls attempt

Would we ever make it up to the Falls and was this an omen for the Mount Whitney Hike in less than three weeks?

To be continued….

Byddi Lee

2 replies to Preparing for Mount Whitney

  1. Oh yes! Anything could happen…

  2. Lol! The drama!! Can't wait to see what happens in the next installment 🙂

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