Thursday October 1 10:30am
After shooting lineup shots at Oxnard Shores I called Brain Nix to see if he
wanted to go get some breakfast and discuss our upcoming climbing trip to Mount Whitney. We end up meeting in his garage, which resembles the back end of a gear shop more than a normal three-car garage. From bicycles to balaclavas everything is neatly organized and properly labeled in a bin or on a rack. Basically this garage has everything one could possible need for any type of adventure. Brian asks, “ Kyle, do you have a ice axe?” “No, I don’t and I have never used one. Am I going to need one for the trip?” “Well you might,” says Brian. Brian then walks over to a bin labeled “mountain gear” and pulls out a well-used black ice axe. “Put this up to your leg, yeah, that looks like a good fit. It should keep you from flying off the mountain.” Brian then gives me the short version of how to properly use an ice axe. At this point I am really hoping that there is no ice up on the mountain because having to self-arrest sounds like it could go wrong really quickly. It’s sort of like having to jump off a skateboard when you are bombing down a big hill, you have always thought about what to do but when it comes time to do it you just have to hope for the best. We head off to breakfast and discuss where everybody is going to meet up on Friday, what gear we are going to bring, what we are going to eat, pick the route, come up with a bail plan in case someone gets sick or hurt and a few other small details about the trip. After eating a nice but overpriced breakfast we part ways. We will meet again tomorrow back at Brian’s house at 11:00.
Friday October 2 10:15 am
I had to go to Trader Joe’s to pick up food that I will be eating on the trip. I run in and grab a handful of Cliff Bars and one bag of trail mix, swipe my credit card for $12.37 and answer the question, “You going on a little hiking trip?” and I am back in the car heading off to Brian’s house.
Friday October 2 10:49 am
Pull up at Brian’s house and take my pack inside his house because he wanted to see what gear I was bringing on the trip. He wants this to be a fast and light trip so any unnecessary gear is going to be left behind. Brian pulls out his scale and weighs my pack. It tips the scales at 38 pounds. Immediately he says “38 pounds is a lot. My pack only weighs 32 and I have rope and climbing gear. You need to take some stuff out.” I end up leaving my tent and my nalgene. My pack weight is now 33 pounds. Brian then pulls out a small Pelican Case and blue dry bag and weighs both items. Together they weigh an even ten pounds. Brian asks, “What’s in the case and the bag Kyle?” I reply “All of my photo gear that I am going to bring. I can’t leave any of it. It has to go. End of story.” Brian then says, “Well you could use a Ziploc bag instead of the Pelican Case and that would take off at least a pound. That stuff is not that expensive right?” “Brian, if any of that gear gets wet or slammed around and it breaks I lose all the photos from the trip. I don’t think a zip lock bag would work at all, I am bringing the case.” I keep packing up my stuff and Jen walks down from her room with a backpack and a pile of jackets and hiking clothes. Now it’s Jen’s time for the pack weigh in. Her pack came in at twenty-four pounds.
Friday October 2 1:15 pm
After three or four text messages our ride and final member of the group, David, finally shows up. Everybody throws their gear in the back of his Jeep; I grab a few Rock and Ice magazines and the new issue of Climbing and the crew piles in and we head off for Whitney.
Friday October 2 5:30 pm
We are now in Lone Pine, which is the small town at the base of Mount Whitney. I take some time to stare up in awe at the mountain. I have been to Lone Pine several times to shoot photos of Mount Whitney but this is the first time where the goal was not only to shoot photos of the mountain but also to reach the summit.
Friday October 2 5:35 pm
We are waiting to cross the street when Brian and I notice a light pole moving
back and forth. At first I thought it was the wind but then the ground starts to shake and behind me a roof rattles and light blub works it way out of its socket and falls then explodes on the sidewalk below. Earthquake. I start to walk towards the fallen light blub but Brian grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me back. He is only two years older than I am but he is the oldest guy in our circle of friends so I pop off with “thanks for looking out for me Grandpa.”
Friday October 2 6:29pm
We meet up with a few of Brian’s fire department friends for dinner in Lone Pine. They just finished the portal trail and tell us that there is no snow or ice on Russell’s Pass but it’s very cold and really windy at the top of the mountain. The group save David, powers down a pile of Mexican food. David eats only a side of French fires.
Friday October 2 8:12pm
We leave the restaurant and drive a few streets down and park in a dimly lit
parking lot to change out of our street clothes and into our hiking gear. I felt like we were preparing for battle and just at that moment the song “Sgt. MacKenzie” from the movie We Were Soldiers comes out of the Jeep’s speakers. Now I start to realize that this is not going to be a normal walk in the woods, but more like a charge up a cold and harsh mountain. No turning back now. Everybody dons their respective Gore-Tex trail runners, lightweight fleece jackets, hiking pants, headlamps, and we each do a last run through of our packs to make sure that we are not leaving anything crucial to the trip behind. As a group we decide to leave our ice axes behind because of the lack of snow and ice on the mountain.
Friday October 2 8:34pm
Jen, Brian, David, and I are speeding up Boy Scout Road on our way to the
trailhead. David requests some pump up music and DJ Smiley (Brian) lays down some tracks. He starts it off sort of slow and gets ripped on by everyone in the car. Then he pulls out the big guns. By far the most overplayed pump up song ever; “Eye of the Tiger.” Smiley is instantly redeemed. After a few quick miles we reach the trailhead.
Friday October 2 9:02pm
The crew and I head off for the trail under a blanket of white moonlight, which
was great because we could save some battery life on our headlamps. After about 15 minutes we reach the turn off for the mountaineer’s route. After we take the turn the trail pitches up quite rapidly. This route is not nearly as common as the portal trail due to its difficulty. The mountaineer’s route carries a class three rating which means at some point you will have to use your hands and climb up and over exposed rocks. You won’t need rock climbing gear but if you fell while you were on some of the class three sections your going to be broken all over your body. We brought helmets for this reason alone. Basically our route was a straight shot to Whitney. On either side of us were giant cliffs so the route went right between them for a few miles. After about an hour of hiking we hit our first class three section. It was a section only about thirty feet or so tall and not super difficult because all you had to do was walk up a three foot wide rock ramp, but this was one of those spots where you really did not want to fall because if you did it would be a long fall into total blackness. At one point during the assent I looked back over my shoulder to see where I was coming from and my headlamp couldn’t illuminate the ground underneath me because I was too high above it. Spooky.
Saturday October 3 12:56am
We had been hiking for several hours and Brain told everybody that he wanted a short break. All of us took off our packs and sat down on a pile of rocks. These breaks are great times to put on other layers of clothing or take some off, if you were too warm, or drink some water and grab a bite to eat. Brian had other plans. The sound of a person vomiting is instantly recognizable. I look over just in time to see Brian getting rid of Mexican food via his mouth. Our little break quickly turned into something much more. Brian was showing signs of high altitude sickness, not good. He pukes three or four more times and stands and says, “You guys ready? We should keep on going.” Being that he is older and has done this sort of thing more times that I have, I put my pack back on and we kept on going towards Iceberg Lake, our stopping point for the night.
Saturday October 3 2:00am
We have pushed on for another mile or so and came to another scramble section. Brian takes off and goes up and to the right and David goes up and to the left. Decision time. I switch my headlamp to spot and scope out both possible routes. Brian’s had a few patches of ice on the face so I decided to go left to avoid the ice. The left route still had its own challenges. Half way up the rock face you had to pull a back step and a lie back move for eight feet or so. Successfully past that section we keep pressing on towards camp, which means a warm place to lie down and try and get some sleep.
Saturday October 3 2:45am
We arrive at the lake and spread out to try and find some shelter from the wind which was gusting to around thirty miles per hour. I find a small group of rocks that’s doing an ok job of blocking the wind and I called out for the others to come over and meet me at camp. When the rest of the crew showed up I pulled out my camera and started to shoot some photos. The moon was right between Mount Whitney and the Keller Needle so I was able to get some nice night landscape photos. I have found one thing to be constant and true on all backpacking trips that I have ever been on. There is always something that you could be doing. This trip was no exception. Jen was laying out the sleeping tarp, David was thumbing through the guidebook, I was shooting photos and Brian was throwing up. He was posted up on a rock, head between his knees, just flat out going for it. Sucks to be him. Everybody knows what its like to puke and you just feel bad when you see it because there is not much that you can do to stop it. After another rally of three or four pukes Brain starts to make his case that he is feeling much better and is ready to start climbing the East Buttress. This was the all part of the original plan. We were going to hike in then once we arrived at Iceberg Lake Brian and David were going to start the East Buttress. Then they would summit, come back down Russell’s Pass, and then start the East Face route. At that point Jen and I would go up Russell’s Pass and we would all meet up on the summit. It sounded good on paper. After some discussion Brian was talked down and he decided that he and David would sleep with us and then at first light they would wake up and start climbing one of the two routes. Here’s the problem. Because Brian and David thought that they were going to be climbing through the night they decided they would have no need for sleeping bags or sleeping pads. So now here we were 20 degrees out and gusts of wind up to thirty miles per hour and only two sleeping bags, one and a half sleeping pads, and no tent because it fell victim to “too much weight” for the four of us. An epic night of sleep was before us. Brian laid down next to Jen and wormed his way into her extra small sleeping bag. Brian was able to get his legs in the bag but it stopped at his elbow so he kept his down jacket on all night long. They were able to pull this move off with out much awkwardness due to the fact that they have been dating for a few years. For David and myself our sleeping situation was going to be a bit different. I was not going to let David sit out in the cold all night long, because that would have been a super lame move on my part. I declared that I was going to be the big spoon and then the two of us squished ourselves into the sleeping bag. We had to sleep the entire night on our right hip because that’s the only way that we were going to be able to fit. I knew going into this trip that it was going to be an adventure but if you would have told me that I was going to end up spooning with a fully grown man I would have just laughed. Guess you’re the one laughing now.
Saturday October 3 3:29am
I set and alarm on my phone to wake me up at 6:30am because I wanted to
photograph the alpine glow on the face of Whitney. Alpine glow is an optical
phenomenon that occurs when the rising Sun is just below the horizon and the sunlight casts a glowing red band of light upon the high alpine peaks. Basically super kick ass light for about five minutes. I have seen this in several photographs but I wanted to experience it for myself so even though I was looking at only three hours of sleep I did not care because I was not going to miss this event. After making sure my alarm was going to go off I tried to get some much-needed sleep. I was quite unsuccessful in my attempt. The wind and the coldness of my feet kept waking me up throughout the night. I botched the sleeping operation by taking off my socks before I went to sleep. However, I was not the only one that did not get a good three hours of sleep. As I found out in the morning the whole crew did not sleep much at all. I guess this is just what happens when you have four people sharing two sleeping bags, two sleeping pads, and a tarp that only fits two people.
Saturday October 3 6:30
My alarm never sounded so loud as it did today. After fumbling around in my
pack I was able to find my phone and shut off the alarm and grab my camera all without leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag. David was up, running around the campsite trying to warm himself up because it was still very cold outside even though the sun was starting to shine on the peaks in front of us. Setting the alarm had paid off in a big way. The alpine glow was in full effect and I was able to get some great images of David standing in front of Mount Whitney. After shooting for ten minutes the glow was gone and the light became very flat and dull. I always find it very interesting on just how fast good light can change to flat crappy light. By this time Jen and Brian were awake and Brian was talking to David about which climb they were going to attempt. After some discussion they decided to climb the East Face route, which was great for me because I would be able to photograph them climbing the face from our makeshift camp. Next we came up with a plan for the rest of the day. Brian and David were going to leave camp first and start climbing and once Jen and I could see them on a large ramp section of the face we were going to leave camp and finish the!mountaineer’s route. We figured that the mountaineer’s route would be faster than the climb so even with the later start we should all be at the top at roughly the same time. With the plan in place, Brain and David left camp to start the climb and Jen and I laid back down and went to sleep.
Saturday October 3 9:29am
I was awoke by someone yelling “Kyle! Kyle! Hey Kyle!” I looked up and saw two small dots on the ramp section of the climb. I knew right away that the two dots were Brian and David. I quickly switched to my longer lens and tried to find them on the face while looking though the viewfinder of my camera. This was not the easiest thing to do because I had to search over 1,800 feet of rock to find two six-foot guys. Eventually I found them and shot a few pull back photos of them working their way up the climb. Once they were out of view Jen and I started to break down camp and pack up our gear. We also found some time to have a quick breakfast of pop tarts.
Saturday October 3 10:05am
Jen and I were starting up the long shale section of Russell’s Pass. This section was difficult because you did not know what small rocks were going to hold your weight and which ones were going to give out and send you sliding down the mountain. In addition to the lose rock we also had to deal with extreme cold and a very strong head wind. About half way up I went to drink some water out of my Camelback but was unsuccessful due to the fact that all of my water had frozen. Bummer. Luckily Jen’s water had not frozen yet so I was able to drink some of her water and stay one step ahead of dehydration. After our quick water break we kept making our way up the pass. A few hundred feet above us were a team of four people making their way down the pass. As the team got closer I noticed that they were all roped together and clad in full mountaineering gear. I thought that this was really odd because there was no snow on the pass so having the rope and mountaineering gear was way overkill. To make things more interesting they were kicking loose rocks down towards Jen and I. By no means was this on purpose but it was still quite unsafe. To get out of the situation Jen and I picked up our pace and scrambled our way above the team. After another two hours we arrived at the top of the pass. From where we stood we could see directly into Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. At this point of the route we had two possible directions to choose from to get to the top of the mountain. Our first choice was to walk around to the backside of the mountain and come up to the top from the west. The problem with this route was a thirty-foot shale section that had some real serious consequences if you slipped on it while on this section. If you were to slip you would fall and roll down a thousand feet of shale, which would put a stop to your life. The second choice was five hundred feet of class three climbing. Class three climbing is defined as scrambling or un-roped climbing. Use of hands is required to hold onto terrain. Class three climbing is like going up a ladder. It can be climbed without much difficulty however a fall could be
fatal. Because Jen and I both have done a fair amount of rock climbing we decided to go up the class three section, the five hundred foot ladder. The first move was the hardest move of the entire section and once we went above that ten-foot section it was nice and easy climbing the whole way up. About half way up I looked back at what we had just climbed up and then quickly realized that I did not want to fall because a fall at this point would be very bad. About fifty feet from the top we had to down climb and traverse over a small patch of ice because the way that we were headed became totally vertical and looked unsafe to go up without climbing gear. Once we had finished the traverse we had a one last quick section top the top. I topped out first and immediately saw the small weather shelter that’s on top of Mount Whitney. Jen was right behind me and we jumped around for a bit, congratulated each other and started walking over to the shelter. At that moment both Brain and David came out of the shelter and the whole crew celebrated for about ten seconds and then we hustled back to the shelter to get try and warm up a bit. It was only thirty degrees out and the wind chill factor put the temperature somewhere in
Saturday October 3 2:00pm
After talking about how each of our climbs went, eating some food, rehydrating, and warming up it became time to make get off the mountain via the eleven mile long portal trail. The portal trail is a long trail that comes up the side of Mount Whitney instead of the more direct mountaineers route, which goes up the front of the mountain. It’s very similar to other trails in the High Sierras; you are above the tree line, exposed to wind, stumbling around on large gray stone, and going through countless switchbacks. The trail has over sixty-one hundred feet of elevation loss when going from the top down so the switchbacks were many and very steep. During one section of switchback you
only drop ten vertical feet for about seventy feet of trail. This section was not very difficult but very mentally challenging because you can see the end of the switchback several hundred feet below you and hundreds of small switchbacks between you and the end. As the miles pass the sun began to set and sunglasses were traded for headlamps and we pressed on into the darkness.
Saturday October 3 7:53pm
I could see taillights from cars and the faint glow of headlamps from people walking around in the portal parking lot. I was getting close to being done with this physically taxing photo assignment. The last few miles or so of the hike my right knee was in a great deal of pain making by progress horribly slow. Shortly after eight I limped into the parking lot where Brian, Jen, and David were unpacking and getting ready for the car ride home. “Hey Kyle, how is your knee doing? Think you will be able to drive us home tonight?” Said Brain. “My knee feels like a big guy wacked it with a bat. I don’t think I will be helping out with the drive home, plus I drove out here so it’s your turn to drive.” We pack up the rest of our things and drive out of the portal and into Loan Pine for some dinner.
Saturday October 3 9:57pm
After we ate dinner in Lone Pine we were back in the Jeep heading home to Oxnard. Normally I don’t sleep much in cars but I was able to sleep a little bit on the way home. Every time I woke up we were in a different city but strangely reggae music was still being played in the car. Strange.
Saturday October 4 2:06am
We had finally arrived at Brian and Jen’s house in Oxnard. The wind that battled
with on the mountain was not blowing onshore around twenty-five miles per hour, which made the task of unloading David’s car a quick one. The crew said our final good byes and we started to part ways. I asked Brain if he could help me back my truck out because it was parked in a very tight spot. He told David to help me and walked inside his house. David gives me the all clear just “go straight and you will be fine” so I begin to slowly pull my truck forward. Then I here the horrible sound of metal scrapping against concrete. By this time I was already out of the parking spot so I get out to see the damage. I ended up kissing a light pole with the back right panel of my truck, and I was
rewarded with several two-foot long scratches. “Aaww crap! That a bitch!” I say when I see the damage. “I didn’t even see you hit the pole! I saw a tunnel the whole time, you looked good from where I was standing.” Said a very confused David. I shrugged my shoulders got back into the truck and drove off.
Saturday October 4 2:45am
I arrive back at my house, pull my backpack out of my truck and walk inside to a warm house. Quick jump in the shower and I am in bed and asleep before three.
This was one of those trips that was fun while it was going on but even more fun to think about when its all said and done.
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