I was wrong about two things. The climb was 8.7 miles and a 4,150 ft. altitude gain. That’s one. Sneaking past the ranger station wasn’t the crux of the day. It did, however, come right off. The prospect of wading icy cold Whitney creek and clambering up on to the frost caked far bank at five forty five in the morning was an extreme psychological roadblock between me and the world outside my sleeping bag.
We stowed all our gear in the bear box and headed out with only lunch, cameras, cold weather gear and ice axes. Dyl found a place where we could try to rock hop the creek. A couple rocks peeking out of the water surface with a big step to a partially submerged tree trunk rising up to the other bank. I absentmindedly waited my turn. He stepped from the first to the second smaller rock squatted slowly and, much to my dismay, leaned out as much as he could in order to hack ice off the tree trunk with his ax. I wandered down stream, closer to the falls, to look for a better spot. The banks closed into six foot high granite walls. By following a ledge out a few feet and stepping out about two and a half feet to the pointy nub of an almost submerged rock. It was too much of a leap of faith to get both of my feet on it. If I pushed with my hand off the enclosing bank, I could shift my center of balance over my foot and wobble for a couple of seconds before having to step back to the ledge. Gathering nerve I placed my first foot, pushed, put my second on, one second, one and a half, and jump three feet to another flatter rock and then to the bank. It was difficult and treacherous and frightening; but, seemed to be a much better than wading. Confidence up, I hopped onto a slick as snot ice rock on the next creek ford. It sent my torso one way and my legs the other. Instantaneously I lay fetal on the rock with my left arm stuck up to the shoulder in freezing water.
Snow obstructed the trail completely after only a couple of miles. We general made way toward a set of switch-backs, a long way off, ascending a gargantuan scree and snow slope. Finding our way across the huge uninterrupted blankets of super bright sun reflecting white was fun. We began eventually to climb and got our first practice hacking steps across the steep morning ice slopes with our ice axes. The elevation made me lethargic and lightheaded. The mountains surrounding us were very large and cliff laden.
There were four people and a dog, all from L.A., on the peak with us. We all took pictures of each other with each others cameras off many of the panoramic vistas. I took a photo view from the highest outhouse in the United States at 14,460. So many people hike up this thing in the summer that they had to build an outhouse. The “honey pot” has to be airlifted out by helicopter. Our tax dollars at work. Looking from whence we came then toward where we are headed was, as Dyl put it, “Humbling.” To the south there were green meadows broken by a couple of snowy peaks. A tropical paradise compared to terrain northward. All snowy plateaus and hulking granite peaks as far as the eye could see. Coming down was faster as we glissaded down the snow fields we had climbed up this morning. I had to “self arrest,” stop my self by plunging my ax into the snow and rolling over on top of it, on one such slide that I lost control of. It was my first experience doing so and thankfully it came naturally.
We re ran into a group we had camped next to. Betsy called them the “collage kids.” She, like I, had finished school immediately prior to beginning the walk. There was, despite the joke, a difference in attitude and even age. They slept in late, had no ice axes, and seemed a little more reckless in attitude. Not to say Dylan and I are old fogies. We are, though, quite cautious and serious in the way we approach the terrain.
Tonight we are celebrating climbing the highest peak in the continental U.S. by sleeping in the same spot as last night. First thing tomorrow I am going to see what ice cold bare feet on frosty tundra feels like. Planning on getting wet below the knees seems favorable to the ice log half gainer to Nestea plunge. We will have several tough creek fords tomorrow. 13,195 ft. Forester Pass, the highest point on the trail, will be our main obstacle. My Uncle described it to me as, “switch-backs chiseled out of granite cliffs. It is described in the book as. “dangerous when covered with snow.”