Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lowest to Highest: Badwater to Mt. Whitney

The Lowest to Highest backcountry route extends from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park to the lofty summit of Mt. Whitney in about 135m. Brett Tucker, pioneer of the Grand Enchantment Trail, created the route using realistic water sources in arid environs, primitive trail and roads that are littered with rubble and glass-shiny rock, and employs the navigational skills of a desert wanderer in rugged bushwhacked terrain. The route goes from the hottest place on Earth speckled with crusty salt crystals and shimmering heat to high alpine terrain amid a world of rock and snow. I wanted this adventure to quench a desert urge before embarking on a year's worth of trails. I invited Swami along, a world class adventurer and traveler. Then, I phoned up Bobcat, an upcoming speed hiker with a kind soul and a similar pace, as well as a fellow Gossamer Gear Ambassador. All three of us are unsure how many hikers have accomplished the feat. Most people are runners who run the grueling Badwater Marathon in the scorching month of July all along paved roads with support teams. Of the few hikers who have hiked the L2H, most have used the cool temperatures of the desert and snow-free peaks of the Sierra in the Fall. We may be the first to attempt the feat in Spring, which may mean better than average water-findings and a burly snowpack from the Winter. With that in mind, we still have a roughly 45m waterless stretch and snow conditions that warrant ice axes, micro spikes, and nerve. We passed on carrying snowshoes.

April and I drove up to the curbside pick-up in Las Vegas. Swami sat on a concrete bench looking dapper and gentlemanly, contrary to a long distance hiker. Later that evening, I picked up Bobcat, as well, looking clean and handsome. Early the next morning, say 5am, we left Las Vegas for the 2.5hr drive to Badwater. We went to the Furnace Creek Visitors Center to see about permits. The ranger told us there was no need to get one but only on a volunteer basis. We filed a permit, then the ranger lectured us and inquired on our desert travel and hiking experience. I spoke and tallied a quick 80,000m on foot between us three. The ranger badgered more. Bobcat told him of my Vagabond Loop around the Southwest, briefly mentioned Swami's desert world travels, and let fly of his. The ranger seemed unconvinced. Then Swami, in his Aussie charm and wit, said, 'Okay mate, I've trekked across the Atacama, the Gobi, the Sahara, Australia...' I chuckled inside, as the ranger gave in.
In the other-worldly salt plain, a lingering pool glimmered a still reflection of the surrounding basin. Tourists meandered in and out of the salt flats, as I looked up on a bluff looming above that had a sign signifying the level of the sea if it had been there. Across Badwater stood Telescope Peak, the highest peak in DVNP and some 11,000ft above us. We left April at the Badwater Basin sign, told her we would see her in Lone Pine in a few days. We popped open our umbrellas and ambled onto the salt flat, then onto the crystallized mud that resembled dinosaur footprints among a pond of giant brown water lilies, all frozen in time. We left with 3 liters for the 16m slog through the basin and up into the Panamint Mountains through Hanaupah Canyon, where a spring should have water. At least that's what the backcountry ranger said. The massive canyon climbed at a steep angle in an enormous wash filled with rock debris from above. Though the area was hot and dry, the contradiction of erosion through torrents of water shaped the canyon.

We found the spring, actually a channel choked with willows, reeds and prickly plants. The scene seemed haunted with the ghosts of miners, as a mine entrance was blacked out from underground darkness, the cave birds darted around the rocky scene. After some swills of cool water and finally finding a good route up to a ridge, we picked up our legs and pounded are quads straight up to a ridge that eventually led to the main Telescope Peak ridge. We camped at 8,000ft and the gusts of wind oozing over the ridge pounded our sweating bodies. A chill settled, a stark contrast from the start of the day.

We awoke before sun and surprisingly hiked in a mild morning air. After a few hours we crested the ridge. Snow lingered wind blown in drifts, but the peak was inundated with a crusty blanket of snow. We were behind schedule so the effort to battle the snow and summit only to turn around and do it all over seemed too time consuming. We needed to get to Panamint Springs Resort that evening. After our rest on the leeward side of the ridge we scurried on down good trail. Suddenly in the exposed crests we were slammed with a fierce wind that howled in a roar and stung our faces and extremities. We could barely open our mouths and utter words as we were deciding where to venture down cross country to Tuber Canyon. We descended quickly in the west side of the Panamints and soon enough we scampered down a steep slope to the floor of Tuber Canyon. Swami led the pace and, after finding a tiny spring, zoomed along a precarious primitive trail a over e narrows of the canyon. I looked on in astonishment at the efficiency of his stride and pace. He was effortless.

Bobcat and I found him sitting by an abandoned, rusty impala. The old car was sun-burnt and looked shriveled. We picked up the pace and hit Wildrose Road where we meet an old timer in a jeep. He shook his head in doubt as we told him what we were doing. He hollered over the wind and the clangs of his jeep, 'You guys must have industrial sized nuts!' Then, he bolted on down the highway. After a fairly flat walk we came to the salt basin of Panamint Valley. The temperature cooled on a long day, the sun glimmered on the flats, and our shadows began to stretch, elongate our human form, as the sun slowly dripped behind the next basin mountain range. Our mouths hurt from laughter, too. At Panamint Springs Resort we sat down too pizza dinner only to here that Swami had a surprise for us that may not be happening. He told us that Malto was supposed to surprise us there at the resort. But with our tardiness, we may have missed him. Cell service was horrible and WIFI seemed unworkable. We decided to sleep on it and see how Things would work out in the morning.

For those that don't know, Malto is another very capable hiker. A maniac, he has a penchant for pushing himself. We were both on the PCT in 2011. In fact, other than Rhino that year, he was the most influential and motivational hiker for me. Rhino and I often would push ourselves more just to see how close we could get to Malto. Get this, we never even met, and now the elusive Malto was paying us a surprise visit all arranged through Swami. This trip couldn't get any better.

Sure enough, the next morning Malto arrived, and with goodies! He was to join us for the duration of the trip from Panamint Springs. In Darwin Canyon we laughed even harder. Malto and I swapped stories from the 2011 PCT year. Darwin Canyon let share an oasis amid sharp and pointy rocks. The canyon colored in deep reds and brown-black rock illuminated from the green cottonwoods standing stoutly in the narrow canyon. The water falling down the pour-offs stained the smooth rock with a black patina. The water felt cool, the springtime birds chirped, and the sky was insanely blue. We climbed and scrambled up and over a few bluffs, getting hundreds of feet above the canyon. After technical hand scrambling negotiation we came to where the canyon meandered in S-curves and soon came to another oasis: China Garden Spring. We lazed in the shade, as Swami picked cactus thorns out of his hand. We also saw the famous Malto mix, a concoction of pure carbohydrates crafted by Malto himself.

The climb out of the canyon was fairly straightforward and easy to navigate, yet warm. Malto exclaimed in his Georgia drawl, 'Here I am walking with 3 world class hikers and they're nothing but umbrella toters!' We thought of cool trail names like Optimus Letdown, External Dialogue, Double Bubble, and Spooky Dooky. We carried 3L for a 20m stretch to where Malto stashed water. After that cache we had a 35m waterless stretch. But who cares, we were having too much fun. Before the cache I gulped down a Malto mix and zoomed along at a good clip. 1300 calories in a liter of water!

Saline Valley tempered off at 5000ft and widened in a gentle manner. Easy dirt road walking ensued and we hiked into the dark in San Lucas Canyon. The sky enormously glowed with big bright stars. Truly awe-inspiring, yet calm in its enormity. We had an early day planned to try to get to Lone Pine, then the Mt. Whitney Portal, around 41m or so. All we knew for water was a chance for some in Long John Canyon, some 24m away. We only had about 2.5L and ahead of us stood the Inyo Mountains, about 5000ft above us. We ascended up a wash that eventually petered out at a saddle. The ghost town of Cerro Gordo lay situated there. An old corrugated church sat in the center of the scant town. The wind whistled reminiscent of an old Sergio Leone spaghetti western. From the saddle we finally spied the Sierra Nevada, which loomed so close in the near distance they seemed we could leap onto a soft, snowy patch. The route followed the crest of the Inyos along a dirt road. Soft patches of snow lingered in sheltered areas. We munched on cold slush to relinquish our thirst. Below in the Owens Valley, the verdant cottonwoods and other bright green trees of Lone Pine sprawled out. Again from this height, something seemingly so close was actually so far away.

At a rotund saddle we descended down a primitive trail marked with the occasional cairn. We zipped and zagged down the trail, running in unison, wild with excitement. The heat of the valley penetrated my skin; the wind warm, I began to regulate my temperature internally through breathing. A few miles went by, as well as a few thousand feet. We shoe skied down a talus slope that emptied into Long John Canyon. A lone cottonwood stood in front of a cave, a spring, with cool water and shade, was tucked away in a slot canyon. We lingered about knowing Lone Pine was only a couple hours a way.

In Lone Pine we met April and had a huge pizza dinner. Since we were a little behind and the Whitney Portal Road being closed, we decided to hike to the portal trailhead the next day rather than that evening. Then, we would make an attempt at Mt. Whitney the day after with a more reasonable start. The next day we left Lone Pine and sauntered up the portal road along the knobby, red Alabama Hills. Mt. Whitney loomed in the distance with more snow than we had hoped. The chute up the Mountaineer's Route looked throttled with snow. Our toughest day was our next.

Up for an alpine start, we jogged up the trail in the dark, the light of our headlamps bobbing up and down. At the North Fork Lone Pine Creek we went up a thin trail. Snow became ubiquitous at 9000ft. Lower and Upper Boy Scout Lake still hibernated under a layer of Winter's ice and cold. We plodded along in the crunchy snow which provided a firm foothold but loose enough to concern us in being softer later in the day a tad earlier than we expected. Up and up we went, slowly yet aggressively working hard. On a block mound that would put us into the Iceberg Lake basin, we scaled a snow wall steep in nature. Once up in the basin we congregated on a rock and contemplated the slog up the chute above. We could see the notch about 1500ft above us. Tracks in the snow from other climbers switchbacked near the base, then near a long, narrow granite outcrop, the tracks went straight up. In the chute, the air thinned and the sun reflected off the snow powerfully. Straight up we went in quad-busting strides. At the notch, we laid in the sun sheltered by rocks trying to avoid the brittle cool breeze. Bobcat and I snoozed a nap, then once everyone was ready we went beyond the notch. We looked at the angled slopes that traversed Mt. Whitney. Too steep and dangerous, especially with the conditions of the snow and the consequences of a one or two thousand foot fall. Our best option was to angle up the adjacent chute which I had heard had some '5.7 maneuvers.' We looked up with cricked necks and could see foot track in the snow wall above us. We could even gather a cornice stomped and chopped through near the summit blocks. The chute stayed in the shade and besides the sketchy rock climbing the mountain stepping held firm in the foot holds.

About 25ft from the summit blocks, Swami stood leaned out from the snow wall, as if he was an utility worker up on a telephone pole with a harness around his waist. Except he didn't have any harness! Bobcat spotted an opening through a crack directly above him and across from Swami. They managed to climb and lift themselves up the crack despite trudging through a knee deep drift. I took another route, a more rock one, which to me seemed more doable. But the more I climbed up the sketchier the holds were on the granite. I looked left and spotted square blocks that I thought I could climb. Bobcat stood on the other side of the bowl and gave me a bird's eye view. Swami was above me somewhere in which he sounded very close. I tip-toed over a ledge and began to climb the block. I knew that if I could get up the block I had a good chance to get up to the top. If I did get up there, though, I may not have a way back down if I couldn't go up any further. I inched and wedged my body up, grappling to holds to pull me up. I stood in a tiny, triangular alcove and could see Swami. I chimneyed up a small chute and suddenly my way to the top looked easy. At the top we celebrated, yet in a somber fashion, for Malto turned back around to go down the first giant chute we went up. We hated separating from him but we could not get down the way we came up due to the icy and snow pack conditions.

So, Bobcat, Swami, and I went down the main Mt. Whitney Portal Trail, which I thought would be a tad easier. Along the ginormous ridgeline and hump of Mt. Whitney we were frequently greeted with drifts that required careful negotiation. Our ice axes became regular in our hands, as the Keeler Needle slowly dwindled along the curvature of the mountain hump. As this was happening, we were engulfed in the entire Sierra in a beautiful, serene panoramic scene. I don't think any of us wanted to get down.

At Trail Crest the infamous 96 switchbacks had way too much snow for a quick ramble down the mountain. Swami spotted the 1500ft snow run below us descending into a deep basin tucked under the jagged pinnacles of the Mt. Whitney ridge. I thought: OH SHIT! Down the other two went to test the snow. The snow must've been perfect, for the next thing I know I hear a hoot and holler coming from Swami as I see him glissading down the chute. He moved swiftly and shouted in laughter. At the bottom, he looked like an ant from my perch. Bobcat went next, then myself.
Snow still claimed the land in the basin. We trundled goofily through the snow occasionally postholing. The further down we went we kept punching a hole deeper in the snow. We became frustrated yet nothing would deter us from knowing how special our day.

At the trailhead we found Malto. All of us, all safe and sound. In Lone Pine we celebrated over another pizza dinner and just laughed. Let me tell you, I needed this...and so much the more because I was with these guys.

Another adventure begins...