Driving up to our campsite at Whitney Portal from the high desert town of Lone Pine I felt intimated by my first glimpse of the mountains. Who’s idea was this? Six months earlier I’d entered a lottery to win a permit to hike Mount Whitney which at 14,505 feet (4,421 m) is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (ie not including Alaska). The lottery system was devised to limit the number of hikers on this popular route. I hit the jackpot but the snag was it was a one day permit – most people prefer to do it over 2 or 3 days to split up the arduous route and to get used to the altitude. The 23 miles return from the trail head at Whitney Portal and an elevation gain of 6100 feet makes it quite a tough one day hike. Oh well, let’s hope my arthritic right knee holds up. To give some sense of scale the highest mountain in England is Scafell Pike at 3209 feet – so Whitney’s 4.5 times bigger.
We drove futher up the valley to the campsite and I was immediately struck by the sheer, vertical granite faces either side of the valley. Looking up skywards you could see jagged peaks and needles, a more dramatic mountain scenery normally associated with the Alps. We were definitely in high mountain territory. Lower down in the high desert the temperatures has been pushing 100 so I was concerned but as we ascended they dipped to the low 80s. Our campsite was exquisite, set amongst tall sequoias with Lone Pine Creek babbling in the background, an idylic pastoral setting you wouldn’t expect being so close to the desert.
We went to bed early the Sunday night as we were to start the hike at 2.30 am the next morning. An early start’s required when doing it in a day. Ideally you summit around midday as later on in the afternoon it’s common for thunderstorms to hit in July – and you don’t want to be exposed on a ridge or peak when lightning strikes.
The alarm went off at 2.15 and we were on the tail at 3am in the dark using headtorches to navigate. My backpack had 3 litres of water in a camel pack, a litre of Gatorade, two cheese sandwiches and enought sweets, energy gels, trail mixes, nuts and chocolate to open a sweet shop. I also carried a knife (bears, mountain lions, meth heads?), first aid kit, knee brace, map, compass, whistle, water proof top and fleece, beanie, small camera and hiking poles. It weighed quite a bit – approx 45 Ilbs. Starting in the dark we soldiered on – you could sense the immense beauty around us but only the small beam of our lamps made the rocks and immediate path visible. We encountered lots of switchbacks, crossed the river a few times, then after an hour or so the trail levelled out to what must be a meadow formed from alluvial muds brought down via the river over millenia. It was still dark. My knee was holding up (slight twinge, that’s normal) and I already had small blister in my palm from the hiking pole – time for gloves.
After two hours or so it started to get lighter – just as we encountered Lone Pine lake, still in quite a green section of the trail. After perhaps two hours we came to Outpost Camp and Mirror Lake (technically a tarn) – the white granite faces of the mountains glistened in the early morning light and reflected in the lake. Looking around the scale of the place became apparent, vase scree slopes, dotted with snow, remnants of the mild winter remained in patches, nothing now growing amongst the rocks and stone. It was like Game of Thrones meets the Hobbit. If the Romantic poets were that inspired by roaming around the Lake District to come up with such beautiful poetry, I can only wonder (or wander, ‘lonely as a cloud’) what they would have made of these environs. Simply sublime. We stopped to rest at the lake and kept guard from the marmots (large rat meets guinea pig creatures) who can easily get into your backpack.
Looking up from the Mirror Lake was the next part which was named 99 switchbacks and is a tough section which really gains elevation over a short distance. Little figures were dotted on the slopes – humans dwarfed by the landscape. I tried to not to be too intimidated by the sense of scale and what that meant for our already tired legs. Onwards and upwards.
The 99 switchbacks section was where the mental part of the hike kicked in. Trying to remain positive and upbeat – knowing there is a final destination in the future – and thus trying to override your exhaustion and the feeling that maybe I’m not really cut out for this hiking lark. It was also here that the altitude and subsequent lack of oxygen started to kick in. Getting out of breath, headaches, blurred vision and the feeling that your legs are made of stone were now part of the struggle. Altitude sickness is the main reason people don’t make it to the top of Whitney. On the day ascent there’s a 50% failure rate. To cope with the elevation gain we’d take a rest every 15 minutes and eat some sugar – and then keep going. Onwards and upwards, what what. Through snowboarding I had spent some time in high altitude regions, most recently in the Himalayas, so altitude sickness wasn’t a major concern, but I still felt the lack of oxgyen.
Finally we reached the top of 99 switchbacks at Trail Crest (13650) – this is where it really started to get breathtaking. From here you look outwards to Mt Hithcock (13186) with deep blue lakes in the foreground, parts of the Kings Canyon sequoia forest are visible in the high plateau valley and beyond that more wildnerness with multitple 13,000 plus peaks of the High Sierras as far as the eye can see. It was Narnia meets Lord of the Rings. An immense, vast uninhabited wilderness of sublime and spellbinding beauty. At this point we had completed 8 miles of the hike. Only three more miles to the peak. Although still 14 miles back to base camp after – if – we summit. It was a constant math equation in my head – how many miles down? How high are we? Are we there yet?
Psychologically I was in a good place – it felt like this was the home stretch. We’d come up through the steep valley and now were going to ascend the ridge that led up to Whitney. The path snaked around the ridge, quite treacherous with steep drop offs and lots of boulders, but with each turn the views seemed to get more insane and other worldly. A sign marked where the trail branched off to the Jean Muir trail and at this point the summit was 1.9 miles away. Finally we turned a corner and we could see the hut that lies on top of the smummit – although it was still a long way off. Two more hours away to be precise. Hikers coming down told us ‘not long to go’ trying to encourage us probably seeing the tired and anguished looks on our faces. Movement was slow as the altitude increased. I sat down every 15 minutes or so and ingested sweets and energy gels to keep my sugar levels high and to give me that surge required. Furstratingly it seemed like the summit wasn’t getting any closer. I had to resist stamping my feet in a childish tantrum. Are we there yet??
At this point it was where the trite ‘climbing mountains parallels life’ metaphors kick in. Despite the setbacks and struggles of the journey, keep the destination in mind as your goal. No pain no gain. Try and adopt a zen like meditative approach to the journey – mind over matter. Okay I hurt now but this is a passing moment. Keep going. Keep going. At 12.30 we reached the summit. I lied down on my back on a large slab of rock. I could have quite easily gone to sleep. Unfortunately clouds had come in so we couldn’t see much from the lookout. We’d did it! I treated myself to a Snickers bar (my dangled carrot motivational treat for the top) and we took our photos next to the Whitney summit sign. Then we signed the guest book in the Smithsonian hut. Then I thought to myself; ‘hang on, I’m only half way through – now I’ve got eleven more miles to go downhill whilst tired, arguably the most challenging bit. And I am totally cream crackered’.
Whatever they say, downhill is of course easier. You lose elevation and gravity is on your side. It’s tough on the joints though. Plus there were some quite technical sections over large rocks and boulders on the trail with steep and treacherous drop offs – one wrong step whilst tired and you could be toast. But always you felt ‘I’ve done it!’. I’m just returning. It’s just a long, long way home. The trail kept going on and on. At points I when I rested it felt like every molecule in my body was totally zonked – where can I muster the energy to keep going (more energy gels, more sweets). Despite the massive calorie burn I’m sure I put on weight on this journey. After five miles of the return journey I started to hate myself. ‘Who’s idea was this? I’m never hiking again. I hate hiking.’ Just emotional responses in the heat of the moment. I had to battle my way though my negative thinking. Rein in those thoughts and bring it back to the centre. Keep going.
It kept going on and on. And of course there was the whole 4 hour section of the hike which we’d earlier completed in the dark. Coming down we looked down the valley into the high desert. Beyond that another range of more barren peaks, part of the Inyo Mountains. Over those lies the desolate Death Valley. Not too far from the lowest point in the US in Death Valley (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) to where we’d just been, the highest point. A land of vast extremes, low to high, desert to forest, exhaustion to exhilaration, negative to positive, failure to success. I was in the 50% that made it. We are the 50%!
We descended and reached parts we hadn’t seen in the dark. Very lush, almost tropical sections with streams, rivers and waterfalls, deer and wild quail shared the trail, a place of Edenic abundance and beauty – except I was too tired to really appreciate it. We soldiered on. How much further? Four more miles. Three more miles. My legs were beyond exhaustion, joints acheing, ankles giving me gip. We’d started at 3 am and it was now 6. Finally we returned to base at 7. We did it. 16 hours on our feet hiking in high elevation – but we’d done it and conquered Mount Whitney. What’s next? A cold beer and a lie down I think. Maybe Everest.
More photos below:
What can you really say about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t been said before? As one of the Seven Wonders of the world superlatives – immense, awe inspiring, breathtaking etc etc – don’t really do it justice. So yes, it is immense, awe inspiring and, you guessed it, breathtaking. We stayed in the South Rim and it’s very organized how well access is offered to the Canyon – some might say it is too well organized. There is a paved road that stretches many miles alongside the Canyone from which you can get off the free buses and admire the many viewpoints and places of interest. It’s a bit like a Disneyland of nature – although that said, the canyon is 120 miles long so you can venture way off the beaten track and get remote if you have the time and inclination.
It is incredibly beautiful – unfortunately the three days we were there visibility (pollution, winds stirring up dust) was not so great and as it was cloudy we did not get to see a shimmering sunset when the light travels for miles and the rocks change colour. From various vantage points you can see the Colorado River as it meanders through the gorge. I would like to return and do a white water rafting expedition, some of which can take up to 18 days as you camp en route, so it gives you some idea of the scale of this place.
I hiked down to Cedar Crest which is quite a way down in the Canyon but not all the way to the bottom. It’s a great perspective to see it from within and I shall be back to complete the Rim to Rim. Most of these photos are of my descent into the Canyon. Hopefully they do it some justice.
We’ve just had a run of very dry and hot weather, buoyed up by the Santa Ana winds. Coupled with a 5-7 foot swell in the water it makes for amazing surfing conditions. Even better it was a combo swell – ie a south swell mixed with a NW swell making the waves peaky. The winds howl offshore and hence sculpt the waves, giving them a hollow shape and extra size and form. As it was a southerly swell the waves peel off perfectly on the west facing beaches and as they break the wind blows off white spray. It’s beautiful and made for some epic waves.
I’ve lived in Southern California for almost 9 years now (gulp) and normally remember Santa Ana winds, which form in the desert hence their dry and hot nature, coming around October time. The temperatures at the beach were 95-100 which is incredibly hot and the place feels like a furnace (hence also the risk of wild fires in the tinder like forests).
I love it when various climatic factors – winds and combo swells – come together to form amazing conditions like this and we are simply left to enjoy all that nature throws at us.
We’ve become quite adept at desert camping now. Last year we did two nights at Anza Borrego State Park and now we’ve just got back from two nights in Death Valley. I know it sounds a tad pretentious – bring out the crystals, sage and peyote – but there really is something spiritual about spending time in the desert. All that desolate open space, aridness, the vivid sunsets, stars and lack of people really does something for the soul….Taxi!
This spiritualism was particularly apparent to me on our first night when we had to camp in howling winds. At sunset there was a bit of wind – small gusts and flurries – which I thought would subside as darkness fell. I was wrong. Trying to sleep in a tent which has doubled over on itself to the point where the roof is touching your face is difficult. If it wasn’t for us being in it the tent would have blown away. Worried, I drove the car right in front of the tent in the direction of the wind thinking it would offer shelter – it didn’t. The most fascinating thing about the wind was the sounds. You could hear the whistle of the wind forming, or at least advancing, from further down the valley – then the volume would increase until thirty seconds later the wind hit you, knocking the tent over. This kept on in waves – the wind would die down, then the whistling and howling would start again and it would be attack time again. It was a sleepless night. But fascinating. I’ve never experienced wind like that, it must be a unique phenomena to a desert valley the way it formed and kept coming in cycles. It also gave me an interesting insight into how Native American’s – the Shoshone tribe lived in Death Valley – form of animism would have given names and personality to natural phenomena such as this. The wind really did have a malevolent spirit quality to it.
Death Valley feels very elemental. Nothing but sand and minerals, vast expanses of desolate flat land and endless, endless sky. Before going I didn’t know what to expect. Death Valley? What’s the point in going – there’s nothing there? There’s plenty there. And also plenty of nothing – which is actually part of the appeal. On the drive out of the south side of the valley we probably drove three hours and the scenery didn’t change much – and there’s no mobile phone coverage (also a bonus). The lack of change gave the beauty a unique repetitiveness. Looking to the west we could even see snow capped peaks – as part of the Sierra range, Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in continental US is due West. A lot of people take four wheel drives as there’s obviously a lot of opportunity for off roading – one sight that we wanted to see but didn’t is the Sailing Rocks (stones that mysteriously move across the valley floor) mainly as it takes three hours of off roading to get to it. Next time I’ll take my Jeep.
It’s definitely a place of extremes – it’s billed as the driest and lowest place in the US. Also the hottest in the world – Furnace Creek, near where we camped, holds the record for the highest reliably reported air temperature in the world, 134 °F (56.7 °C) on July 10, 1913. That’s why it’s not really possible to camp any time later than April as it just gets too hot. Luckily the temperature didn’t really exceed 90 °F peak time in the day and as there was wind throughout our whole stay it made it feel cooler. We even felt a slight sprinkle of rain for ten minutes on our first night (eh, I though this was billed as the driest place in the US, or is that just a silly marketing slogan?). One slight annoyance was the clouds getting in the way of our nighttime star gazing, which due to lack of light pollution is meant to be amazing here.
American National Parks are quite well run and Death Valley is no different in that all the major places of interest are well marked. We ticked off the main ‘must sees’ – Zabriskie Point (amazing views of the badlands, also the name of a great film by Michelangelo Antonioni), Ubehebe Crater (into which we hiked), Mesquite Flat sand dunes, Devils Golf Course, Badwater Basin (lowest point in US at 282 feet below sea level), Golden Canyon and Artists Drive. The scenery and colours of the rocks are amazing as due to volcanic activity the geology of the region has revealed many minerals, many of which have been mined over the years, including bauxite and of course gold. Artists Drive stands out for the amazing palette of pastels in the rocks – sands, amber, salmon pinks, grey blues, red and rusty reds. The views are mesmerizing and quite unlike anything I’ve seen…
Splitboard adventures in the Himalayas…Gulmarg, Kashmir..
I kept the fact that where I would be visiting – Gulmarg, Kashmir – was 60 miles due east of Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan quiet before embarking on the trip. Schtum’s the word. Not really a fact you want to share with the wife or travel mates before embarking. Gulmarg is nestled high in the Himalayan mountains and a two hour drive from Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir. I never expected to spend a week there bounding around the high peaks like a crazed mountain goat, but this was intended to be a trip with a difference.
Gulmarg was always a popular destination for richer Indians to escape the summer heat and now with one of the highest gondolas in the world (3,979 metres), some of the best ski terrain and powder in the world is accessible – if you don’t mind a bit of a hike. Hence it’s on the radar of powder junkies who want a bit of travel adventure thrown in to spice things up. As if jumping around mountains on planks wasn’t extreme enough. So amongst the local Kashmiri’s, you get the usual rota of Aussies, Kiwi’s, Americans, Canadians, Russians (plenty) and Europeans thrown in.
As might be expected in the Himalaya’s the mountain scenery is phenomenal. From the top of the gondola you look across the Kashmir valley floor, way above the clouds and surrounded by monumental peaks and jagged mountains. We could see the 9th highest mountain in the world – Nanga Parbat – which makes it into the top ten at 8,126 metres (26,648 feet). Alongside K2 this mountain is the only two of the plus 8000 metre peaks that has never been climbed in winter. On our second day we hiked to the top of Mt. Afarwat Peak (4,200 m) which is accessible from the top of the gondola – we had splitboards and skins enabling us to traverse up the peak. The altitude made it tough going but it was well worth it once we reached the top. From here we could see into Pakistan – as shown to us by our two local guides who were with us for all our days on the mountains. They were great and 100% a necessity – you didn’t want to make a wrong turn and end up in Pakistan.
Acting as a sort of buffer between India and Pakistan, and since partition in 1947 – blame the Brits – Kashmir has been a disputed and hence very unstable part of the world. Hence Kashmir is a Muslim majority state in North West India in which two thirds want independence. Culturally, religiously and ethnically Kashmiri’s have more in common with Pakistanis. When India plays Pakistan at cricket, Kashmiri’s root for the Pakistanis. Whilst here you have to get used to the massive Indian military presence which at times made it feel a bit like an occupied territory. On the drive from Srinigar every hundred metres or so there are machine gun toting Indian soldiers. Plus tanks, armoured cars with machine guns on top and military lorries ferrying more soldiers. There is a large military presence in Gulmarg itself including a few camps in the mountains – and in 2012 sixteen Indian soldiers were killed in an avalanche. If the insurgents don’t get you then nature will.
That said, we felt nothing but warmth and welcome from the Kashmiris we met – although admittedly most of whom we did meet were in the tourism industry and hence it was their job to be nice to us. Kashmiri’s are renowned for their hospitality and kindness and this was something we genuinely felt throughout the trip. As it’s a Muslim majority state, alcohol is harder to come by with most restaurants and hotels being dry – although of course it’s not hard to find the few venues that do serve up beer. We also stopped at an ‘off licence’ on the way up from Srinigar to Gulmarg ensuring we had ice cold beers on tap from our balcony throughout the trip.
From the top of the gondola there is a wealth of awesome terrain accessible, most of it falling in the advanced category. The main bowl of the gondola is patrolled with guides – but once you step outside of this zone and head into the backcountry you are well and truly on your own. Like really on your own in the biggest mountain range in the world. The first few days we explored various bowls, chutes, ridges, spines, tree runs and descents and found little pockets of powder – but the place needed more snow. Exposed rocks and branches would scrape under the board due to low snow coverage. On our fourth day it started to dump and continued throughout the night till we woke up to a metre of fresh powder. The snow Gods had blessed us and it was game on. Avalanche backpacks, transceivers, probes and shovels at the ready, we headed off into the glorious Himalayan backcountry. At points there was too much snow, much of it quite damp and heavy. I found myself on one run up to my armpits in heavy snow with snowboard still attached to my feet, doing my best not to panic as I huffed and puffed in the altitude to try and get out. As visibility was quite bad we did some lower down tree runs ending up in the villages of Tangmarg and Barbareschi to be picked up by drivers pre-arranged by our guides. Those guides really came in useful. We did our whole tour via Ski Himalaya who I can’t recommend enough.
Our second day from last it was a blue sky day – and hence very high risk avalanche conditions. Every Tuesday the head of ski patrol and American transplant Colin Mitchell gives a snow report for all the powder hounds in the resort. The verdict was pretty much ‘enter at your own risk’. The weather conditions of the season all met to form a ‘perfect storm’ avalanche scenario. Preceding the storm the lack of snow formed a 4 inch hoar layer which had warmed and cooled over weeks to become very unstable. The metre of heavy fresh dumped on this would be waiting to drop with any slight pressure – or not slight if you are a group of heavy footed snowboarders – causing slab avalanches that could gather enough momentum to take out a whole valley. Bigger mountains means bigger avalanche. The fact that it was blue skies and sunny – hence heating up that meter of snow only added to the danger ingredient.
Our first few runs were epic. We reached the top of the gondola and traversed three bowls over for some of the best runs of my life – fresh tracks all the way, light and fluffy powder, tree runs on the lower elevation, whoops of joy echoing around the valley. As we took a rest after our second run at the bottom of the life we heard a thump and saw powdered snow rising over the ridge like smoke. ‘Avalanche’ our guide Faisal said with a look of trepidation in his eyes. News quickly spread through the resort and Faisal rushed off to help with the rescue. The lifts were closed and we headed off to lunch as a unsettled atmosphere spread. Quick aside – hearty lunch with spicy curries and nonalcoholic drinks for four people cost under $4. The lentil dahl’s were very tasty, washed down with Qahwah (a delicious saffron infused Kashmiri tea). As we ate news filtered through that a group had been taken out by the avalanche and a Swiss man had died, swept over a ridge by the snow and buried. We looked up at the mountains, that, despite their beauty, now filled us with an uneasy foreboding. The lifts remained closed. Eventually the smaller chair lift opened and I did one more – slightly nervous – run after which, if I’m honest, I was pleased to get down to resort level. It made for quite an epic last day.
We did six solid, very hard days on the mountain so we were very tired – but totally exhilarated by the whole experience, not counting the tragedy of the last day. If you want a little bit more from your mountain – snow monkeys, curries for lunch, the promise of seeing snow leopards (we didn’t), out of this world scenery, genuinely friendly locals, and of course, most importantly, oodles and oodles of world class back country terrain – then Gulmarg is totally it. It takes a lot of effort to get there and you might have to get out a bit out of your comfort zone on some levels, but the payback is immense. Just remember to get good guides, don’t end up in Pakistan and keep schtum about Bin Laden’s compound.
Get Up And Go is a great website for organising package tours in India >>