Batting .500
(Highpointing CA and NV, July, 2001)

30 Jun - 7 Jul 2001 - by Alan Ritter (view roster page)

Batting .500...Mt. Whitney Report and Boundary Peak SNAFU

Saturday, 30 June 2001

This year, our highpointing (see highpointers.org) trip would take us west, to Mt. Whitney, the highpoint of California (and of the lower 48 states), and to Boundary Peak, the Nevada highpoint. Flying from St. Louis to Reno was a bit choppy but otherwise uneventful, and we drove down to Mammoth Lakes for some acclimation.

Highpointers Club Logo
Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak from U.S. Hwy. 395 We made a brief stop south of Lee Vining to take a quick look at "our" mountain. Mt. Ritter is still there, lurking behind the slightly shorter Banner Peak and visible if you know the right valley near the Shell station several miles south of Lee Vining.

Sunday, 1 July 2001

Sunday, we headed south from Mammoth and meandered around the Benton Crossing Road and a bit north on CA 120 to the Forest Service roads which lead up to Sawmill Meadows, the trailhead for Glass Mountain. Glass Mountain is a mixed mound of obsidian and pumice which rises to about 11,000' just to the north of Lake Crowley. A good use trail leads to its summit, but we were running short of time that afternoon and settled for a subsidiary hump from which to shoot a few photos and admire the view, which included our second destination for the trip, Boundary Peak.

Boundary Peak is the second-highest peak on the horizon in the shot below. Nearby (and taller) Mt. Montgomery is on the California side of the line, which roughly bisects the ridgeline between Boundary and Montgomery.

On the way down, we spotted the wildflowers in the right-hand photo below. I'm not enough of a Sierra botanist to identify them, but anything hardy enough to make a living on the obsidian and pumice of Glass Mountain certainly earns my respect!

Trail up Glass Mountain
Boundary Peak from Glass Mountain
Panorama of Glass Mountain

View of the upper part of Glass Mountain, shot from a subsidiary peak.

Wildflowers on Glass Mountain

Monday, 2 July 2001

The Owens Valley from the Whitney Trail

We got up and headed south on 395 to Lone Pine, arriving well ahead of the 10 a.m. cutoff. Picking up the Whitney Trail permit involves the inevitable lecture about bears and trail etiquette, and it was 11:30 by the time we made our way to Whitney Portal and started hiking.

Looking back down at the valley from the trail below Outpost camp shows that we had already gained considerable altitude by car and by foot. As is evident from the shadows on the valley walls, the clouds were already building over Mt. Whitney and we were pelted by rain even before we reached Outpost Camp.

By the time we reached Outpost Camp at about 10,000', the rain was heavy and there was a fair amount of thunder echoing around the rock walls above us. We hunkered down at Outpost Camp for about 45 minutes, at which point the rain began to subside and we resumed our hike in only light showers, arriving at Trail Camp (12,000') about 6:30 that evening.

The weather cooperated with our setting up camp and cooking dinner. With plans to get up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, we went to bag promptly after dinner!

Tuesday, 3 July 2001

A rather ominous sunrise over Trail Camp

Tuesday morning dawned with clouds on the horizon dropping virga. Not a particularly encouraging sight, but we hastily ate breakfast and were on the trail before 5:30. From just above Trail Camp, the vista opens up along the ridge which runs from the Needles to Mt. Whitney, proper. We could see what lay in store...sort of...

The Needles and Mt. Whitney from Trail Camp

The Infamous Cables

About one third through the "98 Switchbacks" section, you come to the "Cables". This is a spot with significant exposure where the trail narrows and hikers are protected by these cables and iron posts. There had been considerable traffic on the Mt. Whitney message board the previous week about whether this stretch was "melted out" or not. As is clear, it had melted out, if only recently. The snowbank to Nathan's left was still across the trail through most of June, and some people were spooked at this point and turned around. For my money, the slope of the granite below the cables was such that a traverse on the downhill side, hanging onto the cables, would have been quite doable. In any event, there was a narrow but clear trail between the cables and the remaining snow, so it was a non-issue for us.

East Face of Mt. Whitney

Approaching Trail Crest, the vertical extent of the east face of Mt. Whitney is very apparent. The summit hut is not yet visible, but the gentler western slope up toward the summit is quite apparent.

Arriving at Trail Crest (13,777'), the vista opens out to the west, as well, where the western side of the ridge drops off to a series of lakes and distant peaks.

Looking West from Trail Crest
Looking East down at Lone Pine Looking East from Trail Crest

Nathan Taking a Breather at Trail Crest

Looking back to the east, the immediate slopes up which the 98 switchbacks brought you are apparent. A bit longer view shows the town of Lone Pine in the distance, with the valley up which the main trail leads spread out before you.

Trail Crest is marked with a sign that makes a convenient leaning post for hikers weary of the seemingly interminable switchbacks. The good news is, it is less than 1,000 vertical feet from here to the summit. The bad news is, you have to go down nearly 200 feet before you start the final push to the hut, summit log and benchmarks.

As luck would have it, I must have been suffering a bit from hypoxia, as the only shot I took from the back side of the ridge was too blurry to even bother with a thumbnail. I can see the summit hut, but only because I know which blur is which. Approaching 14,000', our pace slowed considerably and it took us the better part of two hours to go from Trail Crest to the Smithsonian hut at the summit.

Summit Hut atop Mt. Whitney The End of the Trail

36 34.721' N, 118 17.466' W, and we arrived at the top of the forty-eight conterminous states! It had taken from 05:30 until 10:20 to do the 4.5 miles and 2,500'. As is evident from the clouds in both the hut photo and the shot of us, the weather was rapidly closing in on us, so we wasted no time in signing the summit log, taking our summit photos, and making a 360-degree panorama.

Being a state highpoint, I had to wear my Highpointers Club t-shirt, of course! Nathan's green t-shirt is his "Class-B" (read "casual") shirt from his Scout troop, which he claims has now been higher than anyone else's Class B shirt, save in an airplane. (That's a fairly safe bet, given that the troop is based near our home in St. Louis and we're about the only ones associated with it who are foolish enough to traipse all the way up Mt. Whitney just to say we've been there.)

At the Summit at Last!

The Calm Between the Storms

After returning to camp, the weather settled down, for a while at least. It actually cleared off long enough that we prepared and ate dinner under (mostly) blue skies. The calm illustrated by our campsite was to be short-lived, however. At Trail Camp, sunset is early, but by 7 p.m., the clouds had gathered and it once again began to rain. The rain continued fairly steadily all night, pausing once or twice for an hour or so, and finally stopped about 7 a.m. the next morning.

Ours was a fairly typical site at Trail Camp, with a pan of packed sand surrounded by rock wind walls erected by previous campers. A little care in selecting the particular spot meant that our site drained away from the tent, instead of into it. As a result, we remained dry through the night's precipitation. Others in neighboring sites were not so lucky and spent a miserable night sleeping in puddles.

Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Once the rain stopped, we got up, ate a quick breakfast and packed up everything in just the state it was, wet and all. The day promised only intermittent breaks in the weather, so we took the first opportunity to break camp and head back to civilization. As it turned out, we managed to avoid all but a few drops of rain on our way back to Whitney Portal, but the skies behind us quickly darkened, and the thunder started even earlier than it had the day before. We clearly had picked the only good day that week to summit.

Three hours later, we were happy to see that our efforts at cleaning out the car had made it quite unappetizing to the Portal bears. The Portal store collected its due as we bought "I climbed Mt. Whitney" shirts. Once back to Lone Pine, we stopped at the ranger station to pick up the pewter benchmark pins to commemorate our accomplishment. In a fit of overconfidence, I bought the benchmark pins for Boundary Peak, as well. Having noted a Burger King in one of the towns between Lone Pine and Mammoth, Nathan insisted on a fast food fix for lunch, and I was not inclined to disagree.

As we drove back north, we were able to watch the development of truly spectacular thunderstorms both over the Whitney complex and the whole span of the Sierra from there to Mammoth. Our arrival in Mammoth was greeted by hail, lightning and, at the motel, darkness...the power was off, and showed no signs of coming back on in the near future.

Thursday, July 5, 2001

Thursday morning, still no power at the motel. We meandered around Mammoth, drove up to Minaret Summit for a closer look at Mt. Ritter, and generally goofed off, figuring we had earned a day off by virtue of our 21-mile, 12,000-gross-vertical-foot adventure of the preceding days. Mark Wallace and his son Andrew showed up in anticipation of the morrow's trip over to Boundary Peak.

Friday, July 6, 2001

The day dawned with mixed sun and clouds. Mark Wallace, Andrew, Alex Sapozhnikov and Scott Benson joined us and we meandered across the back roads north of Crowley Lake and to the thriving metropolis of Benton, California. There, we picked up U.S. Highway 6 and crossed into Nevada. 2.5 miles west of the CA/NV line, the ruins of Jaime's Ranch, a former house of ill repute, appeared on our left and we turned right onto the Queen Canyon Road, intending to drive as close as feasible to the Kennedy Point Saddle, our jumping-off point for the Boundary Peak climb.

Hmmm...that's odd...I press on the gas, and the engine revs as if the transmission were in neutral. No telltale signs of leaking fluid, no error messages from the Subaru computerized transmission controller. Huh? Play with the shifter...maybe it just popped out of gear. No such luck. Same results in any gear. Let it sit a couple of minutes...try one more time...still no go.

We discussed the situation and options with Mark and the guys. The alternatives out here seemed pretty bleak. The good news is, I could let the car roll to a spot in the road where there is plenty of room for a tow truck to manuever and fetch it. The bad news is, if we leave it there, spend Friday and Saturday climbing Boundary Peak, Nathan and I will have no guarantee of being able to connect with Hertz and get ourselves back to Reno in time for our late-morning flight home on Sunday. I elect to punt. Mark ferries me back to Benton, where there is a phone from which I call Hertz and get the retrieval/replacement wheels into motion. We then fetch all of our gear out of the busted Subie and Mark takes us back to Mammoth. At least I know I can get from Mammoth to Reno if I have to, with or without a replacement car from Hertz. Mark then hightails it back to catch up with the rest of the crew to do Boundary Peak. Mark, I owe you big time for all of this extra driving...hope I can make it up to you some day!

About 6 p.m., a guy shows up from Hertz with a replacement Subaru. I give him explicit directions on where to find the broken-down car and even offer to accompany him over so he is sure to find it. He mumbles something about having never been to this area before, but steadfastly refuses my offer to show him the way to the car. What's that old line about hindsight being 20/20? Read on...

Saturday, July 7, 2001

8 a.m. on Saturday morning, I get a call from the Hertz office in Reno. The genius they hired to deliver the replacement and pick up the broken car couldn't find the car! Worse yet, he got stuck trying to do so and had to get himself towed out! The gal from Hertz was civil but a little cool on the phone, until I explained to her that no, the car wasn't "off-road" and that it was left in a spot specifically chosen to make it easy for someone to fetch it. She said that there would be someone from Lee Vining calling me shortly to get directions on where the car was.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, a guy from the service station in Lee Vining calls me. It takes all of 5 minutes to explain where the car is. As soon as I mention "Jaime's Ranch", he knows exactly where I mean. Whew. At least this guy is familiar with the area. One minor problem: He doesn't have a key to the broken car. No problem. In a fit of prescience, I had kept my key to the busted Subie since the first retriever did have the second key from Hertz. I tell the Lee Vining towtruck guy that I'll meet him at the diner in Benton, so Nathan and I finish packing up, check out of the motel and head over to Benton. The tow truck driver shows up about 15 minutes after we do. He is sure he can find the car, but this time, I'm taking no chances and drive over to the Queen Canyon Road with him. He follows me to where the car is, neatly turns his truck around in the 50-foot-wide graded and packed gravel flats where we had left the car and says, more or less, "so what was the other guy's problem?"

Then he tells me to look on the side of the road about 100 yards back as I drive out. Sure enough, in a spot where the road was just one lane wide, with an embankment uphill and a deep ditch downhill, there are marks where the first retriever had given up, tried to turn around where he shouldn't have, and got stuck. Just ahead of him as he drove in, there was a slight rise, but enough to obscure the Subie as it was sitting forlornly waiting for help. If the first guy had driven only 100 or 200 feet farther up the road, he would have seen the car and had all the room in the world in which to turn around. At least the guy from Lee Vining agreed that I was not "off road" and that my directions had been accurate, so the failure to find the car wasn't my fault.

As we drove back down to Benton, we could see the clouds closing down to about 10,000' along the Boundary/Montgomery ridge. Mark and the others certainly wouldn't be seeing much up in that soup, so maybe it was just as well that we got shut down by car troubles.

Nathan and I stopped in Lee Vining for lunch as we drove back to Reno. As luck would have it, we were just pulling out of the restaurant parking lot when the towtruck pulled up with the Subie on its hook. Well, at least the broken car was back to a main highway from where Hertz could presumeably fetch it. By the time we got back to Reno, the gal at Hertz was gone for the day.

Sunday, July 8, 2001

I took time Sunday morning to call Hertz and talked to the same gal there. When I explained what had happened, she was noncommittal, but seemed not to be inclined to press the point about having been on an improved gravel road. (Read the fine print in a rental contract sometime. It will be enlightening!) I told her to be sure to talk to the guy from Lee Vining if there were any questions, since he had seen exactly what happened and would confirm that the car was left in a spot conducive to getting a towtruck up to it.

The flights back to St. Louis was uneventful, so we arrived home in good order. American Airlines even managed to get our luggage to St. Louis on the same plane.

One for two...batting .500, in baseball terminology. Frustrated by a broken car, but at least we did the harder peak in good order. Having to come back to do Boundary Peak isn't the worst thing, since I figure we'll be back to Mammoth one of these years when Nathan decides he wants to climb our eponymouspeak a few miles to the west of there. Besides, it will be another good excuse to come back out to the Sierra, which is feeling more and more like my home away from home.


Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak from Highway 395, South of Lee Vining

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As you drive south along 395 from the intersection where 120 comes down from Tuolomne Meadows to Lee Vining, you can just spot Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak through a gap, just before you get to the Shell station on the right. Mt. Ritter is about 200' taller than Banner, but hides behind his shorter brother from this angle.

Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak


Trail up Glass Mountain

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As the proverbial crow flies, Glass Mountain is only 17 or 18 miles east-northeast from Mammoth Lakes. However, road access to the trailhead is two or three times that long, as you wander around the north end of Lake Crowley and then up highway 120 for a short distance to the Forest Service roads which lead to Sawmill Meadows. The trailhead is off the last stub of a road to the right just before you get to the Sawmill Meadows campground, and the first time you drive there, you'll almost certainly have to drive a quarter-mile past and backtrack to find the right road. A copy of the 1:100,000 "Benton Range" 30x60-minute topo map will come in very handy to follow the roads to the trailhead, and then the 1:25,000 7.5-minute "Glass Mountain" quad will show you the details once you get there.

The trail is not maintained, but there is a clear use trail to follow once the jeep trail peters out. Since we got a late start, we opted out of climbing all the way to the summit and scrambled up the pumice and obsidian to the top of a subsidiary peak from which we could see the summit of Glass Mountain.

Trail up Glass Mountain


Boundary Peak and Mount Montgomery

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Looking east from the trail up Glass Mountain, you can see across to Boundary Peak and Mount Montgomery. They are both part of the same ridge complex, with Montgomery being the taller by a couple of hundred feet. The California / Nevada state line runs through the saddle between the two, leaving Boundary Peak the highest point in the state of Nevada. The west face is obviously quite steep and intimidating. The usual approaches are either up a long scree climb(?slog?) on the east side of the ridge or from the northeast by following the ridgeline from the saddle just below Kennedy Point and contouring around the several bumps on the ridge between there and Boundary Peak.

Boundary Peak and Mount Montgomery


The Summit of Glass Mountain

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From our vantage point atop a hummock not far below the summit, we could watch other hikers make their way up the final slope to the summit of Glass Mountain. Running short on both time and energy, we wimped out and called this "good enough" for our warmup hike.

The Summit of Glass Mountain


Hardy Flowers, Indeed!

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I suppose someday I'll have to become more of a botanist. I have no idea what these flowers are, but considering they grow in a mixture of pumice and obsidian, they must certainly have impressive root systems to survive in an area where any rain that falls drains quickly away.

Hardy Flowers, Indeed!


The Owens Valley from the Mt. Whitney Trail

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Hiking up the main Mt. Whitney trail, you can see the Alabama Hills and the Owens Valley as you look over your shoulder.

The skies may have been clear out over the valley, but as is evident from the shadows on the surrounding slopes, we were headed into worsening weather as we walked west toward Mt. Whitney.

Looking Down on the Owens Valley


Sunrise over the Owens Valley

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Sunrise was not particularly promising, with clouds already gathering. Fortunately, the weather ahead of us over the Whitney ridge looked a bit better.

Sunrise over the Owens Valley


The Mt. Whitney Ridge

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From just above Trail Camp, the ridge is spectacularly jagged, with the Needles to the south (left) of Mt. Whitney. Whitney iteslf is the prominent hump in the right quarter of the shot above, with a gradual slope up from the left and a sheer drop on its right before the jagged ridge continues farther north.

The hikers visible in the lower left corner of the frame are about to reach the infamous "98 Switchbacks" section of the trail, where you climb from just over 12,000' to 13,700' via a brutal set of switchbacks. Whether the number 98 is correct will be left as an exercise in concentration for other climbers.

Mt. Whitney and the Needles


The Cables

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The cables protect the one rather exposed stretch of the 98 switchbacks. It is a spot where acrophobes get their first real scare of the hike, but is nothing in comparison to the exposure at the "windows" beyond Trail Crest, nor from the edge of the summit plateau, where 2,500' of air greets anyone willing to "hang 10" over the boulders at the edge.

The Cables


Looking North from the Switchbacks to the East Face of Mt. Whitney

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As you continue up the switchbacks, the view of the east face of Mt. Whitney appears to the north. When you realize that it represents 2,000' of nearly-vertical rock, you gain an appreciation for the assessment that was made early on that it would never be climbed. Fortunately, the western side is not nearly as steep and presents a more reasonable approach.

The East Face of Mt. Whitney


Looking West from Trail Crest

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The view west from Trail Crest is impressive, with much of the Sierra spread out in front of you. Interestingly, the weather which would threaten us shortly wasn't blowing in from the west, but more from the south, as became apparent as we approached the summit.

Looking West from Trail Crest


Looking East from Trail Crest

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Turning 180 degrees and looking back east down the valley, you can see all the way back to Lone Pine, although the Whitney Portal area is hidden behind the break between the relatively shallow slopes above Outpost Camp and the steep switchback area between there and Whitney Portal.

Looking East from Trail Crest


Looking Back Past the Switchbacks to Trail Camp

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As you continue up the switchbacks, the view of the east face of Mt. Whitney appears to the north. When you realize that it represents 2,000' of nearly-vertical rock, you gain an appreciation for the assessment that was made early on that it would never be climbed. Fortunately, the western side is not nearly as steep and presents a more reasonable approach.

Looking Back Past the Switchbacks to Trail Camp


Nathan taking a breather at Trail Crest

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The sign at Trail Crest marks a good spot to stop for a few minutes and catch whatever oxygen is available at 13,677'. Our acclimation hike up Glass Mountain and the two nights spent at Mammoth Lakes, plus our night at 12,000' at Trail Camp had prepared us fairly well, but we were both a bit winded by the time we finished the switchbacks.

Nathan taking a breather at Trail Crest


Mt. Whitney's Summit Hut

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The summit hut begins to be visible about halfway between Trail Crest and the summit, although it disappears again for a time as you get onto the final gradual slope up to the summit. The summit log is at the back (west) side of the hut. Despite its lightning rods and ground wires, it is not the place to be during an electrical storm.

Mt. Whitney's Summit Hut


Marker at the Summit of Mt. Whitney

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Will the real Mt. Whitney summit please stand up? The topo map says 14,494'. This sign says 14,496.811'. The information at the Whitney Portal Store (and their shirts) say 14,497.61'. Either Mt. Whitney is growing, or there is a consistent upward bias in more recent triangulation of the altitude of California's highest point.

Marker at the Summit of Mt. Whitney


We Made It!!

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With our heads very nearly (literally) in the clouds, we stood atop the highest point in the lower 48 states. A new personal high for both of us, if we believe either of the two higher measurements of the exact altitude, our heads have now been above 14,500'. At least to become 48-state completers, everything is downhill from here!

We Made It!!


Home Sweet Home at Trail Camp

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With the weather rapidly worsening, we beat a hasty retreat back to Trail Camp. The afternoon's rain, hail and lightning blew over for long enough to cook dinner and batten things down for the night. This spot was typical of the Trail Camp tent sites, with a rock wall providing some shelter from the wind and a layer of sand and gravel hiding the worst of the underlying rocks. Don't count on getting more than a couple of tent stakes firmly set, though -- there weren't more than a few inches of sand on top of those rocks, so the tent was held in place by rocks piled on top of the stakes, instead.

Home Sweet Home at Trail Camp


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