written by: Trevor Luepton
Mt Whitney had come and gone. We had all accomplished something amazing yet I heard a few grumbles of “I’ll never do this again” on the way down. I thought to myself, “sure this is tough but I absolutely love this!” It was then that I knew I would inevitably be back; but little did I know how soon.
I had known my fiancé, Ana, was going to be going to Miami with my son, Christopher, for some time now but it still seemed to jump out of nowhere. I would be left with 6 days to myself most of which would be obviously spent at home. I thought long and hard of the upcoming weekend and grew depressed I would waste a weekend at home wishing I was doing anything but sitting at home missing my family. I grew psychotic with determination to “get out.” I Googled, searched, Yahoo’d and asked for help from random strangers on forums as to which would be the best trip for a solo hiker….yes, a solo hiker.
I decided I would go solo. I had a weekend only and no time to waste; I would need to be stealth..or something. It wasn’t until Tuesday the 16th of July that I had decided I would drive back to Lone Pine and attempt yet another 14’er only 2 weeks away from my Mt. Whitney summit. A common question was “why?” The answer, to me, was simple. I had gotten into the best shape of my life training for Mt Whitney and it paid off so why stop now?
A solo hike is a major feat in my opinion. You have the mental aspect of taming your fears and calming the mind, the pain factor of long hikes and sore muscles, and the planning and many hours of rehearsing emergencies and having backup plans. I spent countless hours online reading first hand accounts of the route I would end up taking, studying the topography and defining a summit route that would get me to the top safely while taking the least amount of time i.e., a small bit of climbing. I knew I was not going to have any sort of cellular reception so I bought a SPOT satellite device. I hooked this device up to a Facebook page I had and routed my course. I used the standard message to route my course but plan on using more functionality in the future.
So the hiking plan was to get to the summit of Mt Langley on Sunday the 21st, 2013. I would reach Horseshoe Meadows (10,400ft) Friday, where I would camp for the night. Saturday I would set off for Lake 4 or 5 and camp for the evening to acclimate, wake up early in the am on Sunday, summit then return to my car and eventually home. This was a trip of tranquility and peace for me. I wanted the solitude and looked forward to the unexpected. I knew some ideas and read a few accounts of how it would be but I knew each experience is a new one to each person. I wondered what I would think about? Would I talk aloud? Would I get scared and become immobilized? I knew none of these things have happened so far, but who knows how I would react in a totally new environment by myself? Nothing seemed out of the question yet seemingly enticed me more. This trip was going to happen and I couldn’t be more excited!
Thursday night was the packing night but also the night my family left to go to Miami for a bikini fashion show. I didn’t even pack. It wasn’t important. What was important was sucking up those last drips and drops of love and hugs I could with my family before packing them and their luggage and bikinis into the tiny VW Rabbit and off to the airport. I swung my 11month old son around in circles at the airport as he giggled his new adorable giggle. I felt a knot forming in my throat so I knew it was time to go. I took a few photos then kissed my beautiful fiancé goodbye, hugged the little one and went back home alone. I was glad I had something to look forward to especially now.
I drove into the garage and turned into a mountain man. I had my books out turned to pages ‘Survival’ and ‘Ten Essentials.’ I had no options but to get it right this time…its me and me only. I brought ALL my gear into my living room. It felt great! I stood on my couch and looked down on what seemed and still seems like an abundance of awesome outdoor gear! Then the real issues began..what do I need vs want vs what can fit? I decided I’d bring a few extra items I wouldn’t need since I would stay at a campsite Friday night. This eased my mind into knowing I could still consolidate to the bare necessities by Saturday morning if need be. By the end of the night, approximately 1:30am, my pack weighed 30lbs (without water) and consisted of a 10liter day pack being strapped around the regular 40liter backpack with everything I’d need for the long weekend.
I was up and out of the house on that Friday morning at 6am! I was an hour later than I wanted to be but it felt good to remind myself, “who’s counting?” I was on my time and it felt great! I ended up in Lone Pine after what many will understand is a roller coaster of a road. Not much more needs to be said other than the 395 is a 2 lane 70+mph raceway where the name of the game is “can you pass?”
I ended up at the Ranger Info Station in Lone Pine at 11:18 missing my mark by 18 minutes. I knew that could mean up to 5 people before me and worried there wouldn’t be permits left. Those fears were quickly dismissed after a short wait in line when the same ranger from my previous Mt Whitney trip almost laughed in amusement at my worry. “Sure, there are plenty permits for that route.” For a solo hiker, is that a good thing? I want the solitude don’t I?
Permit in hand I hurried through the same land I passed only 2 weekend prior. It felt like I had never left and seemingly felt like a local. You get attached quickly.
Before reaching the campgrounds, I stopped to watch a hang glider take off on one of the famed take off locations on Horseshoe Meadow Rd. It was quite an experience watching this glider swoop down very low then shoot up quite quickly and glide away while his partner, on ground, was in constant contact with him in the sky. “We go for distance,” he tells me. “I’ve gone 130 miles while my friend [points to friend in the sky] has gone to 230 miles…out to Lake Mead.” He informs me the distance record is 260 miles…these guys mean business.
I say goodbye and head to camp to setup and see what the day brings me. I am hurrying to avoid possible thunderstorms which seem likely but thankfully never come. I find a spot and quickly setup my camp that consists of a tent and a hammock. I look around and almost feel empty since its literally the least amount of gear Ive ever needed or brought while camping but then realize this is for me and me only for a few days. Realizing that actually helps me and I am able to further lessen what I will bring with me on my trip. I am glad I took a day to camp, acclimatize and further organize my first solo trek.
I am awoken by the most annoying noise you can imagine at 4:30a.m. “BRAH, do you know where my lighter is? BRAH?…..BRAH!!!!”
Whatever happened to waking up whenever just got an alarm clock for 4 flipping 30 in the am. Four twenty-somethings who looked like ex high school buddies deciding to make a second attempt for Mt Whitney. These are the types that do not think to lower voices while others are sleeping. Many a shuffles with loud sighs (this is a sign people) were heard but not paid attention to. I mumbled a brief “ohhhwhatthehell!” but that still was not heard or cared for much. It was time to wake up. Since the previous day was already spent exploring the local area, collecting random bones, and napping in my hammock, I decided it would be a better idea to just get a move on. I was on the trail to Cottonwood Lakes at 7:30am. Perfect time to camp yet a little late for a day attempt. I was solid on my decision to summit Sunday. With my SPOT device turned on, it was time to go.
This trail was so fun! It is a mellow trail compared to what I did a few weekends ago. I was so happy to start in the morning and get to enjoy the hike, smells and sights while making my way. This was my first real season in the Sierras. I had heard from a fellow employe that this was one of his “dream hikes.” I kept reminding myself of that, and would stop briefly to take a deep breath and take it all in. I felt very fortunate to have this experience and thanked God often.
I kept a steady pace that wasn’t too slow yet wasn’t going to burn myself out quickly either. The pack weight affected me in the beginning of the hike but I knew if I kept on, I would eventually get used to the pack. After the first few miles, you cross your first log bridge. From here you see your first glimpse of a few beautiful meadows. I was so excited to be in a new place and enjoy the fresh smell of the pines, the hints of flowers in bloom when a gentle breeze passes by, the smell of wet soil as you pass a stream, and to see the wild animals at play in their environment. This all made the hike just fly by. I can honestly say, I was kept very busy simply enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.
After a few miles, you split from the trail where a badly worn trailhead indicates you either go straight towards New Army Pass or you veer right and uphill towards Cottonwood Lakes and Old Army Pass. I chose the later. After a short but tiring uphill section you reach a valley that opens up to you where you can see Mount Langley in the background. This was a highlight of my trip initially reaching this point. In front of me, lay the most beautiful meadow I had ever seen with the views of Mount Langley in front and a few deer graving in the foreground. I was in awe. I stayed silent and watched the 3 fully grown deer graze in the meadow. I continued on but made my strides quieter while the deer paid no mind to me and continued munching their breakfast.
One peculiar site I encountered immediately after reaching the meadow was a tin shack. I veered off left to further inspect this shack and noticed a “Cook Wanted” sign inscribed in the metal. Upon further inspection I noticed thousands of handwritten pencil signatures with dates accompanying them. I was surprised to find some signatures penciled in as early as 1961!
As I carried on I passed Lake 2 below Cirque Peak which looks similar to a triangle. The lake is very serene and beautiful with only a few tents visible. Three hikers veered left onto a separate path to setup camp then head off for summit that same day. I checked my map and confirmed I was on the right path to Lake 3 and continued on. When I reached Lake 3 I was very surprised to see how popular this lake was. I even saw 2 people fishing from floats in the lake. It is a very beautiful lake with many spots to place a tent but I was looking for solitude.
I reached my destination at 11am and decided I would setup camp at Lake 4. I found a spot near the water and in a slight depression between a few rock outcroppings with a great view of the pass I would be hiking up the next morning.
Being at Lake 4 leaves you with very little to basically no options for shade unless you camp at Lake 5 (a little further away and more popular than Lake 4). I used my poles to rig a lean-to type shade tent using the fly from the tent and hung in here for the hottest parts of the day even with copious amounts of sunscreen on. Being higher in elevation, you really tent to burn easier and feel much hotter on a clear day even if the temp is in the low 70’s. Since I decided not to summit the same day I reached camp, I had all day to explore. I spent a lot of time down at the waters edge of Lake 4 and dipped my feet in for a bit to cool off. I surveyed the creeks along the trail near my campsite, took a nap, found a few neat rocks (quartz, black quarts and rose quarts) and a bullet casing, and waited impatiently for the sun to dip so I could get some sleep.
I wished I had decided to summit Saturday instead of Sunday. I definitely overestimated how long it would take to get to camp although I didn’t plan to be on the trail so early either. Feeling somehow like time was of the essence I decided hastily that I would wake up at 3am and get a move on. I thought it might be nice to see the sunrise from the summit of Mt Langley but also was a little timid at doing some of the more technical portions of the climb in the dark. Ultimately I decided I would let God handle it meaning that if I didn’t “feel it” or was too tired to wake up, I wasn’t going to push it. I would take it as a sign. The first sign came at 10am. I woke up but wasn’t quite sure why. Was I hearing something? I realized I could pee but it wasn’t urgent so that couldn’t be it. I put my glasses on and looked through the mesh (I didn’t have my fly up) to see many thick clouds above with sections of white rays of light poking through from the moon. It was beautiful but seemed like rain. I took care of nature then decided to be safe rather than sorry and put the fly on. As I put the final stake in the ground I heard the familiar tap of raindrops of the fly. I laughed a little, then went inside. I slept extremely peacefully after that; so peacefully that I decided to not wake up at 3am when my alarm went off. I set it for 4 but also decided to sleep through that since I wasn’t “feeling it.” After that I decided I would wake up at 6am but couldn’t wait that long and was eating and on the trail by 6:10am instead. Seeing the trail I as on and headed towards, I was very happy I slept through all the pre-dawn starts and opted for a brighter start.
For some reason, I was a bit more scared going through this section of the Pass than I thought I would be. I decided it wasn’t so much the trail itself but the mental part of being on my first solo trip and being the only person on the trail at that time. I thought of the story of Thomas Heng who died on this very part of the trail a few days to the exact date a year ago from a slip that resulted in a death fall. I slowed to a stop. I realized that if I was going to finish this trip to the summit, I would have to focus on what I am doing which is not falling and putting one foot in front of the other and getting past my mental block. I kept on with a more determined mental focus and pace and was able to pull through without struggle from then on.
I reached the top of the OAP by 6:45am. The view from the top of the pass was beautiful, especially in the early morning.
(Bottom: looking into Sequoia National Park)
I had read many things about my next 2 miles and heard many descriptions such as “sand slog” and “trudge” to describe my next experience. I decided a quick pace to the base of the climb is what was needed and decided on a path that would lead to “the chute.”
“The Chute” is really a Class 3 scramble and is quite fun and the highlight of my trip. I just had so much fun doing a little bit of something different and having to pack away my poles for a bit. I yearned a bit for some real climbing but kept my mind focused and reminded myself I am solo and far away from help.
The last part of the climb really is a “trudge.” I felt like for every step I took I lost 3inches of progress in backsliding through the sand.
Reaching the summit really is just a random maze of cairns and faint trails all throughout the hillside. You find a point or a cairn and head in that direction and repeat. After a short while I could finally see the summit! In no time I was there, along with another hiker, Patrick from Thousand Oaks, who had just summited a few minutes before me. He happily took my photo and I took his.
(Bottom: View looking from summit to Lone Pine, CA.)
After messing up my entry in the summit registry AGAIN, (wrote about this on my Mt Whitney Trip Report in my previous post) I decided it was time to go. Both Patrick and I exchanged our next goals we hoped to accomplish in peak bagging and then headed down the mountain together. After a while we split up as I chose a more direct line down the chute I came up through and he would take the route he took up. I basically ran from then on all the way back to the descent on Old Army Pass.
(The view back to OAP from “The Chute”)
Earlier I had underestimated my need to go to the bathroom and found myself trying to get back to the safety of my camp as fast as possible. I frantically searched for a private spot but didn’t find any and knew a few groups of summit hopefuls would be coming by soon so I decided to jog back. I really enjoyed the fact that I was running at 13,000ft and was feeling great…except for urgent need to lose some weight asap. This was probably one of my worst mistakes on the trip yet haha! Once I reached the OAP, my focus thankfully shifted.
I was a little anxious to get down the pass but a little fearful as well till I was on the pass. I realized my fears earlier were totally in my head and quickly got down the OAP in no time. I reached camp a little before 10am and was on my way out by 11am.
Not much can be said about leaving an epic trip except you find yourself quietly walking back to your car glad to get back home, but a little sad at every point you get closer to civilization. I found myself steadily hiking along mechanically putting one food in front of the other, rationing my water, and recognizing key points along the trail reminding me how much closer to home I was getting. I reached my car right before 2pm and packed up my gear while a group was lightly arguing about their horses and ride home arrangements. I hoped in my car, took this last photo and headed down the mountain. I left Lone Pine at 3pm right as a storm rolled in (this seems to be a trend). Another epic adventure had just been accomplished but I was just ready to get back on the 395, get home and reflect on my first solo trip as I comfortably sit in my couch.
Since my first solo trip there have been numerous reports of accidents and unfortunately, deaths in the Sierras. While you always prepare for the best, the worst can and does happen. It makes one really think twice about what is considered “reasonable risk.” Although there is tragedy in life and in the mountains, its the adventure one seeks in life that makes it worth the risk.
Godspeed Matthew Greene
(Missing Hiker in the Sierras.)