Driving due south through the arid scrub of Owen's Valley in the rain-shadow of California's Sierra Nevada I turned off at the small, backcountry town of Lone Pine and continued beyond the outcrop of huge boulders of the Alabama Badlands ( the setting for many western movies ) to encamp amid prickly-pear cactii in the foothills of Mt.Whitney - the highest summit of the contiguous states of the USA.
The following afternoon I headed across the desert scrub and up the well-graded trail through fragrant pine and fir forest to the trailhead of Whitney Portal. A returning climber advised that although there was heavy snow cover on Mt. Whitney there was little risk of avalanche and he had reached over 10,000 feet .
Back at my tent something had chewed a hole in the groundsheet and gorged itself on a loaf of bread. Outside a chill wind blew but Orion and the Great Bear featured prominently in a clear, star-spangled sky.
Before dawn next morning I drove up to Whitney Portal on the winding mountain road still officially closed for the winter and strewn with large, jagged fragments of rockfall.
Donning climbing boots and gaiters I set off along the John Muir Trail leading to the Crest of the Sierra Nevada and onwards across the Great Western Divide to terminate in Sequoia National Park.
An easy angled path led upwards through frosted pine trees beneath high granite cliffs. Initially, rapid progress was possible on hard-packed snow but with increasing depth the crust would occasionally, and unexpectedly, break and I would sink deep into soft snow making progress difficult and tiring. Snow shoes would have been ideal. In Sequoia National Park at the start of my Californian circuit I had used a pair for the first time on a foray into the snowbound wilderness of the High Sierra but there had been none for hire in Lone Pine.
Beyond the forested foothills and across the yellow-ochre scrubland and white, salt pans of Owen's Valley the sun had risen above the blue-black ridge of the Inyo mountains transforming the surrounding winter landscape into a dazzling, sparkling snowscape beneath azure-blue skies.
Surmounting a rise I reached a perfectly flat snow-field covering Mirror Lake in a picturesque setting amid fir trees beneath a high cirque of rugged cliffs. A short but steep climb at the back of the corrie through deep, soft snow brought me above the tree-line and onto an open, wind-swept plateau with a hard, icy surface. In its present, deserted, snowbound state it was hard to believe that it was a popular camping site for summer backpackers. Boulder strewn slopes swept up to a high, jagged skyline.
Heading into a bitingly cold wind and streaming spindrift I continued across the gradual gradient of the plateau and past two other frozen lakes towards a large amphitheatre enclosed by sheer rock walls. I was encouraged to see another solitary climber plodding his way uphill.
At the far end of the plateau, directly beneath great, vertical precipices, a broad, steep, snow-filled gully led up to a breach in the ridge.
Strapping on crampons I started the climb. At first conditions were perfect and it was easy to kick steps but higher up the angle increased with sections of hard, blue-ice. Foreshortening moreover had given a false impression of the height of the gully and the skyline still seemed a long way off. I was beginning to suffer from the altitude.
Nearing the top I caught up with Chris, from Los Angeles, who had camped overnight at Mirror Lake where two friends awaited his return.
A rising traverse across soft snow brought us to twin rock pillars and it was then only a matter of minutes before we gained the ridge, the "Crest of the Sierra Nevada", at a height of 13,777 feet - and a superb outlook.
To the west the ridge plunged into a deep, broad canyon. On the far side, beyond an enormous escarpment, arose the snow-capped, saw-toothed summits of the Great Western Divide. Below us, to the east, lay a vast amphitheatre with its huge snow bowl enclosed by towering, granite cliffs and rugged, angular buttresses. In the far distance beneath the Inyo mountains stretched the long trench of Owen's Valley .
A path led off along the ridge towards the hidden, 14,495 feet, summit of Mt.Whitney, the most frequently climbed peak in the USA during summer months. Unfortunately in springtime we were out of time - the condition of the snow in the heat of the noon-day sun was rapidly deteriorating and giving cause for concern.
After a final appreciation of the magnificent mountain scenery we reluctantly started on the 5,000 feet descent back to Whitney Portal.
- Mt. Whitney & Owen's Valley
- Peakware - Mount Whitney
- Summit Post - Mount Whitney
- Wikipedia -Mount Whitney
- Mt Whitney Information
- National Parks of the SW USA
- Sierra Nevada Mountain Climbing
- Summer in the Sierra - John Muir
- Pacific Crest Trail Adventure
- The High Sierra
- High Sierra Nevada
USA Vacations - FREE Brochures:-
Alaska | Arizona | California | Colorado | Utah
Hiking and Walking Tours - FREE Brochure
Climbing and Mountaineering Tours - FREE Brochure
This Land is your Land