Guitar lake – rock creek camp
19 miles. 4496ft up. 6476ft down
I sleep on and off. I wake up when the wind blows. In my last campsite you could hear the wind blowing through the trees before it battered your tent, but here there aren’t any trees so the tent flaps about without any warning. I always feel like someone is rattling it. I hear the boys snore a little and feel good that they are getting some rest, but I do worry about how cold they must be.
At 1am I hear them whispering and moving about. I think one of them is really cold and from what I can gather they are packing up and heading back up the mountain, I’m not sure what they are doing but it takes them half an hour to pack up their survival blanket (I think one of them wraps it around himself) then I hear trekking poles scratching in dirt, I guess they are leaving me a message, then they head out. I shut my eyes willing myself to make to most of the next hour and a half of sleep. I peeked out the tent when they left. There are a few clouds but I can see stars. If the weather is still good I’ll be getting up at 3.
I manage to drift off but 3am comes around very quickly and I am so cosy. It’s the perfect temperature, despite being next to a lake and at 11,500ft. I look out and there are only a few wispy clouds, a few of the major stars and a very bright full moon. Ok. This is it, I’m getting up. I leave my sleep clothes on and put my puffy vest and waterproofs on, it’s really not that cold. I did consider leaving my tent set up here and collecting it on the way down but I don’t want to take the risk of it being chewed through so I take everything with me. Having left most of my food in the bear locker at Crabtree my pack feels so light anyway. I shovel down a cereal bar and stick my pound cake into my hip belt. 510 calories in that little bit of cake!
I stand outside and look up at the sky, I see a shooting star. The moon is so bright I don’t need a head torch to pack up. I look up at the mountain and I can see a light moving, the boys are making progress. That’s good.
I set out and I see three rather large looking creatures running across the plain, I’m thinking they might just be marmots, but they look very big for marmots. I use my head torch because the moon casts shadows on the rocks and slips in and out of the clouds. I get too hot almost immediately, I strip off my vest and my hat and buff. The temperature is unbelievable, maybe I’ll get lucky with this climb. The air is dry and it makes my mouth dry as I’m heavy breathing through it. My nose of course is like a running tap. I’m thirsty but I realise I haven’t brought that much water with me.
It feels really magical out here at this time. I’m pleased with my decision, the jagged mountains sides are illuminated by the moon, it’s calm and quiet and still. I’m conscious of feeling so terrible last time I climbed up here. I don’t feel like that now. I feel good, I mean I feel as good as I can at 3:30am hiking uphill into the night.
I take it slow, but I’m still breathing hard, as I climb higher I start to see my breath in front of me, it’s getting colder. The cold creeps into my body and I stop to put on the layers I took off earlier. I continue on, stopping occasionally to stare at the moon and the stars and the vast landscape around me.
The higher I go the colder it gets. The headlamp ahead of me has now disappeared. I stop again to put my big puffy on and my waterproof gloves to warm up my hands. I can hear the wind above me and I’m starting to feel it around me. I’m climbing higher onto the more exposed switchbacks. Although the trail is in darkness, and I can see about 3 feet in front of me, I know this trail. I know what’s to come. I know the twists and turns and the rocks and steep drops to the sides. It’s ingrained into my memory from last year. The switchbacks are long and the wind has picked up. It’s not gusty as I was hoping for, but constant. One way it’s blowing straight into my face, hurting my cheeks and eyes. I pull my buff over my head like a balaclava. It helps. The other way the wind is at my back, pushing me along.
Eventually the wind is too much for my waterproof trousers to handle, and while my body is toasty my legs are feeling the cold. I stop and put on my other leggings over the top of my sleep ones. Now the only parts of me that are cold are my toes, fingers and cheeks. It’s too cold to hold my trekking poles so I stow them in my pack. I pull my sleeves over my hands and hike with my hands balled into fists to try and get some warmth into my fingers.
I’m thirsty but my water is too cold to drink. I force myself to have a few sips. I open up the cake and shovel in a couple of mouthfuls. That should keep the pain in my stomach at bay for a while. The higher I climb the stronger the wind gets. At least it’s blowing me into the mountain, a few times it causes me to lose my balance. I consider turning back. Is this too dangerous? I decide to carry on, the wind is strong but it’s blowing consistently. I’m 90% warm. The wind isn’t penetrating my layers of clothes. My face hurts but I tell myself that I have been in colder conditions and it’s been ok.
The smooth trail gives way to rocks and boulders. I use my hands to scramble around some of them, aware that a little trip or a slip could be disastrous with the steep drops next to me. The wind doesn’t let up, it is constant and it’s getting icier. It is hurting my face and hurting my brain, the cold is inside my head giving me a headache. I hike with my hands up around my face trying to block out some of the wind. I feel a slight relief when the switchback turns to go the other way and the wind is on my back for a bit.
I wanted to reach the summit for sunrise but as I go on I don’t think I’ll quite make it. The sun rises on the other side of the mountain to me, as time goes on the moon on my side starts to turn orange as it begins go down behind the mountains. The sun must be coming up on the other side. As I pass the first notch I see the horizon has a dark orange glow and i can see the glow of street lights and car lights down in Lone Pine. It’s a beautiful view and the orange glow is a welcome sight. The sun equals heat.
I get to the fourth notch where the drop on the other side isn’t quite so steep. I scramble up and over the rocks and tuck myself in on the other side to get a moment out of the wind. I still have half a mile to the top so I sit protected behind these rocks to watch the sun come up. It’s light enough now to stop using my head torch and I carry on up the trail. I turn into the last switchback, this one leads up over that large flat(ish) bit which makes Whitney a distinctive but ugly shaped mountain.
The wind is so ferocious up here. But with only half a mile I’m not turning back now. The wind is so cold that it is leaving ice on the rocks. I feel like it’s doing the same thing to my face. The condensation collecting on my buff by my mouth has frozen. The top is completely exposed with no shelter so the wind is howling across the open space. The hut appears ahead of me and I’m so close. I reach the hut with the hope of finding a little respite inside, to get out of the wind and collect my thoughts. But it’s shut. All locked up. Well, that’s great.
I head carefully over to the peak at the edge. The rocks are icy and slippery but I’m not coming all this way without a photo so I set up my GoPro and quickly get a picture. With my glove off for only a few seconds my hand is in severe pain.
This is not fun up here and there is no sign of the wind letting up, or the sun giving any heat so I quickly make my way back down the trail. The winds were about 35km/h and the temperature was around -8°C with a wind chill of about -16°C. I pick my way carefully down the rocks, and I see people coming towards me. A group of 5, there are other people as stupid as me out here!! We say good morning which can only just be heard over the wind but there is no time for conversation. We all have to keep moving. As I continue on down the switchbacks I pass two more people and one woman who is in running kit! She is going to freeze to death, she is attempting to run uphill but it looks more like one of those bouncy walks. I think all of these people must have come up from the other side, from the Whitney portal.
I continue on down and down, knowing (hoping) it will get warmer with each switchback. Eventually, as I get lower and off the exposed ridge the wind eases but my head pounds. I reach for my water only to find it’s completely frozen. The other bottle which has water with flavouring in is slushy rather than frozen solid but the icy water doesn’t do much for my head.
When I can finally take my glove off without my hand turning to ice I shovel the rest of the cake in and drink what I can. On the way down my stomach felt like it was eating itself. With about half a mile to go to Guitar lake where I had started out from I see a boy heading up the trail. Are you the boy I spoke to last night? I found out his name was Cooper and he is friends with Kyle and Josh who stayed with me last night. He too should have taken the Whitney portal trail and he said he just kept walking last night until it got too dark for him to see. I told him about his friends and where he had to go.
I was still in the shade the whole way back down, the sun hadn’t made it over to the trail yet but I could see Guitar Lake was in the sun. I managed to take off my hat and unzip my coat just before running into the couple from yesterday. She didn’t look very happy already! I warned them about the cold and then went on my way. I finally reached the sun and went over to my camp spot to sit in the sun for a bit. I checked the message they scratched into the ground ‘thanks alex’. Sweet.
I changed out of my sleep clothes, ate and drank and washed my face and carried on hiking back down to Crabtree to retrieve my stuff from the bear box. There was a note on top saying not to leave any trash in there but of course there were a couple of ziplocks of trash left by someone. That seriously winds me up. What’s the problem with carrying out your own trash and who do they think is going to do it?!
I get my stuff, repack my bag, collect water from the creek and lie on a rock to warm up. The sky is brilliant blue today, not a cloud but there is a distinctly autumnal feel, nice in the sun cold in the shade. It was only 12pm and I decided to get to Rock Creek and see how I felt, it was only 6 miles away. But my bag was heavy and I was tired. I plodded on slowly, leaving the high Sierra behind, only a few days away from the desert. It was a struggle, I was hungry but didn’t want to eat any of my food. I lie in the sun for half an hour I’m pretty tired now.
When I got to Rock creek it was only 4 but I was done for the day. I have been struggling to get warm so I pitched my tent, changed my clothes and got into my sleeping bag. I listened to some podcasts but I was still shivering. My neck is very sore, probably from my fall yesterday combined with being so tense against the freezing wind today. The urge to close my eyes and go to sleep was huge and I had to force myself awake and set about getting some food. A hot meal might warm me up, I also made a hot water bottle. I don’t think it’s actually that cold out, but I just can’t get warm – apart from my face, that’s hot with wind burn I expect. There is a bit of a wind blowing and I zipped myself into my tent. I’ve had my fair share of wind for today.
I’m walking thousands of miles for Just A Drop because everyone should have access to clean water. Please donate here, every little bit helps.