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Onion Valley to Whitney Portal – Aug 16, 2014

Whitney from Guitar Lake

Whitney from Guitar Lake

Friendship is a strange thing, thinly woven yet enduring no matter how strained over time. This is nominally a story about a long dayhike in the Sierras, but none of it would have been possible or nearly as interesting without very particular friendships forged many years ago. That makes this also an expression of gratitude, that strange things exist and persist, and can be called upon in rare moments of absurd whimsy and need.

On August 15th of 2014, Kam and I were driving through Riverside and we had a problem. We planned to hike from Onion Valley near Independence to Whitney Portal near Lone Pine, a one-way hike of more than 40 miles, but we had no way to get back to our car. We had thought of bringing bikes or hitch-hiking, but the former seemed a bit impractical while the latter would work but was likely to require an overnight stay in Lone Pine to wait for a morning lift.

We were stumped and running out of time. We would be at the trailhead near midnight, and would have no phone reception after that point. Somewhat, randomly, I picked up the phone and called my friend John.

“Hey, John.”

“Hey, what’cha doing.”

“Driving to the Sierras. Say, you ever climbed Mt. Whitney?”


“You want to?

“Sure! With you guys? When?”

“Well sort of, and tomorrow morning. You’d have to climb up Whitney Portal on your own and meet us at the Trail Crest, but then we could go to the peak together and come down together.” And, of course, give us a ride back Onion Valley.

This was an absurd question. John is not a regular outdoorsman because he is single dad of two daughters with preposterous softball schedules; he had no idea how hard it was going to be; he had not trained for it; and it was a wee bit last minute.”

“Sure,” he said.

“You’re kidding?”

But he was not. We had a plan, and a ride. It was awesome. We’d get to hike, and see John, and he’d get to summit Whitney for the first time. It was perfect.

It was also a bit daft. John would drive very early the next morning  (Saturday) to the Lone Pine Ranger’s Station to see if he could get a single-person dayhike permit for Whitney at 8am when they opened, then drive up to the Portal at 8,500′ and then hike up to Trail Crest south of Mt. Whitney. This is around 9.5 miles and bout 5,000′ in elevation gain.

Kam and I, meanwhile, would start hiking at midnight out of Onion Valley, up to Kearsarge Pass, down to the John Muir Trail and then up the back of Whitney (about 34 miles), to meet John at between 3 pm and 4 pm. We would then summit together, watch the sunset from the summit, and descend back to Whitney portal in the dark. What could go wrong?


Kam and Shawn’s Route. John came up to Whitney from the Whitney Portal.

Kam and I started just after 11 pm on Friday and made quick progress up the Bubbs Creek Trail toward Kearsarge Pass at 11,700′. We both felt strong and the temperature was cool but not cold, so it should have been perfect. But I had made a crucial mistake packing the night before. I’d filled by 3L bladder with Perpetuem and then left it in the hot car at work the next day. When I took the first sip on the trail, and realized instantly that it had soured. I was carrying three liters of a heat-exposed, soy-based endurance drink that tasted exactly like spoiled milk. It did not sit well, but I had no other water, so I forced it down as I went. You can get used to anything, right?

We jogged quickly down from the freezing, wind-swept pass into the Bullfrog Lake basin. The trail took us around the north and then west banks of the lake, turning south to meet the John Muir Trail (JMT) that would take us the rest of the way. We continued in the dark down to the second junction where, finally, I could get some fresh water filtered from a tributary of Bubbs Creek itself.

Unfortunately, my stomach was already wrecked from the bad Perpetuem. I was dry heaving now and then, and having trouble eating. The fresh water helped, but it did not bode well for the rest of the hike. Kam was of course chipper as a a baby unicorn.

We would follow Bubbs Creek through the pre-dawn darkness without ever really seeing it. The ironic thing was that I’d wanted to do this hike to see this basin, but I’ve still never seen it. I did hear some lovely rushing waterfalls and traipse through some great campsites full of snugly sleeping souls in reflective nylon tents (and lots of glaring deer eyes) but all we really saw was the trail and the outlines of towering rocks and pines.

At some length we started the ascent to Forester Pass in earnest. This is usually where I do well, staying in shorts and powering my way up while the cold eats into Kam’s smaller frame. Sure enough, I felt like I could job up to the pass, but she slowed as the temperature dropped. It was nothing of concern–this is our routine–and we still made decent time to the Pass. We started the descent just after dawn, a beautiful blue glow that spread over the surrounding peaks like a gentle caress from the heavens.


After some miles, the sun warmed Kam back up and we stopped for food and water in some beautiful meadow in some beautiful basin. I was still feeling wonky, but it was too beautiful to really care.


When we started up again, I could tell it was going to be a hot day, and I’m not the biggest fan of hot days. This was before I started taking masses of electrolytes and salt pills, so at some point on long, hot hikes I always started falling apart. I knew it was coming. I just wasn’t sure when.

We ambled down the rocky meadows and into the treeline, and soon found ourselves at the Whitney Creek crossing near Crabtree Ranger Station. There were two other guys there who had just crossed by taking off their shoes and wading across, so I sat down to take off my shoes. Kam was having none of this.

The picture below is looking back after we crossed the creek. The log at left is how Kam crossed the creek. She did this by just walking carefully across the narrow log, which seemed fine, but too wet and sketchy for me; I knew I would have fallen off and into the creek. Which while temporarily refreshing, would have soaked everything and ruined my phone.

The three of us watched as Kam crossed. She was most of the way down the load when she lost balance, spun a full 360 and then nimble rock hoped the rest of the way. We burst into hooting and applause. No way any of the rest of us would have recovered like that. Kam bowed playfully on the other side and waited for me. Yeah, no way I was doing that. The shoes came off.


Whitney Creek. Kam danced across moments earlier.

After the creek, the heat turned ugly and the dust rose in billows of chocking ocher and brown. We slogged our way up toward the lakes behind Whitney, up and up into the heat, and I slowed with each step. My stomach turned over and grumbled irritably, but we kept moving. We even passed a llama herder with his flock at some point, stopping to talk briefly about the value of llamas in the mountains before heading on.


At the lakes, we stopped for food and water, and I embraced my aches and pains. Kam has also started limping from a knee injury that had been ailing her lately, so we were none too fresh. But we were right on time, and all we had to do now was climb up the back side of Whitney (I originally wrote, the “backside” of Whitney, but that’s just gross).

Kam slowed way down, limping, so that I’m not sure she ever knew how worked I was. She was in pain,  but I was energetically done. My back was killing me and I barely had the energy to keep moving. I had no idea how I was going to summit with John.

We passed an older woman in a large-brimmed hat and shall or serape who was huddled between the rocks about halfway up. We stopped to ask if she was all right and she nodded, yes, I’m fine. Just moving slowly. No idea how she’s gotten there in the first place.

We hit the junction with the Mt. Whitney Trail just before 3 pm, right on time. John was not there, so I sat down heavily (relieved) and checked my phone; no signal or messages. Kam, powered by whatever magic and fairy dust drives here, was suddenly feeling better. I wanted to die.

Instead, I walked up to Trail Crest (where you can look down Whitney basin toward the Portal and Lone Pine) to see if John was there or if I could get a phone signal. Neither, it turns out. I wobbled back down to Kam and took a seat near many other hikers nursing their fatigue on the way up or down.

We waited a while, and started to realize what a crap plan this was. John might have gotten there early and gone onto the summit, or he might not have gotten there yet. If he was past us, we had to hike up the nearly two miles and another 1,000′ to the summit to fine out. If he was below us, that was the worst thing we could do. If we split up, it didn’t help because there was no way to communicate. Plus, frankly, I did not want to hike up that mountain.

Then 4 pm came and went. Damn. I didn’t know what to do. We decided that the odds of John having gotten the permit, hiked up, past us and gone onto the summit before we got there was close to 0%. He was touch, but he wasn’t fast when he wasn’t training. So we gathered our sweaty stuff and decided to head down to meet him. No sooner had we started up to Trail Crest than he appeared, smiling, and we sat back down to let him rest. He had brought extra food and birthday cookies. Good man.


John and myself just below Trail Crest. John brought me a birthday cookie 😉

Although we were now running late, John was determined to go to the summit. Kam was game, but I could tell her knee was really hurting her. And I, frankly, wanted to just sleep on a rock until September. So he convinced us–and this is a testament to how stupid you are when you’re tired–that he’d summit and then run down and catch up to us.

“I’m feeling great,” he said. “And I’m fast.” Well, downhill.

I did not take a lot of convincing. I made sure he had a map, a headlamp, batteries, food and water, and then said we’d text him where to meet us when he got down (if we hadn’t gotten a ride to Onion Valley). He said okay, and headed off. I felt like a bit of a dick watching him go, but there was just no way I was going up and no way I could stop him.

“Be careful!” I called after him, and he waved happily.

I figured we’d gimp our way down, and maybe he would catch up. It seemed unlikely, but he was fast on the downhill. Then Kam started running. Oh yeah, I remembered, this; she always ran like a dear downhill, trotting easily over the endless miles while I slap-slap-slapped my way down like a fat-footed mule carrying ore and mining tools.

At first I thought here knee would slow here down, or she’d tire out, but we ran all the way down to Whitney Portal, getting there well before sunset. John had never caught up, of course, so there was no point waiting for him there. We ended up standing around in the parking lot and running into several of Kam’s climbing friends who eventually gave us a ride down to Lone Pine. Our plan was to see if we could find a ride or hire a local “taxi” driver to give us a ride to Onion. But there were no rides, and the informal taxi service had apparently shut down as the economy improved.

We sat outside the Youth Hostel a bit tired and perplexed, and finally just gave in. A few minutes later, we had a room at The Portal hotel and I texted John on Kam’s phone to let us know when he was down so he could join us for some sleep at the hotel. I don’t remember why we didn’t eat anything.

Sleep came fast and hard, and then Kam was pushing my arm.

“It’s John,” she said, and gave me the phone. I was really confused. It felt like it was almost dawn and I checked the phone; it was after 4 am. Where the hell was John calling from?

“Hey,” I said.

“Morning!” he said, sounding utterly wiped. He can usually cover fatigue with a positive attitude, but he didn’t even try.

“Where are you?”

“In the car.” Which was not helpful. Where was the car? I assumed he was calling from the road and had driven straight back to Orange County, but then I couldn’t understand the timing.

“Where’s the car?” I asked.

“Whitney Portal,” he said. “In the parking lot.”

“Dude,” I said, because, damn. “It’s almost 5. Where have you been? Did you sleep in the car?”

“Just got here,” he said. I couldn’t figure it out. We’d split up before 5 pm so he could summit. He was fresh at at the time and it was only 11 miles back. Even with the darkness slowing him down, it was more more than six hours worth of hiking for him. He was fast on the downhills.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Are you okay.”

“I got a bit lost,” he said. “A few times.”

Shit. Now I felt really bad.

“I have to get back to OC for a parent-teacher conference,” he said. What? Can I pick you up and take you to the car?

“Yeah, of course.” I got up and got dressed, feeling utterly wiped. How had he gotten lost?

J0hn showed up a bit later and I took over the driving. He looked exhausted. As we drove back to Onion Valley, he alternated between head-fake sleeping and telling me about his night.

“I just kept losing the trail,” he said. “I’d walk into some wall or up to some cliff, and I knew that was wrong, so I’d backtrack to find the trail and start over.”

Apparently this happened several times. He enjoyed the sunset on the summit and headed down in the dark, he got lost by himself in the way down. I’m a crappy friend.

He dropped me off at the campground and we headed back down toward Independence and the 395. He drove straight-on through Lone Pine toward his mid-morning parent-teacher conference (!) and I went back to the hotel to pickup Kam.

John texted later to let us know that he’d made it to the conference on time, and then taken the girls to a softball game or something. Power to the Dad.

And thanks, John for a weird and amazing day.

Photo Album on Google Photos


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