43 Miles Backpacking Over 4 Days from Onion Valley to Whitney Portal
Imagine yourself the evening of your second to last day backpacking in the high mountains, 34 miles in, sitting in your tent to avoid the snow and wind, wearing all the clothes you brought with you because you hadn't anticipated it being this cold. You've got mild altitude sickness, your pal just threw up beside his tent, and you know you'll probably have to get up to go pee in the cold weather about 5 times during the night because that's what altitude does to you. You know what makes life instantly better in that moment? Broth. A big cup of steamy miso broth. I can't describe to you how excited I got when our friend Lucas offered us all a warm cup of broth while we sat inside our tents tending to our sick, weakened bodies. I've never enjoyed a cup of broth so much. It was like the nectar of life.
The thing I love about trips like these is that it helps you isolate your basic needs. You basically spend your whole day worrying about simple things like food for fuel, a stream to filter water, mitigating your altitude sickness, and finding a nice rock to pee next to.
My friend Jacob got a permit to backpack from Onion Valley Campground to Whitney Portal, and I was lucky to get to tag along. We spent 4 days (June 4 - June 7) backpacking 43 miles, ascending 11,080 ft, and descending 12,227 ft, and by the end of it, we were exhausted.
I'm excited to say I finally am figuring out the gps my dad got me for my birthday. It was awesome having it on our trip! And now I was able to bring it home and load it on Garmin's basecamp tool and make these cool maps! I'm a planner by nature, so I really geek out over this kind of stuff. I have a Garmin handheld gps 64st. It lasts me long hiking days with just one set of batteries. I had it on the whole trip, so it recorded everything, just replaced the batteries once every morning. Check out the map below and elevation profile for more details on the hike.
Day 1 - June 4, 2015
We drove up Wednesday night and slept at Whitney Portal (to get some elevation under our belts before we started the hike Thursday). Thursday morning we left one car at Whitney Portal and then all drove down to pick up our permits from the permit office... which doesn't open till 8am.
Permits. Bear Canisters. Whitney Portal Poop Bags. Check, Check, and Check.
Our hike began at Onion Valley Campground, which is about 15 miles up into the mountains from the small town of Independence. We were a bit worried about weather for our trip, with forecasts promising light snow for the rest of the weekend. We got started around 9:45am.
The first milestone was Kearsarge Pass (11,760 feet), and right when we got started hiking towards the pass... it started snowing. That might've been a bad sign to most people, but we were determined... I mean, we had just started. So we kindly ignored the snow and trudged on towards the pass. Fortunately, the snow wasn't sticking too bad and was on and off.
We passed a number of beautiful lakes on our way up.
I'm not going to lie. I struggled on our way up to the pass. My pack was killing my lower back. My pack was probably around 45lbs (about 10 lbs heavier than I wanted it to be, but I couldn't decided on what to sacrifice with the unpredictable weather and that darn bear canister weighs a billion pounds). Later, we adjusted my tent above my pack instead of to the side, and it magically fixed the whole problem... amazing how a little bit of off balance weight can hurt your back so much.
Finally, we made it to the pass!
Probably my favorite views of the entire 43 mile hike was from the top of Kearsarge Pass. I will definitely be coming back here again sometime to do some camping. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
The remainder of our hike the first day was downhill. From the picture you see above was a sort of junction where we could decide to take the higher road or the lower road, but both lead to the intersection of John Muir Trail (which is where we were headed). We decided on the lower road so we could check out the lakes a little better.
We saw some deer hanging out, and they reminded me of Lincoln. :(
Eventually we stopped for lunch at one of the lakes and re-filtered some more water before continuing the hike. We were aiming for 12 miles the first day.
Finally we intersected with the John Muir Trail, and we were headed south. It was pretty cool actually because we ran into a lot of people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and they were hiking North. It became this mutally beneficial relationship between us and the PCT hikers. We'd tell them about the conditions we came from and they'd tell us about theirs.
I'm not one of those people who seeks absolute solitude when I go outdoors. I mean, that's fine and all, but I get just as excited bumping into people like those hiking the PCT and hearing their stories and sharing in their pains. It's like a whole different community of people just dedicated to experiencing the pain (emphasis on pain) and beauty of the outdoor world. It's refreshing in its own way. Its not like going to a drive up campground with every other labor day weekender flipping burgers from a lawn chair outside their camper and drinking coors lite in their other hand... I mean, once you're out here in the Sierras... over a pass and actually inside the Sierras... you know you've met the dedicated outdoors-people. (outdoors-people?) I think I've made my point.
Down and down we went. It's sort of sad gaining a lot of elevation and then losing it again... because you know, you're going to have to go back up again eventually.
The last 2 miles were pretty rough for everybody. We rolled into a camping area around 7pm (forgot the name of it) that had a bear box and was near a lake... just shy of 12 miles for the day.
Basic Daily routine when getting to camp:
- Drop pack on ground
- Sigh a little
- Unpack pack to get all of your stuff out
- Make Tent and put stuff in it
- Make Dinner
- Filter Water for the next day
- Put food and smelly items in bear box
It was beautiful, and it was cold. We only had an hour or so of daylight, and it was uncertain when we went to bed if our whole crew would continue on the next morning toward the portal. Like I said, we all felt a bit roughed up. After my routine... I didn't linger much. I got into my sleeping bag, curled up and tried to sleep. I've slept at altitude quite a few times before so I knew what to expect.. but in case you never have... here's kind of how it goes (especially if its cold out).
Nightly Sleeping routine:
- Enter down (15 degree rated) sleeping bag, fully clothed (all my clothes in fact) with big wool socks on
- Toss on sleeping pad, and feel utterly cold for the first hour or so (maybe even a bit feverish)
- Finally fall asleep
- A couple hours later, wake up with the urge to pee
- Debate for 30 minutes on getting up to pee
- Wonder if bear might be waiting for you outside your tent when you get up to pee
- Finally, put on cold boots, walk a few paces from tent, squat, and pee... back to tent
- Sleep again
- Wake up again... commence pee routine once more.
- Sleep again
- Finally, wake up again... almost time to wake up anyway, and you need to pee... decide to wake up early, pee, and begin morning routine.
End day 1.
Day 2 - June 5, 2015
A good nights sleep did us all good, and we were all set to continue on the next morning.
Our first milestone for the day was Forrester Pass (13,200 ft.), and it was a gradual uphill hike towards the base of the pass. We spent our morning crossing streams and making slow progress to the base. At the base, we fueled up and then headed toward the dome you see in the picture below. The route to the dome here is not obvious... you have to go left and around following the path to an area behind the dome.. and the dome isn't even where the pass is, but you can't see it from this picture.
The path toward the pass was obvious for most of the way up. We just followed switchbacks. It was slow going though. I found myself thinking too much about being tired, so I changed my strategy and started counting to 100. After about counting to 100 say 3 to 4 times, I'd usually stop for a micro break... take in the views, eat something real quick... and then start counting again. This was really effective for me. I'm not saying its everyone's cup of tea, but when I'm having a hard time not complaining to myself the whole time, I count.
There was about 1000 ft. left when we ran out of trail and hit snow. I was immediately glad I decided to bring my ice axe. There were tons of people, however, going across this snowfield to Forrester pass in their sneakers. Me, on the other hand, I like to play it safe. I feel secure with my axe... my axe is my friend.. my partner in crime... it hasn't let me down so far..., so I got it out, and strapped on these cheap yak tracks I bought last minute to replace my heavier crampons for the trip (I wasn't really expecting to need them, brought them just in case).
People may have been doing this in tennis shoes... but it was mountaineering in a simple sense.. although non-technical... there was snow, a steeper slope, and a possibility of slipping and falling a few hundred feet before you bashed your body or head on some loose scree below. It was slow going. Step. breathe. Step. breathe.
But we finally made it to the top!
We didn't spend much time at the pass because it was insanely cold. We snapped 2 or 3 pictures and were out of there. Can we pause for a moment and check out my outfit here. I look part mountaineer, part park ranger with my gps hooked to me, part tourist with my camera bag, and part hick with my trucker hat... I digress...
We were warned by the PCT'ers that once we reached the top.. NOT.. to go over the snow bank (seen right behind me)... this was a cornice. Instead, we went right and up on top of some rocks and dropped down to the trail on the other side of the pass... which coincidentally had no snow on it.
We. were. wrecked.
We stopped a little ways down on the trail to the base of the other side of Forrester and had a quick break, and then made our way down the actual base and had lunch, near a stream like the one shown below. We took a long break here, made some warm foods (mountain houses, and oatmeal) and had a nice little break.
It was downhill from there, until we reached our next campsite... which was still about 6 miles away at this point. All the lakes were pretty frozen, but it was still gorgeous out there. We also got snow on and off throughout our hike, but nothing too gnarly.
We reached camp exhausted. Another little site that I don't know the name of (its marked on my gps log) that had bear boxes and a nice little lake to filter water at.
Day 2 was my hardest day. I had zero energy left by the time we got to camp. I followed my basic routine... and it was too cold to hang out by the tents and chat. I went to bed at like 6 or 7pm. I think my friends stayed up, but I couldn't do it... too cold, and too tired.
I made some key mistakes on day 2 that evening. I went to bed too early, which made sleeping harder at night. And I barely drank any water before bed, and so i woke up with horrible altitude induced sickness. Learned my lesson.
End Day 2.
Day 3 - June 6, 2015
Day 3 was supposed to be our easy day, but that is deceptive. It wasn't hard like day 2, but it had its own set of challenges. Namely, I woke up with blurry vision, dry mouth, and a throbbing headache, but that was my own fault because i didn't drink enough water the night before. So after I ate some oatmeal, chugged some water and took some Advil, i started to feel good again.
I was the first of the group to wake up, as usual. It was nice when I woke up, but about 30 minutes after I woke up when everyone else had just gotten up... it started snowing. This time the snow was pretty sticky and wet. It was soaking everything. I got back in my tent and sat there eating oatmeal and we waited for it to clear up. Fortunately it didn't last long, but it made packing up everything a pain in the butt... everything was soaked.
At first the hike was mostly flat, and only slightly uphill, but eventually we had to gain some elevation, and that wasn't the easiest thing since we were all tired, but it wasn't horrible either.
We crossed plenty of streams at first, and thought, in 1 more hour we will stop at the next stream to filter water... WELL, 1 hour later there were no streams... and we started to realize we should've filtered water a while back. It was a mile and half till we would reach crabtree where we knew there was water.
I still had a liter or so left, so I was fine, but my buddies were basically out. I stopped to eat because I needed some food fuel, but they kept going to make it crabtree. I got to hike solo for a bit, and it was kind of interesting. I was wondering what it would be like to hike solo out there... mainly.. it just felt quiet. You kind of hike for a while and think, hmm, its just me and the trees... and then you forget you're hiking solo.
I caught up to them at Crabtree... where we took a longer lunch break. It was the only time the whole trip I felt a little bit warm. The sun was out, and with my jacket on I was able to feel comfortably warm for maybe 30 minutes.
It was nice, until we saw the storm clouds in the distance. Time to get moving again. The sign at crabtree told us deceptively that we only had 2.7 miles left. Hey, that's not so bad right?? Wrong. Longest 2.7 miles of my life. It was basically uphill the whole way. And it was like one big step after another. Felt like 15 miles.
But, amongst all that pain, it was absolutely dreamy out there. It was snowing and misty and beautiful. I made it to Guitar Lake (which is at the base of the Whitney on the other side not the portal side) with Mike and it was a cloudy, snowy, misty mess... and it was cold. We scouted out a spot to make camp and began our routine.
This time though, it was super windy. I started worrying about the wind hitting my not so four season tent at night... so I built a little rock wall around it. Not sure how much that really would've helped, but building the wall helped keep me warm.
Our last evening was quite interesting. The other guys strolled in an hour or so after Mike and I had made our tents. There was still bad weather but it was only 5pm. They were feeling pretty bad. They made their tents, and we basically all got in our tents to avoid the weather... hoping it'd clear up in a bit so we could make some dinner. 2 of our guys puked... and were having bad altitude sickness.. I was feeling pretty nauseas myself. After waiting a while though, things started to finally clear up. That's when Lucas offered us the amazing broth, and immediately after the cup of broth, it felt like the whole attitude changed. We slowly started coming out of tents, the sun came out, we chatted with our tent neighbors... and before I knew it, it was 9pm and time to go to sleep. I warmed up a liter or so of water with some tea, and drank it before bed.. and slept pretty good the whole night (still peed like 3 times though).
End day 3.
Day 4 - June 7, 2015
The last day was an epic day. Epically long, epically beautiful, and epically painful on my feet.
We first were headed up to Trail Crest. Which is close to Whitney's summit, but not quite there at about 13,800 ft. We tried to get an earlier start in the morning so that if there was any snow to encounter, it would be firm and not slushy.
The majority of the trail up to trail crest was switchbacks, there was a bit of snow, but nothing too crazy.
Like every uphill this weekend, it was slow going, but we all felt immeasurably better than we had the day before, and the views were unbeatable.
I think we reached Trail Crest at about noon, and we were all stoked! We decided not to summit Whitney, been there, done that (and there's a post on it too in this blog)... only 2 people on our team hadn't summited, but they weren't feeling up to it. Only 8.7 miles of downhill left to go before we could sink our teeth into a nice juicy burger. Oh, but did we mention that it was about 5,000+ ft to descend... and first we needed to navigate the infamous snowy switchbacks that we had been hearing rumors about the whole trip.
Various feedback from the PCT'ers we asked along our hike the last 3 days concerning the condition of the switchbacks:
- "Nah, the switchbacks are fine, I saw someone going down in tennis shoes.
- "I would definitely wear crampons... and use an ice axe. If you have those, you should be good."
- "I think you should take the chute."
- "They looked pretty icy, I'm not sure..."
- "I saw some people sliding down the chutes, that looked like fun! ...."
The feedback was so all over the board, that we knew we'd just have to see for ourselves. Turns out, it was 90% totally fine. There were a few sections of snowy switchbacks that had the hairs on my arms sticking up, but nothing was overly sketchy. (However, I did wear my yak tracks again and used my mountaineering axe...). The chutes looked like a soggy mess and a stupid idea. We heard someone broke their tailbone glissading down them too so that was also out of the question.
Eventually, there was no snow left, and we reached the bottom of the switchbacks. We still had a ton of miles left to go though... it was a long trip back down to the portal.
The downhill is pretty rough... the first half you are just pounding your feet and knees on rock the whole way, you're just praying for dirt the whole time because you know once you hit dirt, you might actually make some speed with your downhill.
But then once you finally do hit the dirt... your knees and feet are so wrecked you can hardly go 2 mph.
It got to the point where we wouldn't even stop to take breaks for fear that if we stopped moving, we may never move again.
But like with many painful hiking stories... we did eventually reach the portal... and it was glorious. We ate a big burger and plate of fries at the portal store, gave advice about the switchbacks to the eager hikers hanging around in the area, and then finally drove off (getting more food at the McDonald's in Lone Pine) and headed home back to Bakersfield.
It was a hard trip, but amazing. I'm really glad I got to go. Here are some key (but basic) things I learned for future backpacking trips:
- Broth. Pack Broth packets.
- Chocolate covered coffee beans. Most amazing thing ever when backpacking that I almost forgot to mention in this post.
- Lot of water before sleepy time.
That's it. All my advice. Life can be that simple y'all.
Here's a little video I put together too of the trip. (I was super ambitious this trip with my media... go pro, fancy camera, handheld gps... the works), no wonder my pack weighed 45 lbs.
If you are in good enough shape, enjoy backpacking, and can handle a bit of pain for a consistent 4 days, I highly recommend this trail if you can get a permit. It was awesome... I dare even say... I'd do it again.