The summer 2005 highpointing trip would take on added significance for me. I would be climbing one of the peaks on this trip, Mt. Whitney, as an “Ascent for Autism Research.” As the father of a six-year-old autistic daughter, I wanted to put my climbing efforts to a good cause, and committed to raising funds for the National Alliance for Autism Research. Despite getting a rather late start on publicity, something I hope to remedy if I do any subsequent AFARs, I still had two nice newspaper articles done about the effort, in the Boston Globe and the Attleboro Sun Chronicle. All donations went directly to NAAR, making them tax deductible for the donors and eliminating the hassle of creating a charitable entity to accept donations.
Joining me on this trip was fellow highpointer Kevin Sweeney. Our plan going in was to fly in to Oakland on Monday August 22nd, tackle Boundary Peak on Tuesday as an acclimatization hike for Whitney, climb Whitney on Thursday and fly home on Friday. A word of warning to anyone flying in to Oakland and renting from Alamo: despite what you may hear, Alamo is NOT located at the airport. They are in Berkley, which, I’m given to believe, is either a train ride or a $35 cab ride away. Luckily Enterprise was able to give us a 4x4 Jeep Liberty with no advance reservation for about the same price we would have received from Alamo. Minor emergency resolved, we were on our way to Boundary Peak a little after 1 p.m.
Hoping to get to the Trail Canyon trailhead for Boundary Peak before dark, we opted to go the more Northerly Sonora Pass, instead of the more popular and possibly more crowded Tioga Pass through Yosemite. Taking time to stop for food, we found ourselves approaching Benton, CA, looking at Montgomery and Boundary Peaks at dusk. There is no lodging in Benton, though there is a B&B about 5 miles West in Benton Hot Springs. When we discovered this fact at the little gas station/diner at the intersection of Routes 120 & 6, we opted to head towards the Boundary Peak trailhead in the dark and get an early start instead of backtracking on Route 120 to try to crash at the B&B. From Benton, CA, it’s 7 miles along Route 6 to the CA-NV border, 12 more miles to where Route 360 (which you don’t want) breaks off to the North, and another 5 miles to the intersection with Route 264, which you want to head South on. The road to the Boundary Peak trailhead is well marked on your right-hand side and appears just after Route 773 comes in from the left to meet up with Route 264.
Armed with waypoints I had uploaded to my GPS unit from my mapping software, we decided to try to get to the trailhead in the dark. I was using a Garmin Rino 120 GPS unit with data from MapSource’s US Topo software. We did well until my waypoints took us off the road to the trailhead. What I didn’t realize until the next morning was that the road I followed on my mapping software detoured through an abandoned mine. After rounding a pretty steep, narrow corner and arriving at a plateau in the dark, we decided to camp there and figure out where we were in the morning. The area was littered with sharp, brittle rock that made sleeping tough even with a sleeping pad. Not having brought a sleeping pad, Kevin opted to wedge himself diagonally in the back of the Jeep.
The next morning it was easy to see the actual road to the trailhead, and we broke camp, headed down and over towards the trailhead. A pleasant surprise was that despite the fact that my waypoints changed from “road” to “route,” we were still driving along, not having hit the trailhead yet. It turns out the road extended farther than my mapping software indicated. We ended up starting up the trail around 9 a.m.
Our plan was to try the “East Ridge Route” described at summitpost.com. This route starts out on the Trail Canyon Route, but then once you cross the stream and are on the South side of it, you bushwhack to the right of a drainage up towards a saddle approximately 1,000’ above you – or so that’s what the description said. We followed the Trail Canyon trail and found the stream crossing fairly quickly. Somewhat surprised at having crossed to the South side so quickly, we continued on along the Trail Canyon trail for a little longer, to just past a point where it crossed the stream again. Not wanting to backtrack, we opted to start heading for the drainage from there. The route description does say that there is no trail, and that you’ll be bushwhacking up along the drainage, but for the most part I think we missed the boat. The low scrub was annoying and scraped against my legs, but the more difficult sections had short trees with low branches, around 3’ – 4’ off the ground, that we had to lean/limbo/crawl under. Kevin’s decision to wear long black pants in the Nevada heat actually saved his legs from the fate mine suffered.
When the path finally opened up a bit, we saw a bit of a saddle to our left, while my GPS unit indicated that the summit was generally straight/to the right, past a false summit. We headed up and towards the right of this false summit. I think this is where we really got off the East Ridge Route. When we emerged high enough to look into the Boundary Peak bowl, we realized that we probably didn’t need to have climbed this high on that false summit. Worse, the East Ridge Route proper appeared attainable only by traversing sideways along some fairly steep, scree-filled slopes. We noted the time, considered that we still had a 22-mile hike coming up on Whitney, and chose a zigzag course down the scree into the Boundary Peak bowl. This turned out to be an approximately 1,500’ scree descent. I couldn’t help but think that after I return to claim Boundary Peak I’m going to have a t-shirt made up that says “I screed Boundary Peak.” One bright spot was the animal skull with 2 holes in it (like it was once worn as a necklace) that I found on the way down this seldom-used chute. Looks like a Native American artifact, though I’m no expert, nor can I even identify the animal it came from. In any event, we met up with a few older hikers from Utah on the way down and couldn’t help but think about the fact that we, just over half their age, failed while they succeeded. I guess standard routes are standard for a reason. Our hike back from the bowl to the trailhead also proved an annoyance, given the overgrowth and poor quality of the Trail Canyon Trail (most of which we had skipped on the way up) and the multitude of zigzagging animal trails along the way. By the time we got back to the trailhead, my legs looked like I had walked through barbed wire. Anyway, on to Lone Pine, CA.
Rather than backtracking through Benton, we headed South from Trail Canyon on Route 264, which becomes Route 266 (once you cross into California, if I’m not mistaken), and then headed West on Route 168 towards Big Pine. It was early evening by the time we made it into Lone Pine. We found the ranger station in Lone Pine and discovered a motel with vacancy literally across the street. Lone Pine is only around 3,000’ above sea level, but we opted to sleep there, within easy reach of restaurants, the ranger station and a shower, rather than seeking out altitude to retain our acclimatization.
The next morning I walked over to the ranger station, hoping to be able to pass up our dayhike permits for Thursday in exchange for overnight Wednesday-Thursday permits. Fortunately for us, there were plenty available. By mid-day we were headed up the road to Whitney Portal.
The bear situation was something new to us. We got mixed responses to whether plain water had to be kept in the bear canisters and whether our large duffel bags looked too much like coolers and should therefore be kept in the storage bins available at the parking lot. Ultimately we chose to err on the side of caution, cutting back on the water we brought along & putting it all in the bear can and stuffing all our belongings in the storage bins in the parking lot. As we later discovered, some of our neighbors at Outpost Camp had left water in the open, outside their tents, with no problems.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we hit the trail. We started out hiking with two women from the San Diego area at an easy pace. After a brief discussion with a ranger, we opted to stay at Outpost Camp, 3.8 miles in and 2,000’ up, that night. We arrived at Outpost Camp, pitched our tent and still had plenty of time to meet some of our neighbors and eat before dark. Despite the fact that the tent location was much better than on Boundary Peak, we still didn’t sleep all that well. Maybe it was the altitude – or the potential of bears roaming through the campsite.
The next morning we were on the trail by 5:45. For the most part we hiked with a native Aussie named Mark now living in the Bay area. He and his group were dayhiking, having started well before dawn. Mark was well ahead of his group and, though we were able to keep up with him most of the way to Trail Crest, when we met up again there we encouraged him to press on at the faster pace he was clearly able to maintain. We next saw Mark coming down as we were ascending the never-ending dirt path just below the summit.
I was surprised at the amount of exposure at several points along the trail. The cables section didn’t seem to really need cables – at least at this time of year – but near Trail Crest and at quite a few points after that the consequences of a fall off the trail would have been disastrous.
We arrived at the summit a little after 1. Surprisingly my fairly fresh digital camera batteries died immediately after taking a shot of my name in the register. For some reason I still had the old batteries in the case and tried those – they worked! I wonder if it was some bizarre form of altitude effect. Those supposedly-dead-but-replaced-at-altitude batteries are still working today. We took quite a few pictures and headed down after about a half an hour, knowing we still had to make it all the way to the Portal tonight. Not to mention that we were flying out of Oakland just before 11 the next morning!
We got back to Outpost Camp in the early evening, and broke camp as quickly as we could. We hiked out with 2 guys that had just completed a 20-day backpacking trip from Yosemite and offered them a ride to their car parked inside Yosemite, since it was on our way back to Oakland. What a way to see Yosemite – in the dark! Our sleep that night consisted of about an hour and a half at a roadside scenic overlook, but we made our return flight with time to spare.
After all was said and done, we batted .500 as far as highpoints were concerned, but we had a successful Ascent for Autism Research on Whitney. Thanks are due (in no particular order) to my wife, Laura, who watched the kids for the week, to all those who donated to NAAR on behalf of our climb, to Stony Burk, who provided us with some great photos of the Boundary Peak area, Mike Gelbwasser and Christine Wallgren for the great articles about the climb, Jack “cyberfool” from the forum and all those who responded to my inquiries on the Whitney Portal and mt-whitney.info forums, including “bearbnz,” who took aerial shots of Montgomery / Boundary for a new route we didn’t have the time to try; hope I didn’t miss anyone!