Monday, October 22, 2018

A Week on the Lowest to Highest Route

We marched - no, straggled - up the last few feet to the summit, our lungs straining to take in as much of the thin air as we could. The hut burst into view suddenly, a rush of elation for our weary selves. Suddenly, those plans to stop and stage interesting "approaching the summit" photographs went out the window, and we rushed headlong toward that final summit block. One quick scramble move. The end. The summit. The big finish.

In October of 2018, I hiked the Lowest to Highest Route with a friend, Nemo. The Lowest to Highest (L2H) begins at the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin in Death Valley, 282' below sea level) and ends at the highest point in the Lower 48 (Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, 14,505'). Between the two endpoints is 135 miles' worth of endorheic basins and austere desert mountain ranges. It doesn't rain too often in this country. Water sources are limited. Vegetation is sparse. Wildlife encounters are almost non-existent. 

But the L2H is amazing. It's scenic at times, in a moonscape sort of way. It's extremely challenging. It's chock-full of historic ghost towns, salt trams, and mining ops. It's life on the edge, backpacking-wise.

Day 1

It gets hot in a hurry around here. In order to beat the heat, we woke up entirely too early and started hiking across Badwater Basin at first light. Badwater's floor consists mostly of salt flats. Water drains into the basin and evaporates in the hot desert sun, leaving behind salt deposits that coat the valley floor with a smooth(ish) coat of white.

Perspective is an impossibility on the salt flats. The other side of the valley looked so close that it felt like we could reach out and touch it. But we would walk across the salt for miles, and for hours, before reaching the west end of the valley. Occasional patches of salt and mud, still wet from recent heavy rainfall, slowed us down, but we persisted and reached the other side of the valley by mid morning. 

The Lowest to Highest isn't a trail, really. It's a combination of roads, trails, burro paths, gravelly washes, and cross-country travel. We left the salt flats behind and headed up Hanaupah Canyon (don't ask me how to pronounce that) cross-country, eventually joining up with a jeep road. After a few miles, we reached Hanaupah Spring. Since we still didn't know how to pronounce it, we dubbed it "Weed Spring", an illusion to a recently-busted pot-growing operation there. The NPS recommended that we didn't drink the water, as the pot farmers had potentially contaminated the spring with some insidious pesticide. But it was our only water option, so we drank it, and have suffered no ill effects thus far.

We'd gained about 4,000 feet already, but still had 6,000 to go before we hit the Telescope Peak ridgeline. I really can't describe just how monstrous a 10,000' climb is. Prior to the L2H, the longest sustained vertical climb I'd ever done was about 6,000', on a climb out of the Grand Canyon. The biggest climb on the AT is about 5,000'. On the CDT, it's about 3,000'. Ten. Thousand. Vertical. Feet. Yikes.

We left the jeep road behind and started climbing, straight up the ridge. It was a steep climb, but the footing was good and we had identified a little flat spot about 1,500' up where we could camp. The task was made considerably harder by the five liters of water we were each carrying. We found a nice little campsite with views of Badwater Basin and hit the hay.

Day 2

It's never particularly pleasant to tackle a long climb first thing in the morning, particularly when it's steep. We gained about 5,000' in three miles, entirely off-trail. While no scrambling was required, we were careful to avoid kicking down loose rocks onto each other. The climb was slow and long, but the temperatures stayed relatively pleasant. 

We finally, mercifully, gained the ridge around noon. After a long break and a bit of lunch, we headed down a lovely maintained trail for a mile or two before we veered off-trail once more, down a steep, loose slope into Tuber Canyon. We would follow Tuber all the way down, back to the desert floor. Ten thousand feet up and nearly as much down. The L2H was not exactly providing a gentle introduction.

I was expecting Tuber Canyon to be absolute misery. After all, I've walked my fair share of off-trail desert canyons before, and they inevitably turn into brushy, scratched-up slogs. But Tuber was different. This place is so arid that almost nothing grows. The walking was slowed, however, by a lot of unstable rock that really tore up my bad ankle. I'd feel the effects of Tuber Canyon for a couple days every time I took a step.

We camped on a flat bench about 10 feet above the bottom of the canyon. We found a few particularly murky mud puddles to get a little water from. I ran it through a coffee filter, Nemo's squeeze filter, and finally an AquaMira treatment. It wasn't great, but I thought it tasted acceptable. It's far from the worst water I've ever consumed. 

Day 3

We had hoped to get a few miles farther on Day 2, but the hijinks up and down Telescope Peak had slowed us down somewhat. Time was of the essence, as we wanted to cross the dreaded Panamint Valley before things got too hot. Panamint Valley is similar in nature to Badwater, but instead of salt, the floor of the valley was covered in sand.

We were up and hiking before first light and made a beeline to our water cache past some old mining ruins. Water caching worked well, for us, but I looked like a bit of a hobo with a smashed water jug strapped to the top of my pack. We headed down a series of monotonous dirt roads, nearly level, along the edge of the Panamint Valley.

The wind, our constant-companion-to-be, picked up as the day grew hotter. It was annoying, dusty, loud, and at times hard into walk into, but at least it kept us somewhat cool. Not wasting any time, we cut directly across the sand playa, off-trail, in the direction of Panamint Valley Resort. 

The hot sun, the fierce wind, and the long walk took something out of us. By time we reached the Panamint Springs Resort, we were both pretty beat down. Fortunately, we were able to get a burger and field awkward inquiries from busloads of clean and fresh tourists about what the heck we were doing. I guess it's hard to disguise the hiker trashiness. We resupplied out a bucket that we had stashed in the nearby desert. Everything chocolate had turned to liquid and my cheese had become a little, um, extra-flavorful, but my standards aren't high. 

A couple of tough and sore miles later, we made camp and were both sound asleep by time the sun set.

Day 4

I woke up to an inflamed Achilles tendon. I'd been limping since the heinous rocks of Tuber Canyon, and my altered gait probably caused it to seize up. We mulled our options and elected to press forward, albeit at a reduced pace for me. We climbed out of a canyon and traversed the top of Darwin Plateau, completely off-trail, to our next crossing of the main highway through the park. As we neared 5,000' of elevation, we met a little Joshua tree, the first of many we'd see over the next few days.

The off-trail traverse did no favors for my ankle, as black, volcanic boulders made for fairly slow and painful terrain underfoot. But after crossing the main park road, we followed a road - a mixture of pavement and dirt, something that obviously hasn't seen a lick of maintenance in decades. I was able to keep up better on the easier terrain, particularly after lunch and a break at our next water cache, under a delightful Joshua tree. The road was straight, flat, and boring, but we didn't mind the reprieve from the brutality of the first three days. Yesterday's wind continued to blow straight out of the north, though it had a distinct cold edge to it today. I wore my wind shirt all day long.

Day 5

The long, boring roadwalk continued as we gradually climbed into the Inyo Range. At the top of the road lay an old ghost town, Cerro Gordo. It's an old mining town that thrived for a few years during the 1870's and 1880's, but now is completely deserted except for the caretaker who lives there. The dry desert air has preserved the town well, and it was great fun to poke around the site. We grabbed our third water cache and had an early lunch.

After Cerro Gordo, we followed a series of roads and trails, each clinging perilously to the side of the mountain, to the crest of the Inyos. We stumbled upon a few old mining cabins and an elaborate tram works that was originally used to transport salt across the mountains to the town of Lone Pine. Across the valley, the imposing eastern escarpment of the Sierra beckoned.

I've never felt a wind that cold. Whenever we were in the lee of a mountain, the sun blazed hot, and I sweated buckets. But as soon as we were in the line of fire again, that wind would immediately sap every bit of warmth from my body. Cold, harsh, constant. It taxed us mentally. We pushed deep into the evening hours, trying to get to a sheltered spot off the ridge so we didn't have to camp in that frigid wind. We found a small saddle just as the sun was setting.

Day 6

Town days are great motivation. We woke up only about 10 miles from Lone Pine, and made quick work of the miles. The descent from the Inyos down Long John Canyon was our last off-trail segment of the trip. With a little creativity we found a nice route around some cliff bands and to the bottom of the barren canyon, whereupon we followed a road down to the valley floor.

We made it to the little cafe just in time for a big, delicious breakfast. I made quick work of an omelet and french toast. But we didn't dally too long. We stashed most of our stuff at the hostel in town, and hiked twelve miles out of town to Whitney Portal trailhead, where Nemo's car was parked. Above us, Whitney and its sisters towered in truly impressive fashion. For the first time all trip, we had entered a subalpine environment, with large trees, abundant water, and greenery all around.

We picked up Nemo's car and drove back to Lone Pine, where we picked up a permit to hike Whitney the next day and spent the night at the hostel.

Day 7

After another terrific breakfast at the cafe, we drove back up to Whitney Portal and began our 21 mile, 7000' ascent of Whitney. The trail was well graded; 99 switchbacks built into the mountainside. We ascended through multiple ecosystems, past multiple lakes, and emerged from treeline where we encountered a bit of snow on shady aspects. A few ambitious day-hikers were making the trek, but most people we saw were spending the night in the backcountry. We made good progress and summited in a little less than six hours. I could not imagine a better day. The sky shone clear blue, the air was crisp, perfect for climbing without sweating. I'm not normally a fast hiker, but with 3,500 miles on my legs so far this year, I flew past all comers on the ascent. 

On top, we had a snack and looked back over our route. From our lofty perch, we glimpsed the Inyos and, in the distance, Telescope Peak. That ten-thousand foot climb of doom. It wasn't easy, but it was so worth it. Lowest to highest. In a week. What a terrific adventure.

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