Scrambling & Sliding on Lone Pine Peak
For you wilderness newbies, Lone Pine Peak is the prominent “shark’s tooth” shaped peak you see as you drive into Lone Pine on Hwy 395. Many people mistake it for Mount Whitney, but Whitney is actually a bit harder to recognize from town.
I had hoped to get one more hike in before the fall snow blanketed the Sierras, so I talked my son Wes into one more 30-hour adventure. I picked him up at 6:00am on Saturday and we set out for Lone Pine.
This time of the season, no one is out there, so getting a walk-on permit only took a few minutes at the visitor center. By 10:30am we were parked and sorting gear at the Meysan Lake trailhead, a mile down the hill from Whitney Portal.
Getting on Trail Toward Lone Pine Peak
It was a beautiful 60-degree day. Wes and I both stayed light that day. Even with crampons we were both under 30 pounds of pack weight. We both have a bad habit of packing too much food and we resisted the temptation. In fact, I didn’t even bother packing a stove.
The trail is very well engineered, especially at the lower elevations, which made the hiking a joy. That said, the trail gains over 3,500 feet of elevation, ending at about 11,200′ at Grass Lake. Meysan Lake was another 500′ above us. I had wanted to see it, but I was a little lightheaded from the altitude and didn’t feel like pushing that hard. I definitely want to see it on my next visit. The photos I’ve seen are spectacular.
We got to camp about 2:00pm and had plenty of time to just hang out, set camp, and decompress a little bit. Soon after we arrived, a large fox came out of the trees across the lake. He stared at us for a minute, then lifted his leg to pee and did a little kick dance before he pranced off into the woods. This was his world, and he made sure we knew it.
We were situated in a deep box canyon with high granite walls rising thousands of feet above it on three sides. When the sun dropped below the crest the temperature fell dramatically – dropping to < 30 degrees that night. There were no campfires allowed, so as soon as it actually got dark, Wes and I just hunkered down in sleeping bags. It wasn’t a good night’s sleep, but it was a long night’s sleep.
A Cold Start Toward the Summit
We got up at first light, about 7:00am. I poured some half frozen milk I had kept under my sleeping bag into a bowl of frozen granola. It was like eating granola flavored ice cubes. I just had to get through it for the fuel it would give me. We rock-hopped over a half-frozen stream that drained from the lake and started up the steep shoot that leads to the summit ridge of Lone Pine Peak.
I think it helps to have a little warm up before you go hiking straight up a mountain, and we didn’t. At 10 minutes from camp, we were at the base of the mountain, climbing with hands and feet up an avalanche chute.
Wes was feeling absolutely horrible. In fact, I was wondering if he was going to continue. He had that classic headache, nausea, and lethargy you get when you move to altitude faster than your body wants to go. I gave him some 5-Hour Energy and suggested we move up past a large pillar above us before he made a decision to quit. He agreed and we soldiered on.
At about 90 minutes in, we turned a corner around that large pillar and we could both see the top of the ridge we were aiming for. Wes didn’t feel any better physically, but his spirits were buoyed emotionally by seeing a way out of this chute, so we continued on. We acquired the ridge and then continued on to the summit.
We knew there was a false summit that we were going to run into, but it still fooled me. As I climbed up to it I thought for sure we were at the summit, and we weren’t. I yelled down to Wes, “Not the summit,” and heard, “Aaaahhhhhhh” in reply. We continued a rocky traverse for another 15 minutes to get to the actual summit.
The summit was one of the most beautiful summits I have ever seen. On one side, Mount Whitney was across the valley, along with Irvine, Mallory, Russell, and a host of other high granite peaks. On the other side was the Owens Valley, and in the distance, Death Valley and Telescope Peak. We were standing between the highest and lowest points in the lower 48.
We were expecting a snow storm that afternoon, and the clouds were already rolling in, casting shadows across this vast beautiful landscape. We had a snack, and took some photos and video. I felt like a sponge, trying to take in as much as I could before the weather forced us from this magical place back to our native lower elevations.
We didn’t want to get caught in the snow storm, so we headed back down. That avalanche chute was really tough coming up because it was just so loose, and going down it was just as bad, just in a different way. Wes and I were both scree surfing half the way down. We were each causing small avalanches for over an hour of our descent. In some cases we were breaking 250lb+ boulders loose that tumbled down the mountain below us. It felt pretty good to get back to camp.
We packed up camp and made great time down the trail. By 3:00pm we were at the car, and by 8:00pm I was pulling into my driveway. In the days that followed, I continued to reminisce about the beauty of that place. I can’t wait to get back out there and climb Mallory or Irvine the next time.
Being in that beautiful place somehow connects me with the beautiful Creator who made it. He may be all-present, but He seems much more present when I’m up high with Him in some of His favorite places.