Backpacking the High Sierra

Onion Valley To Mount Whitney

This story is being narrated by Harsh, my husband. He wrote the article and I helped to publish it here. :)

Introduction

Mount Whitney is the highest mountain peak in the lower 48 states in America. It stands at 14508ft above sea level. There are multiple ways to reach the summit and permits are required to hike it. It is also the southern terminus of the iconic John Muir Trail aka JMT. Hiking Mount Whitney is a physically challenging task and requires altitude training (i.e spending time above 10000 feet a few days before the hike) to avoid altitude sickness.

Permits for hiking via the main trail are allotted via a lottery.

For other longer routes wilderness permits can be obtained through www.recreation.gov. Note that there is a Whitney Zone Exit permit needed if you plan to hike in from this route and exiting from the main trail. Permits can be booked 6 months in advance and usually gets filled pretty quickly for Whitney Trail.

Information:

https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recarea/?recid=20806

http://www.whitneyzone.com/wz/

Pre-planning

I have hiked Mount Whitney twice before attempting the longer route of ~50 miles from Onion Valley this time. Each time in previous attempts I was fascinated by the trail on the other side of the main trail and wanted to attempt it. This year with pandemic and all other travel plans cancelled provided the perfect opportunity to attempt a multi-day hike in the High Sierra. I booked permits for this Trip at midnight on February 21 to start the hike on August 22 which includes Whitney Zone exit permit on August 28.

Planning the Trip:

We extensively use www.caltopo.com to plan multi-day backpacking Trips. It has a nice interface for profiling (Distance + Elevation profile) the trip. This information along with the physical ability of each individual in the group can be used to mark potential camping spots near water bodies.

Please leave a detailed plan of your trip with a Friend or Family member who is not accompanying you on the Trip.

Exercise:

Any good exercising routine with focus on Back, Legs and Core can be followed for physical preparation starting at least 3 months from the trip for at least 2 times a week. An additional day or two of cardio per week is a bonus.

Food Prep:

Nutrition is of utmost importance when going for trips > 3 days to be able to enjoy the trip. In our previous trips we learnt that there are limited vegetarian options in the pre-prepared dehydrated meals available in stores and also does not fulfil nutrition needs. For this trip we dehydrated our own home cooked food keeping in mind enough calories and nutrition needs. For sake of covering the miles per day we can only afford one full meal during the day.

Dinner Menu:

Day1: Vegetarian Chili.

Day2: Bisi Bele Bhat.

Day3: Pasta.

Day4: Vegetarian Chili + Pasta.

Day5: Bisi Bele Bhat.

Snacks: Sukhadi (Regional Indian dessert), Nuts, Clif Bars. Nuun Tablets, Indian Soups, Protein bars, Vegan Cookies and Coffee.

Picture below shows food we took enough to last for a 6 day trip.

Crew: Harsh, Parita and a mutual Friend.

Due to many forest fires in California happening at the same time as we had planned the trip we were skeptical of the Trip. A day before our trip’s start date we called Rangers at Inyo National Forest to check on air quality in the area. The Rangers said the air quality is poor at lower elevations but there are no active fires in the forest itself. We decided to drive to the Trailhead and access the situation from there. Since the Onion Valley Trailhead is at 9600ft we were confident of the air quality up that high. We also made contingency plans to evacuate out if smoke increases.

The Trip

Day 0: Drive to Lone Pine.

We packed our bags, triple checked the list and headed to a small town called Lone Pine on highway 395. We had a private room booked at Whitney Portal Hostel to stay for the night. Once our friend arrived we went to drop off one car at Whitney Portal which was the end of our Trip.

View of Mount Whitney from Whitney Portal Hostel.

Day 1: Onion Valley to Bubbs Creek over Kearsarge Pass.

We arrived at Onion Valley Trailhead in our other car at around 8 AM. Air was crisp and no sign of smoke up high even though conditions in the town we stayed overnight were not good. We made a decision to go ahead with the trip with plans to take alternate routes out from any given day of the Trip. Took us about an hour to pack the backpack and clear the car of any scented items to be stored in the bear box at the trailhead.

Onion Valley Trailhead

Hike up to Kearsarge pass can be taken as a day hike. It is 4.5 miles from the trailhead and about 2200 feet elevation gain. The Trail is a treat with a few alpine lakes along the way.

Gilbert Lake
Big Pothole Lake

Right after Gilbert lake we cross 10000ft elevation and as we go higher it becomes more tough to walk as the air becomes thinner. A general advice in high altitude terrain is to take it slow going up and have plenty of food and water to avoid Altitude sickness. If you feel any symptoms of Altitude Sickness (nausea, headache, stomach cramps, dizziness etc) you need to go back down to lower elevation immediately.

The pass is in sight after a long slog up from Gilbert Lake. At this point for the final push we devour a couple of pieces to Sukhadi each and on to the pass.

We reached the top of the pass at around 11:30 AM. The view on both sides of the pass is simply breathtaking. On the other side we can see Kearsarge Pinnacles and Kearsarge Lakes right below it. On the far side we can see a big lake called BullFrog Lake which is one of the prettiest alpine lakes of the Trip.

Spent about an hour at the top of the pass soaking in the amazing scenery. There are 2 trails to reach Bubbs Creek where we planned to camp. One trail drops steeply after the pass and goes near BullFrog Lake and the other stays high until BullFrog Lake and then drops steeply. We chose the high trail to look at BullFrog lake more closely from above. I can bet the other trail was also spectacular.

Kearsarge Pass.
BullFrog Lake from the High trail.

After passing the lake we started descending towards Vidette Meadow and soon the view of East Vidette came in which is a massive perfect Mountain.

After a few stream crossings we arrive at Bubbs Creek (9500ft) and start looking for a camping spot. We find a nice spot near the creek and among trees to call it home for the night. We set up tents and did some stretching before re-hydrating and enjoying Vegetarian Chili and a cup of coffee. It was getting dark around 7:30 PM and we went to bed around 8:30.

Day 2: Bubbs Creek to up and over Forester Pass:

We woke up at 7:00 AM and Parita started heating water for breakfast and others started packing up camp. We had soup and cookies for breakfast along with Tea and Coffee and hit the trail at 8:30 AM. We knew this was going to be a tough day of climbing over 3700ft in 7 miles. The trail follows Bubbs Creek for about 4 miles with numerous small waterfalls on the way. Trail is also surrounded by colorful wildflowers.

Bubbs Creek.

We were above the TreeLine and we could see a thunderstorm brewing up near Forester Pass. Thunderstorms are common around afternoon during summer months in Sierras specially in high country specially near mountain passes. We decided to set up camp at the base of the pass and waited for the storm to clear. It rained for about 1 hour and then stopped, we had an early dinner as we could still see dark clouds over the pass. Finally at around 4:00PM dark clouds cleared and we pressed on towards the pass.

Soon we reached a pristine and beautiful unnamed lake at the base of the pass. A perfect spot to take a small break before pressing on.

Trail to Forester Pass is spectacular overlooking some of the rugged terrain found in Sierras.

Forester Pass stands at 13200ft above sea level and is the highest point of the Pacific Crest Trail. We reached the top of the Pass at 6:00PM and had the entire area to ourselves.

Forester Pass

The trail on the other side of Forester Pass is an engineering marvel and scenery just as marvelous.

We reached the base of the Pass on the other side around 7:30 PM and it was getting dark. We set up camp at a small pond at the base.

Day 3: South of Forester Pass to Wallace Creek.

With a tough Pass Behind us and a relatively easy day ahead of us we did not rush to trail in the morning. We had a slow start and enjoyed the wonderful campsite.

Today we were going to do ~8 miles and only 800 ft of elevation gain. We hit the trail at 9:30 AM.

Trail is pretty flat and downhill for the first 4 miles. From the trail we could see some beautiful lakes and a few 14000ft+ high peaks including our first view of Mt Whitney.

First View of Mt Whitney peak in the Center.

Just after crossing Tyndall Creek and heading into the forest towards BigHorn Plateau we started noticing smoke rolling in from a fresh fire in the South. We were worried and luckily were near a Ranger Patrol Station. Our Friend went to Ranger Station while me and Parita were also thinking about alternate escape routes in case the fire was in our way. One route was to walk 2 miles to the top of Sawtooth Pass and to Sawtooth Pass trailhead.

In about 30 mins our Friend returned with information from Rangers that the fire was outside the park and to take it slow in smoke. They also advised to start hiking early in the morning to avoid smoke. With this fresh information we continued as planned towards Wallace Creek.

BigHorn plateau is one of the prettiest spots on the entire JMT but it was not meant for us to enjoy its beauty as it was hidden behind smoke and thunderstorms over the high mountains.

Arrived at Wallace Creek at around 5:00 PM and had Bisi Bele Bath and a cup of coffee and did some much needed laundry. Campsite was next to a beautiful Creek. We observed that smoke rises during hot periods of day and subsided as it became cooler. We decided to start hiking super early in the upcoming days and reach the campsite before afternoon. Went to bed around 7:00 PM with a soothing background sound of Wallace Creek flowing right next to camp.

Day 4: Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake.

We woke up at 4:00 AM and decided to eat just Clif bars and Sukhadi as breakfast and get going as soon as we can. We were on trail at 5:00AM and we only had 6.7 miles with 1200 ft elevation gain on an easy day which was much needed before a huge Summit push from Guitar Lake the next morning.

Right from above the treeline we could see huge mountain peaks above BigHorn Plateau.

After about 5 miles from the Camp we reached this beautiful Timberline lake and decided to have some snacks.

With Mt Whitney visible nearby we knew we are pretty close to Guitar Lake. We reached Guitar Lake at 10:00 AM and had the luxury to choose the campsite as we were the first group to reach the lake. We saw wind patterns and selected a campsite behind a boulder which protected from most of the wind. Campsite at Guitar Lake is by far the best backcountry campsite I have stayed at with Mt Whitney and Mt Russel as backdrop. Enjoy the pictures from the awesome Guitar Lake below.

Guitar Lake

We knew we had a huge next day with a total of 16 miles and 3000ft elevation gain starting at 11400ft at Guitar Lake to Summit at 14508ft and descending 6500ft to trailhead. You will know why this lake is called Guitar lake in the pictures from next day.

Spending an entire day at Guitar lake was totally worth it. It provided enough time to thoroughly enjoy the scenery and a much needed rest. We had an early dinner at 5:00PM and went to bed at 6:00PM with the sun still shining. We had planned to wake up at 1:00 AM to try and reach the Summit as early as possible.

Day 5: Guitar Lake to Mt Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal.

We were getting used to the simple life in Wilderness. Wake up, eat breakfast, pack up camp, hike till the next campsite, set up camp, eat dinner and sleep. We were disconnected from the outside world for more than 4 days now and were absolutely loving the peace. It feels great to disconnect from the fast life of ours and for a few days move at the pace of your feet. Mind starts to clear up leaving all the worries for day to day life behind.

We knew the trip would end today and had a bittersweet feeling. Felt good to finally be able to talk with Friends and Family but at same time felt bad to leave behind this simple way of life.

We woke up at 1:00 AM as planned and after a heavy breakfast of Cookies, Sukhadi and Clif bars we hit the trail at 3:00 AM. Not very far from Guitar lake are the 10 brutal and steep switchbacks that gain over a 1000 feet.

We reached the junction of JMT to Mt Whitney main trail at 6:00 AM @13600ft above sea level. From this point onwards we dropped our heavy packs and took a lighter day pack and some water for the final 2 miles to Summit.

Trail Junction

I bet you can spot Guitar Lake in this Pic.

The final 2 miles to Summit is an awesome trail with views of Guitar Lake and Hitchcock mountains and lakes. Trail seems precarious from far but it is very safe. There are a few windows on the trail which let you peep on the other side.

Parita started feeling anxious during the final 2 miles and felt something will go wrong. I told her that this is all in your head and that she was in very good shape. We pressed on and reached Summit at 8:30 AM.

Parita signing the register at the Top.

At Mt. Whitney Summit, 3rd time :)

We stayed at the summit for about an hour and were glad that everything from this point onwards is downhill 11 miles and losing more than 6000ft to the car at Whitney Portal.

There was cellphone service at the top and we decided to book a room to stay the night at the Whitney Portal hostel. We called our family back in India and Friends and let them know we were safe. We also showed them the view from Summit. It was good to see everyone on a video call.

We backtracked our steps to the JMT junction and took our packs over to Trail Crest to cross over to the side of Main Trail. Soon we were on the infamous 99 switchbacks. 99 switchbacks can become quite boring after some time and hence we decided to count each one of them for entertainment and they are indeed exactly 99 to Trail Camp.

We reached Trail camp (A popular camping spot for people approaching from the main trail) at around 12:00 PM and were very hungry and exhausted. We decided to take a break for lunch. Had Bisi Bele Bath and a cup of coffee to energize ourselves for a steep 6 miles descent.

All of us have been on the main trail before with Parita unsuccessful on 2 tries from there due to bad weather and hence we did not take much pictures but powered through to the trailhead. For people coming from the main trail we suggest camping at Consultation lake picture below instead of Trail Camp to avoid crowds, marmots and a beautiful lake to overlook.

We reached the trailhead at 7:30PM. I was exhausted but Parita was in high spirits and was literally running on the way down. After 5 days on trail the fries at Whitney Portal Store seemed like heaven and we gulped them within 5 minutes.

Consultation Lake

Final Thoughts:

This was one of the best adventures which we will cherish for the rest of our lives. I had a wonderful bonding time with my wife without distractions. We feel blessed and thankful to have had this opportunity.

Looking forward to more such adventures next year.

Please practice leave no trace principle while out there in the wilderness so that others that arrive after you are going find the place as it was. Take only memories and leave only footprints.

Leave no trace principles:

https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/

We absolutely love the Sierra mountain range and we visit them at least twice a year. There are multiple long and short hikes and just scenery in general on Hwy 395 is awesome.

Feel free to reach out to us for suggestions or questions or any help for your next trip in the Sierras.

Follow us on: @the_hiking_duo on Instagram for more pictures and information.

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