Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Mt Whitney "Dirty Dozen"

Hike #1 (Natalie Moore photo)
In a previous life, I spent 15 years competing in track & field and 5 years as a high school track coach in Bedford, MA. All along the way, I was lucky to have great coaches who made sure I understood why we were doing what we were doing. I was also interested in exploring physiology on my own to improve athletic performance.

So when my friend Cory Walsh approached me about putting together a Mt Whitney trip, I assembled a two-pronged program (hiking /running) to train for the climb. Today I will talk about the hiking /climbing aspect of training and the list of hikes I created called The Mount Whitney Dirty Dozen. Here they are in order:
  1. Malibu Creek – Backbone Trail loop 14.5 miles (23.5 km) 2,000 ft (610 m) vertical rise  2,500 ft (763 m) max elevation.  Use this hike to gauge your conditioning. You should finish this hike in under six hours including lunch break. If you cannot, and your Whitney date is less than seven months away, consider putting off Whitney until next year. Start getting yourself in shape to get in shape!
  2. Mt Lukens via Stone Canyon  8 mi (12.8 km) 3,200 ft (976 m) vert 5,068 ft (1,546 m) max el. There are only two reasons to climb Mt Lukens; To stand on the highest point in the LA city limits or to train for something bigger. Not a really pretty hike except the first and last mile, the summit is anticlimactic, and the view may be hazed out.  800 ft/mile is a good stiff test. If the creek at the trailhead is too high to cross safely, come back another day.
  3. Mt Wilson via Chantry Flat & Upper Winter Creek Trail 14 mi (22.5 km) 3,600 ft (1098 m) vert 5,710 ft (1742 m) max el. Scenery-wise, this hike is a big improvement over the last one.  Layout-wise, it’s very similar with a three mile warmup gaining only 300 feet followed by four miles of climbing at 800 ft/mile.
  4. Mt Baden-Powell via Vincent Gap  8 mi (12.8 km) 2,800 ft (854 m) vert 9,399 ft (2867 m) max el. This one should tickle your altitude bone. The real purpose is to prepare you for the next hike. On a scale of one to ten, the summit view is a stone cold 12.  The Baldy massif is spectacular. The 40-plus switchbacks get you psychologically prepared for the 97 (98? 99?) switchbacks awaiting you in a few months.
    Hike #4 (Suzanne Szalay photo)
  5. Mt San Jacinto via Tramway Trail 11.5 mi (18.5 km) 2,300 ft (702 m) vert 10,834 ft (3,302 m) max el. Our first foray into five-digit altitude. Every step is more gorgeous than the next. One friend of mine has hiked all over the world. This is her favorite.
  6. Cucamonga Peak via Icehouse Canyon 12 mi (19.3 km) 3,800 ft (1,159 m) vert 8,859 ft (2,702 m) max el. Taking a step back in altitude, we move forward in vertical rise, completing almost two-thirds of a single-day Whitney trek. You can thank me later for the scree slope near the top.
  7. Mt Baldy From Manker Flat via Baldy Notch & Devil’s Backbone 15 mi (24 km) 4,000 ft (1,220 m) vert 10,064 ft (3,070 m) max el.  This hike is fire road for the first four miles to the ski lodge at Baldy Notch (not to be confused with the Sierra Club Ski Hut).  Take it hard, then do the rest of the hike on Devil’s Backbone.  A lot harder than taking the chairlift. The descent is really long.  So is Mt Whitney.  Get used to it.
  8. Mt Wilson Toll Road 18 mi (29 km) 4500 ft (1,373 m) vert 5,710 ft (1,742 m) max el.  This road was built originally to haul the first telescope up the mountain. Graded to accommodate the mule teams, it’s a very steady 500 ft/mile. Can you summit in three hours?  An even longer descent than the last one. Your legs will be Jello from nine miles of resisting gravity on descent. Imagine what they’ll be like after 10.8 miles of descent.
  9. Mt Baldy from Baldy Village via Bear Flat 13 mi (21 km) 6,000 ft (1,830 m) vert 10,064 ft (3,070 m) max el. This is the make-or-break hike. Everything that came before is preparation for this hike. It’s not enough just to complete it. You should average two miles an hour for 6 ½ miles so summit in 3 ½ hours or so.  That’s why you can’t “cut the line” and prove to yourself you’re ready for Whitney merely by completing this hike. To average two miles an hour, you must be in pretty good shape. The hike averages almost 1000 ft/mile for 6 ½ miles. Actually, the first mile is easy!  So it’s far more precipitous than that. You’ll have the best views in the valley and I’ll almost guarantee seeing bighorn sheep. The summit ridge is a moonscape. The approach to the summit proper is much mellower than Devil’s Backbone. Good thing too. Be careful going down.
    Hike #9
  10. Mt San Gorgonio via Vivian Creek 18.4 mi (29.6 km) 5,423 ft (1,654 m) vert 11,503 ft (3,508 m) max el. If you complete this one in eight hours (not counting summit time) and hit the performance goal for the last one, you are well on your way. Incredible 360-degree views. The descent will send you around the bend. Sorry about the first mile.
    Hike #10 (Mauricio Aviles photo)
  11. San Bernardino Peak via Angelus Oaks 16 mi (25.8 km) 4,731 ft (1,443 m) vert 10,691 ft (3261 m) max el. This is your victory lap. Not as hard as the last two but freakishly beautiful. Probably my favorite climb in SoCal. Use it to pat yourself on the back, but beware. If you’re in the right condition, the summit will appear sooner than you think. It’s also on a spur trail so don’t go by it. Complete this hike 7 to 10 days before…
  12. Mt Whitney via Whitney Portal 21.6 mi (34.8 km) 6,148 ft (1,874 m) vert 14,508 ft (4,422 m) max el. The Big Kahuna. Be careful and remember:  Summiting is optional. Descent is mandatory! 
The three most important elements of any Mt Whitney training hike are length, vertical gain, and maximum elevation. The first hikes deal with one element, the next few combine two, and the final hikes put all three together. As with any training program, we adapt gradually to an increasing workload to prevent injury and harden ourselves for the rigors ahead. Since there are 11 actual training hikes, do each one two weeks apart with your running in between. With at least a week before climbing Whitney after the last hike, 23 weeks is the minumum time to train specifically for a successful Mt Whitney climb.

In the future, I will feature each of the Dirty Dozen hikes with its own post containing trailhead info, parking and highlights.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Cautionary Tale of Death on Mt Whitney

Probably the last thing on 60-year-old Yukio Kato's mind when he woke up last Sunday was his own demise.  However, that's exactly what happened when Mr Kato fell 200 feet to his death from the Mt Whitney Main Trail on September 1.

According to a member of his party, Mr Kato suffered from altitude sickness for about 90 minutes before  the accident and fell on his way back from the summit.  Published accounts report he fell over a "cliff" at an altitude of 13,500 feet approximately one mile from the summit.

View of trail approximately 1 mile from the summit
Unfortunately, something in this description doesn't match up. The altitude one mile from the summit is approximately 14,000 - 14,200 feet.  It would be impossible to fall 200 feet downward at that location because the relatively mild talus and scree slope prevents a long fall.  There is no cliff.  If the altitude is correct, that places his location just past the junction with the John Muir Trail  where it narrows to four feet wide in spots with a lot of air off your left ear.  My calls to the appropriate agencies for confirmation of the fall location went unreturned so we lose an opportunity to understand exactly where this incident occurred.

The Main Trail at 13,500 feet approximately 1.9 miles from summit.  More trail visible on the sunlit midground outcrop.  Note steep dropoff.
Details are sketchy regarding the exact circumstances surrounding Mr Kato's death.  However, the trail is extremely narrow with exposure in this area because crews hewed it out of solid rock.  An altitude-sick climber like Mr Kato could simply wobble off the trail and suffer a fatal fall.  Thomas Rockwell, a Bakersfield businessman, sat with the body until relieved by Park Service personnel summoned by his personal locator beacon. 

In this article on the website, Mr Rockwell calls for better cel phone service on Mt Whitney in hopes of saving lives.  I will disagree respectfully with Mr Rockwell.  As my colleague, friend, and respected mountaineer Tony Yeary says, "Find safety between your ears, not in your backpack."

backpacking, ultralight backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, alpine-style, ice climbing

Nobody wants to see the backcountry studded with cel phone towers as well as the infrastructure required to service them.  The wilderness is what it is; a wild place preserved as pristinely as possible for the plants and animals living there and for future generations to get a sense of what the country was like before man put his stamp on it.  The wilderness is not an amusement park.  Therefore, we ourselves take responsibility for preparing physically, mentally, and materially to assure the safest journey possible.

I shudder to think about the other consequences of greater cel service.  People don't pay enough attention here in town already.  Imagine someone walking off a cliff while texting, "I'm having a great ti......."

We must also listen to our more sensible side because many of us suffer from what degreed professionals call "non-productive persistence."  Despite our deteriorating physical and mental condition we struggle onward, fixated on achieving our goal.  Unfortunately, we reach a point where we can go no further.  Yet we are still short of our objective and farther from home than ever.  So all we did was place ourselves in more jeopardy and turn a tough day into a potential rescue situation.

Given the sketchy information we have regarding the circumstances, Mr Kato may have pushed through several warning signs of altitude sickness in his desire to summit but did not leave enough reserve for the trip home.  Know this:  80 percent of all mountain fatalities all over the world and throughout history happen on the way back down. As Ed Viesturs so aptly put it, "Getting to the top is optional.  Getting down is mandatory."

Find the latest copy of  Accidents in North American Mountaineering.  The publishers assemble and print a new one each year.  Note how few injury accidents or deaths are due to faulty equipment.  Most injuries and fatalities occur because equipment was used improperly, used past its proper life span, or the users did not have the experience to attempt what they were attempting.  These are all preventable.  Some simply by the addition of experience.  In other words, learn to fix solid belay anchors from seasoned climbers and much practice in less dire circumstances, not from your smartphone while hanging off a cliff.

Even if you never plan to climb class 5, experience and training are important.  Learning how your mind works at altitude under stress cannot be overstated.  We all lose a few IQ points up high.  Knowing that about yourself and making good decisions is a skill acquired with practice.

Rather than more cel service, let's all acquire the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary to ensure our safe return.  The best way to signal a rescue is avoiding the need for one.

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