It's an inconvenient accident of geology that the contiguous US's low point and high point are a bit over 100 miles apart. It's inconvenient because that means that, regardless of the challenges in the middle, some people (me) will be compelled to walk that distance, to have connected via continuous footpath those two locations. The weather window is brief; one must beat out the snow on Whitney but also miss the scorching fall temperatures of Death Valley. In years with early snowfall, there is no real weather window at all, an L2H attempt must simply accept a snowy Whitney summit and the hazards of shoulder season Mountaineer's Route. The valley temperatures before October are punishing, and the spring season is even riskier, snow-wise, than the fall.
Friends tagging along means I get real pictures of myself-- and on film!
There are trips that seem fun. They traverse beautiful terrain, or provide solitude, or are well-traveled and highly-communal, or have some deep mythology around them. Lowest to Highest is none of these; I would recommend it to absolutely nobody that wasn't already considering it. The sun is punishing, and in the daylight hours, the heat in the low basins makes for slow progress. Progress dips to "faltering" if you're on one of the many off-trail sections or significant climbs. And that's only if the wind isn't intent on filling your eyes and ears and mouth with sand, at which point all you can do is find a ditch or rock to provide some shelter, or just turn your back to the prevailing wind and wait it out. And god forbid you enter the shade, or climb, or the sun goes down, at which point the temperature plummets from the 90s to the 20s, and you're suddenly scrambling to put on every piece of clothing you own. And then the sun comes out again, and you repeat.
An emergency hitch out of a sandstorm; every piece of clothing I own
Oh, and let's not forget that there is little to no natural water out here. I cached water beforehand, loose 2.5 gallon jugs strewn about the desert, but we still faced water carries of up to 30 miles-- often, more than half the weight I was carrying was water. My backpack's shoulder straps started to separate due to the load, and the main compartment was usually mostly filled with soft water bottles.
You'll be seeing a lot of my (life-saving) sun umbrella in these photos.
The point is that this is a sufferfest, and not for general public consumption. A successful L2H group will need experience from thru-hikes, off-trail travel, detailed logistics planning, and probably need a penchant for pain, or be not quite right in the head. This is a self-administered roast. There will be times you carry 15 lbs of water, and times you have no choice but to scramble up a hill for a few thousand vertical feet, or maybe 10. There are road walks galore, and logistical challenges, and yet somehow it was all worth it, and I will do it again, and I will evangelize it to anyone who will listen.
Badwater-Telescope is one of the largest climbs up a single mountain in the contiguous US.
Team "Hot & Dumb", so-called because it was Hot, and we were Dumb, tackled the route 10/20 - 10/26, which is a barely adequate amount of time had we done the route before or not been unlucky with weather and circumstance. As it was, however, this ended up not being enough time to make up for a series of setbacks. All told, we walked about 105 miles, and closer to 90 route miles of the official 135. 6 permits were issued, 5 people arrived on day 1, and 3 of us summited Mt. Whitney. Our group had a combined hiking pedigree of around 20 thousand miles.
We cowboy camped in the parking lot at Badwater Basin, arriving around midnight with a plan to set out at sunrise. We were greeted with spectacular colors once we awoke, thin, wispy clouds turning pink, reflecting in the saline pond water. It was strikingly funny to me-- years ago I'd visited here, as a kid, and if someone had told me I'd one day be sleeping on the cement in front of the tourist placards, wedged up against the railing, getting ready to walk across several mountain ranges to get to Mt. Whitney, I would've thought "wow, my life sure got horribly off-track somewhere". Maybe it did. Maybe not.
Our group was kick-ass. Lobster, Shitless, and Hand Me Down are all PCTers, some more than once (ish). Mads and Shitless are badass ultrarunners. Lobster's finished the Bulger List, and various folks in the group have done the Long Trail, Pinhoti, Uintas, Ozark Highline, Tahoe Rim-- the list goes on. I was the least qualified person to be there. My ostensible qualification was off-trail experience and heat tolerance, but I was mostly there to carry the frisbee and because the power of friendship overcomes logic and critical thinking. I hope to be as cool as any of them when I grow up.
It was 85F overnight, and began heating up more as soon as the sun rose. Biting flies pestered us in our sleep. We got our early start, and set out across the salt flats, almost 300 feet below sea level. Progress was slowed as portions of the flats were discovered to be muddy. "Discovered" here is a euphemism for a very soggy, muddy, slimy, ankle-deep surprise, followed by "oh shit oh SHIT ew GROSS god WHY".
Tracks of shame & sin
It's bad practice to cross the flats when they are wet, since the footprints may remain until the next rain. We hadn't heard anything about the flats being wet from the groups ahead of us, but I felt guilty during the crossing all the same. Luckily, the last of my guilt was washed away with yesterday's rainfall (1/2/23). Our footprints are most likely gone now! We took some solace by following pre-existing steps other groups had left. And we slowly aimed ourselves toward Hanaupah Canyon, holding water and shade.
Patch of greenery, Hanaupah is the visible notch center-left.
We weren't fast enough across the basin to beat the heat, and the temperature slowly trickled into the upper 90's. We hit one of our many probable firsts, which was tossing around a frisbee on the far side of Badwater Basin. No reason for anyone to be there. Much less reason for anyone to play frisbee.
The minimal elevation we were gaining wasn't helping out with the temperature. An attempt to shortcut a bend in the route taught us how much slower the off-trail was than the gravel road. This heat was going to take some getting used to. The air was perfectly still. I became convinced that my sun umbrella was making matters worse by blocking what little wind I was creating as I walked. I tried out various configurations; nothing seemed to help. We baked. There was no way around it.
Taking a break. I'm legs.
We finally found intermittent shade as we wormed our way under the walls of Hanaupah Canyon. It was a small consolation, since we'd be climbing straight up them the next day. Some group members began struggling with the heat, and I dropped back with them to take care; the advance group, low on water, pushed ahead but did not find the spring. Dejected, they returned to bear bad news. After consulting the map, we got them back on track. I remained with the rear group, but due to our pace, we ran low on water. Anticipating this, we'd asked the front group, once they'd recovered, to ferry back water. We pushed stubbornly on, stopping frequently, rationing water, seeking shade. We treated symptoms of heat exhaustion. I started to get worried. It was Day 1, after all.
We heard voices heading our way, and called out. The advance group brought back a few liters of water; we were down to maybe a quarter liter. We also turned out to be maybe an eighth of a mile from the spring, fully shaded. We talked through some of the miscommunications and wrong turns of the day. It was a difficult, unsafe situation that we needed to avoid if our attempt on L2H was going to be successful. As fried as our brains were, I thought we got to a good place.
I tried to enjoy the soft glow of the desert sunset and the cold, flowing water. We'd reach a cache tomorrow, but it'd been sitting in a plastic jug in the desert for going on a week. Spring water was better. I filtered out my 8L for the following day and found a good spot to cowboy. The thought of cooking hot food wasn't appealing; I cold-soaked cous cous.
Looking back down Hanaupah Canyon.
This would be the first instance of a pattern of me over-carrying water. Though I never needed it, it often came in handy for group members. After almost dying in Big Sur (I promise I'll write it up someday) I've been skittish around water. The upside and downside of this is that I often rolled into sources with a couple liters to spare, adding 5-ish pounds to my kit. Water is funny, too-- the less you carry, the faster you go, and therefore the less you need. But, best to be prepared, especially when you can only fill up once a day.
In the morning, the climb up the canyon started well. We made excellent progress, picking our way up the walls, moving efficiently and staying together. But a 7-thousand foot exposed climb is nothing to scoff at, and before long, some folks were pulling ahead, fearing water shortages, and others were taking a bit more time, wary of the heat and the exertion. We were back in a similar situation as the previous day. I slowed to keep track of the back group.
The final section of the climb was brutal, all pine duff and loose rock and brambles on a steep, sliding slope thousands of feet high. It was impossible to take a real break on such terrain. The faster group said they'd meet us atop Telescope Ridge so that we could go down Tuber Canyon together, heading toward the cache. I felt relatively fresh but nonetheless struggled to move quickly over the terrain. Our progress slowed and slowed, but the top came into view. The last few hundred feet may have taken us half an hour-- freshly at ten thousand feet, the air was thinner, and for some, the heat symptoms from yesterday hadn't fully passed. Heat exhaustion can wear on you for days after exposure.
When we crested the ridge, there was nobody there. We eventually found a message, written in rocks, indicating that the front group had pushed on toward the cache, down Tuber. With as far back as we were, we elected to take the Wildrose alternate, adding some miles in exchange for significantly easier terrain. Thus began the greatest series of mistakes on the whole trip.
Telescope Ridge-- but not the first half of our group.
The sun began to set, and despite the stress of our fragmented group, it was undeniably beautiful. I felt, immediately, like the trip was worth it. As hard as the day had been, it was impossible to look at this view and not feel joy and achievement. Here we were, on the ridge of the highest peak in Death Valley, ten thousand feet above where we started, with 100-mile views in every direction. Below us lay Panamint, and somewhere, our water. We could see the smoothly graded dirt road far below us in the Wildrose canyon, a welcome reprieve from the terrain we'd been on. We saw no sign of our friends down Tuber.
Telescope Peak and the view south, across Panamint Valley
As we wound along the ridge, we heard distant voices coming from down Tuber. I yelled out to them-- nothing. I tried again-- and we got a call back! Our friends were down there somewhere, likely much too far for us to catch up. We yelled out "MEET CACHE" and "WILDROSE" to indicate that we were heading for the water via the alternate. We still could not see them anywhere; they sounded distant, their voices echoing off the canyon.
Satisfied that our friends were on their way to water (to which everyone had the GPS coordinates) and that we'd meet them in no time, we hurried along the easier terrain. The sun set completely, the temperature dropped precipitously and the wind picked up. We flew past Mahogany Flat Campground in the dark, past the kilns, covering more than five miles in no more than an hour and a half. With the heat gone, and on a downhill, everyone felt fully recovered. We kept moving to stay warm-- it couldn't have been above 40 degrees, and the windchill was severe.
Front left shows the initial descent into Tuber Canyon; the Wildrose Alt tracks to the right of the mountain with the observatory on it, Rogers Peak
Headlights came up from behind us, maybe the third or fourth vehicle of the section, and the driver asked us if we were doing Lowest to Highest and if we knew some folks up at Mahogany Flat-- with some more info, it was clear he'd met our friends. Confused and concerned, we accepted the offer of a ride back up to the campground. The driver explained that he had heard them yelling and ended up waiting for our friends to come back up the canyon-- they had gotten off route and run into an impassable section in Tuber. Exhausted from the effort, they had stopped for the night at the campground.
Sunset from atop the ridge-- before all the stress started
It was even colder at Mahogany than it had been several thousand feet lower, around freezing, and the wind was blowing much harder. Our friends had set up tents in an empty site, and they were huddling around a table, trying to cook dinner. There was anger all around, frustration that they had taken the wrong turn, or hadn't studied the map or route closely enough, that they hadn't known about the Wildrose Alt, that we had taken too long, that we were now behind schedule, that we hadn't communicated, that not everyone might be in the condition to send the route, that it was so god-damn cold and windy, and that it took several people holding up sleeping pads as wind-blocks to get a stove to light. It was a brutal setting for a difficult conversation.
I, and a few others, had stashed cold-weather gear in the car at Whitney Portal-- this cold snap was not in forecast. It was supposed to be in the 50s. This was proving to be an enormous risk. I huddled in my sleeping bag, nearly under the table, trying to shelter from the wind. Despite our problem-solving and arguing, there was nothing we could do tonight to solve these problems. Folks with tents set up stayed at Wildrose. I and some others hiked back down to the kilns to get out of the wind and cold. We would meet at the kilns in the morning to assess our status, and whether we could even keep going.
Badwater Basin from atop Telescope Ridge. The salt flats we crossed are visible center-left.
It had been a taxing two days, but the environmental hazards were less pressing on my mind than the conflict within the group. I was worried we'd have to bail-- and if one person did, how could we get them out safely, and home, without all getting off the route? I needed my friends to be safe and happy, but I also wanted to complete, if I could.
This situation drives home the importance of a few things:
Individual preparation-- you need to know the route well enough to navigate it even if you get left all alone. You need to have a map, and know how to use it.
Fitness-- you need to be ready for the physical challenges a route will throw at you. If you're solo, have a backup route or an alternate in case things don't go according to plan. If with a group, discuss splitting up before actually doing so, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Be transparent if you're feeling bad.
Plan for the worst case-- don't stash your down jacket 5 days away from you and trust the forecast. This was a terrible decision on my part and easily my worst mistake on the trip. Have enough water capacity for an emergency.
Be nice to your friends-- nobody tries to make a mistake, or get lost, or under-prepare. And there is nothing, in that moment, that harsh words will accomplish.
Everyone in the group likely has different stats due to the circumstance-- it looks like I hiked 30 miles, +10,600', -5,000', over our first two days. Drama makes for a long blog post-- I'll pick this up in the next portion! And I promise it becomes more fun. Sort of. But that's probably not why anyone reads a blog about L2H, so. It is what it is!