Alpine Lichens – Mt Whitney: Part 1

Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the conterminous U.S., looms over the Owens Valley, once a thriving agricultural area, now increasingly arid as its the major supplier of the Los Angeles water supply. It’s a striking landscape characteristic of the High Sierras, and the lichens on the summit were different than those we’ve found on other peaks in the region, underscoring how unique these high elevation sites are for regional biota. I’ll get into the lichens in Part 2 of this post, but for the moment I’d like to share more about the hike itself.

The Mt. Whitney portal trail is a powerful trail, and felt similar to a pilgrimage site. In mid-September, people from different backgrounds and continents,  were quietly hiking up the 7,000 ft elevation during both day and night, a steady stream trudging on for 11 miles to reach the peak, then turning back again for the long hike down. The impression I got was that most people weren’t there to simply reach a mountain summit, but rather that they were there to reach a summit within themselves, struggling against and overcoming  barriers that block other areas of life. A ritual to face challenge and overcome.

pinnacles-mt-whitney-in-distance
Mt Whitney is the farthest peak in this picture, the one with the gentle west facing slope (west is the left side of the photo).

“This is really huge for me,” shared one hiker as she was ascending. Another person I met on the way down had been hiking for over 24 hours, the joints in his knee were blown from previous injuries, but he was doing it anyways, one slow step after another. Other folks could hardly pick their feet up as they walked the last mile to the summit, shuffling along in the thin air. Discouragement wasn’t on their faces despite the challenges and exhaustion, rather, most shared a feeling of intensity and perseverance, and sometimes, oftentimes, exuberant joy.

Jason and I were there to resurvey the lichens on Mt. Whitney, following in the footsteps of the extraordinary lichenologist Henry Imshaug to investigate how the lichens have changed since 1955. A huge honor. And for me, the survey went beyond lichens, and incorporated summiting a host of self-doubts and dodging a couple storms.

rain-coming-in
Storms started rolling in during our hike up to the basecap, so we camped here in the forest. Mt. Whitney is shrouded in clouds.

The stats: The hike is about 11 miles from the Whitney Portal trailhead to the summit, with a 7,000 ft elevation gain. The last 6 miles are above treeline.

Our hike: Jason and I packed our gear and food for three days, and headed out on a mid-September day at around noon. Within a couple hours, the sun shifted to clouds, then thunderstorms started rolling in. So we set up camp about 6.5 miles from the summit, with the false impression that we were only 3 to 4 miles away.

The next morning Jason left at 4am while I stayed at camp with Marvin since dogs are not allowed in the Park. Jason summited a little bit after dawn. His report: icey. The rocks along the hike and on the summit were icey. Cold. He was extremely cold. That cold that gets deep in your bones. But the lichens – awesome! (I’ll get into the lichens in the Part 2 post)

setting-up-camp
Our base camp consists of little more than bivy sacks, warm clothes and lots of food (bear canisters not shown). Lichen specimens and collection tools take up the rest  of pack space.

Our plan was for me to meet him at midday along the 99 switchbacks. So we met there at about 2pm, Jason filled me in on what he had already collected, and then I started for the summit while Jason took Marvin back to camp. With a little over 2 miles to go, and some 2,200 ft elevation gain, I anticipated reaching the summit by 3:30pm, or 4pm at the latest. I didn’t anticipate how the altitude would get me.

By 4pm I was about a mile from the summit, rushing along the ridge trail, and I came around a pinnacle and finally got a good view of the summit. There was a huge lenticular cloud right behind the summit. Tall like a thunderhead but made of dozens of lenticular discs all smashed together. Lenticular clouds usually indicate intense winds at high elevation. And to the west, dark storm clouds were rolling in. To conduct a proper survey, I need at least 2 hours at the summit. And I had 3 hours until sunset. Barely enough time to get to the summit and do the survey before pitch blackness. And with a storm rolling in and such winds creating horrible collecting conditions, I started questioning my plan.

Storms coming in from the west?
Storms coming in from the west? But look at that blue sky. Needless to say, I was starting to become conflicted about the weather.

I turned back. And then stopped. And then started for the summit again. And then realized that  I hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail in at least 30 minutes, which seemed highly unusual, and there wasn’t anyone visible up ahead on the trail either. And so windy.

I turned back again and got to the switchbacks with a sinking heart, I was totally committed now. Sinking stomach. Heart. Doubts came surging. What if I should have just kept on going to the summit and got it done while I had the chance? A summit of doubts.

Lenticular clouds, these clouds are common in the Great Basin Desert, they indicate super fast winds.
Lenticular clouds (the spaceship or disc-like clouds behind the summit). These clouds are common in the Great Basin Desert and indicate super fast winds. After seeing this, I decided to turn around, reluctantly though cause the summit was so close!

I got back to camp, resigned myself as a failure, crawled into my bivy sack and went to sleep without dinner, the winds kept strong, chilling every opening in my sack.

At about 3am the winds stopped and the air became quite warm, almost balmy, with a clear starry sky. My heart started beating really fast, adrenaline surging – my body was completely awake. Very unusual. Apparently, I was going to get to that summit and finish the survey!

And I did! Along the way I made a friend, Emily, from Denver. She was day-hiking it, her 25th 14,000 feet peak. Intense, I really respect folks who can do this hike in one day! Including the lichenologist Henry Imshaug, who also conducted a lichen inventory at the same time!

headlamps-of-folks-going-up-the-switchbacks
Early morning twilight. Notice the white lights of hikers up ahead on the switchbacks. The string of headlamps in the distance is a pretty surreal sight.
Sunrise
Sunrise peaking onto the switchbacks.
sunrise-glowing-on-mt-whitney-and-pinnacles
Sunrise on Mt. Whitney (soft peak second from the right most peak). I’m eager to call this alpenglow, but technically this is direct sunlight and not indirect sunlight, thus unfortunately not the mystical magical alpenglow.
My shadow picture at dawn.
My shadow picture at dawn.
So cold up there that my waterbottle kept freezing shut!
So cold up there that my waterbottle kept freezing shut, requiring alot of banging of it on the rocks in order to jostle the lid free.
Summit log. Notice the guy who ran out of pop tarts!
Summit log. Notice the guy who ran out of pop tarts!
Brought a radical mycology sticker all the way up, didn't loose it. I really like this saying, "the mycelium is the message." Thinnk on that. If you're interested there's an entire chapter dedicated to it in the recent book, Radicaly Mycology. In fact, the entire book is. Just read it!
I brought a Radical Mycology sticker all the way from Reno to place in the log box.  I really like this saying, “the mycelium is the message.”
Emily and me met at a little after 4am, we both got off trail and found each other in a confusing area of granite. We hiked for most of the way up. She's a gem.
Emily and I met at a little after 4am, we both got a bit off trail and found each other in a confusing area of granite. We hiked for most of the way up. She’s a gem.
And the obligate summit photo. I was pretty darn estatic!
And the obligate summit photo.
Glacial carvings. The granite valley northeast from the crest.
Glacial carvings. The granite valley northeast from the crest. Alpine wonderland.

To read about the lichens collected on Mt Whitney summit, click here.

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