Trip Report by Native Eyewear Ambassador Nelly Steinhoff.
When I was first invited to go to Mt. Whitney with my boss and coworkers I laughed at the idea… I was only five months out from reconstructive surgery on my left ankle after a crash at Ms. Superpark in the spring, and it seemed like such an outlandish adventure to take on so soon. I was starting to feel strong again in physical therapy and surefooted on the hikes that I had been on so far, but nothing could come relatively close to what Mt. Whitney had in store.
My boss had a permit to go up the mountaineer’s route, which allowed you to take the more direct approach up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek instead of the long day hikers route that went up on the main Lone Pine Creek drainage. It was a hard permit to obtain, so it made the trip a bit more enticing. I eventually decided to give it a try but I wasn’t going to be set on making it to the summit. Just being back in the mountains was going to be enough for me! After three months of non-weight bearing and two months of learning how to walk again I had no expectations.
Once I fully committed to the trip things began to pick up pretty quick. I had just two days to locate all of my backpacking supplies and mentally prepare for this last-minute epic. After we got off work at 6pm on a Sunday, we all rushed to get our things into the truck and get out of town. Our plan was to drive as far as we could that night and to try and sleep around 8,000 ft so we could begin to acclimate for being in the High Sierra for a few days.
I tried to distract myself with small talk amongst the car as we drove out of town, but when I got into my sleeping bag that night I was once again alone in my thoughts. Despite my attempts to keep positive, the negative “what if’s” began to swirl around my head once again. They were the same doubts that circled my mind for the last five months and they all led back to the same thing, I was convinced that my ankle was never going to be the same again. The addition of two plates, nine screws, and a cartilage rebuild left it with limited mobility and it certainly didn’t feel the same.
The next morning we woke with the sun, packed our things, and embarked on the remainder of our drive. We arrived at the parking area around noon then divvied up the rest of the gear into our packs. It took us a minute to get all the gear situated but we tried to hustle since we had a five-hour hike ahead of us that day. We needed to hike about six miles and 3,000 ft to make it to camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake. At this point in the summer, it wasn’t getting dark until 7-7:30 in the high country so we at least had plenty of time to make it to camp.
As we threw on our packs and made our way for the trailhead our spirits were high. Most of us had zero physical preparation for the trip but we were feeling pretty optimistic for the sufferfest ahead. With how steep the switchbacks were, it was easy to tell just how much elevation gain we were going to face in a short period of time. Once my pack settled and my pace was set, I felt like I was getting back in the groove. My ankle was feeling surprisingly good, I’d make sure I had sure footing in the more technical spots during the hike.
We made it to camp at 6pm and marveled at the view of Mt. Russell from Upper Boy Scout lake. Over a well-earned snack and water break, we talked about our options for the next couple of days and eventually came up with a master plan. We were going to warm up with hiking up Mt. Russell the next day with the option of rappelling between the East and West summit’s of Russell or just coming down the same way we went up. If we chose to rappel then we’d get to go over the Whitney-Russell pass and get a close up of the mountaineer’s route from Iceberg Lake, so everyone was leaning towards that option. We all made quick work of setting up our tents and even snuck in a little rappelling session before the sunset.
It was a lot colder up in the high country and I found myself shivering a bit once the early morning dew settled in. I had opted for a lighter sleeping bag to save some weight in my pack and I was instantly regretting that decision. I tried to dream of warm places as I shivered a short nap before dawn. Suffice to say that I was happy to see the sun come up so I could bask in it while I sipped on some coffee and made some breakfast.
After breakfast, we all loaded up our day packs and set out for Mt. Russell. The loop that we wanted to do was going to be about 10 miles with another 3,000 ft of elevation gain/loss. It was nice to be able to lighten the load and just have our essentials on our back for the day. We just needed enough food and water for the day plus a layer in case it was windy at the summit. Our journey started straight up a scree field next to camp before topping out to a ridgeline leading to the summits’ of Mt. Russell. The ridgeline was technically a 3rd class scramble but we were surprised by the exposure of some sections. At one point we went across a knife-like ridge that had 2,000-foot drop-offs on either side, it was puckering yet exhilarating to be back in terrain like this!
It was only 11am when we made it to the summit and we were all feeling psyched to stand on top of a 14’er! It was a first for me and two of my coworkers so the stoke was super high as we inked our names into the summit log. Shortly after we made our way to the rappel spot between the East and West summits and our boss, Mike, set up the rappel station with the rope and a few cams. We rappelled one at a time until we had all made it to the bottom safely.
The beginning of the descent was pretty loose with rocks and dirt until we hit the bigger scree and boulder fields at the bottom. After going over the Whitney-Russell pass we eventually hit a snowfield that went around Iceberg Lake. It was the first snow that I got to walk in since the injury—so it was a small victory. We stopped at Iceberg for a longer break, snack, and water refill. The lake was still half-frozen and I swore it was the best water I had ever tasted!
While we relaxed there I took a moment to empty the dirt and sand from my shoes and check on the swelling of my ankle. It was slightly swollen from the day but nothing more than a usual day of being on my feet. If anything I thought it felt better than it did after a day of work, which I never thought would be the case.
We reminisced about the day once we were back at camp as we made some dinner and watched the sunset. It was so serene and peaceful in our little zone and I found myself being fully content with where I was and what I was doing. My confidence of being capable in the mountains was coming back quickly and I was truly ecstatic to go up the mountaineer’s route of Mt. Whitney in the morning.
Before going to bed I decided to go for the ole boiling water in a Nalgene trick in attempts to keep warm that night. For the first time since we’d left Tahoe, I got a full night’s sleep and I had even slept in a bit past the sunrise. When I got out of the tent the guys were already on their second cup of coffee and getting amped for the day. I made a quick cup and had a small bite to eat as I threw all of my things into my backpack for the day.
Mike gave us a couple of options as we came up with our plan for the day. We could high tail it out of there as soon as we got back to camp, or we could stay one more night. None of us could come up with a solid answer so we came to the conclusion that we would just take the day as it came and push off making that decision until we got back.
We departed camp around 8:30am and made our way towards the base of the mountaineer’s route. It was a quick ascent until we started up the route. Parts were extremely loose and you were in constant fear that the person in front of you was going to start a rock slide on top of you. It was a relief to make it to the bench before the 4th class scramble and know that the rest of the ascent was going to be on more solid rock.
The 4th class scramble was a more like a bunch of v1 boulder problems stacked on top of each other and a bit committing at times. We all laughed at what our moms would say if they knew what we were doing right then, and meticulously inched our way to the top. It was 12:30pm when we summited and we were all reeling in the excitement. It was kind of a trip to see so many people at the summit because we had only come across a few other groups of people before that. Most of them had come up the hiker’s route which was a much longer trail that went up one drainage over from our approach. We chatted with a few people that we had seen in the parking lot at the beginning of our trip and shared our travels with each other.
After hanging at the summit for close to an hour Mike started to tell us about these burgers that you could get at the Whitney Portal Store and we came to the decision that we were going to high tail it out of there all the way back to the car that afternoon. We were pretty sure that the store closed at 7pm so now it was going to be a race against the clock to try and get there just in time for a burger.
We took the first part of the descent slow and even found ourselves asking Mike to put us on belay for a couple of the risky sections. After that though we might as well have had mini skis on our feet for how fast we were moving down the scree field. It was like we had burgers hanging off a stick in front of us and we were all just trying to get it in our grasp.
By the time we made it back to Upper Boy Scout Lake and broke down camp, it was 4:30pm and we were right on pace to get back in time for the legendary burger. During the final portion of our descent, the trail looked like it could have gone a number of ways at times. We of course never bothered to pull out our map and were convinced that we were on the right trail, but of course we ended up going down the wrong one a couple of times and had to backtrack until we found the proper way.
All in all, we didn’t waste too much time with our navigation mistakes and we made it back to the trailhead just in time! It was 6:55pm when we made it back to the trailhead and we rushed over to the store, eager to place our orders for the highly acclaimed burger. As we walked in and asked the woman working there if it was still possible to place an order our hopes and dreams were quickly shattered… they had stopped taking orders just 10 minutes before…
The woman was sympathetic towards us and laughed at our offers to pay them double if they’d open up again. She instead directed us to a restaurant that was down the valley just before we got back on Highway 395. On our drive down I relished in the epic adventure we just had. It was so fulfilling to be back in the mountains after such a long recovery and I had this newfound confidence in my ankle. It no longer mattered to me if my ankle was never going to be the same again because I knew that I could adapt to its limitations.