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Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Jul 2, 2017

The summit of Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States, reaching an elevation of 14,508 feet. (This is a bit higher than it was believed to have been; a recent survey just put it at that height.) And just across the mountains, 84.6 miles away in Death Valley, you will find Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the contiguous U.S.

Mt. Whitney attracts climbers from all over the world. For those of us in Los Angeles County, the trail head is a mere three hours away at most. To get there, head north on SR-14 to Mojave, where the highway takes a 90-degree right turn and eventually becomes Highway 395. Follow the 395 all the way to the cute little town of Lone Pine, and you’ll find the mountain looming off to the left with some magnificently jagged peaks. It makes a great photo or two, even if you have no intention of climbing it.

To get to the trail head, you’ll need to follow Whitney Portal Road. It’s only about 13 miles, but you’ll be doing some significant climbing. The elevation up there is 8,361 feet. That’s as far as you can go by vehicle. Now, you’ll need to make the decision to walk the rest of it or be satisfied with the lovely scenery at the portal.

The gorgeous canyon is part of the Inyo National Forest. There are three campgrounds nearby where you can stay and just enjoy the scenery of the Inyo. There is also a fabulous store where you can get any little thing you might have forgotten – and some pretty good grub, too.

Even if you’re not an avid climber like me, half of the fun is in meeting people from all over the world who are about to climb or who are just returning from the summit. You can enjoy some pretty awesome conversations from these great adventurers. More than 20,000 people climb this mountain every year, so you’re bound to run into some real characters.

If you’ve never hiked before, I suggest you start hiking some easier trails and build up your strength before you attempt Whitney. You start at 8,300 feet. Some people get acute mountain sickness at that altitude. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble.

It’s best to be prepared. Train. Know what you’re up against. Be ready for it. Rain, snow, sleet, hail, high winds, thunder and lightning can all add to your woe on the mountain. You might consider hiring a guide if you’ve never climbed a mountain before, just to be safe. There are plenty of outfitters waiting just for you.

A guide can tell you what to take and what not to take. If you start off with an 85-pound pack, you’re probably not going to get very far. On the other hand, you need to have everything with you in case of any type of emergency – plus food, plus water, plus, plus, plus, plus. Experience and a guide are your best friends. You’re going to have a gain of 6,208 feet, spread out over the 11 miles to the top. That’s pretty steep. And don’t forget, you’re doing some mighty tough, steep descending on the way down. Those knees are going to take a real beating.

So, maybe climbing Whitney is not for you. How about a visit to the lowest spot in the U.S.A.? Unlike Mt. Whitney, which can scare away the typical tourist, you will see plenty of domestic and foreign tourists at Badwater.

I suggest you do not go there in the summer. You’re in Death Valley, the lowest place in North America, and it can get hot – really hot. In fact, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was right there. It was 134 degrees in 1913, and that record has yet to be broken.

When you’re there, take a look up on the hill behind the parking lot. There is a small sign way up there, telling you that you are 282 feet below sea level. Imagine that. Now, that’s worth a picture.

Badwater is about 200 square miles of hard salt pan. There’s a trail where hundreds of thousands of feet have crushed the salt crystals down. I suggest you stay on that trail so others can enjoy the beautiful salt crystals that form and grow several inches above the muddy base. If you sit or lie down on the flat portion of the trail, you can get some magnificent photos of the salt crystals.

There used to be a lake there called Lake Manly. There’s usually a little water here and there, and there’s always a little bit of water under the salt crystals. But sometimes, during exceptionally wet weather, Badwater will, for a brief time, again resemble a lake. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to snap that photo.

Death Valley is a place of geologic wonders, and in the spring, the flowers can be amazing. So, don’t just stop at Badwater. See everything. You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

 

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1 Comment

  1. jim says:

    I suggest that anyone who has not climbed a 10,000 ft peak first may want to start elsewhere than Mt. Whitney. Just like anyone who has never been at Badwater in Death Valley should not go there without planning, assistance and maybe even some training,

    Unless of course, they are going by an elegant coach trip that provides plenty of staff and trained medical support. Death Valley Temps are going to be from 115 to 120F this next week, and most folks (including the Europeans) won’t be prepared for that. Although the foreign folks are expecting those extremes. That is a major part of the thrill for them.

    As for ascents of Mt. Whitney, the trail is very clear, and can be made by most healthy people. Unless of course they are subject to altitude sickness, in which case they will be somewhere in between Whitney Portal and the peak when it strikes. Few people die from this illness, but many of them need assistance returning to lower altitudes. A severe case may require medical attention and much more assistance returning to the base.

    It’s not a lark folks, unless you are young, healthy, and relatively immune to altitude sickness.

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