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Running on Empty Part II: Boundary Peak to Whitney’s Summit
Trip Report

Running on Empty Part II: Boundary Peak to Whitney’s Summit

Running on Empty Part II: Boundary Peak to Whitney’s Summit

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: California, United States, North America

Date Ridden: Apr 6, 1996 12:00 am

Activities: Cross Country

Season: Spring


Page By: junodirtrider

Created/Edited: Dec 1, 2009 / Aug 30, 2011

Object ID: 273634

Hits: 3831 

Page Score: 80.49%  - 12 Votes 

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Hi and welcome to Biker’s Dream! How would you like your ride? Baked, broiled, and boiled?

The rotation of the earth forced a blaring spotlight called the moon to descend and fade into dawn’s hour of twilight. Travel time arrived too soon, but what a deep sleep it was. I removed my sleeping bag and air mattress from atop the door that I had laid across a spare tractor tire in the far side of the yard at Janie's Ranch. I stowed the door back in the shed where it came from and loaded my bike with all my possessions, thanked the big lab for the well kept storage, and passed him along a couple pieces of beef jerky for his constant surveillance of the property. As I mounted my bike, I noticed the dog was happily wagging his tail. I rode out of the long driveway shaking a handful of Tibetan bells in salutation to the big galoot. Out on state highway 6, I headed south towards the town of Bishop.

In the first six miles, the bike seemed as though all it needed was to 
Portal Switchbacks
get rolling as it coasted all the way to the California border produce check point. From there, the day heated up and the road became very flat, to a point. About every eight miles, small hills from ancient landslides interrupted the southern horizon causing a blip in the flat road. 90 degree radiant heat hazed up the strip of black tar that paralleled the mountain range and divided the green pastured hay fields of the valley. The paved straightaway lasted close to 45 miles in length without a significant bend and the only shade I could take a break under came from the roof of a four story tall barn used for hay storage. Open on all sides, it was here, in the middle of nowhere that I stopped for lunch. Midway through the afternoon, the road gently doglegged to the west and crossed the Owens River, just outside of Bishop.

The small town of 5000 people offered some modern accommodations and Burger King was the top choice of convenience for me. After checking in with my mom by way of the obsolete pay phone, I took my four Whoppers and plowed through two of them while pedaling ten miles south of town to some natural hot springs up on the west slope of the Inyo Valley. I arrived after dark, but found the knee deep streams and pools with the help of the numerous car campers and the headlamps folks were using to get around. I donned my own and relaxed the night away submerged in the warmth of the waters and a blanket of starry skies.

1996 Self Portrait
The next morning, it seemed best to continue soaking the body in the crystalline stream. I had perfect justification because I found myself firmly beaten down physically from the 100 plus miles of bicycling and the 11,000 vertical feet of riding and hiking accomplished within the last 72 hours. Here I should state that although commuting by bicycle to and from work was the norm for the past four months, I did not train for this expedition as one would train for Rainier or Denali, per say. Yeah, when I departed Santa Rosa a few days earlier, I leaned heavily on a big dose of desire, the stubborn strength of my youth, and a good blessing from God to get me through this endeavor safely. So, what happened next, indeed, seemed nothing short of a miracle to me at the time.

A guy who soaked in an adjacent pool overheard me telling some strangers about my adventure and explained that he was a carpenter subcontracted to do some work in Lone Pine. He then offered to drive me the 40 miles I needed to make in pursuing my next big aspiration, the summit of Mount Whitney. Without haste, I accepted and awkwardly enjoyed a lift in his small pickup truck. The little truck from the late 70’s purred smoothly over a small pass and then whizzed us down into the tiny, non-booming metropolis of Lone Pine. The day was a Sunday and it seemed as though everything was closed. The guy dropped me off at the USFS headquarters where I proceeded to string out all my gear for a good reorganization. Before I could get halfway through the job, I found myself laying down on the cool confines of the shaded patio and stuffing my fleece pullover under my head for a pillow. From what I could gather, a few hours must have pasted before I awoke to find my gear untouched and a setting sun disappearing behind the eastern Sierra Mountains. Without delay, I cleaned up shop, grubbed down my last leftover Whopper, and saddled up for a 4000 foot, 13 mile ride and hike up to the Whitney Portal.

Stage race you say? No thanks!!

For those who have never heard of the Portal, it is not your everyday approach road. The Portal is an American classic for road cycling. The Portal rises up out of the high desert up valley gaining the slopes of Mount Whitney, which, at elevation of 14,496, is the highest mountain in the lower 48. The grade gradually increases as the rider rolls out of Lone Pine and begins the climb through the historic Alabama Hills. By the numbers, this thing is staggering. The Portal Road is 4,580 ft in elevation, 11.3 miles in length, averages a 9% grade for the last 5.5 miles, and takes most riders about four hours to complete. One website said, “Whitney Portal is very similar to the famed French climb of the Madeleine, a monster frequently used in major cycling classics including regular appearances in the Tour de France.”
Whitney Stompin

Out of town, my pace was brutally slow. I was able to ride up a ways beyond the 6000’ marker, but then the inclination grew to stiff for my scrawny shanks to pull me up. Once again, I strapped the bungee to the bike rack and to a gear loop on my backpack and began huffing it up the road. I hiked the Portal Road’s high switchbacks by the light of the moon. Whitney switchbacks are nothing to balk at as they go about a mile to the right or to the left before cutting back around. Eventually they tighten up, become shorter, and one senses that the end of the arduous ride must be nearing. The 8500’Portal campground couldn’t come soon enough and I ended another day’s journey very late in the night.

When I woke, vast faces of white washed granite abruptly protruded from the sliver tight gulch’s floor. Further choking the drainage stood fatty lodge pole pine spires throughout. Shadows from these giants stretched toward the hilltops in the west beckoning one to look upward and away in search of horizons. Gray and blue jays filled the crisp spring air with pesky and jubilant chatter of a warming morning and something good cooking in the next campsite. About face, the slopes flowed out into the valley floor, concaving down into Father God’s mother earth. After stashing the bike and some goods, I took off in Whitney’s direction.

“Well, I keep on moving... moving on. Things are bound to be improving.” – Jackson Browne

Camped Out On Whitney Approach
Even though I packed light, once I hit the trail it’s easy to say that I did not do a whole lot of skipping. The pace seamed slow, and it was! The pace was that of a heavily burdened stagger. Moreover, it was a bloody, blistering, chug; a non-stop heart pounding trudge. The high level of work elicited deep bodily mourning, which begged my soul for more rest and down time. Hiking up and out of the trees opened swathes of shadeless blue skies. Vast blaring white snow fields appeared wedged between thrones and ribs of granite. One four stories tall, Quonset hut-like series of rock protruded off the floor and down the mountainside like a gigantic larvae caterpillar the size of a football field. Come evening time, I pitched camp about one half mile away from a 1000’ couloir on Whitney’s southern ridge line. There I snugged up underneath a garage sized boulder. It was a very restful night and one I needed indeed.

The long night’s rest paid big dividends and I headed out the next day feeling high spirited and almost frisky. At 60 degrees, the couloir seemed like a buff monster, but on this day I was feeling great and took the strides of a man seven feet tall. My heart raced beating 3-5 times per second and my respirations tripped over 100 per minute at times. It was great climbing, as fast as I could go and my spirit relished the pace! To my amazement, I realized that I clipped up the crux in just under ¾ of an hour and from what I could remember, I had never hiked harder and faster in my life! From atop the ridge, the trail traversed the west side of the eastern range and only three miles to the summit of America.

The view beneath me to the west surprised me. This mountain was not the Teton-like shark tooth formation I  
Atop the Couliors
thought it to be, but rather an uplift of a once incredibly large, flat piece of ground. The forests beneath me looked like pancaked foothills at best. The topography lacked any sort of the expected drama that one witnesses on the valley floor east of Whitney’s apex. Still gazing west from the ridge top provided a marvel in its own right. To the north, uniformed layers of rock formed giant pinnacles that jettisoned into the skyline fronting Mt. Whitney’s summit plateau. Cutting amid the towers, couloirs fell away like cascading waterfalls. I once peeked over the edge and fright riveted through my body as thoughts of falling filled my head. Harrowing drop offs racked my brain with amazement and disbelief as I scanned to the east. The cliffs were unlike anything I had ever seen and I felt good by staying away from the edge!! It's not often one gets to view 3000 foot vertical cliff except at locations like the Grand Canyon and other similar attractions.

Whitney’s summit was impressive and melodramatic at the same time. The cabin there remained snowed in, so the registry could not be signed. There was no wildlife to speak of and just as the rest of the day had gone, I was alone. It was pretty typical I suppose. There were a few pictures, a bit of wandering, a snack, a prayer, and then gazing out on the horizons. Nothing special there, but I was enlightened and enriched with the great, misunderstood emotion that for one day in my lifetime, I was higher than every other human between and beyond the borders of Mexico and Canada. There I stood… a billion Americans beneath me and only my creator above. That thought was pretty special.

I reversed my traverse, then in two almost out-of-control butt-slides, I made it back down the couloir safely. I stopped once to readjust myself, and then off  
The Greatest Whitney Summit Photo Ever
and away, again, I slid. With slush spraying in my face and my knees bouncing up at my chin like a stringed puppet, I whooped joyful noises that bounced off the mountain’s walls, echoing as I descended in a splashing streak of snow. Using someone else's slide path really made the difference and I hauled some serious ass! I was back in high camp just a couple hours after the summit and reached the Portal just before dusk. The computer pegged my coasting speed at 40 mph during the ride back down the Portal road (with exception of making the switchback turns). Unfortunately, I made the mistake of scuttling down into the town of Lone Pine, rather than camping out in the hospitable confines of the Alabama Hills on the outskirts. I thought I had chosen wisely when I pitched my sleeping bag next to the brick wall of a local church that provided a nice, soft green lawn to camp on. Unfortunately, I was rudely roused in the middle of the night by a damn sprinkler system raining on my serenity. The scenario was very confusing. In the sky I could see twinkling stars, but water was pelting me from every direction. “Great,” I thought, “just great! What am I going to do now?”
Hiking the Bike Up The Portal Road


The Whitney Portal From Alabama HillsAtop the CouliorsPortal SwitchbacksCamped Out On Whitney Approach1996 Self PortraitHiking the Bike Up The Portal RoadWhitney Stompin\'


[ Post a Comment ]
Viewing: 1-5 of 5



Voted 10/10

This reminds me of being young and having no responsibilities. These kinds of adventures are the best. Well-written too!
Posted Dec 3, 2009 9:54 am

junodirtriderRe: Great.


Hasn't voted

Yeah, I was trying to pull of a X-country ride this summer to remind myself what that was like but it seams those doors are closing quickly. I still have a sliver of hope though.
Posted Dec 3, 2009 1:35 pm

BeDrinkableRe: Great.


Voted 10/10

Oh man, that sucks. I'll keep my fingers crossed for ya. My sister and I had a S. America trip planned for this winter, but she had a cross-country move, brand new degree and new job all trip-block us. We're still hoping for next year but ...
Posted Dec 3, 2009 2:28 pm

MalibuWonderful story


Voted 10/10

and well told. I must admit I am just a tad envious of you who set out like this in your youth. I kind of feel it is missing from mine.
Posted Dec 6, 2009 5:47 pm

junodirtriderRe: Wonderful story


Hasn't voted

Yeah... ...me too! Two parts down, one to go!
Posted Dec 6, 2009 7:55 pm

Viewing: 1-5 of 5