Lowest to Highest FKT
Every Veterans day weekend, my buddies and I set out on a dope trip, but there are rules to this annual trip: the excursion must involve Mt. Whitney in some way, and it must be gnarlier than last year's trip. So for 2018, we decided to go for the FKT (fastest known time) on a crazy route called Lowest to Highest: an off-trail, backcountry route traveling from the lowest point in the continental United States (Badwater Basin), to the highest (Mt. Whitney). The route has you climb three mountain ranges over 145 miles with 34,000 feet of climbing.
We got a motley crew of six (pictured above) together to tackle this monumental route: Anthony (my backpacking and general partner in crime), John and Clax (two badass PCTer's Anthony met on the trail this summer), Adam (another usual suspect on our ambitious trips), and Ari (a rowdy runner and overall mad-woman we met through the hiking club). An ambitious timeline of 2.5 days was set in order to get everyone back to work and school by Monday night. We agreed to approach the trip individually, not waiting for folks who fall behind or have to abandon ship, unless in a situation where we felt safety was compromised.
Note: Anthony Ottati took pretty much all these photos. He also made a sick trip report you can check out here.
Adam and I drove down in my mini-van, meeting up with the rest of the crew at Whitney Portal to drop off my car and cram into Clax's car to get to the trailhead. It turned out a good buddy of ours, Jared, a self described vagabond, was bumming around the Eastern Sierras, and we bumped into him for dinner. In the mad flurry of high-fives, reminiscing on old times and devouring food, Adam and I forgot to fill the van up -- so we left it up at Whitney Portal with a questionably low tank.
Making it to our camp spot (dirt turnout off the road) around 1:00 am, we attempted to get a couple hours of sleep. It turned out we were all too amped to get any shut eye, and ended up driving to Badwater Basin to get on with the route at around 2:45am. The legendary Sean O'Roarke happened to be snoozing in his car and described the scene perfectly:
"a noisily enthusiastic group pulled in at 3:00 AM, and spent the next 15 minutes loudly sorting gear, enthusing about burritos, and probably fist-bumping. What were the odds that we would share the route with another group, and that they would be so annoying?"
Sean fell victim to our uncontrollable stoke -- stoke that would carry us through the weekend and keep us alive, by a thread.
We left Sean in peace, and set out across Badwater Basin in the dark, a disorienting salt flat at night. We thought we had been walking in circles a few times, but started using the stars to align our route. Eventually we made it across, and started ascending the alluvial fan, on our way towards Telescope Peak.
Making our way up the canyon via a faint track, about to dip off trail once again
Adam and John ascending the alluvial fan with Badwater Basin fading in the distance
We reached Hanuapuah springs and filled up our water supplies. There were signs warning that "illegal activities" had compromised the water, but it tasted alright to me. I was feeling quite strong as we began our steep off-trail ascent (6,000 ft) up the Panamints. Anthony and I charged up the first bit of the climb, and after a while, I found myself alone. I powered up the climb, and with some questionable navigation and lots of bushwhacking, I reached the intersection with the Telescope Peak trail, signaling the end of the climb.
I waited around for 15 minutes or so, and began to ask some day hikers whether they had seen other folks climbing up from the canyon -- I received weird looks and no answers from several groups. Before I knew it, it had been half-an-hour; worried that the group may have taken a route putting them further North on the route and that we would miss each other, I debated whether or not to push on alone. Before making my rash decision, Anthony crested over the last ridge of the climb -- the stoke was revived.
Me just getting into the hairy parts of the ascent
Ari and John were soon to follow, and all three of them seemed spent. I was notified that Adam turned around and Clax told everyone to leave him behind. Looking at the state of the crew, it seemed as if the trip was over. I jumped around and yelled a bunch while everyone was getting some food and water in order to hype them up to continue the journey.
We pushed downwards to Tuber Canyon. Once walking again, the aches, pains and lack of sleep seemed to slip our minds. Night fell, which was a sort of blessing because navigating the tall canyon walls would have been much more vertigo inducing during the day. For four or so hours, Anthony set a vicious pace, basically oscillating between an extremely fast walk and a mellow run. The foot he broke a couple months back seemed to be giving him no problems.
Ari keeping the stoke alive and well as the sun dropped behind the Sierras to the West
After navigating out of the canyon, we approached a section of monotonous dirt roads, about 16 miles from Panamint Springs, our goal for day one. After feeling stellar for the entire day, the lack of sleep, lack of eating (for some reason I couldn't hold down any food) and mind games of endless night hiking began steering me towards delirium. Time began to warp -- I would experience what felt like hours in a matter of one minute, or black out for thirty minutes and wake up in the blink of an eye, still walking. Apparently, I was swaying badly, walking erratically, and talking nonsense as the night progressed. My brain apparently wanted to turn off after 40 hours with no sleep and 7 hours of walking in sustained darkness.
Fortunately, my friends are actually angels sent from above, and decided to make the call to set up camp and get some shut eye, to reassess in the morning. I discovered here that the ultralight quilt Anthony lent me was straight from hell -- not long enough, wide enough, or warm enough for my 6'5" lanky heap of flesh.
On top of all this mayhem, John let us know that he would end his hike at Panamint Springs in the morning. Things weren't looking good. We set an alarm for 2am, giving us a few hours of sleep. At 2am we peeped our heads out of our bags to talk strategy. I felt horrible. Anthony was amped as ever and ready to start trucking. Ari seemed to display a similar level of trepidation as myself. We decided to keep sleeping -- the trip once again appeared to be over.
Feeling much less than a million bucks
We set a decent pace on our way to Panamint Springs, eying down the gas station and paved road on the horizon. The serendipitous chain of events to come eventually put us back on track to finish. As we hit the road, a Jeep came to a roaring stop and out popped Adam, who had been hitching a ride wit some lady and just happened to be at the right place at the right time. We all charged at him yelling "Happy birthday" because it was indeed his day of birth. Just then, as we all sauntered up to the gas station, a silver Corolla looking suspiciously like Clax's was rolling out. The driver? Jared Kelly. He ended up hitching to Clax's car, and was in the process of driving back to Whitney Portal to save us from doing it at the end of our trip. What timing that we would cross paths!
Approaching Panamint Springs in the distance, ultralight as ever
Ari and John ultralight, but not as ultralight as only bringing an Amazon backpack, quilt, pad, and food as I did. This turned out to be a bad call on my end, not having enough warm clothes, food, water storage, sleeping bag coverage etc. etc.....
We filled up our water, laid out our food and chatted about what was to come. Jared, Adam and John decided they would drive up to Whitney Portal and hit Mt. Russel. Ari, Anthony and I were in limbo on whether we should continue on. Anthony was dead set on continuing, I was reluctant, and Ari was somewhere in between. Clax was still nowhere to be found, but Anthony had allegedly seen a hiker pass us in the dead of night just a mere few hours ago.
I couldn't in good faith abandon the goal of L2H without giving it everything I had. So, in spite of barely being able to stand, stomach issues, headaches, and a general poor state of affairs, I decided to push on with Anthony and Ari -- who both seemed invincible at this point. We said our farewells to the other folks, and set off once again, three strong.
I ended up feeling better during the day. After navigating off trail for several hours, we hit a series of dirt roads we would follow for the next while. This afforded us the mental break of not having to navigate. Even as night fell, my I held my composure and kept a solid pace with Anthony and Ari. Though, being so high in elevation at this point, it was much colder than I had expected, and ended up needing to use my quilt as a makeshift cape to keep warm. My ultralight t-shirt, shorts, and puffy just wouldn't cut it -- at least the quilt was good for one thing...
The open road
Makeshift quilt cape, Ari ended up making one too
A group of badass dirtbikers passed us in the dead of night. They were beside themselves to find three crazy people walking in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of night, wearing some sort of capes, singing and yelling to each other. One of them inquired if we were "on shrooms," I suppose the night does actually have a hallucinogenic effect.
As we approached the gnarly climb to Cerro Gordo (an old abandoned mining down from the 1800's), I suddenly fell victim to the same bonk as I had the night before. The biting cold, harsh wind, ruthless darkness, along with my mental and physical shortcomings sent me into a state of vicious delirium. This time was much more painful and conscious than the other -- I remember it much more vividly. Before I hit the wall, Ari seemed to be a little loopy as well, but both her and Anthony were strong as ever when I started devolving.
We got to Cerro Gordo and it was clear that I couldn't go further. Being the angels that they are, Ari and Anthony helped pick out a spot that would shield us from the relentless howling wind, and even gave me one of their quilts to aid my uncontrollable shivering. I still owe them immensely for their selflessness.
Waking up in our makeshift wind structure
We woke up realizing that our ridiculous 2.5 day plan was a no-go. Somehow I had service on my phone, and mustered up the courage to call my boss and ask for an additional day off work to finish this route. He said "do what you got to do" (thanks Andrew!) and so that's just what we did. We filled up water and took off. Feeling bad about my piss-poor performance the last couple days, I was determined to not slow the group down again.
I felt horrible and still could barely eat. Fortunately Anthony and Ari forced me to keep shoveling food down my throat every little while. We rocketed along at a good pace -- Ari pushing through some pretty severe pain in her Achilles heel. We could see our goal in the distance, Mt. Whitney. But first we had to descend into and cross Owens Valley.
Eventually, we closed in on Lone Pine as night reared its ugly head. We were all pretty tired but still stoked. We played some games involved a lot of yelling, singing, jumping and acting like fools to keep ourselves busy. We attracted the attention of local policemen in town while impersonating pterodactyls, wearing quilt capes and jumping alongside highway 395. They waved us along, and we stopped into Carl's Jr. to get some food before slogging the rest of the way up to Whitney Portal to sleep in my van for the night.
Anxiously awaiting some burgers
Clax, John and Adam met us at the restaurant which was a HUGE morale boost. Clax had actually been the shadowy figure that passed us overnight, but ran into a few issues that ultimately forced him to hitch into town the day prior. Apparently, they were a bit worried since they split ways with Jared in the evening while climbing Mt. Russel, they told us to look out for him tomorrow. After getting some food, and talking with the guys, we set off once again. We had a daunting 14 miles climb up to Whitney Portal, entirely at night. Determined to resist "the bonk," I constantly ate food and blared some hype music from my phone while I charged up the mountain.
We made it to the van, piled in, and got a bit of sleep to prepare ourselves for summit day. Jared turned out to be in his car, beaten but not defeated, and was down to summit with us the next day.
We woke up bright and early and began our slog to the summit. It was a beautiful day and the hike was surprisingly easy. Jared and I chatted about books and philosophy as the hours slipped by. We all sang, yelled, and shouted up the mountain. The last few miles to summit were a bit tiring, but finally, after 3 days, 8 hours and 31 minutes, we found ourselves standing atop the highest peak in the lower fourty-eight, Mt. Whitney.
On the way down, I couldn't resist climbing Mt. Muir, which would be my 8th California fourteener. Jared was happy to tag along, and we took about a half hour to ascend the class 3 peak.
Me atop Mt. Muir, elevation 14,019'
The rest of the way down the mountain was long and pretty awful. I ended up sprinting as it got dark for the last four miles since I was so sick of being on the mountain. I ignored the insanely sharp pain that shot up and down my entire left leg every time my foot struck the ground. We all reconvened at the van -- which took three tries to start (on account of the cold, its age, and having no gas) -- and we made it down to Lone Pine. We said a quick goodbye to Jared, and started the daunting drive back. Eventually, somehow, we made it back to Morgan Hill around 1am.
We slept for a few hours in my backyard. We were up at the crack of dawn so I could drive Anthony and Ari to the bus station and then book it back to work in time for my 8am meeting.
It will be hard to top this trip next year. But Dr. Dirtbag (Sean O'Roarke) wasted no time in laying waste to our FKT by crushing the route in 53 hours and 3 minutes.
So I have a funny feeling that we may find ourselves back here next year, and that this next trip will involve less time, more delirium, and more stoke.
Check out the video Anthony made of the trip below: