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50-Miler Trip Report - August 5-13, 2013

posted Aug 20, 2013, 3:16 PM by Brent Browning   [ updated Aug 21, 2013, 1:26 PM ]
This summer a group of 8 Scouts and 4 Adults set out for a 50-Miler backpacking trip with a goal to summit Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States at 14,505'.  We had to modify our plans due to a case of altitude sickness and were unable to summit Mt. Whitney but we successfully completed a 50-Miler through the amazingly beautiful Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park.

For more about our trip, read on...  Click here to see photos and videos!

Preparation - Food, Packs, and Gear

Ever wonder what 6 days of backpacking food for 12 people looks like?

That is a lot of food...  Hungry teenage boys need calories: 2,500-3,000 calories/day is what we planned for.

Scouts met at my house to package the food using the Philmont approach.  That is, three meal packets per-day: breakfast+snacks, lunch+snacks, and dinner+dessert.  Each in a 1-gallon Ziploc bag.

Here is a picture of several Scouts packaging the food:

And here is a picture of 6 days of food packaged for one buddy pair:

Will it all fit into the Bearikade Expedition bear canisters (lightest weight and most spacious one available) that we rented?

Each person needed to carry their share of the food which is 3 days for 2 people:


Sure enough it fit!

All except one breakfast pouch which we would eat before we hit the trail and then keep the trail snacks handy in our backpack hip belt pockets.  This meant that any person on the crew actually had enough food to survive for a full 6 days if they got lost or separated.  Which won't happen because we use the buddy system!

Buddy pairs had met at my house the day before departure for pack inspections and impound.  Scouts and adults brought their packs which had been carefully packed using the Troop 33 Backpacking Checklist and were asked to unpack everything which was then individually inspected.  After they passed inspection each person received: a bear canister, their share of the food, their crew gear item, fuel, and personal hygeiene kits (aka "poop kits").

Here is one Scout's gear all laid out neatly for inspection:

Here is a picture of (left-to-right): food, personal hygiene kits, fuel, and crew gear items:

Travel and Permit Problems

We met at LAUMC early Monday morning 8/5 to arrange carpools and start the long drive to the Eastern Sierras.  We put all the backpacks into my truck and divided everyone up across three cars.  We drove up through Yosemite National Park and over Tioga Pass and had lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli.  We then headed South to Bishop to pick up our wilderness permit.  We had a wilderness permit reserved and needed to change our Trail Crest exit date.  Unfortunately the ranger at that station was unable to help us so we packed up and continued onto the Lone Pine Ranger Station.

We had problems using the online reservation system that controls wilderness permits, specifically when picking a set of entry/exit dates.  Every morning at 7am a new set of 25 slots would open up for a Trail Crest exit that would be 6 months + 14 days in the future.  We could see all 25 slots available IF we selected an entry date for exactly 6 months in the future and an exit date of 6 months + 14 days.  BUT when we selected an entry date that was what we wanted (6 days before our exit) the 25 slots would disappear.  Clearly a bug in their system.  We spoke with a ranger, Tim, and the Inyo NF office and he had never used and was unaware of any problems with the system.  Everything we had read said that you could change dates when you show up to collect the permit 1-2 days before your entry date.  So we had an 8/7 entry date and an 8/22 exit with the assumption we could change the exit.  Bzzttt, thanks for playing...

We made it to the Lone Pine Ranger Station 20 minutes before they closed and they said we were out of luck.  There were no open slots available for the 8/12 exit that we needed and nothing available for +/- 1 days grace period either.  We had three choices: go into the wilderness and hope a ranger didn't catch us (a court appearance and up to a $5000 fine), pick another route, or come back tomorrow and try again.  We retreated to our campsite to discuss the options...  The most realistic seemed like an entry from Horseshoe Meadow into Cottonwood Lakes up to Mt. Whitney with a summit and then a return on the same route.  The downside?  It would be 65-70 miles in 6 days which is more than we had hoped.

Acclimatization and Permit Success!

We spent our first night at Grays Meadow Campground at 6,000'  It was a small campground above the heat of Owens Valley and right alongside Independence Creek which is fed by the high-mountain lakes we could hike past in the next few days.  It was quite pleasant.  The Scouts played Frisbee, cards, and discussed route alternatives.  There was quite a bit of anxiety in the air as our future for the trek was up in the air.  After a hot dog and sausage dinner (yes, the snap peas were vegetables) we turned in for the night.

The next morning Janet, Carl, and I drove down to the Lone Pine Ranger station crossing our fingers.  One of the employees there really liked our purple t-shirts with a USGS benchmark customized for Troop 33.  She was only taking people with reservations but turned over her sign and offered to help us.  We explained our dilemma and she said she would be glad to help.  She looked on her system and miraculously there were now 12 slots available for an 8/13 exit (which meant we could leave on 8/12 as planned)!!  We snagged it and thanked our lucky stars.

Here is a picture of the me holding the permit with Mt. Whitney looming in the background:

We headed back to pick up the crew and move camp up to the Onion Valley Campground @ 9,200'  While the crew hung out getting acclimated several adults shuttled two cars to Whitney Portal since we had a one-way route.  We then returned in one car back to Onion Valley so we had cars at each trailhead just in case.

That afternoon we did a quick hike and then proceeded to BBQ flank steaks and baked potatoes while the hike leader and navigator for the next day studied the maps carefully:


Honestly, Jeremy did take it seriously!  Notice the guys are wearing coats, gloves, and hats?  It gets chilly up higher...

Day 1 – Onion Valley to Vidette Meadow (8.5 miles)

We were up early the next morning to finally hit the trail.  Our destination was Vidette Meadow by way of Kearsarge Pass Trail:


On the way up to the pass we came across a set of high-mountain lakes: Little Pothole Lake, Flower Lake, Gilbert Lake, Heart Lake, and Big Pothole Lake.  Here is a picture of Heart Lake (yes, it really was heart-shaped):

You might also notice that we were now above timberline.  Not enough oxygen for trees to grow up here...  While it was a relatively short hike (4.7 miles) from our campground to Kearsarge Pass everyone definitely noticed that it was slow going.  Much harder to hike with a fully loaded pack (gear, 6 days of food, and 2 Liters of water) at the higher elevation.

Here is a picture of the crew as we approached Kearsarge Pass:

And a picture of the crew at Kearsarge Pass (11,760' but my map says 11,845'):

From the pass you had a view all the way back to Onion Valley and into Owens Valley on one side and all the way into the wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park on the other side.  The view was stunning, here you can see Kearsarge Lakes and the Kearsarge Pinnacles looming over them:

We took an hour to eat lunch and enjoy the views.  As you can see there was no threat of thunderstorms or weather of any kind.  After lunch we headed down to filter water at Kearsarge Lakes.  Once everyone was refilled we pressed on past Bullfrog Lake and then hit the John Muir Trail (JMT) junction.  The sign told us we had only 1.2 miles until Vidette Meadow:

Yeah, right...  Our map showed 1.5 miles and we think it was more like 15 miles.  Just kidding, but that sure was a long, windy set of downhill switchbacks that seemed to take forever when you want to be in camp.

On our way down we ran across Ranger Rick Sanger and his wife Susan.  They were quite friendly and asked us where we were headed.  They recommended several spots next to the meadow to camp and said they had just come from there and they were all empty.  Rick also recommended staying at "Wagon Wheel" camp just before Forester Pass instead of the 11,300' Tarns we had planned to stay at.  He said that we would have better shelter among the trees and that it would be better to spread out impact in an area that had soil for digging catholes.  Excellent suggestions.

We hiked on and setup camp across from Vidette Meadow.  There was one couple there when we go in and they were quite gracious to share the site (and bearbox) with our crew.

Everyone was pretty tired and sore from the first full day of hiking:

We ate dinner (chicken fajitas for some), played cards, tossed the Frisbee, and turned in for the night.

Day 2 – Vidette Meadow to Wagon Wheel (6.0 miles)

The crew agreed on a later start since it was to be a short day.  They also agreed to eat one of the cooked breakfasts: Huevos Rancheros.  Seemed like a good idea at the time, more on that in a bit...  We woke to a very chilly morning with frost on the meadow:

Did I mention that the recipe for Huevos Rancheros calls to first re-hydrate and then to fry them in a pan?  Here is what happens when all you have is a JetBoil and no stove or frying pan:

Oh well as my Scoutmaster used to say, "It is just protein, eat it!"  Although, he used to say that after he swatted a fly or mosquito above the pot where dinner was cooking and it landed in the pot, mmm good.....  At least this tasted like eggs and spices.  Well, maybe I am trying to make it seem better.

On our way up to the base of Forester Pass we followed several creeks and stopped for lunch at beautiful Bubbs Creek:

Everyone enjoyed a relaxing lunch with the sound of rushing water flowing down the creek.  After lunch we continued to climb and as you can see from the next picture we quickly got into high mountain tundra nearing timberline again.  On the way up we saw several marmots in the rocks just chillin...


We reached the campsite that Ranger Rick had previously described, "Just before the trail takes a hard left and leaves the trees for the last time".  It was an amazing set of tent pads terraced into the side of the mountain hidden among the trees.  There were only two tents there and they graciously invited us to share the remaining sites.

We quickly setup camp and proceeded to enjoy the views from our camp @ 11,269'  Here is one view that should give you an idea of the solid granite walls that surrounded the campsite.  From the plateau you could see back down into the valley where we had just come from.


In camp some found a nice spot to take a nap...

We washed clothes, filtered water, played cards, then cooked dinner.

Some really liked the dehydrated food:

Others were not so sure:

After dinner one of our Scouts complained of nausea and a growing headache.  He said he started feeling bad before dinner (no, it wasn't the food).  Both are warning signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness) or altitude sickness.  Since he had been hydrating properly all day it was not likely to be dehydration and dinner had not yet had time to settle so it was unlikely to be the food.  There is only one treatment for AMS: descend, descend, descend.  Since it was getting late and the sun was setting we agreed to wait it out and see how the night went.  I made the decision that if he got worse overnight we would head back down to Vidette Meadow (9,500') first thing in the morning.

Day 3 – Wagon Wheel to Vidette Meadow (6.0 miles)

Up early this morning to see how our Scout with AMS was doing.  He reported that he slept okay but that he was still nauseous and his headache was now throbbing.  Time to descend.  The entire crew packed up and ate breakfast and then turned around to head down.  There was frost and ice on the mess kits and bear canisters we left out overnight:

As we descended there was ice and frost all over the plants and wildflowers until the sun thawed everything out:


We made the 6 mile hike in just 3 hours and setup camp in Vidette Meadow around 10:45am, really good time.

We ran across a couple with their young (3 year-old?) son who was just packing up and heading out for the day.  His father carried the backpack with the gear while his mother carried a backpack with him.  How do I get a ride like that?

I decided that it was best to let the Scout rest and get acclimated further at 9,500' while the crew took a day hike.  Then we would re-assess later in the day to see if he was feeling better.  From there we could decide whether we needed to hike to Roads End (~5,000') to get lower, hike out over Kearsarge Pass so we could try a frontal summit assault on Mt. Whitney, or come up with an alternative 50-Miler route.  For now, we needed to let him rest and acclimate.

Day 3 - Vidette Meadow <=> Charlotte Lake (7.0 miles)

The rest of the crew ate lunch and then headed off to explore Charlotte Lake.  The map showed a ~3.5 mile one-way UP to the lake @ 10,370'  That doesn't do justice to the 14 + 9 switchbacks in a very short distance.  The crew had fun dipping their feet in the clear, mountain lake:


After dinner the crew played mountain ultimate Frisbee:

Our Scout with AMS was feeling better and even joined in the game.

Earlier Mr. Webb and I had hatched a plan for an alternate 50-Miler...  The idea was to stay relative low (9,500-10,500') while getting to see some of the other areas nearby.  We were concerned that since we had lost a day it would be too risky to attempt a 2-day summit of Mt. Whitney from the East side.  That would not allow any room for error and would mean a 14-mile day including a very steep 4-mile summit.  The new 50-Miler included a hike the next day down the canyon and then up East Creek Canyon to East Lake @ 9,445'.  Then the next day we would reverse that and pass back through Vidette Meadow on our way to Charlotte Lake and stay there for a night @ 10,345'.  Then on the final day we would hike out over Kearsarge Pass and back to our car at Onion Valley.  This plan would allow everyone to participate and complete a 50-Miler.  The plan was presented and the crew agreed.  Most were  disappointed that they would not get to summit Mt. Whitney but everyone understood that health and safety are the #1 concern and that we did not want to take any risks.

We again set our bear canisters on top of the bear box and put our pack covers on.  This was our makeshift "Bearmuda" triangle given that we did not have the traditional third leg of the triangle (the sump).


We followed Philmont bear procedures which at times may have seemed tedious or unnecessary.  Some backpackers play fast and loose with bear procedures, cooking and eating near their tent, for example.  Earlier we had heard that bears were coming down to lower altitudes since the berries were now ripe on the bushes and that a cinnamon brown bear had been spotted in Vidette Meadow.  The Ranger said he spent the day in the meadow and did not see any bears.

Here is the wildlife we saw that evening:

Two doe deers with their three little fawns grazing in the meadow.  They were alert but happy to share with us.  Later that evening we watched the trout in the stream start to rise as a few bugs appeared on the water while several bats came out to dive for bugs in the air.  Despite that activity we never had any real insect activity while hiking or camping due to the slight breezes.

Day 4 – Vidette Meadow to East Lake (6.0 miles)

We woke up and given that everyone was feeling okay we packed up and headed out.  We started down the trail to Junction Meadow @ 8,170'  On our way down we hiked alongside beautiful Vidette Creek through some lush greenery and ran across an amazing waterfall about halfway down:

When we reached Junction Meadow we were faced with a new obstacle...  The convergence of many high-mountain creeks and streams which turned into a sizable river that was flowing fast and reasonably deep.  How could we get across so we could start the hike up to East Lake?  It took us over an hour to strategize and scout for alternatives.  Eventually our fearless Crew Leader, Nathaniel, and his buddy Zach found a rock dam downstream that had a shallower place to cross just below the dam.


As we started up the canyon we saw TONS of berries: currants, blueberries, gooseberries, and more.  Hmm, remember that earlier statement about bears coming down for berries?  I sure hope we aren't heading into the bear's pantry tonight...  Wait, where was the bridge when we needed it earlier?  Not to worry, this was much farther upstream.  Sure would have been nice down lower though.


After a while we finally hit East Lake and we setup camp.  Some found a place to take a nap...


The lake was absolutely gorgeous, check out this view from the edge of our campsite:

Just to the left of the logs was this huge boulder which Jeremy was the first to summit.  Others soon followed and it became the fun place to hang out, play cards, and later cook dinner for one buddy pair:


Nathaniel saw fish in the creek and wanted to go fishing.  Problem is, he forgot his fishing pole.  We fashioned one up out of a twig, some fishing line we found, a safety pin, pine cone for a bobber, and beef jerky for bait.  Nathaniel, Jeremy, and Zach didn't catch a thing, that's why they call it fishing...  Remember "Chubby Bunny"?  Well, this is what happens when you give Nathaniel a back of Oreos, ewww...


The crew really enjoyed East Lake as you can tell.  We were sad to be leaving the next morning but looking forward to something new.

Unfortunately later that evening our First Need XLE Portable Water Purifiers failed.  Both of them.  We tried back-flushing them per the instructions with no luck.  Both had so much back-pressure that the rubber hose connecting the pump to the filter would pop off when you pumped.  We had experienced some problems on Day 1 but chalked that up to the new "XLE" version of the filter and just pumped slower which appeared to fix it.  I have since called General Ecology and spoken with their customer support department.  I sent both filters back for failure analysis and will report on the findings later.

Not to worry...  Be Prepared!  We had a backup plan.  We had Katadyn MicroPur chlorine dioxide tablets.  In fact, we had 160 of them which would allow us to purify up to 160 Liters of water.  At 3L/person/day that would be enough for 4 full days if we needed it.  The only downside if that you must wait 1 hour if you want the first level of purification and 4 hours if you want complete purification.  Not a problem, we would get ahead and stay ahead. 

Day 5 – East Lake to Charlotte Lake (9.5 miles)

Nathaniel, Zach, and I woke up at 5:30am and purified our first batch of water.  It would be ready for drinking by 9:30am.  We had plenty of water from the previous afternoon and evening using the filters before they clogged.  We hiked back down East Creek and this time it only took us 10 minutes to cross the river since we already knew where the dam was.  We made a brief stop in Vidette Meadow (so we wouldn't break our streak of visiting there 5 times in 5 days) to purify more water for drinking later that afternoon.  We then started the ascent up the 14 + 9 switchbacks on our way to Charlotte Lake.  Here is the view from the top of the first set of switchbacks looking back toward Vidette, Bubbs, and East Lake:


We stopped for lunch at the JMT trail junction:


Some took the opportunity to take a quick power nap:


After we finished lunch we set out to climb the last 9 switchbacks, here you can see how steep the final 2-3 were:


Once we reached the top we came across a big, flat plateau that was like being on the surface of the moon:

Several trails crossed here with one leading directly down to Charlotte Lake:

We setup camp and everyone took the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful lake.  Some soaked their feet, others enjoyed the view, and 4 Scouts decided to make the swim across the lake.  Why did the Scout cross the lake?  To get to the rock on the other side...  Nathaniel, Zach, Damien, and Jeremy easily made it through the cold water to the other side.  It took them longer to decide to swim back but they eventually made the return trip.

Later we cooked dinner and had another Thorns, Roses, and Buds session just as the sun was starting to set on our campsite.  Many were sad to see the trip nearing an end.

I mentioned to the crew that the Perseid meteor shower was supposed to be at the peak in the wee hours of the morning.  Viewing would be at a premium given our high altitude and no ambient light to interfere.

Day 6 – Charlotte Lake to Onion Valley (8.5 miles)

In the middle of the night I had heard some rustling and zippers...  Turns out that Nathaniel, Zach, Damien, and Jeremy all woke up to see the Perseids.  They slept out under the stars and watched.  They counter over a hundred in an hour and a half.  Some with green trails, many lasting up to 10 seconds.

We packed, ate breakfast, and got ready to hit the trail.  1... 2... 3... Wait, who is missing?

There is Carl...

We started the climb up the trail that stayed high above Bullfrog and Kearsarge Lakes.  We didn't want to lose any of the elevation we had gained the previous day on our way to Kearsarge Pass.  We stopped at this amazing vista point that looked out over Bullfrog Lake and around the corner to Vidette Meadow, Forester Pass, and East Lake where we had spent so much time.

We took a bunch of photos: Carl & Tom, Janet & Alex, Chris, me, and the entire crew:


We made our way up the climb to Kearsarge Pass and stopped to take in the amazing views again.  The Scouts were not satisfied with getting to the top of an 11,760' pass so they scrambled up some tall rocks nearby to get an even better view.  After a short rest we started the descent to Onion Valley.


In what seemed like no time at all we arrived in Onion Valley to be greeted by the Gabrielson family.  They took this picture of our tired, stinky, but very happy crew:

From left-to-right: Carl G, Alex B, Chris W, Tom G, Brent B (crew advisor), Janet K (activity coordinator), Alex K, Jeremy B, Nathaniel W (crew leader), Zachary O, Damien A, and Jacob F.

The drivers picked up the cars from Whitney Portal and brought back ice-cold Gatorade for the crew.  We then drove to our hotel in Ridgecrest.  We took showers and went out to dinner at Casey's Steaks and BBQ to celebrate with some hearty food.  After dinner the crew took a plunge in the hotel pool.  We drove the next morning back to LAUMC.


This was an amazing high adventure trip.  We were faced with several challenges and overcame all of them.  The crew was one of the best I have ever backpacked with, always keeping their spirits high and making everything fun.  Nathaniel did an excellent job as Crew Leader.  Our Scouts received many compliments along the way from several Rangers and other backpackers.  One Ranger told us that our group had backpacks that fit well, our backpacks were packed perfectly with nothing dangling, we all looked in great shape, and everyone was happy and polite.  Many hikers told me that our Scouts were so polite as they stepped aside on the trail to let them pass and always saying "Hi" or "Howdy" as they passed.  One hiker complained about another Boy Scout Troop who took over their campsite and proceeded to setup a boom box and ruin their wilderness experience.  One of the parts of the Outdoor Code is to "Be considerate in the outdoors".  We certainly were.  Our crew remained positive when faced with adversity and also flexible when the plans changed.  I am very proud of everyone for completing this very challenging 50-Miler.  I would go backpacking with any of them again in a heartbeat.

I would like to finish with two quotes from John Muir (1838-1914):

"Going to the mountains is going home."
"I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."

Until next time...

Brent Browning
Troop 33 Scoutmaster