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Geo-Joint: Mt. Whitney

Posted on September 30 2014

Mt. Whitney

OK, before some sourdough flames me with an indignant email, yes, Alaska can boast of about 15 peaks that overshadow our best effort.  But c’mon, that’s Alaska, where nature just went off the charts in any number of ways.  Here in sunny California we have a gem of a mountain range, the Sierra Nevada.  And in the southern part of that range stands Mt.Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48.  For years its height was pegged at 14, 494′, a number which had a kind of rythym to it.  In more recent years the mountain has “grown” by way of more accurate measuring methods to stand at 14, 505′.

Our most lofty peak was named for Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist of California, in 1864.  Not known to many nowadays, he unfortunately distinguished himself by besmirching the reputation of John Muir.  He was skeptical of Muir’s theory of the glacial origin of the Yosemite Valley and dismissed the now-iconic Muir as a “mere sheepherder” and an “ignoramus”.

Naming rights aside, the mountain itself is a mighty bulwark of granite.  Mountains are ranked not only by the measure of their peak relative to sea level, but also relative to the nearby countryside.  By that measurement, called prominence, Whitney ranks second in the U.S., and 81st in the world.  It stands over 10,000 feet higher than the town of Lone Pine at its base.  Curiously, the lowest spot on the North American continent (-282 feet at Badwater in Death Valley National Park) lies only 76 miles away.

Mt. Whitney, as part of the Sierra Nevada range, formed from tremendous tectonic uplift that includes block faulting along its eastern side, making for sharp gradients and imposing mountain faces.  On the western slopes, the land falls away less dramatically, down to the Great Central Valley.  The deep alluvium soils laid down from the eroding Sierra give that valley its incomparable engine of food production for the nation.

Mt. Whitney was named during a geological survey of the area.  A member of that survey team, Clarence King, tried climbing the mountain but failed to reach the top.  His second attempt, in 1871, resulted in his climbing Mt. Langley by mistake.  John Muir himself made that same error before he later figured out a way to the top.  King took another shot at making a first summit in 1873 and was finally successful, but had been beaten to the goal barely a month before by a group of fishermen from Lone Pine in 1873.  They called the mountain Fisherman’s Peak, but in 1891 the USGS decided to stick with the name chosen by their geologists.

Since those early climbers made their daring ascents, unnumbered thousands have struggled their way to the summit.  Strong, speedy hikers can do it in a day, though it’s a long one. They are aided by well-marked routes that don’t require technical gear or any specialized mountain climbing knowledge or skill.  Still, it’s a long hard hike into ever-thinning air so the challenge, at least for the average hiker,  is undeniable.  Some take that main route but stop to camp out on the way up.  Several routes up the mountain exist, including a more direct rock scramble called the Mountaineer’s Route, as well as the true rock-climbing approaches.  So many people want to reach the top of Mt.Whitney that in 1996, in order to preserve the sense of a wilderness experience, the Forest Service was forced to create a daily quota with a lottery for positions.  Sixty people a day are allowed onto the main approach trail.

In early October, our own team will be making their bid for the top following a “backdoor” route involving several days of backpacking by way of Cottonwood Lakes, before charging the summit next Wednesday.



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