With only 88 miles separating Badwater and Mount Whitney, the lowest and highest points in the contiguous United States, it is only natural for people to want to travel from one to the other. The most popular way to do this is the Badwater 135 running race, which follows the highway and is held in July to maximize misery. However, there is also a mostly off-highway route between the two points called “Lowest to Highest” (L2H), which stitches together a mixture of dirt roads, trails, and cross-country travel to connect the two points in a similar distance and in a much more interesting way.
I had met a member of a group trying to set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) for this route on my recent Badwater to Telescope adventure. The group seemed unlikely to succeed, but it turns out that they persevered, completing the route in 3 days, 8 hours. I do not normally enjoy deserts, backpacking, or non-peak-focused activities. However, I am both curious and competitive, and with a little help from a friend (ahem), the seed was planted in my mind. Thus, in the last dry Sierra weather before winter, I found myself driving back out to Badwater on Saturday, with side-trips to leave water at Cerro Gordo and on the Saline Valley and Wildrose Canyon Roads.
First period of consciousness
Having learned my lesson from last time, I took a side-trip to the Natural Bridge parking lot to sleep, then woke up at 2:30 AM to drive down to Badwater. I started hiking on schedule at 3:00 AM, choosing a constellation to orient myself on the featureless salt flat after the moon had set. Feeling paranoid a mile or more out, I stopped to check my pack, and realized that I had left my phone charging cord in the car. Since I did not know the route, this simply would not do. Cursing my stupidity, I meandered back to the car, retrieved the cord, and started “for real” around 4:30. Bonus miles!
Heading just right of Orion’s belt, I plotted a fairly straight and direct course across the flats at night, reaching the Westside Road before sunrise. My pack was uncomfortably heavy with food, but I managed to jog a bit of this road before hiking the endless Hanaupah Canyon Road toward the spring. The “illegal activities” seemed not to have poisoned the water for the previous group, so I drank some and filled up with a full 3 liters before zig-zagging up the faint trail to the east ridge. I felt good on the familiar climb, reaching the Telescope trail about 7h30 from the car.
After following the trail past Bennett Peak, the route heads cross-country into Tuber Canyon. The initial drop is moderately obnoxious, but the canyon floor has an open, sandy streambed that makes for quick travel. I was feeling good enough to jog quite a bit of it, sipping away at my water as I made the endless, winding descent to the Panamint Valley. Though I saw no burros, they had left plenty of manure and faint trails, which I followed as the wash became littered with rocks and brush lower down. Closer to the canyon’s mouth, these game trails turned into a human trail and then a jeep road.
I hiked and jogged the jeep road past some burned-out old cars and other junk, finishing my water shortly before meeting the Wildrose Canyon Road. I hiked up to my water cache, drank a liter, then put three more in my pack along with the crushed plastic jug. Absorbed in my preparations, I was surprised to look up and find a woman with an overnight pack hiking down the road. When I greeted her, she replied and immediately asked if I was doing Lowest to Highest. I spoke for a few minutes to this desert native, finding out that she was doing a loop up Tuber Canyon and down Wildrose, then we took off in opposite directions.
The GPS map came in handy here, as the route leaves the paved Wildrose road to follow a nearly-invisible old jeep road northwest across the Panamint Valley. I jogged the descents and hiked the flats as the sun set over the Argus Range across the valley. I took out my headlamp near full dark, but found that the moon was bright enough to make it unnecessary. I glanced occasionally at the map on my phone, following the line as it turned left across the Panamint salt flat. This was probably my favorite part of the journey. Unlike the Badwater flat, with its sharp and uneven surface, the Panamint flat is almost entirely smooth, so I could fast-walk across it while admiring the starry skyline, and watching the sparse headlamps of the cars passing silently on the roads to the west and north.
I had been feeling fine to this point, or perhaps my mind was elsewhere going across the salt flat, but I began to feel the miles while plying the dirt roads toward highway 190. There were the expected knee and shoulder aches, but also some unfamiliar ones in my Achilles tendons and the backs of my knees. I finally reached route 190, then turned left to walk quickly up the pavement toward Panamint Springs, only turning my headlamp on to warn approaching cars.
I reached the “resort,” checked to find that their WiFi was password-protected, then sat down on a rock outside to have a sandwich and think. My original plan had been to put in 70 miles the first day, sleeping at my Saline Valley Road cache at 1:00-2:00 AM. While I was not falling asleep on my feet, my various aches and pains were becoming unpleasant, and there was substantial cross-country travel ahead. Thinking quickly, I decided instead to sleep at China Garden Spring. This would mean covering only about 57 miles the first day, and therefore almost certainly a second sleep in the Owens Valley, but I could not think of a better option.
I hiked more paved road past Panamint, then turned left onto the well-graded dirt road to the Darwin Falls trailhead. I was not loving life at this point, and eyed various flat-looking spots off to the side of the road. However, it was still relatively early, and I told myself that it made more sense to camp near water. The canyon started out broad and sandy, but narrowed as the stream surfaced and I approached the falls. Soon there were no flat spots to camp, and I soaked my feet on one of the stream crossings. I followed a faint cairned route around the falls to the left, making several unnecessary detours to overlook points and finding a bit of easy class 3 scrambling, with cactus to discourage mistakes. I desperately wanted the day to end, so when around 10:00 I found a flat-ish spot sheltered from the wind in some bushes, I threw down my pad and bag, set my alarm for 5:00, and devoured a pepperoni. It took awhile for my fatigue to drown out the pain in my left knee and ankle, but I eventually fell asleep sometime before 11:00.
Second period of consciousness
There were no pleasant bailout options from my first camp, so I feared waking up to find myself feeling the pain and stiffness of serious damage. Fortunately, my body seemed to have recovered overnight. Still, I lay in my bag for awhile after my alarm, dreading the night-time cross-country travel, and only got started at the end of headlamp time around 6:00. Barely 100 yards from camp, I stumbled onto a dirt road coming from who-knows-where, which I followed to China Garden Spring. I expected something obvious like Hanaupah Springs, but saw only a run-down shack and tire tracks. Perhaps the spring was somewhere up-canyon, but it was cool enough that I thought I could manage the 12 miles to my Saline Valley cache on the liter I had left.
The route turned cross-country again, winding up a scenic, easy wash before popping out onto the seemingly endless and slightly uphill plain of loose volcanic garbage that is the Darwin Plateau. I longingly eyed the road to my north as I slogged past the Joshua Trees, trying to take the most efficient line around hills and washes. The folks at nearby China Lake seemed unusually busy, as I frequently heard the sound of military jets overhead. Once, a straight-winged jet looking a bit like an X-1 passed low near a hill behind me, then peeked out again ahead. I don’t know why it was flying, but it did cheer me up.
I eventually reached the highway, crossing 30 feet of pavement to the well-graded Saline Valley Road. This was how I would spend much of the day, efficiently grinding out mind-numbing miles north on a smooth dirt road. Reaching my water cache, I used about three liters, dumped out the rest, and added the crushed jug to my collection. There were Joshua Trees, occasional cars, and another low-flying jet — modern this time — but I mostly just focused maintaining an efficient 4 MPH walk and turned my brain off for this part. I recognized the steep side of Pleasant Point, and it looked unpleasantly far away. I cheered myself up by reminding myself that this was the easiest way to grind out the day’s 50-60 miles.
Fortunately I had not paid much attention to the map, because it turns out that after climbing to over 6000′, the route loses most of the elevation gained since the highway before turning to climb 3500′ to Cerro Gordo. Making the best of this discouraging development, I jogged what I could of the descent, then put on some Ministry to get myself in the mood for the climb. While the west road to Cerro Gordo is drivable in a passenger car, the east road is nasty, requiring clearance, 4 wheel drive, and some amount of driving skill to get around rocks and up the loose gravel wash.
I reached my Cerro Gordo cache with water to spare, and regretfully poured out half, figuring that it would be cool hiking north along the Inyo crest, and that I would grab more water in Lone Pine. The sun reflected off the various ponds that were once Owens Lake, and the silhouette of Mount Whitney beckoned in the late afternoon light. The traverse north from Cerro Gordo (east and just north of Keeler) to Long John Canyon (just north of Lone Pine) is long, but I was feeling surprisingly good, jogging the flat “Salt Tram Road.” Where the road drops north of Cerro Gordo, an old but mostly runnable trail cuts straight across, passing an old metal shack and mine, saving some major elevation loss and gain.
My energy gradually faded as night set in and the road rolled north along the Inyo crest. The high clouds I had seen over the Sierra had spread east, dimming the moon enough to require my headlamp, and making jogging more difficult. It was cool enough for gloves, but not unpleasant, with only a slight wind crossing the range.
Once again I was lucky to have a map, because the “trail” descending to Long John Canyon and the Black Warrior Mine barely exists. I followed where it should be, finding enough cairns and trail-bed higher up to mostly stay on the route, and open cross-country travel when I lost it. Farther down, things deteriorated into ugliness. The trail and wash merge around 7400′, and things are mostly easy. However, a spring around 5900′ makes the wash unusably brushy, and the trail supposedly leaves the bottom around 6900′ feet to get around that and some more upstream nastiness. There may be some sort of trail here, but all could find were occasional cairns hinting that I was probably doing it wrong. It was Inyo bush-whacking at its worst, side-hilling on loose sand and scree through spiny, woody brush and cactus, with the menace of chossy cliffs looming below. I eventually bashed, chossed, and cursed my way to the creek-bed, dumped out my shoes, and hiked to the still-used part of the jeep road.
I was too sore and tired to jog the road quickly at night, but I could shuffle along faster than a walk, and was pissed off enough that I thought I might be able to continue straight on to Whitney and get it over with. I made slightly better speed on the smoother dirt roads of the flat, and was feeling unnaturally lively right until I ran into a sharp inversion on the valley floor. In just a few steps, I went from almost t-shirt weather to cold, aching hands. My will to finish drained away, and I only wanted to get through Lone Pine and sleep.
It took longer that I expected to reach 395, and from there to enter Lone Pine. There were still a few places open when I arrived a bit after 10:00, but I had no money, so the town held neither food nor warmth for me. I thought about trying to climb to the Alabama Hills and out of the inversion, but gave up a short distance up the Whitney Portal Road. I found a flat spot in the brush around 11:00, threw down my bag and pad, set my alarm for 3:00, and ate my remaining pepperoni curled inside my bag with the face-hole nearly closed before nodding off huddled against the cold east wind.
Third period of consciousness
My will was good when I woke at 3:00, and after taking the time to text my ride and look at the weather, I put on all my clothes, stashed my sleeping gear and empty water jugs, and started hiking up the Portal road around 3:25. The soreness faded somewhat as I climbed the silent road to Lone Pine campground, and I was pleased with my progress. I had been too cold to get more water at the Lone Pine park the night before, so stopped in the still-open campground to refill. Unfortunately the water had been turned off, but at least the vault toilet was open, so I could lighten my load without digging a hole.
I plied the sandy lower National Recreation Trail, then traversed into the canyon on easier ground to a stream crossing. Looking at my map, I realize that this water came from Meysan Lakes, and was therefore probably less fecal than the stuff flowing next to the main Whitney trail. I grabbed a liter, happy not to have to wait until the North Fork, then continued my climb to the Portal. I saw fewer than a dozen cars, and no other hikers as I walked through the picnic area to the old Whitney trail.
It felt no colder here than in the valley, and the sun rose gloriously on the Portal crags, Whitney, and its needles as I climbed to Lower Boy Scout Lake. I had never been up the Mountaineers’ Route this late in the season, so I wasted some time trying the efficient slab route to Upper Boy Scout Lake and getting shut down by ice before taking the other route up the scree and through the willows.
There was a single tent at the lake, and another near Iceberg Lake, where I saw a couple just starting up the chute. I felt like I had no power, stopping frequently to lean on a rock, gasp, and let the lactic acid drain from my legs, but I was pleasantly surprised to still leave the humans in the dust. It was unpleasantly cold in the shady chute, spurring me to stop as little as possible as I passed another hiker on my way to the notch. I hugged the right-hand side on the final north-facing climb, trying to reach the sun as soon as possible. The final, sunny walk across the summit plateau actually felt pleasant. I stopped long enough to take a summit shot, celebrate my time, and send a few texts, but soon grew cold in the breeze, taking a minor detour to sign the summit log before limping slowly down the Mountaineers’ Route to the Portal.
Gear, nutrition, and planning
I borrowed a 35-liter climbing pack, to which I attached an old chalk bag and a binocular case as stash pockets for food. I carried a full-length foam pad and my ancient “20 degree” down bag to sleep. I wore my usual summer hiking setup, which was just warm enough to get up and down Mount Whitney.
For food, I followed my usual rule of thumb for such things, packing 100 calories per mile, 13,000 in this case. I relied on 2-3 lbs of body fat to take care of hills and my base metabolic rate. Most of the calories were easily digestible carbs: 12 Clif bars (6 caffeinated, 6 non-), 12 peanut butter sandwiches, 12 packs of pop-tarts, 2 bags of Chex mix. The rest were two pepperoni sausages, which I ate before sleep each night. This worked out perfectly, as I finished my last bar before starting the Mountaineers’ Route chute on Whitney.
Since I do not enjoy worrying about water, I cached a gallon at each of Wildrose Canyon Road, Saline Valley Road, and Cerro Gordo. I originally planned to do the route in two segments: a 70-mile grunt to my water cache on Saline Valley Road, then a death march to Whitney, separated by a short night’s sleep. However, the difficult terrain and unexpected suffering on the first leg forced me to alter this plan. I instead rested for 8 hours after 57 miles, just past Darwin Falls, then again for 4 after 115, just beyond Lone Pine. While I believe the route could be done with just one rest in under 48 hours, doing so is beyond my current abilities.