Saturday, Day 9 of the Challenge, was a hike up Candlelight Peak near Mt Whitney. Candlelight was one of the shorter hikes of the Challenge at 8 miles round trip and 4100 feet of elevation gain and I think everyone was looking forward to a short day.
Thanks to the sunburn I had acquired Friday, I seriously considered a 3 am start so that I could summit in the dark and avoid being sunburned for Sunday’s marathon effort, but sleep was a higher priority. If worse came to worse, I could beg, borrow, or steal a pair of pants the following day.
Unfortunately I woke up Saturday with a swollen throat and was having a hard time breathing and swallowing. What an awful time to get a sore throat. I contemplated how disappointing it would be to have a virus be the thing to stop me from finishing after eight days of effort. But after some consideration, I realized that my throat, though annoying, was not in fact sore. Perhaps it was merely irritated from the dry air, not enough water, and too much salty food right before sleeping. I drank as much water as I could stomach and tried to get some more sleep before my alarm went off.
When it was finally time to get moving my throat was no better but also no worse, so I got ready and headed up the road to Whitney Portal, hoping for the best. I was running a little late and knew that parking can sometimes be scarce, but I was surprised to see Bob’s unmistakeable Jeep parked half a mile from the trailhead. Michael was also parked there, so I pulled over and parked next to their cars, assuming that parking must be full.
I got ready as quickly as possible and headed up towards the trailhead. I soon realized I’d be late for the daily photo, though, and took a more moderate pace. Alas, another missed photo!
I made it to the trailhead shortly after 6 am and found Michael waiting for Iris to begin his hike. Michael asked how I was doing and I answered honestly “I’m hurting.” Even the short hike from the car to the trailhead was painful on my overworked quads.
With no sign of Iris, Michael told me to not to wait, so I hit the trail. In all of the challenge so far, as well as the final day to come, this is the only section of trail that I’d ever hiked before! As it turns out, if I had arrived in time for the photo, I probably would have followed Bob and the others along an old “shortcut” trail, and could have spent the whole challenge on trails I’d never set foot on before! Luckily, this trail is gentle and well maintained so I was able to get in a rhythm and ignore my legs screaming for me to lay down and never move again.
After a little more than an hour of hiking, I found myself at Lone Pine Lake and turned off trail towards the base of the climb for Candlelight Peak. I found the wall below Candlelight immediately but was a little perplexed. I had done a small amount of research on all of the hikes several months earlier and had taken a look at satellite imagery and slope angle estimates for all of the cross country portions of the hike, and I distinctly remembered that the route up candlelight looked very tame. What I looked at, however, was a near vertical wall.
There were several crack systems running up the face that looked climbable, but they also looked very sustained, and the consequence of a fall would be quite high. In addition, shortly before arriving, Rob had passed me on the trail heading the other way. He said that the route was 4th class and more risk than he was willing to accept, so he was heading around the long way to the summit. Finally, there was no sign of anyone from the earlier group on the wall! They couldn’t be more than forty minutes ahead, and while it was possible that they had already reached the ridge, it seemed unlikely.
I found a pleasant rock and had a seat to rest my legs and eat breakfast while I pondered this mystery. Thankfully Michael and Iris arrived after ten minutes, otherwise I might have pondered all day! There was a small ledge visible from where I was seated and a large pile of talus leading up to it. I was pretty sure, from my memory of the satellite image and the GPS track I had on my phone which was drawn based on it, that this ledge would prove a viable route to the ridge. On the other hand, I did not want to climb that pile of talus.
Michael and Iris obviously had more gumption than me, sore though they also were, and I was able to channel some of their energy and will myself up the hill. We made it to the ledge and found that it matched my memory — what appeared to be a one or two foot wide ledge running from the talus up to the ridge was in fact a twenty to forty foot wide bench! The small shrubs visible from below were in fact mature pine trees, standing fifty feet tall! After discussing with the faster group later, this was obviously the easier way up, although Zach pointed out that their way was probably more fun.
The bench was easy climbing and although Michael and Iris were quickly putting distance between us, I was soon at the ridge. I had been expecting a reprise from difficult climbing once on the ridge, but found exactly the opposite. The ridge comprised large runout friction slabs! Although not very technically challenging, this is some of my least favorite terrain!
Much like walking on ice, climbing these slabs requires that you have enough friction between the rubber on your feet and the slab. If you slip, that’s it, show’s over. It’s easy, but high stakes climbing.
I urgently did not want to be alone on this section of the climb and quickly made up the ground between me and Michael and Iris while they were scoping out the next section of the climb. Having other experienced climbers nearby as an oasis of calm and cool makes a huge difference in maintaining your own composure!
The slabs gradually got less steep and the features gradually became more prominent. Soon I was climbing through a talus field towards what I unfortunately knew to be the false summit. More unfortunate, now that I no longer had adrenaline pumping through my body, my legs were boisterously unhappy again.
I made it to the false summit and started to down-climb along a fairly direct line. It was some fun class 3 climbing and about halfway down Iris shouted up “Ooh! AJ’s going for bonus points!” Apparently there was a much easier route down, but I was enjoying the climb and it seemed like the more complicated climbing was successfully distracting my mind from the pain in my legs. I asked Iris to let Bob know I got bonus points but they never found their way onto the score sheet…
The second false summit was another pile of talus, strewn about with quartzite and glittering pieces of quartz. From there it was only a small hike over to the summit were most of the group was hanging out.
I signed the register and we hung out a while, but I was antsy to get down the mountain. Luckily there was an easy sand slope off the south side — I would not have been happy to descend back down those slabs!
Rafee also seemed eager to head down and soon we started off together down the south side of the mountain. The slope was sandy and easy going as promised and we soon found the Meysan Lakes trail which was easy enough although it seemed to have many more switchbacks than indicated on my map. Despite some good conversation it took all too long to get back to the road.
We wound our way through the back roads of Whitney Portal (who knew there were cabins in Whitney Portal?) and soon realized why Bob was parked where I found him that morning — he (and therefore I, too) was parked right at the Meysan Lakes trailhead! I accidentally made myself late for the photo, but I saved an extra half mile of hiking at the end of the day! The last hundred feet to the car were the most painful hiking yet, and I was glad it was over.
I gave Rafee a ride up to his car and then headed into town for a shower and to meet up for dinner at Pizza Factory. I somehow accidentally implicated myself in a food eating contest of sorts, but I didn’t mind at all. In the end, Eric and I both ate a large pizza and we probably could have eaten a bit more too!
Estimated Elevation Gain: 5,200 ft