After too many years away, I returned to the Lowest to Highest Route recently. Death Valley to Mount Whitney through the backcountry, lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the summit of the highest peak in the continental US. Heck of a place. This is all figuratively speaking, I should note. I revisited the project – the resource – not the physical route itself. No boots on the Badwater salt flats for this guy, not in June or July, thanks. I’m sure there are many lessons I’ve yet to learn in the wide world of long-distance hiking, but the notion of hiking across the DVNP backcountry in the height of summer blessedly isn’t one of them. Been there, tried that. It’s a stunt. (But maybe one day soon, at a more temperate occasion.)
The impetus for taking another crack at a long-dormant resource like the L2H web page was twofold. With increasing interest from folks in attempting the hike, the National Geographic TOPO! software required to view and print maps of the route had become a major roadblock. As many are likely aware, TOPO! went kaput a few years back, and the parlance of trading files in its proprietary format, right along with the old-fashioned notion of pay-for desktop-only computer software in an iPhone world, soon became obsolete. The temporary solution had been to offer maps as image files via email correspondence with whoever happened to write in, but that approach gets old fast, and for that matter the maps I was sharing weren’t getting any younger either. I hadn’t been on the route in a scouting capacity since 2006. Thankfully others were hiking it, though, game to employ whatever resources they could gather. And some were even blogging about their adventures. Reputable long-distance hikers, and in fine detail. And so the stage was set to offer an updated mapping resource, this time using a different format, readily available to all.
Enter Caltopo. Best known for their digital mapping layers available in various third-party apps, the folks at Caltopo have also come up with a browser-based map creation / editing UI which is frankly the bees’ knees. Matt Jacobs runs this site on donations, apparently, so it must be a labor of love. It shows. Caltopo is a fantastic resource for developing and sharing long-distance hikes and routes. Everything is standards-based and compatible across the modern spectrum of apps and devices. To plot a “trail line” in Caltopo is to also create a navigable GPS track. Any point of interest, trail junction, named road, or special instructions – whatever you add to the map of the sort, it’s automatically a GPS waypoint too. Export it from Caltopo to a GPS unit and it’s all there, named and formatted accordingly. Export the all of it as a printable map series (base maps galore to choose from), or share a link so others can view your creation online. As far as I’m concerned, this is the future of backcountry route development and documentation, because it’s not as good as it can possibly be if it isn’t easily and elegantly shared.
The result, in the case of the Lowest to Highest, is a new Caltopo-generated mapset and companion databook (the latter is a spreadsheet-embellished version of a simple set of waypoints, organized from start to finish along the route). It’s in PDF format, no hoops to jump through here. The databook aims to function as a mini-guidebook, with some extra verbiage to assist in the navigational sphere. Together with the maps and GPS data, the entire thing works in concert to bring the route from armchair pipedream to thru-hiking reality, and minus the back-of-napkin guesswork that may have haunted (or perhaps thrilled) the occasional past adventurer.
The L2H hosts a variety of alternate routes now, in addition to the main route, which can be substituted as needed, or on a whim, just for kicks. Two that stand out in particular, and are entirely new, are a Cerro Gordo Alternate which runs up the back side of these rugged old mining hills, offering an earlier reprieve than otherwise from valley-wide slogging, and an Alabama Hills Alternate west of Lone Pine. The latter replaces, optionally, a big chunk of Whitney Portal Road asphalt, as it seeks out some really interesting territory in the surrounding hills that have played host to many a scenic Western, back in the golden age of cinema. There’s even a natural arch along the way, name of Mobius, which frames Mount Whitney rather nicely.
Updating the L2H resources has been a virtual trip down memory lane. Reading hikers’ journals, admiring photos, peering from on high via satellite pictures and Google, scrutinizing every detail from afar, I could feel the desert creeping back in, warming my heart. The otherworldly aridity and inhospitality of Death Valley. The way what water does exist appears where least expected and in utterly improbable fashion, whether at the life-giving, year-round waterfalls of Darwin Canyon, or in thirst-inducing saline pools at the very bottom of the world. And of course the high country, the dry rubble-strewn heights with names like Inyo and Panamint, the stately peaks of granite and ice, lakes and forests of Muir’s Sierra, and the valleys separating these disparate mountain realms like keepers of the atmospheric rain shadow. It’s a strange world out there between hell and salvation. One hundred thirty miles from start to finish on a trip through the beating, radiant heart of purgatory. Godspeed and courage, should you choose to accept this mission.