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Mount Whitney
California
July 23-26, 1998
by Jeffrey Cook
whitney44a
We’re going for Mt. Whitney, at 14,496 feet the highest point in the continental U.S.

Well, this was the big one, the ultimate mountain hike within the continental U.S., and the experience proved as monumental as the towering spires of the Sierra Nevada themselves. Neither descriptions nor photographs can do justice to the rugged beauty of the surroundings on this hike; unfortunately, that’s all one has available short of actually being there, so I’ll do my best. First the dry statistics: The trail begins at 8361 feet (after a 13 mile drive up from Lone Pine, which is somewhat below 3000 feet), and in its 11 mile length climbs 6135 feet to the top of Mt. Whitney, which at 14,496 feet is the highest point in the continental U.S.

Our group was split from the start into two smaller groups. The main group, climbing on 3-day permits for Friday thru Sunday, included Jeff Cook, Ken Chaney, Jim Whitfield, and Wang Yang from Motorola Phoenix, plus Pete Bojanoski (my best friend from back in Pennsylvania) and one of his coworkers, Brian Culp, who flew into Las Vegas and drove across Death Valley to Lone Pine. Gloria Jiang and Chuck Williams also drove up from Phoenix separately, though due to the difficulty in obtaining permits they were there only for Saturday and Sunday. Both Jim and Ken had been there before; Ken had made it most of the way up the Mountaineering route in less than ideal conditions a few years earlier, while Jim had made the 22 mile round trip hike in five and a half hours in 1991 after finishing a 100+ mile bicycle race from Badwater (Death Valley) to Whitney Portal.

Thursday, July 23

We left Phoenix in our rented Taurus at 7am Thursday for the very long and boring drive to Lone Pine. Our route took us out I-10 to San Bernadino, then north on 215 and 15 to 395. Fortunately traffic was light, as was police presence, and so we were able to average 75 mph pretty much the whole way. This cut our travel time by at least half an hour, the 550-mile drive taking about 8 hours including one stop for gas and another at Burger King for, ironically, our last civilized meal for three days.

The weather was cloudy and drizzly the whole way, with the entire Arizona/Southern California region locked in a humid, slow-moving southeasterly flow. Clouds as we approached Lone Pine were down to around 12,000 feet, obscuring the high peaks of the range. We arrived at Whitney Portal Campground at around 4 pm and located the two sites we had reserved. While starting to unpack, I made the sickening discovery that I had left my well-broken-in and newly siliconed hiking boots at home in my garage! After a brief fit of panic and hastily chosen expletives, we decided to take a quick drive up to the store just above the trailhead to see if they had any boots for sale. Fortunately they did, which saved us a trip back down to town, but unfortunately the biggest size they had was just slightly too small, adding an extra dimension to hiking such a long trail in brand new boots. I figured I’d just see how far I could get without rubbing my feet down to raw stubs.

We also met up with Pete and Brian in the store, whom I greeted more properly after my own little crisis had been repaired. Then we drove back down to the campsites and set up our tents. After some light drizzle, the rain and clouds cleared out by 8pm, leaving us with clear, starry skies visible through the sparse Yellow Pine cover.

Friday, July 24

After a very poor night of sleep (my first time sleeping on a roll in a tent) I awoke at 3:30 and was unable to fall asleep again. By 4:30, the surrounding campsites were buzzing with activity, and between the sounds of preparation, the flashlights and headlights glaring through the tent fabric, and the rock-hard comfort of my makeshift bed, I decided it was time to wake up and start packing up for the hike.

We arrived at the trailhead later than we had planned, at about 6:45, and got one of the last two parking spaces available in the upper lot. Pete and Brian had driven back down to Lone Pine to eat breakfast in the coffee shop at the main intersection, and would ultimately arrive at the trailhead at 8:00. We put everything we were leaving in the car in the trunk, so as not to offer any encouragement to the imaginary bears that were breaking into cars almost every night, then hit the trail.

The trail immediately began to switchback up the north sidewall of the east- facing canyon, through the thin pine forest and the thick, widely varied ground cover. The morning sun was strong and hot already, and despite the temperature being around 60, it was definitely shorts and short-sleeve shirt conditions. One thing that is immediately obvious about this place is its tremendous steepness. When you’re not looking down at the trail, you’re craning your neck upward to see where the next landmark is. At times the straight-line route seems almost vertical, and yet so well is the trail laid out (recall that it was originally a pack trail) that its steepness is almost constant over most of its length, and only rarely exceeds a 15% grade. Of course, even this grade is tough when you’re carrying a 40-pound backpack and wearing brand new, slightly-too-small boots.

The first landmark came just over half a mile into the trail, at about 8600 feet. This is the first stream crossing on the trail, specifically the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Immediately before the crossing, an easily missed hole in the dense ground cover and a weather-smeared dirt slope up into the woods marked the start of the Mountaineering Route, which climbs steeply past Lower and Upper Boy Scout Lakes and up to Iceberg Lake on the Northern side of Whitney’s sheer East Face. Returning to the water crossing, a line of large stones provided a relatively secure means of crossing the melt-swollen stream, while a small churning waterfall a few feet above the crossing provided a refreshingly cool mist to temporarily counteract the hot morning sun.

More switchbacks, and then about 2.4 miles from the trailhead and 9400 feet came another stream crossing. This, the main fork of Lone Pine Creek, was the widest crossing, but it is spanned by ten flat-topped logs which are very level and steady except for the one in the middle, which is tilted 20 degrees to one side, conveniently, right over the deepest part of the stream. These crossings are always a little tricky, particularly with a heavy pack sitting above your center of gravity, so caution should be exercised.

Just past this crossing was the short spur trail leading south to Lone Pine Lake, just visible through the pine trunks. We stopped here for about 15 minutes for an early lunch, using a convenient fallen tree trunk as a park bench, until the mosquitos drove us back onto the trail. We were also concerned about the time; for we had been warned that rain and thunderstorms carrying hail and lightning typically hit the mountain between 1 and 3 pm. While we still had plenty of time – it was only 9:00 – there were already long fingers of heavy, grey clouds reaching up toward our position. I already had blisters forming on both heels from my last-minute boot acquisition.

The trail continued up a dry stream bed and then back up the side of the canyon for almost another mile until reaching the lush but extremely wet marsh on the south side of Outpost Camp, at 10,360 feet. The trail was submerged over most of the lower half of this section, and the logs advertised as providing dry passage in most cases posed a bigger risk of ending up wet than just plowing right through the three-inch-deep runoff. This was the most difficult part of the whole trail, balance-wise, with smooth, round, and narrow logs that rocked beneath your steps and seemed to have been just thrown there by the previous hiker for lack of a better option.

After a hundred yards of morass, we arrived at Outpost Camp at 9:45, which was quite dry except for the trail, down which another runoff stream flowed. This was a particularly beautiful spot, with vertical granite cliffs hundreds of feet high on three sides and a roaring waterfall plunging down some 40 feet on the southwest corner. There were a number of people camping here, one of two places on the trail where camping is permitted and where there are toilet facilities. Here the clouds caught up with us, and would stay with or above us the rest of the way up.

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Green meadows lead to icy slopes.

The trail then continued in steep switchbacks up the northwest slope of the cirque, and in another half mile, at 10:15, we were at Mirror Lake, a beautiful pool of cold, parasite-infested meltwater at just under 10,700 feet. The lower ramparts of Thor Peak towered 1500 feet above the lake’s surface.

Mirror lake sits in one of the deepest, steepest glacial cirques in the whole valley, and the switchbacks climbing the south side of this deep bowl were at times moderately exposed. From above, the lake is ringed by an iridescent ring of algae, and made for one of the most photogenic features of the lower trail. Still the clouds followed us up, and began to overtake us after we were slowed down for a short time when the trail disappeared beneath a small snowfield.

We scrambled up the steep rock slope to above the snow, and in a few minutes we were back on the trail. While taking a break here, some 200 feet above the lake, we ran into a Forest Service ranger checking permits, which thankfully were all in order. He said he’d come down from Pinnacle Ridge, which seemed almost impossible given the height and distance of the ridge from our current location, and the ruggedness of the terrain in between. But after answering a few questions regarding trail conditions he was on his way up, moving so fast that suddenly I could believe he’d just come down from Pinnacle Ridge. It’s astonishing how fit the rangers and work crews who maintain and monitor this trail are; they’ll be in better shape ten years after they’re dead than I’ll ever be in.

Above the Mirror Lake cirque, the terrain becomes flatter, but the trail actually gets rockier and steeper because it is more direct with fewer switchbacks. It climbs steadily westward for another half mile, reaching Trailside Meadow at 11,400 feet at about the five mile mark. Trailside Meadow is a narrow strip of soil through which Lone Pine Creek winds after cascading several hundred feet from the outlet of Consultation Lake. Grass and various high-altitude plants grow thick along the banks of the creek, though the long waterfall on the western end was almost completely hidden under a curtain wall of sun-scalloped snow. By the time we arrived here at 11:30, the blisters on my heels had already broken, but fortunately didn’t hurt too much.

There was a lot of snow at this elevation, and in many places it was so badly undercut by the running water that it seemed to defy gravity. This gave us some cause for concern above the Meadow, where we had to cross several snowfields. The first was rather steep, but only about 15 yards wide. The second and third were much more shallow a climb, but were about 50 and 80 yards wide, respectively, and were visibly undercut by flowing water. Fortunately all of the snowfields were well cut with footprints of previous hikers, but they were getting softer by the day, and postholing was a definite possibility in several spots. In the few weeks after our hike, several spots will probably be almost impassible due to continued softening of the snowfields.

Beyond the last snowfield, we finally arrived at the lower end of Trail Camp at about 12:15, just below the solar outhouse at 12,000 feet. We continued on for another hundred yards to the main camp area, which had long, relatively flat rock concourses several feet above either side of the trail. These provided a number of good spots for tents, with an 8-foot rock ledge on the south side which was ideal for hanging food out of reach of the imaginary marmots that infest the camp area.

We set up camp and relaxed the rest of the day. Just over a low wall on the north side was a small lake with a rock and grass ramp along its near bank, providing easy access to water to replenish our supplies. Like everywhere else, the water must be filtered or boiled to eliminate harmful parasites. There was only one other tent visible in this section of the camp, though we later realized that there were a half dozen or so occupied sites over one ledge or another. Traffic through Trail Camp was quite heavy, mostly due to the number of one-day hikers on their way down from the summit.

The clouds had moved in thick before we arrived, so thus far we had only momentary glimpses of Trail Crest and the sheer ridge leading a mile and a half north to the summit of Whitney. Half an hour after we arrived, Pete and Brian also arrived, having set a fast pace coming up behind us. We set up camp just before a light rain began to fall at 2:00 pm. This quickly turned to light hail, and this tailed off and stopped altogether within 15 minutes. Whiteout conditions hung on for about another half hour.

Then an amazing thing happened. The wind, which for nearly a week had been carrying moisture-laden air up the slopes from the southeast, suddenly shifted to the westerly direction that normally prevails over the divide and eastward into the Mojave. Within half an hour, the clouds were blown back east into and past the Owens Valley, and we found ourselves basking in brilliant sunshine under cloudless azure skies. Temperatures were still around 60, but the intense solar radiation at that altitude made it feel more like 80. The sunny skies also gave us a magnificent view of the jagged scarp rising 2000 feet from the rocky floor of the surrounding glacial basin. Mt. Muir, 14,015 feet, soared above the camp, but Whitney and Keeler’s Needle were both obscured by the massive fractured flanks of Wotan’s Throne, a rounded mass of granite rising 700 feet above the north shore of our little watering hole.

Just to the left (south) of Muir was Trail Crest, where the trail crosses from the east side of the divide to the west side, and the sweeping 1300-foot slope rising to the crest. This slope, still about 60% snow-covered, ranges in steepness from 30° at the bottom to 45° at the top, and sits at an angle (as viewed from Trail Camp) 400 feet atop two bouldery glacial moraines. Further to the south was a deeper basin enclosing Consultation lake, and ringed by a high multi-peaked ridge, terminating to the south-southeast with the enormous pyramid of Mt. Irvine (13,970 feet).

We mulled about camp for the remainder of the afternoon, resting, setting up camp, hanging our food, tossing around a Nerf football, and watching other hikers glissading 1000 feet down the slope from Trail Crest. This was the preferred means of descent for about half the people we saw that day, and from the roller-coaster-like screams and adrenaline-pumped hoots and cowboy calls carrying down from the slope, we could tell the descent must be one hell of a blast. Jim, being in better shape and far less fatigued than the rest of us, decided he didn’t want to wait until the morning to get in on the fun, and in no time he was on his way up the switchbacks to the top of the ridge.

As darkness fell, so did the temperature. In a matter of an hour or two, we went from shorts and short sleeves to long pants, sweatshirts, and jackets. The wind gradually freshened, and soon the gloves and scarves came out. By 9pm, the sky was absolutely brilliant with stars, more than I had ever seen before. The Milky Way was brightly visible, and occasional meteorites lit up the surrounding mountainsides like flashes of lightning. We were even able to spot and follow artificial satellites in low orbit as they cruised and tumbled across the sky, still in bright sunlight and shining at roughly 0 to 1.5 magnitude. We went to sleep around 9:30.

Saturday, July 25

It was a cold night at Trail Camp; temperatures at 4:30 am when my alarm went off were just below freezing, with a chilling 15 to 30 mile per hour wind spilling over the ridge from the West. We all gradually emerged from out tents, made our forays down to the outhouse, and set up our open-sky mess hall on the wind-sheltered east side of a nearby boulder as the sun began to peek above the eastern horizon. We hit the trail in several groups between 6:30 and 7, and began the long, 2.5 mile hike up the infamous 97 switchbacks climbing the ridge just to the south of the snow-covered slope.

The slopes were wet in many places with runoff from the remaining snowfields above, and in the morning these wet spots were very icy. There were also some places where snow remained on the lower and middle slopes, and crossing these required great care. There is one narrow section of the trail, at about 12,500 feet, where cables are installed for safety. This section unfortunately was blocked by a pile of snow nearly eight feet deep, with a light waterfall of meltwater raining down onto it. It was a very steep and icy climb over the pile despite the footsteps kicked into it already, and was made more dangerous by the deep holes drilled through it by the falling water. It also required us to step over the 2-cable handrail on the lower end, then squeeze under the lower cable, pack and all, before climbing up the snow pile.

Beyond that, the trail was still wet and slippery in spots, and began running into the larger snowfields still clinging to the upper half of the ridge slope. There were five or six traverses in all, from just a few yards to one or two as long as fifty yards. These varied in lateral steepness from 40° to 60°, but had level, firm footsteps all the way across, and did not climb steeply as they traversed. They were therefore easy traverses, with nothing more than the pole end of an ice ax or ski poles needed for safe passage. Still, they were the first snowfield traverses I had ever done, so the 1000-foot plunge to one side made it an interesting climb!

In one spot, around 13,000 feet, the trail actually disappeared, having been smeared out by the action of the 200% snowpack over the El Niño Winter. The vanishing trail required us to scramble up the rocky 35° slope for about 30 yards until we finally picked up the trail again higher up.

Unfortunately, by this time I was already struggling with a bit of a problem – aside from the new and half-size-too-small boots. Despite being higher than I’d ever been before (my previous being 12,633 feet on Humphrey’s Peak), I had no trouble at all with the altitude other than having to rest a lot and breathe hard. But I was having significant problems with my energy level. I normally take about an hour in the morning before my energy output gets into gear, but this morning I just couldn’t get it going. I had had a big bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, and it just wasn’t digesting fast enough to supply the needed calories. And since it was just sitting there in my stomach, I couldn’t get down enough of anything else to boost my output. So I was going rather slowly and taking more breaks than Pete and Brian would have cared for.

After one last snow traverse, we arrived at Trail Crest, at 13,780 feet, at around 8:45. This was our first view into the great Kern River Valley, and a magnificent view it is! The deeply furrowed ridge of Mt. Hitchcock is the nearest feature, with its two large, ice-packed lakes nestled below its 1200-foot cliffs. Dozens of other lakes are scattered across the valley floor 2000 feet below. In the distance to the West is the Kern River Gorge, whose floor is roughly a mile below trail crest. On the other side of the gorge is the western end of the great inverted-U range of mountains enclosing the Kern River Valley, a giant ring of 12,000 to 14,000 foot peaks and high passes.

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We’ve climbed high above the tree line.
    At Trail Crest, the trail arcs over the ridge onto its west side, with a sign marking the passage from the Mt. Whitney Wilderness Area into Sequoia National Park. The trail drops somewhat over 300 feet in the next half mile, to where it meets the John Muir Trail switchbacking up the west side of the ridge. Then it resumes its climb, around the back side of Mt. Muir, then around the many crags and spires that make up the ridge. Total length from Trail Crest to Whitney’s summit is about 2.4 miles. Exposure is moderate on this part of the trail, with steep drops of several hundred feet on the downslope side. But the trail is for the most part flat and wide, except for a few narrow spots and recent rockfalls that must be negotiated with care. Even at the “windows”, where the trail passes a crotch between spires, dropping a sheer 1200 feet on the right and several hundred on the left, the trail is comfortable enough that even I was able to handle the exposure, acrophobia and all.

Finally, the trail curves around one more spire, and before us, one mile short of the summit, was the massive south profile of Whitney. We were at about 14,000 feet, so the last mile was relatively flat except for the final scramble up onto the summit. However, I was still struggling with low energy levels, so I made the decision to call it a successful hike and head back down. For several miles, struggling with fatigue and sore feet, all I had been thinking of was my little 13-month-old girl back at home, her smiling face, and how much she would miss her daddy if he never came home. There was also my wife, who had allowed me to go on this hike in the first place while she stayed home with the little munchkin. It’s amazing how easy it is to err on the side of caution when faced with such thoughts! I could have pushed on and made the summit within another hour, but I would have been shaky coming down, and it just wasn’t worth the risk.

I told Pete and Brian to go ahead without me, and at 10:00 started to make my way back down at a leisurely pace, stopping to talk to other hikers as they passed by. One of the truly wonderful things about being in a place like this, surprisingly, is the people. You can stop and just talk to any of them like a long-time friend, sharing experiences and information, and most of them are more than happy to give whatever assistance or advice you might need. This is not always the case on shorter, more accessible trails, and in fact is far from true once you get down to the level of crowded urban trails like Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain or Squaw Peak. Just being in an environment free of the impersonal hostility of everyday life makes a hike like Whitney worthwhile.

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Now this is strictly on the up and up ...

As far as the summit is concerned, I can only say that considering the clear and almost completely cloudless sky, the 360° panoramic view must have been spectacular. I will attempt to obtain a summit shot from one of my fellow hikers as proof of this assumption.

I sat down at Trail Crest for nearly half an hour, contemplating the choice between 2.5 miles of wet switchbacks and a 2-minute glissade down the snow slope. The benefits of the glissade were obvious. On the other hand, complicating factors in the fast slide were (1) the fact that I had never done one before – well, not intentionally, anyway; (2) the fact that the upper few hundred feet of the slope were clearly in excess of 45°, which is awfully steep to the inexperienced acrophobe, and (3) the fact that I had my full-frame backpack on, and the lower member would have been deep in the snow when I sat down. I would therefore have had to hold it in my lap, and risk losing control if one side were to hit the snow during the descent.

I therefore again decided to err on the side of caution, and headed back down the way I came. The switchbacks were no longer icy, of course, but due to the increased runoff under the hot sun, the parts of the trail that were wet and icy before were now in some cases torrential streams, running in some spots ten or twenty meters down the trail before finding an outlet to a lower switchback.

I had no problems on the switchbacks, aside from the obstacles already mentioned. Three quarters of the way down, I spotted Ken traversing the snowfield below the switchbacks; having left the summit about an hour after I turned around, he had glissaded down from Trail Crest, and was making his way across to the shallower snow field just above Trail Camp. Wang Yang was also a few hundred meters behind him. I eventually reached a switchback that ran into the snowfield, and on this 30° slope had no hesitations about doing the slide. I sat down with my backpack on my lap and shoved off. Unfortunately, the "toboggan run" I was on was only a few hundred feet long, and when I reached the bottom I was left with 200 meters of unprepared snowfield that was too shallow and too scalloped for further glissading. A little plunge stepping and I had caught up with Ken, though, and we were back in camp in about ten minutes, at about 12:30. Ken had slowed his normally fast pace due to large blisters on both heels, the same problem I was having.

I changed out of my wet clothes, and laid them out on the rocks to dry in the searing sun. Jim had already been in his tent for some time; he’d beaten Ken and Yang to the summit by about an hour, and returned via the sliding board after an hour and a half on the summit. Yang trailed in ten or fifteen minutes after Ken and me, and finally Pete and Brian returned half an hour later.

Everyone had just intended to crash out, dry out, and relax for the rest of the afternoon, in preparation for a second cold night at Trail Camp, but Brian, apparently suffering from a severe altitude headache, was very insistent about hiking all the way out that afternoon and spending the night down in Lone Pine. After some discussion, it was agreed that we’d go down as far as Outpost Camp and spend the night there, and if Brian still didn’t feel better he and either Pete or Yang would finish the last 3.5 miles. I was informed that he had already been feeling poorly in the morning, before we even set out for the summit. Had I known this, I would have strongly recommended that he stay at Trail Camp or descend; by pushing to the summit despite the warning signs, he put his own safety at serious risk, not to mention the plans of his fellow hikers who might have had to give up their hopes of summiting to help him down.

In the meantime, Chuck and Gloria had arrived at Trail Camp. Jim and Ken helped them set up their stuff, then showed them how to use Ken’s stove and water filter, which he left with them. They would be spending the night at Trail Camp, then going for the summit and returning to the trailhead on Sunday.

We broke camp, packed everything up, and hit the trail at a little past 2:30. The descent was fast and uneventful; we covered the 2.5 miles down to Outpost Camp in an hour and a half, despite being tired from the summit hike. The views looking down the steep canyon cut by Lone Pine Creek were fantastic; clouds had obscured the view on the way up the previous day.

There were quite a few people at Outpost Camp, but there were still plenty of good sites available fore our tents. Brian was feeling better, and agreed to spent the night there. We set up camp around 5:00, argued with a balky stove that finally agreed to our demands for a hot dinner, and hung our packs up away from imaginary bears before turning in around 9:30.

Sunday, July 26

Surprisingly, I had no trouble sleeping, despite the roaring waterfall 100 yards away which the Forest Service thoughtlessly left running all night. I was somewhat used to sleeping in my bag on that thin pad now, plus it was somewhat warmer here than it had been at Trail Camp. We were all awake by 4:45, though with minimal time pressure, we didn’t hit the trail until 7.

The 3.5 mile hike out went quickly and smoothly, despite the need to nurse blisters. We were back at the trailhead around 9:15, where we coerced a hiker preparing to begin his hike to take a group photo with several of our cameras. We didn’t feel bad about asking him to exert the effort for us, since it appeared that his much smaller female companion was carrying most of their gear.

We took nearly an hour to load up all our stuff into the car; it practically took a crowbar to get 3 of our 4 packs into the trunk, and as with the trip up, we still wound up piling the fourth pack and some other stuff in the back seat. We made one more stop in the store at the trailhead for souvenirs; Pete and Brian, who had their own car, stayed to take showers in the facilities provided behind the store. Then we hit the road for the very long and very boring 550 mile drive back to Phoenix.

In almost every way, the hike was a tremendous success. Chuck and Gloria made it to the summit Sunday morning, bringing the number of summiters to 7 out of 8, with no major problems. I was satisfied for the time being knowing that my decision not to complete the last mile to the summit was a completely voluntary one, not one forced upon me. It did nothing to detract from what was certainly the most remarkable and memorable hiking experience of my life. Besides, there will always be next time, as I’ll be returning to Whitney as soon as I can get hold of the permits. And next time, I’ll be able to correct the mistakes that caused me difficulty this time, and hopefully reach the summit without exceeding my admittedly low limit of acceptable risk.

Things to do Differently Next Time:
  1. Bring my hiking boots! This alone might make the difference between reaching the top and not. 
  2. Bring a more comfortable sleeping roll. The one I had was not adequate for sleeping on cold rock. 
  3. Eat Power Bars for breakfast instead of oatmeal. This will give me the energy I need for a high altitude climb. 
  4. Bring a small backpack for summit day. This time I carried about 20 pounds up the summit ridge; I’d like to get that down to no more than 12 pounds next time.
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updated July 7, 2012