Oh, did you think we were dead?
After roughly a year of planning, making lists, thinking, dreaming, panicking, training, more planning… our Whitney Adventure has come and gone. I’ve put off writing about it because aside from my day job having been so crushingly busy and exhausting that I haven’t wanted to do much of anything (other than hike), I don’t know how to put the whole experience into words that would be the poetry it all deserves.
But I have to, before I forget everything! Mt. Whitney is my favorite adventure so far. Better than Half Dome, though I’m not sure why that is. Both hikes were stunningly beautiful, challenging, bucket-list level hikes. Perhaps it was something about being on top of the contiguous United States that made it just a bit more thrilling.
Aside from the sense of accomplishment I feel when I get to the top of a mountain, there’s also that feeling of knowing there’s no other way to get there. No easy route, no shortcut. The only way is hard work. Mt. Whitney was pretty much the ultimate of that feeling, because man, do you earn that.
Two years ago, I couldn’t fathom this. It wasn’t long ago that I took great pride in how sloth-like we were when we camped, and I waved away suggestions to take up hiking as a way to burn off camping calories. Now, I start going a little stir-crazy if too much time passes between hikes. Now, I do things like climb Mt. Whitney. This astounds me as much as it does anyone who knew me even five years ago!
The trail head
Our group – myself, Darren and my cousin Jessie (who is an all-around bad-ass) – stayed at the Whitney Portal Campground the night before our climb. It’s about a mile down the road from the trail head, so it’s a great place a get some rest at 8,000 feet – a moderate altitude – before you climb.
A lot of people start their Whitney climb from here, so you think it would be bare-bones, but it’s a gorgeous and well-kept campground with the standard amenities (water, vault toilets, host). I’ll write more about it in another post.
Our site was booked for the next night, so we had to pack up and store our scented things in bear boxes at the trail head (there are about eight of them and they’re massive). There’s also plenty of parking at the trail head.
Rumor has it that the Whitney Portal area is full of bears, but we didn’t see a single one. I’m always equally relieved and disappointed when things work out that way.
Trail Head to Trail Camp
We officially hit the trail around 2:30 a.m.
The first half of the hike is from the Trail Head to Trail Camp, and I thought it was pretty smooth sailing. The trail is fairly flat, you’re still at an easy-breathing elevation, you’re fresh and excited and ready to go and full of adrenaline. It’s not a cakewalk, but compared to what’s to come, it kind of is.
During this segment, we passed a few stream crossings (so glad I chose waterproof boots!), Outpost Camp, Lone Pine Lake and Trail Meadow. Since it was still dark out, we didn’t see a thing. But that’s okay, because we would be seeing it on the way down.
Behind and ahead of us, tiny headlamps zig-zagged all up and down in the darkness. Many people start the hike right at midnight, when permits become valid.
We took regular breaks to keep up our momentum and energy: 50 minutes on, 10 off to eat, drink and do business.
During one break, we switched our headlamps off and stared at the stars. One of them streaked over our heads, a good sign.
Our arrival at Trail Camp could not have been timed better: The sun started to light up the sky and before it rose above the horizon, the jagged peaks in front of us were entirely bathed in breathtaking pink light – alpenglow. Pictures can’t do it justice.
Trail Camp to the 99 switchbacks and Trail Crest
Right after Trail Camp is where it gets fun: The infamous 99 switchbacks (or 97 or whatever other number you’ve heard. I counted but I don’t trust my accuracy).
Not only did it get more challenging at this point, the trail suddenly seemed a lot more crowded. It’s not a cattle herd by any means, but this isn’t a hike where you’re going to find any solitude. The closest we ever came to that was when we started in the wee morning hours.
Some of the switchbacks are really, really short. Some are frustratingly long. I found it mentally tough getting through this section, so as I said, I kept count of the switchbacks and tried to keep my breath under control.
At the end of the switchbacks is Trail Crest, which, outside of the summit, is pretty much the most incredible, mind-blowing part of the hike! From this point, you can see both Sierra National Park and Death Valley.
We gawked, took photos and then then headed down a fairly long descent that had me crying a little because I knew we’d have to go back up on our way out. At the end of the descent, you’re on the back side of the Whitney Needles and the trail converges with the John Muir Trail.
The back to the summit
Until this point, the hike felt “doable,” grueling as the switchbacks were.
Even on the backside of Whitney, it’s not that steep. But putting one foot in front of the other gets very, very hard. Breathing is noticeably more difficult. Trail Crest is where it seems like a lot of people get sick and turn back, because at 12,000 feet, many people will feel some degree of altitude sickness.
My sickness? I got a cough that started around the 99 Switchbacks. By the time we got back down to Lone Pine that afternoon, I sounded like a carton-a-day smoker. For the next three weeks, I coughed and hacked. (One lesson learned is that I should have kept my mouth covered better so I was breathing warmer air that had a little more moisture).
We also took Diamox in the days leading up to the hike, and I really credit it as being the reason we did so well at the high elevation. Diamox is a medication that puts more oxygen in your blood to mimic acclimation, and I think it’s a life saver. If you’re interested in trying it:
- Get the 125mg prescription, if possible
- Start taking it 24 hours before your ascent
- If you like beer or soda, it’s going to taste weird after you take it for up to 24 hours; these were the only side effects for me
- I recommend taking it as a test before you really need it, since it can make some people feel sick
Other than the cough, I felt great, and Diamox gets most of the credit. Although acclimating naturally is preferred, it just wasn’t possible for any of us.
We did what we could by arriving the day before and camping at a higher elevation, but two of us live at sea level, so we needed an assist. The only side effect that we all had on the medication is that it makes carbonated stuff taste crazy. Beer goes flat, soda becomes bitter and fizzy but somehow not fizzy. Try it. It’s fun and really weird!
The last push to the summit after descending and converging with the Muir Trail is a long walk along a very rocky and exposed trail. The first part of this section is where many people slip and fall to their deaths. It’s very narrow and I can totally see how this would happen.
On the way up the back of the mountain, we passed behind the “needles,” which are the peaks leading up to the summit (one of them is named after Hulda Crooks, my hiking spirit guide). As we passed by each needle, there were breaks in the mountain (called the Whitney Windows) where we could see down to Lone Pine and into Death Valley.
We also got buzzed by fighter planes, which was deafening and fantastic and talk about feeling small.
As they say, you know you’re near the summit when you see the Sierra Club Summit Hut. Seeing it in person was every bit as exciting as I imagined it might be.
Signing the register was also a great feeling! My experience with registers up until now being notebooks shoved into coffee cans, I was not prepared for the size and beauty of the register on Mt. Whitney. It felt like we were signing a historical record of some sort, and I guess we were.
What do you do when you’re on the highest spot in the continental United States? We took a ton of pictures of each other, shot video, attempted and failed at phone calls and texts home, had snacks, high fived other summiters and signed our names. And then it was time to go.
Summit to Trail Camp
The trek back down from the summit to Trail Camp went by fairly quickly, though that downhill part I mentioned earlier was every bit as unpleasant as I thought it was going to be.
There’s a lake at Trail Camp where we topped off our bottles, had a snack and relaxed. Except, once we sat down, no one wanted to get up. We wound up hanging out for about 45 minutes. Worth it, though. It’s one of my favorite memories of the hike.
Trail Camp to the Trail Head
There’s not much to say here, other than that it was long and we were tired and just wanted to get back to the car.
Sometimes the hardest part of a hike is heading back down, and it’s definitely true here. After Lone Pine Lake especially, we were beginning to wonder if we had slipped into a vortex where we would hike forever and never stop.
I shouldn’t complain too much. This was all territory we missed going up in the dark, and it was beyond beautiful. Every photo, straight out of the camera, was gorgeous. Not because I’m an amazing photographer, but because the light is that magical.
At long last, we arrived at the parking lot around 5:30 p.m.
All I wanted was a photo at the trail head sign, then to go sit down and drink a lot of water. According to my FitBit, we walked 25.73 miles in 15:09 hours.
We went back to our cars, drove down to our motel in Lone Pine, forced down burritos for dinner (I ate half and didn’t even want that! Darren, however, ate his entire burrito and still wanted more) and then crashed hard until 8 the next morning.
And that’s how we hiked Mt. Whitney!
Everyone wants to know: Would I do it again? Hell. Yes. Yes, I would.