After a couple of years trying to secure Mt. Whitney climbing permits, my brother and I scored a pair for a couple days in August. To plan and prepare I read every book possible on climbing Mt. Whitney and recommend Climbing Mt. Whitney by Peter Croft and One Best Hike Mt. Whitney by Elizabeth Wenk.
For six months we trained by hiking as much as possible as well as doing multiple high elevation hikes mostly up to 12,000'. We worked out, swam and generally got ourselves ready for what we were told was an experience that only 1/3 of climbers actually successfully summit.
48 hours before our departure, my brother hurt his back and could barely get up from lying flat on his floor, never mind spending 17 hours carrying a 30lb backpack up to the tallest point in the contiguous United States. After everyone told me to not even think about it, I of course made the decision to continue alone.
I went up on a Thursday, picked up my permits and 'wag bag' (don't ask...) at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and then headed up to Mt. Whitney Portal at 8,300'. I had reserved my campsite many months earlier which I highly recommend. I emptied the gear from my Jeep and went to work setting up my tent, which would be my home for the next few days before attempting the monster on Monday. I quickly realized that in process of repacking after my brother pulled out, I had left the tent poles in my garage. It was 5:30 pm and no shopping or camping outlets for miles (there is a small general store at Whitney Portal, but has mostly small items). I quickly hopped back in the Wrangler and head down the hill to the small town of Lone Pine hoping to find a camping store still open.
Once my phone had service I Googled the closest mountaineering store and was relieved to find 3 in Lone Pine! Sierra Elevation and Lone Pine Sporting Goods were both still open and I went with the cheapest tent I could find. Then I ran back up the hill to quickly set up my homestead before it got too dark.
The next two days I poked the mountain to acclimate. I was noticing a disturbing weather pattern. The nights were clear, but thunderheads were moving in each morning. By 10:30-11:00 am the mountain was completely covered in dark gray foreboding clouds. One of the biggest concerns climbers have is lightning. Above the tree line there is no shelter and slick granite. I heard from several people of being caught in the storms. I originally thought I would start at 4am, but with the storms I decided to instead start at 2am.
The day before my hike I relaxed, hung out at Whitney Portal, carbed up and reserved my energy. I tried to get an early night, but my mind would only rehash the trail map, the 11 'zones' and resting spots I had learned leading up to this moment. Monday morning I awoke at 1am after only 2 hours of restless sleep. The anticipation was palpable.
I got my gear (readied before going to sleep) and made my way��up to the trailhead. I was alone and it was pitch, I mean PITCH black dark, except for some random meteors and stars. With my headlamp affixed I was on the trail at 1:45 am.
Hiking in the dark was an experience. For the first hour I was aware of every sound and rustling, only imagining what critters or large mammals were looking at me as a yummy morsel. I pictured Scooby Doo creepy eyes peering from each bush. But after a while, I relaxed, enjoy the solitude and became one with the rocky trail which required complete attention, especially the balancing act of heading over log bridges and the several streams in the dark.
4 hours later the sun came up and I arrived at my first major resting spot: TRAIL CAMP at 12,040 feet. I felt great and was able to watch the sunrise cause the much pictured Alpenglow (pictured above). Absolutely stunning.
After a small snack, some advil and hydration, it was time to attack THE Switchbacks. Now most trails I've ever taken, including Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. Baldy all have switchbacks. But when a section of trail is referred to as THE SWITCHBACKS (some say 99, 104, whatever, there are many) you know it's a serious challenge.
It was on The Switchbacks that I hit my first bout of dehydration and elevation sickness. I knew what the indications were, I have felt it before and got in serious trouble on San Jacinto 2 years earlier where I was lucky to make it off the mountain at 11pm after getting lost. So I stopped and assessed. If you feel tingling in your fingers you need to stop, and most Dr.'s recommend immediately turning around and heading to lower ground. It's the first signs of altitude sickness which if not addressed can quickly lead to HAPE which causes multiple deaths each year even at 8,000'. Don't mess around with this. It doesn't matter how tough you are, this can effect anyone. I was angry at feeling this, which is a dangerous sentiment that gets people in trouble: I worked too darned hard to let a little death stop me! But I was prepared. Advil will reduce the brain swelling and it's recommended to have Diamox with you (prescription only) in case of emergency. I sipped Gatorade, packed in some carbs and protein and took some Advil and Diamox. After 45 min. I was feeling much better. Upward!
After another 30 min. I hit TRAIL CREST. Now this maybe one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. On one side you are looking down toward the Owens Valley past Consolation and Lone Pine Lakes and if you just turn around and you are looking down toward Sequoia National Park. It was amazing. Trail Crest starts at 13,600 and heading to 14,508 feet and the hike is far from over. The trudging along Trail Crest was painful, the air was thin and I saw several people turn around due to elevation sickness. Don't assume that because you can ski at 11k that you can handle 14k. It's a whole different ball game.
After another 90 min I made it the Smithsonian Hut, signed my name, took a few pics and some video and then I had to get the hell out. It was only 10:30 am and the mist and thunderheads came in with a vengeance.
It was back on the Trail Crest where the hail came down like rocks. Loose talus is made of granite, and when wet, it's like walking on slickery ice. One of my trekking poles got wedged under a rock, and I fell... HARD. With a bloodied hand and lower oxygen, the blood didn't stop flowing. I am generally a pretty resourceful guy, but it was very wet and all my bandages were not sticking. Finally after an hour I was able to stop the bleeding. For a few moments I thought I was in trouble, but didn't panic. I had a good first aid kit (enough for situations like this) and I made it back to The Switchbacks. The descent was painful and I was walking like a zombie. Every mile, mile and a half I met exhausted people who were ascending with a determined glean in their eye. Rookies.
After 22 miles, I made it back to the Portal at 7:30 pm and went back to the campsite where I literally passed out on my sleeping bag.
Here is my suggestions to anyone thinking about doing this...
- DO IT! But get prepared. Not only do you need to train by doing some serious elevation hikes, hit the gym and plan it out.
- Know the trail before you go. Read books and study other hikers on YouTube.
- Make sure you have all your gear (and don't forget your tent poles!).
- Get good trekking poles with shocks. Your knees and feet will hate you. The final quarter of the hike is just pain.
- Work in good hiking boots months before and make sure you have a decent first aid kit.
- Most importantly have plenty of water, (I use a steripen and sterilize stream water) along with a lot of food and layers of clothes.