Mt. Whitney is unimpressive and grey when viewed from the one stoplight town of Lone Pine. It's the highest mountain in the lower 48 and maybe someone needs to go paint a giant red white and blue “W” on it so people know which one is Whitney, but it stands there humble among a bunch of other peaks that look just as tall or taller, more rugged looking and jagged edges in a line that stretches across the horizon. The beauty of the journey to the top of that high peak is not apparent from below. The rivers, meadows, flowers, bear cubs, clear lakes that seem to drop off the end of the mountain, and the panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Great Western Divide, Sequoia National Park and Death Valley, are amazing, magnificent, and subtle at the same time. Those who hike the trails all share in this beauty and it is not surprising that you have to win a permit lottery to do this hike.
|Sunset over the Sierras|
|The trail-head at Whitney Portal|
Five of us started at 3:15 AM under the natural light of a thick blanket of stars. We would occasionally turn off our headlamps and look up, unknowingly in the midst of the Perseid meteor shower with shooting stars tracing bright white lines across the sky, lasting way too long and not really fading, just disappearing into the bright black night. As we hiked up to the first meadow about 3 miles up, the sun was starting to come up over the trees and Lone Pine Lake to the East and illuminate the grey granite of the peaks above, now glowing fiery red reminiscent of the sunrises in southern Utah when I was a kid looking at the sun-stained red cliffs.
We stopped at Trail Camp for lunch and I met up with the five people from our group who had started earlier in the morning. This group included my mom and her husband, Ric, who made it to the top and down in 23 hours while dealing with altitude sickness and foot and knee problems. I am very proud of my mom for not turning around early. Although it probably would have been smarter and easier to turn around at the first signs of altitude sickness, she pushed on, and like she always has in her life, she weathered her struggles with an impressive determination that I hope is passed on to my children.
|Me and my mom on the trail|
|Ice on the switchbacks (in August)|
I talked to a guy that was hiking the John Muir Trail with his son, his wife had recently died, and he was on a journey from Yosemite. We talked triathlon (he had done three Ironman races) and the trail, and at some point I would love to do something like that with my family, check out for about a month and live out there in the wilderness. You form quick bonds on the trail, whether it's the shared struggle, the common interest in the outside, or just the silence, people are friendly, and most will share their stories.
As you turn the corner at Trail Crest, the summit of Whitney comes into view, and it is still a few miles away, and it is rocky and slow. This part was difficult for me because I was close to the top, I could see the top and it still looked far away, but passing The Needles and the sheer drop of thousands of feet through these peaks to the valleys on either side kept my excitement up. The trail was rocky at this point, and not too clear. I think I went off trail here a couple of times and had to climb over some rocks to get back to hiking boot prints in the dust, but I knew that as long as I kept the top in view and headed towards the little stone hut that was built in 1909, I would be okay.
|Between the Needles|
|Rocky section after Trail Crest|
|Stone hut at the summit|
|The register and the "Easy" button|
|This marmot kept posing for me|
I was tired from the hike up, the lack of sleep the night before, and the waiting, and truthfully I was looking forward to getting off the mountain, hitting up the Whitney Portal store for a famous cheeseburger, fries and a beer, then heading to my hotel room in Lone Pine with the big tub, so I rushed it, passing a lot of hikers on the way down, talking to some, nodding to others, I ran down the switchbacks where I could, heading below the tree line and slowing to appreciate some of the scenery I had missed in the dark, the streams, and the meadows full of wildflowers.
|Lone Pine Lake|
All told, it took me about 9 hours to climb to the top (including an hour lunch break) and 3 1/2 hours to descend. It was an amazing day and I hope to do it again next year, take a few days and camp on the way to the top, take it slow and bring my wife and oldest daughter to share in the story.
|On an acclimatization hike on the Methuselah trail where the oldest living thing is located (with all due respect to Barbara Bush)|