Mt. Whitney Day Hike

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
I carried my GoLite hydration pack with a couple Clif bars, a pack of Gu Chomps, 5 Blueberry Gu gels, a canister of Nuun electrolyte tabs, a couple chocolate and pretzel Mojo bars (because the salt tastes really good after all the sweetness of Gu and Clif bars), and a couple of slices of turkey and some string cheese for lunch.  I had a bottle that I would re-fill from the streams and a 1.5 liter hydration bladder that I re-filled at the lake at Trail Camp.  I also carried a jacket for the top and my point and shoot camera.  My pack weighed 11 pounds at the start of the hike and 5 pounds at the finish.

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
We hit the infamous switchbacks after Trail Camp, and I know there is some argument as to exactly how many switchbacks there are, some say 96, some say 98, I'm going to say 99 because of the song that was running through my head during the course of this back and forth struggle with the mountain and boredom and elevation and disappointment when your hiking buddy tells you we are at a round number and you are sure it's 40, but turns out it's 30 and there are still 69 left and the people look real small as you strain to see the top, Trail Crest, where it's supposed to level out and it is only another mile or so to the summit.

Ice on the switchbacks (in August)
It doesn't get much easier at Trail Crest which is 13,700 feet above my home, but the view is spectacular as you turn the corner and the wind hits your face and it feels like the temperature drops 20 degrees and you are standing on the ridge, that dull grey, jagged line across the horizon that is now so massive and the view of the Sierras to the left and Guitar Lake below and I couldn't tell if it was from the beauty or the elevation, but it was hard to breathe.

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 summit itself is unremarkable, there is a tremendous view, but not much of a different vantage point than previous spots on the trail.  It may sound trite, but the race to the finish line is not about the finish line, but the process of overcoming and growth that takes place when you set out to achieve something, the long hours of training, the nervousness leading up to the event, the tension at the start and the relief at the finish (I could go on and on here, but there is a reason that the Tony Robbins show was canceled).  I signed the climbing register, pressed the "Easy" button, and waited in the cold and the wind for the rest of the group to get to the top.  We ended up waiting two hours up there and decided to head down.

The register and the "Easy" button
Signing in

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
The trip down from Lone Pine Lake to the trail-head at Whitney Portal was never-ending as I ran some, walked some and peered into the trees because at this point I was hearing large paws and seeing movements in my periphery, but when I stopped to look, nothing, and I convinced myself it was my imagination as I ran alone down the trail that was taking me much longer to descend than a few days before when I ran down the 3 mile final stretch in about 25 minutes.  This was stretching into an hour, and I must have been going a lot slower than I felt, and I kept thinking the granite below was the shiny steel of cars in the parking lot.  When I did finally see the parking lot, and smelled the greasy food cooking, I was tired and happy to be able to sit.  As advertised, the cheeseburger and fries were a deliciously salty piece of heaven.  And, as I sat waiting for the others in our group to descend, a momma bear with three cubs in tow headed down the trail, crossed the street in front of me, not 20 feet away, and headed towards the parking lot.

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)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ratings and Recommendations