All smiles with Randy and Eric on California's roof.
At 14,500 feet, Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. At 14,500 feet, there is half the amount of oxygen as there is at sea level. At 14,500 feet, I finally checked off another item from my list of 100 things to do before I die, summitting Whitney after a little over 7 hours of walking.
The numbers are nothing to laugh at:
22 miles out-and-back hike, over 6,100 feet in elevation gain, and the most intimidating figure for me, the altitude—starting at 8,360 feet to 14,500 feet. I had never been too much above 11,000 feet before, so I was worried how my body was going to react to being up so high.
We were to hike the Main Whitney Trail, the most popular route up this peak. Because of its popularity, there is a limit to the number of hikers allowed on the trail during peak season. I was fortunate enough to get on one of the trips that the Outdoors Club organized. Also because of its popularity certain procedures regarding waste removal must be observed.
Friday, June 22
Lotus, my carpool buddy, came by my place where we loaded up my car, and then drove off for Whitney Portal. What was supposed to be just a four-and-a-half hour drive turned into a nearly seven-hour journey. OK, so we stopped for a quick bite to eat and had to detour an additional 30 minutes due to my missing the turnoff for Hwy 395, but nonetheless, the traffic on the 91 Freeway and the 15 Freeway on a Friday afternoon were horrendous. We finally made it to the camp site at around 10pm. OCTR mate, Eric K. and Randy rolled in shortly and set up camp.
The other hikers in our group were camping at Horseshoe Meadows which was at over 9,000 feet to get the added benefits of sleeping at a higher elevation.
Saturday, June 23
We checked out the Whitney Portal store to get a lay of the campground and to have some breakfast. This place makes the largest pancakes known to man. They should get the peeps from the Guinness World Records to come out here. I was able to finish maybe a third of it, and gave the rest to Jeff, a weary and down-on-his-luck hiker who just stepped out of the woods.
After breakfast, Lotus, Eric K., Randy, and I took a short 5-mile hike on the Meysan Lakes Trail to give our bodies a taste of hiking at high altitude. This also gave us a chance to get a preview of the surrounding trails and landscape before our summit attempt the following day.
Some of the Horseshoe Meadows crew came in later and set up camp with us.
Sunday, June 24
At a little before 3am, Eric K. promptly came by my tent to make sure that I was awake. I broke camp, had breakfast, loaded up our cars and drove to the trail head parking lot where we met the rest of the group. Michael, the trip organizer, gave us our final briefing, took a group photo, and distributed wag bags to those that didn't have them. Fortunately, I didn't need this piece of Whitney essential since the thought of packing out what was once food did not appeal to me at all.
With headlamps lighting our way, we started up the trail at about 4:20am.
The trail ascends right away. With only about 11 miles to cover over 6,100 feet of climbing, I wasn't surprised. Shortly after, the sun started to peek, lighting the trail and giving us a glimpse of the beauty around us.
The white granite mountain slopes were illuminated by the early morning sun's orange glow–truly a sight to behold. This alone makes getting up at such an ungodly hour worth the price of admission. We caught a view of Lone Pine Lake in the early morning light, passed by Outpost Camp where campers were just waking and preparing breakfast, and witnessed the quiet and modest beauty of Mirror Lake.
Looking down on Lone Pine Lake just after sunrise
Orange wash of morning light on white granite walls
Walking through a trail side meadow we spotted a doe, a deer, a female deer (yep, altitude was starting to affect me now) and her fawn. They didn't seem too bothered by us though. To them, we were mere plodding humans who didn't stand a chance of chasing them down.
By the time I arrived at Trail Camp, about 6 miles into the trek, the group had spread out and I'd been hiking alone. I decided to take a break here to filter some water and get something to eat. I laid my pack down and started to walk to the the pond, when I saw the fattest marmot I have ever seen bolt in lumbering fashion, towards my pack, as only an obese rodent could. I had to shoo it away and make sure it didn't come near my food supply again.
An imposing view from Trail Camp
Looking up at the granite peaks, I knew what was in store for me next—96 switchbacks leading up to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet. I slowly made my way up the trail, methodically breathing in through my nose, taking small steps slowly and very mindful not to overexert myself. It was evident that the thin air was affecting a lot of people now as I passed several of them on this section.
Reaching Trail Crest, I knew that most of the hard climb was over. I was surprised, however, at how precipitous the next mile and half of the trail would be. A passing hiker on her way back from the peak complained to me that she did not like this section at all. And I could see why—the trail was very rocky, uneven, narrow, windy, and one small mistake like a slip or a fall could result in a bloody and fatal finish over a thousand rocky feet below. Because it had been a mild winter, there was really no snow on the trail at all, but I could just imagine how much more treacherous this section could be otherwise.
I passed the junction of the famed John Muir Trail which was marked by several packs that JMT thru-hikers left while they made their summit bids. A sign said that the summit was only 1.9 miles away--almost there. My pace has slowed down at this point though I was still feeling surprisingly well. Besides a mild headache at Trail Crest which an ibuprofen tablet fixed, I really didn't feel any serious symptoms of altitude sickness or AMS. I plodded on, passing a few hikers, some exhausted and moving like zombies. I'd say hi and a quick word of encouragement to remind them that we're almost at the top. Nearing the peak, I stopped briefly to talk with uber-hikers Carlo and Lumme who were heading down.
Western view along the divide on the approach to the summit
At 11:30 am, about 7 hours and 10 minutes after we left the trail head, I finally made it to the top of the continental United States. Oh what a feeling! Now, I've been on top of a few peaks before, and one hike, in particular, was tougher for me (see C2C). But the distinction of having reached the highest peak in the country outside of Alaska sure made this climb sweeter than any. The view up here is unparalleled—a 360 degree vista of the Sierras on a clear California day.
The well-earned views
Eric K. and Randy who arrived at the summit a half hour before I did were preparing to make their way down, but not before the three of us got a picture together. Other ODC hikers, Sonia, Michael and Justin made their way to the top shortly after. I rested my tired legs, enjoyed some lunch, signed the register, and 40 minutes after my summit, began my descent. And no sooner than after I started my way back down the trail when I heard my name in a tiny voice. It was my carpool buddy, Lotus yelling it out. She was just a quarter mile from the top. I wished her well, and we arranged a meeting point when she gets out of the trail.
It took me nearly six hours to hike back down. Damn, that's long! I thought about trying to cut some time, but I could tell that my legs and my feet were exhausted. I was also getting some warning sensations from my right knee, as if it were ready to pop and incapacitate me. So I took it easy. Hiking alone for the next 11 miles was not exactly enjoyable. Upon reaching the 13th hour of being on the trail, I started to imagine if this is similar to doing a 50-mile race. I just wanted to get out of the trail already. I was tired and hungry and badly wanted a shower.
At 6:00pm, I finally emerged back to civilization. My Whitney hike was over and was now officially a memory.
I did a few high altitude hikes to over 10,000 feet in preparation for the Mt. Whitney climb—Cactus to Clouds, Mt. Baldy, and San Gorgonio Peak via the South Fork Trail.
Click here for more Whitney photos.