Climbing Mt. Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada range is a goal of amateur and experienced mountaineer alike. It is not the highest mountain in the United States, that honor goes to Mt. Mauna Kea Hawaii 32,200 feet tall from base to top (but 18,404 feet of it is below sea level). Nor is it the tallest peak in the continental US, that distinction goes to Mt. McKinley aka Denali (elev. 20,320’) up in the northern part of this continent; but Mt Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous USA. There is a non-technical trail winding 11 miles to the top gaining 6,000 feet of elevation from the Whitney Portal challenging any who think they have the legs and lungs for such a test. While most will spend several days working their way up to higher camps, some travel light and fast and do it as "the ultimate day hike". The following is an account of my wife’s and my attempt of such a hike.
Short version: Up in 8 hours, enjoyed the top, down in 7 hrs, life is good.
Long version: My wife Mary had a goal to hike to the top of Mt. Whitney before her 50th birthday. I had a goal to support her in this dream to bring it into reality. Since this is an adventure shared by 2 people with slightly different experiences of the same events, her thoughts on the matter are recorded here as well to temper my embellishment of any of the facts.
A key factor in this success was acclimating at Horseshoe Meadow campground (elev 10,000’) for 2 days spending the time producing red blood cells and doing some short hikes. We would be hiking under a waxing moon so it would not set behind the bulk of Whitney prior to the sunrise. To lessen the chance of tangling with afternoon thunderstorms (which are not uncommon as the moisture-laden Pacific air rises up the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada’s), we planned on summiting before noon which meant an alpine start.
By alpine Robert means while the stars are brightly shining. We stayed at the Dow Villa the night before our climb. It was a nice and comfortable place for this anxious soul to get the needed sleep. Plus we would keep the ice chest, food and food looking stuff in our room and safely out of our parked car. Bear break-ins were happening daily at Whitney Portal. We awoke at 2:00 am, got ready, did the 20 minute drive to the Portal, and were on the trail a little after 3:00. I have never hiked by headlamp. All of that jabber about waxing moons was pretty much moot because wispy clouds veiled the moon for much of the time. When we hit the John Muir Wilderness boundary at 0.9 miles Robert said we were going at a 2 mph pace. Pace?? What pace? I was just running scared. There was a pair of headlamps up the trail on a distant hillside which gave me a general idea of where we were headed. They looked so far.
The clouds worried me a little. The stars were brighter closer to the mountain and I took that for a good sign. We could not control the clouds, all we could do was our best and pray that this trip was blessed. And if so, appreciate the beauty and wonder with all available senses. It was at this point, when I was actually in the flow of what I had been training for, that I knew I could make it barring any twist of fate.
The weather was perfect for hiking. I had on a pair of shorts and long nylon wind pants over them. I also wore a poly-pro long sleeve top that had a hood (good thinking, if your arms are cold your ears probably are too). My headlamp was a Black Diamond Moonlite which is a nice lightweight white LED model (4 bulbs) having a positionable lamp housing and highest lumens/gram. Mary’s halogen Petzel Dou was on high beam which helped in my obstacle recognition efforts. I also carried a whistle in my pocket in case a bear should pop up around a switchback.
We crossed a wide, marshy creek balancing across the tops of hewn logs spread like a railroad cars across a mucky terrain I would not want all of my senses to experience. At the end of this we came upon a pair of headlamps named Lisa and Karen. We never saw them afterwards, hopefully things worked out ok for them. Shortly after this we reached a sign that said Lone Pine Lake. I was shocked that we got there in only 1.5 hrs. Things were looking good.
It was just before Mirror Lake where I heard some loud scratching noises. I knew that bears were large, dark, furry and did not wear headlamps. What I saw in the anemic beam of my headlamp was big (but not too large), dark, couldn’t tell about the furry part, but is WAS NOT wearing a headlamp. Still not getting a positive ID even when it rose to its hind legs I asked "Are you a bear?" In retrospect it was not the most intelligent question I could of asked but the "Don’t worry, I’m a person" gave me quite a relief. He continued to fold up his tent as we crossed the creek to Mirror Lake.
We worked our way up a rocky trail while a glorious red sunrise was playing out in the east. The ebbing tree line provided un-obstructed views of the silhouetted peaks below and then first orange light on Mt. Mallory. I felt as if I were half way to heaven. We reached the halfway point on our climb at Trail Camp after 4 hours of hiking and took a breakfast break. I must admit I was not over-impressed. We were greeted by a solar outhouse upon entering camp. The camp was barren, windswept and cold. It had the resemblance of a refugee camp, multi-colored nylon dwellings scattered about with crude stone walls separating neighbors. I put on my wind pants and jacket while Robert went to pump some water at the municipal watering hole. Although we finally had some sun, the chill wind chased away any heat it could offer. After only 1 cheese stick and 1 Powerbar, it was time to get moving, get warmed up.
I could not eat much either. The air is thin at 12,000 feet, too thin to hold any heat. My finger-tips exposed from the finger-tipless fleece gloves quickly became un-coordinated, clumsily fumbling with water bottles and Powerbar wrappers. There were still broken clouds, mostly wisping through the peaks (not the dark, flat bellied variety). I was not sure what was on the blind side, and that had me a little concerned. We still had 2,500 feet more to go. The temperature drops 3 degrees F. for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. With this data I calculated it would be much colder at the top. (I was fighting back a headache and performing higher math for actual values may have sent me over the edge of that battle) This was the Rubicon. This is were we needed to ask ourselves if we had that internal reserve to push forward where average mortals would flee, to…
Whoa. The embellishment meter is starting to rise. And perhaps you could loose every other sentence having (parenthesis) ?? Anyways, we made quick progress up the 2¼ mile long switch back section. There was a little bit of snowmelt trickle on the trail at 7:45 am but probably not worth the hassle to pump. This section of the trail is a true engineering marvel. Iron stakes, purchased by our government from lowest bid contractors, were drilled into the side of this mountain. Neatly on top of that were stacked tidy rows of granite blocks Martha Stewart would approve of.
There was a small amount of ice seeping from the inside edge at the cables, a 50 foot section of trail with steel poles with cables running through them chest high and shoulder high. We passed a contingent of team Kentucky and barreled for the crest like a stable horse heading home. At one point I had some concerns about my dear husband when he surmised that the crest would be at the level of a "knight-shaped pinnacle" now in view to the west and slightly above. There was no pinnacle shaped like any chess piece as far as I could tell. Was this a sign of altitude sickness? Or just his normal fantasy-world dementia?
Some people are just blessed with a greater vision than others:-) We made it to Trail Crest and took in the view of the other side. The sight of Mt. Hitchcock, Hitchcock Lakes, aptly named Guitar Lake, and way down the valley, timber line were refreshing and encouraged us of how close we were. There also were no big cloud surprises, things were looking good. We threaded our way through the windows gasping down at the horrific exposure with morbid intrigue. No doubt about it, we were in low gear, making our way across rocks, down steps. The anticipation grew as we passed the Keeler Needles At this point the trail fades briefly in the rocks. The key here is not to look for the trail, but look for the ducks otherwise you may be going cross-country for the rest of the way up as some were doing. At the risk of insulting those who know what a duck is, here is a quick lesson on ducks. Ducks do not fly. A duck (Fr. duc) is a pile of 3 (or more) stones atop each other to indicate a trail above timberline. Technically a cairn is a large pile of rocks indicating an endpoint, like a summit.
After 8 hours on the trail we reached the summit!! I was so excited. We were on top. There was nothing but down all around. I was hopping this was not a dream, everything seemed so blurred with all of the emotions of the moment. Robert may have done harder climbs, but this was my El Cap.
The only exposed skin I had was my face, and that was cold in the biting wind. My numb cheeks felt strangely foreign as I wiped my runny nose. This was my time and I would relish the memories I had been striving for even if it meant a few snowflakes blowing in. We had lunch in the shelter of the hut. I think the biggest compliment was from someone who came up the face, doing the mountaineer’s route. He called what I did, a 22 mile day hike, burley and said I was an animal. It made me feel like I was in the big leagues. Thanks. I also had 3 formerly strangers sing "Happy Birthday" to me in the hut. Now that was different. Robert spent half of the hour we had on top taking pictures. I always get impatient but appreciate the results.
I left the summit because parts of my wife were going numb, and we needed to get down. I wanted to soak in this experience, to return to it in my mind when life gets a little crazy and too complicated to understand. Being geographically separated was not an option in such a place. We headed down a little past noon, encouraging and empathetic towards those doing the death march up the mountain. We careened down the switchbacks headed to Trail Camp lusting after the thicker air below. After downing my dose of aspirin, I went to fetch some water.
When I was sitting there by myself these 2 guys came by and totally tried to pick up on me. That may have surpassed the "burley" compliment from the top. What were these guys thinking?
Having clued me in what went down, I quickly escorted Mary down the mountain away from those lascivious, unwashed masses.
The section of the trail below is rocky and perhaps the most technical part of the trail. It is here where a vivid memory was burned into my mind 21 years ago. I was a young, strong 21 year old culminating the John Muir Trail. On that summer afternoon many years ago as I hammered down that section like a big rig with its brakes on fire, I saw bodies sprawled across both sides of the trail. Sprawled out supine, turtle-like with packs still on, ashen faces beaten by the altitude which slowly and painfully drained their will to go on. Some were puking, some were gasping for breath. It was a virtual war zone seeing the carnage down that mountain. Pounding 11 miles down this is one thing, but coming up was sheer lunacy. I could never do that.
The last part from, Mirror Lake and below, was very scenic. I am glad we could do this in the daylight so I can see what a lovely section we missed on the way up. Coming down the home stretch past the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek we were treated to a play of light shafts spearing through the holes in the clouds.
All of this gave me the confidence that when I encounter other challenges in life, I can surmount them as well. Define the issue, break it down into components, focus on the result, expect it to happen.
At the end of the trail it hit me again of how proud I am to be married to a gal who has the courage to dream big, the faith to believe big, the resolve to bring it all into reality.
We got to the Portal store, bought necessary souvenirs, and thanked Doug for his help.
It was at the Pizza Factory while waiting for dinner that the events of that day 12 hours prior were slowly unfolding to us on the news channel. The world was a changed place. May God grant goodness to those who practice peace and show love to their fellow man.