I hiked Mt. Whitney a couple of weeks ago in late August, and have spent the past two weeks basking in the glory of topping the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states (also, letting my calves recover, and getting into the back-to-school routine with my children). The hike was marvelous. It was long, gorgeous, and we had essentially ideal weather for the climb. I’ll recap the adventure here.
I flew from New Mexico to Las Vegas, and then drove to Lone Pine, CA via Death Valley. I love a good roadtrip, so the ~4 hour drive (with stops in the National Park) was delightful. The epic flooding that closed Death Valley National Park in August was clearly evident. Gravel deposits feet thick in places were visible, enormous cut banks had been eroded, and notably, most side roads sported “Road Closed” signage. Highway 190 through the park was open, though there were numerous heavy equipment vehicles still clearing even this main thoroughfare.
I arrived at Lone Pine and went to the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center, where I was able to chat with the rangers about current trail conditions and get any last minute details. I also could pick up a WAG Bag, as it’s mandatory to carry all human waste out/leave no trace. We decided to do a quick preview of the trailhead as we had never been there, and didn’t want to get lost in the first 5 minutes of nighttime hiking. Plus, the trailhead was a nice break from the blasting heat of the valley, and scouting out the first mile or so of the trail was a nice way for me to stretch my legs and work out some of the driving stiffness.
Unpacking, organizing for the next day, and a quick dinner in town with my hiking partner, Emily, was up next. Emily and I have been friends for over 20 years. Ironically, we’re both from NM but we met as geology undergrads at University of Oregon. We’ve kept in touch and visited each other in the ensuing years. She drew our Mount Whitney permit, and was the official trip leader.
Based on the potential for afternoon storms, we decided to move our starting time from 3AM to “Get up at 1AM and start hiking when we reached the trail head.” Basically, aim to start at 2AM, giving us an extra hour.
We got our packs ready with snacks, water (I carried a 3L bladder and 2L, plus water filter), rain/warm gear, extra socks, sunscreen, and other hiking gear we preferred. I also carried a map, phone battery pack, and emergency/first aid equipment. These we set out and went to sleep for a few hours.
I actually slept very well from about 9:30PM-1AM, tired from traveling the past few days. We woke up, ate a small breakfast, and I taped my feet/bone spurs, and loaded into the car. After double-checking our headlamps, I sipped a canned iced coffee while we drove the ~25 minutes up to the Whitney Portal Trailhead. We parked, did some last-minute checking of gear ,and started hiking at 2:04 AM.
Only a few days away from the new moon, we had a very tiny crescent of moon in the sky, but overall, pitch dark. The trail is very clear, though we were glad to have spent the previous afternoon scouting the trail, as our sleepy minds were definitely still waking up.
We hiked steadily for a few hours, taking small rests, mostly enjoying the sound of the rushing river and waterfalls that emanated from the dark forest around us. We climbed steadily, moving from a dirt trail on to more and more granite, some of which was more tricky to navigate/trail find in the dark. We made steady progress, and had a gorgeous pre-dawn lavender sky under which we hiked the last mile and a half into the Trail Camp area. We had breakfast next to the lake, and watched blush and first sunlight on the iconic pinnacles of Mt. Whitney. Until we got to Trail Camp, we had seen only 4 other hikers. Once at the Trail Camp, we saw a number of backpackers.
Sunrise had us heading up to start the “99 Switchbacks” section of the hike. We had been warned that this was the toughest section of the hike; however, I found them to be not too arduous. The trail is in excellent condition, so even though it’s an intimidating cliff of scree to look at, the trail is very easy to actually walk on. We leapfrogged with a few groups of hikers; happily the trail is wide enough and has big end areas at the turn of each switchback, allowing for smooth passing. Here, I used just one of my trekking poles. Using them both had helped me while it was dark, but on the switchbacks, the single pole seemed plenty to aid in balance but also allowed for a free hand.
We reached the top of the switchbacks and crossed over to the west side of the massif just over 8 miles into the hike. Here, we lost some elevation as we moved north, before beginning a gradual hike to the summit. Our steady pace was excellent, though we did slow once we hit about 13,800 feet. I didn’t feel the altitude as much as my climbing partner who came from sea level. Even she, though, didn’t feel terrible; rather, we managed our climb by taking micro-breaks and walking in small sections. It seemed to us more comfortable to be doing smaller stints of near-continuous hiking, rather than going “all-out” and then taking big breaks. Emily did take Diamox to help with the altitude, and between her training and the medication, she did awesomely.
I did start to feel a bit dizzy at one point, and was wondering if the altitude was affecting me. I then realized that actually….I was “bonking,” having not really eaten enough (but had a lot of coffee). With the weird wake-up time and a big dinner, I’d had only a small breakfast at Trail Camp, and as often happens, didn’t have a huge appetite while hiking. The lightheaded feeling was a red flag I’ve experienced before in running, so I quickly downed a package of Honey Stinger gummies (Thanks Dukes Track Club!) and some cashews, and 10 minutes later, the unsteady feeling was gone and so was my grumbling tummy.
With this steady approach, we made it to the summit in great form, taking 8:28 to get to the top. Here, we took a ton of [obligatory!] photos, chatted with other hikers, and then had some lunch. We stayed at the top for about 45 minutes, and seeing a few tiny clouds begin to puff and rain falling to the south, we decided to head down sooner rather than later. The weather was warm at the top, but I was chilled enough to keep my vest and hat on for about a mile before shedding the warm layers. We had little excitement except for feeling the thrill of having reached the summit for the next couple of miles, which brought us back to the top of the switchbacks.
About a third of the way down the switchbacks, we heard the first roll of thunder; by the time we reached Trail Camp, thunder was fairly regular, and the clouds had blown up to nearly full cover. We could see sheets of rain down the valley to the east. We opted to eat lunch on the move, snacking on bars and sandwiches as we made our way steadily and as quickly as we were comfortable down the mountain. Before we could make it down into any decent forest cover, precipitation went from wind-blown spatter to actual rain. We donned our rain gear, and, hearing the lightning, kept walking. The trail soon turned to a small river. Then, it started to hail. Tiny, soft hail, but nonetheless enough to cover the trail in a couple of inches of “snow” and make navigation tricky once again. The precipitation was exhilarating. We were in good shape to take the rain: we had gear, we were on our way down (still giddy!), were feeling in good condition and energy. Coming from the desert, I honestly relished every rainy moment. The hail was slippery, which did slow our descent, but not appreciably.
We continued down and the rain stopped after about an hour. We shed our gear and kept on hiking. The rain had cooled the air temperature, which made for a delightful last few miles, given that we had prepared to be hiking in fairly hot conditions. I feel we essentially skipped down the last few miles, and I only started to feel the length of the hike during the last mile. As the final switchbacks into the Whitney Portal trailhead were finished, we excitedly walked through the trailhead “gateway” and, of course, took some ecstatic photos.
After making it to the trail head, I bee-lined to the cafe, where I “slammed” (direct quote from my hiking buddy!) a cheeseburger, fries, and slurped down a Squirt soda. Emily opted for a more classy Haagen-Daaz ice cream, and we were both pretty blissed out for a while.