Mount Whitney is the biggest hill you are going to find in the contiguous United States, towering over everything else at a whopping 14,505 feet. It isn’t a hike that should be taken lightly, in fact for those of us who live near sea level, it is even more challenging. There were multiple times when people who live between 5-8000 feet passed us by, looking as if they weren’t even exerting themselves.
The group ended up taking 4 days to complete this particular adventure, spending two days acclimating to the higher elevations. We camped at roughly 10,400 feet (at Outpost Camp), requiring some caution in order to make sure no one came down with a bad case of AMS (acute mountain sickness, a real risk when hiking at high elevation).
Backpacking 4 miles up a Mountain – Wednesday
To start the trip out, we had to lug our backpacks with our supplies for the next 4 days 4 miles up the side of Mount Whitney. The Mount Whitney trail (which we used for our entire ascent) is a very well maintained trail, without many surprises, so it was a fairly mundane, but visually appealing walk.
While most of the hike was pretty simple, there were a few points where water crossings were required, either by balancing over rocks to make the ford, or in one case by using some maintained beams for crossing a series of creeks and marshy land.
Our first little brush with altitude sickness happened once we got to camp. After taking the packs off, everyone was a bit loopy, although some of that may be attributed to just being happy to have made it to camp. Outpost camp is actually probably one of the nicest campsites I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, calling it home for a few days was certainly nice. It is flanked by mountain streams on both sides with a fairly sheer cliff face on one side, and an alpine meadow at the entrance. The pictures I have really don’t do the entire thing justice.
After getting the campsite established, it was time to go for a nice hike up higher (as the adage goes: hike high, sleep low), to that end we hiked another mile or two past the beautiful Mirror Lake, and up a few switch backs. At this point we were just about even with the timber line. After hanging out for about 45 minutes it was time to head back to camp and have dinner.
Take a Rest – Thursday
Thursday involved sleeping late, doing nothing, and then making one fairly short hike in late afternoon. This allowed everyone to get fully acclimated to the altitude we were at, and let us rest up for the main event.
The Main Event – Friday
Friday morning, 3 AM – the alarm clocks go off, and everyone groggily starts getting changed into their clothes for the big day. Making breakfast and the final adjustments made to all the packs by the powers of head lamps and flashlights. The start to the hike seems almost surreal now that it is all over, everyone is was tired, but excited for this. Just after 4 AM we got on the trail, we only need to cover 7 miles and about 4000 feet of gain to reach the summit (sounds easy, right?).
The hike up the Mount Whitney Trail is stunning, everyone had to stop a few times just to admire the beauty of our surroundings.
Trail Camp and the 99 Switch Backs
We kept on hiking up and up until we reached Trail Camp roughly 2 miles into our hike and already 1,500 feet higher than we were when we started. Trail Camp had one very interesting thing pop up for us: a large number of marmot’s (and no, the irony that I was carrying a Marmot brand summit pack was not lost on me).
The marmots seem to be rather used to humans as there was one that actually ran towards my pack after I had wandered a few feet away to chat with someone. I actually had to race to my pack against an oversized rodent… which is certainly not something I’ll be forgetting anytime soon. We took a somewhat extended break here (and kept a very close eye on our packs), as after this point we will be gaining elevation quite a bit quicker (1,700 feet in 2 miles until we get to Trail Crest where it flattens back out).
After eating an early lunch, and making sure everyone was fully hydrated, it was time to start the infamous 99 switchbacks. There were some good views of all of the ground we had covered earlier as we progressed up the switch backs, and there were also some good views of people coming down the chute (something I would like to do eventually, as it would cut several hours off of the hike on the way down, plus it looks fun).
After making it up past the switch backs, and braving a bunch of snow, we finally got to the cables. Due to how early in the year this trip was (the first weekend of June), the snow was still somewhat heavy, and the cables were a bit interesting to do, mostly due to the very narrow strip of ground that was open between the snow and the drop off.
We all crossed the cables with no major incidents (although it was very telling about who was afraid of heights and who isn’t).
Up to Trail Crest
The remainder of the switchbacks were pretty uneventful, and by this point in the hike everyone was starting to get a bit worn out. The switchbacks really are almost a psychological battle, to just keep walking back and forth up the face of that rock, through the snow, and the wind, and everything else that gets thrown at you (and we did the hike on a beautiful sunny day, imagine doing it in less perfect weather). To add on to it, the final quarter mile or so of trail before the crest was completely impassable, so we had to scramble on some rocks in order to get to the crest. The good news though, is once you get to trail crest, the view more than makes up for any suffering you might have been doing to this point.
After getting to trail crest, looking west you can see a good chunk of Sequoia National Park (in fact, at Trail Crest, you leave Inyo National Forest and enter the National Park). This is also the part of the trail that gets markedly less steep, as there are only 800 feet or so of vertical gain across nearly 3 miles in order to make the summit. This is somewhat changed by the fact that the trail will go up and down several times as you go by the backside of the Needles, and by the Whitney Windows, finally passing by Muir Mountain.
It was at this point I personally was hit by a double whammy of altitude sickness, and a sore throat which ended up being a gnarly strep infection, which really upped how miserable I was, but by just putting one foot in front of the other, we all summited.
The final push to get to the summit would be a very easy hike anywhere other than where we were. The final section of trail is a very easy incline with a very well defined trail. With everyone starting to feel the effects of the altitude, or as in my case and at least one other person’s case starting to become ill with other sicknesses, this was not an easy climb.
When we made it to the summit we had been hiking for a really long time, which meant we had another 45 minutes or so of sunlight left. Our initial goal was to get back to trail crest before the sun went down to get past the tricky part with more than just headlamps to guide us, but that wasn’t doable since a few people (me included) were moving very slowly.
The Journey Down – Saturday Early Morning
As the sign at the beginning of the hike warns: the summit is only the halfway point. We had to do all 99 switchbacks, the cables, and everything else all over again, but this time in the dark. Add to that we had all been up since 3 AM the previous morning, and it was a very interesting hike down.
Overall it took us 25.5 hours from beginning to end, making it the longest hike (in terms of time) that I have ever done, by a considerable margin. When we got back to our camp the sun was just starting to come up, and we all went quickly towards our respective tents to sleep.
Leaving Mount Whitney
Saturday morning everyone slept from 6 until 10-11 AM, at which point the sun started hitting the tents turning them into saunas (or at least that was my experience). At that point it was time to start tearing down camp and getting the backpacking packs filled up for the 4 mile trek down to Whitney Portal.
After making it to Whitney Portal, the only destination we all had in mind was (of course) the Mount Whitney Restaurant (which I will highly recommend for anyone who wants a good meal after a big hike).
Many hikes can be great learning experiences, this trip turned out to be a great one for several things. Here is a brief list of things I learned on this trip:
- Always bring backups: we ended up using Iodine treatment this entire trip as the one water filter we had didn’t work for some reason. Fortunately, iodine treatment is both cheap and very lightweight, so there is no reason not to carry some in your pack.
- Be cautious of untested equipment. I purchased a new Primus backpacking stove from REI a couple of days prior to this trip, and while it worked OK when I tested it at my apartment, the starter was non-functional on the mountain. Fortunately, I carried my trusty $10 backpacking stove.
- Define and stick with a turn back time. We all really wanted to summit, and the weather was just to nice to justify turning around. Instead we ended up being on the trail until the sun was coming up the next day.
- Bring along a substantial amount of snacks to graze on when doing a very long hike – I ended up running out of food shortly before trail crest, which left me very hungry by the end of the hike.
Don’t take the above list as saying that this wasn’t an excellent trip, it was. I just know things now (or in the case of the turnaround time have had lessons reinforced) that I didn’t know previously. Since we brought enough backups we all ended up drinking clean water the entire trip, and we all had hot food the entire trip.
I want to thank Serge Palomo and Janiece Cordova, and Effin Gentry for the pictures, as I was not able to take any due to technical issues. I would also like to thank Timber Line Trails for their great reference material about Mt. Whitney which is where I pulled most of the distance and elevation information.