Sequoia National Park, California
On August 20, 2002, we set out to fulfill a goal that started as a notion nearly ten years earlier. This notion began on our first visit to California back in 1993, when we were awestruck by a peak called Mount Whitney—it was love at first sight, so to speak, and we decided immediately that if we were ever in good enough shape that we would attempt to summit that mountain. After years of hiking and visiting countless areas around the country, and the world, we returned to California in July of 2000—but alas, our dream would remain unrealized. On that very same trip, we had already hiked the Grand Canyon and Half Dome, leaving just enough time to stop by Lone Pine for a drive up to the portal. It was being at the trailhead once again that was enough to spark us into action—we made a promise to start training and planning for our goal as soon as we returned home—upon returning, we determined that 2002 would be the year of our attempt.
During the planning stages of our summit attempt, a barrage of questions began to surface. Among the most important of those questions, were concerns about logistics and group dynamics. For instance, who would be up to the challenge? What date would we put down on the permit request as our first choice? If everyone involved “decided” to train and prepare for the climb, would they actually pull through? If not, should you choose who you want hiking beside you? Would they end up being a liability? Would you end up being a liability to them? If so, would they take care of you, or dump you alongside the trail for the bears? Oh, so many questions and too many days in which to answer them—but seriously, we wanted everyone who felt the desire to climb to have the opportunity to join us on our trek. In the end, however, it wound up being just three of us (Pick, Dar, and Weisey) with the possibility that Lulu would join us later—Lulu was with Pick and I when we first saw Whitney in 1993.
In February, we put in for our permit using the lottery system and were lucky enough to have our first choice granted—August 20, 2002. Lulu, who was still undecided in February, obtained a permit in May, but at the last hour, she had to forfeit her permit, as she was, unfortunately, unable to make the trip.
Early in 2002, we began to train as hard as we could here in Ohio by working out at the YMCA and by taking long hikes—the only thing we couldn’t train for was the altitude, which would have to wait until our arrival in California. Our acclimatization period began on August 17th with a mountain bike outing at Mammoth Mountain and a hike to Rainbow Falls, followed by our first fourteener, White Mountain Peak —it was on the slopes of White Mountain that Dar began to rethink her attempt at summiting Mt Whitney. Unfortunately, the altitude got the best of her and caused severe nausea and vomiting, leading her to decide that Mt Whitney was out of the question. Luckily, the 48 hours between the White Mountain Peak attempt and the Mt Whitney climb erased her memory enough that she decided to give it a go and get as far as she could on the trail. This was of course, also a group decision, with the understanding that Pick and I would continue without her if she couldn’t make it—unless of course she was seriously ill, in which case we would return with her to the trailhead. It was agreed, and our team was back together once again—with renewed excitement we picked up our permits at the Lone Pine Ranger Station and then headed to the Whitney Portal Store for their famous burgers and fries—the date was August 19, one day before our climb.
Okay, now for the obligatory facts about the mountain—unless you missed geography class you probably know that Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States (that means the lower 48 states) at 14,497 feet. It is part of the Eastern Sierra and actually stands in Sequoia National Park, California. Interestingly enough, the lowest point in the United States (Badwater Basin in Death Valley at -279ft) is only about 90 miles from Mt Whitney—quite a contrast don’t you think? The trail used by most people to access the summit of Whitney is the eleven mile (22 mile roundtrip) appropriately named Main Mt Whitney Trail. The trailhead is at an elevation of 8,365 feet, leaving the hiker with ONLY 6,132 feet to gain. This trail is obviously very strenuous and most people take a couple of days to hike the entire length. We, on the other hand, decided to join the death march and tackle the trail as a dayhike.
Now that the obligatory facts are out of the way, let’s get back to the story. We set our alarm for 1:00am in order to be at the trailhead at around 2:30am—we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to complete the hike, just in case Dar was not up to par again. We arrived at the trailhead at 2:30am and began hiking at 2:43am under a clear, star-filled sky. The temperature was around 55 degrees and the night was beautiful—our headlamps and the light of the moon perfectly lit the scene. We saw a couple of shooting stars, probably left over from the Perseid meteor shower, and another light show caught our eye as well—this one was more terrestrial in nature and involved the headlamps/flashlights of other hikers out on the trail. We could see the orbs of their lights bobbing along off in the distance, above and below us on the trail, like fireflies in the darkness. In addition to being entertaining, their lights offered a good vantage point for figuring out where the trail was headed—I might add that there is something to be said for hiking in the dark, it sure makes the time go fast and it was so quiet and peaceful that we enjoyed it quite a bit. Especially exciting were the creek crossings—hearing the water long before your headlamp would light the stream can sometimes be unnerving. The first crossing is at about the half-mile mark and then just a little further down the trail you cross the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek and enter the John Muir Wilderness—my watch read 3:12am.
After hiking through a densely wooded area where the plants crowded the trail, (which sparked my imagination with thoughts of wandering bears strolling along only to be disturbed by our presence-yikes!), we arrived at Lone Pine Lake. It was still pitch-black outside and we couldn’t see the lake unfortunately, so it was on to Outpost Camp. Just before arriving at Outpost Camp the trail skirts along Lone Pine Creek with a couple of creek crossings and a beautiful meadow. At Outpost Camp you will locate the first of two solar latrines (see update below) designed for solid waste only. It was now 5:30am and the sun was starting to rise, giving everything a gray-blue cast, but finally allowing us to see our surroundings. Outpost Camp is a beautiful setting, 3.8 miles into the hike, and it sits at an elevation of 10,360 feet. From here the hike becomes extraordinarily scenic, especially when the sunrise starts to light the surrounding peaks. Just past the camp is Mirror Lake, a fantastic glacial lake that is watched over by Thor Peak. We hiked down to the shore of the lake for a spectacular view of Thor Peak towering over the green water—back on the main trail we started to gain some elevation via a series of switchbacks, until we were high above the lake, it was along this section that the trees began to disappear. We traded the browns and greens of Jeffrey and Lodge-pole pine for the stark whites of the granite that surrounded us in every direction. At 6:10am, the sun started to turn the white granite the most subtle shade of pink—so subtle that I at first thought it was just another shade of granite, until the alpine glow slowly warmed the cliffs to a gorgeous fiery orange—spellbinding!
Trailside Meadow is the next scenic vista along the hike—we arrived here at 6:57am. Several people were gathered along the trail admiring the view, so we did the same—taking in the view and listening to the marmots whistling as they scurried about the meadow. The added benefit to this stop was that it allowed Dar to catch her breath and rest—actually, we had been resting quite a bit in order to allow Dar time to regain composure. It seemed as though we would go a couple of switchbacks and then she would have to stop, but hey, she was attempting to accomplish her goal and she was doing a great job—especially considering that she almost didn’t come at all.
Just a little further down the trail we came to Consultation Lake and Trail Camp—we arrived here at about 8am and stopped to have something to eat—there is also a solar toilet (see update below) at this point if you need one. Trail Camp is 6.3 miles into the hike at an elevation of 12,040 feet—many people start to succumb to the altitude here. In fact, Dar was starting to falter just slightly, suffering with fatigue at this point, but she was willing to continue. Pick and I were feeling great with no complaints, probably due in part to the slow pace Dar was setting, but we knew that the infamous 97 switchbacks were just ahead of us, so we rested for about 30 minutes. We wondered if Dar would be able to tackle this formidable obstacle, and we hoped that her stamina would hold out long enough to get her to the summit.
After a brief rest, the three of us packed up our daypacks and braced ourselves for the upcoming climb. It was time to tackle the 97, 98, or 99 (depending on how you count) switchbacks that lead from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. The first few switchbacks into the hike we were all feeling pretty good, but then Dar started to really slow down and complain of a headache. Shortly after the onset of her headache we reached the cables. I couldn’t believe we were finally hiking along the cables that I had read so much about, it was so cool, but my enthusiasm was soon dampened—Dar had decided that she had come far enough. We knew that it was the right decision and we congratulated her on how far she had actually hiked, but we were disappointed for her. Despite not making the summit, it was still quite an accomplishment for someone in her fifties who had never hiked in an alpine environment before—she had trekked about 8 miles when she turned back, making for a 16-mile roundtrip hike. It was 11:04am when we said goodbye and wished her well on her hike back to the car. We were down to just two hikers now, and our sights were set on Trail Crest and making up some time if possible. To give you an idea of how daunting the switchbacks actually are, here are some statistics for you to ponder: from the beginning of the switchbacks to the end of the trail is 2.2 miles and in that distance you gain 1,620 feet, that averages out to 736 feet per mile! Now that we have experienced this trail section for ourselves, I can tell you that we have unwavering respect for everyone who succeeds at climbing this unrelenting segment of the Whitney Trail. When Pick and I finally finished the climb, we stopped again to refuel our bodies. We were just around the corner from the much-anticipated “Trail Crest Sign” and as hikers walked past us, we could hear their shouts of delight at seeing the sign—this excitement sure made us eat a little faster, so that we could join in on the celebration. I can’t tell you how exquisite the view is when you round that corner! Sequoia National Park stretches out before you in the valley below, and the jagged peaks of the Hitchcock Range soar above Hitchcock and Guitar Lakes—it is truly breathtaking, no altitude pun intended. At this point, it was noon and we were now at 13,600 feet, 2.5 miles from the summit.
As we hiked along the rocky trail, we paused to look at the smoke that was billowing out of the forest fire in Sequoia—luckily, the wind was kind that day and our views were not affected at all on our entire hike. In fact, the clear blue skies above added even more beauty to the vistas around us. We also began to notice that the trail was starting to lose some elevation—this felt great on the legs, but my mind was imagining how this was going to feel on the return trip—thank goodness, it is the only significant uphill portion on the way down. At the 9-mile mark you intersect the John Muir Trail and in my opinion begin the hardest part of the entire hike, the footing along this portion is iffy at best, as the trail becomes quite rocky. I found it hard to concentrate at this point and Pick agreed that the altitude was making her slightly goofy too. It wasn’t anything terribly debilitating, it was just a weird feeling, and although this section was difficult, it was fantastic. The views are second to none, especially the area known as the windows. The windows are open spaces between huge rock spires where you can see straight down the slope of the mountain—photographs just don’t do them justice, you really have to see them in person to appreciate the vertiginous drops along this part of the trail.
The summit hut was now in view, but it still seemed so far away! Nonetheless, the sight of it was inspiring, and we knew we were going to make it at this point, building excitement once again. As we were making our way towards the summit, several other people were now making their way back down, and many of them seemed to be affected by the altitude—it was subtle, but you could see that they didn’t seem to have control of their movements, especially people with hiking poles. They would kind of flail around almost like they were slightly drunk, it was an interesting thing to watch. Despite the fact that they were tired, everyone who passed us always had words of encouragement and the obligatory “You’re almost there” comment—it was nice to be greeted by such friendly people. After what seemed like forever, we finally started our final push to the summit—the hut just kept getting closer and closer until, finally, we were there! Standing on the summit of Mt Whitney conjured up such a mixture of emotions—feelings of accomplishment, combined with pain, fatigue, and excitement all flooded to the surface. All I kept thinking was wow, we are now on top of the 48 states—after so many years of dreaming of this moment it was finally happening! It was 2:00pm, nearly 12 hours from when we had first set foot on the trail—we celebrated our successful summit with a hug and congratulations, and then we set out to record the moment for posterity. After snapping a few photos and signing the register, we turned to the task of tending to our feet—a little bit of moleskin here, and some foam there, a fresh pair of socks, and we were ready to start the long climb down the mountain.
We left the summit at 2:50pm and immediately noticed that we were both starting to get headaches—Pick’s head seemed to be hurting more then mine, but I was experiencing some blurry vision as well. It wasn’t too bad, it just felt like I had tears in my eyes or something. We also experienced for ourselves what we were witnessing in others as they descended, and that was the feeling of slight intoxication. I want to stress that this was not an overwhelming feeling, it was just very slight, enough to be noticeable. Of course, the further we descended the better we felt. After that slight climb back to Trail Crest we began the agonizing descent down the switchbacks—this about killed my knees. The descent down the switchbacks seemed like it was never going to end, so when it finally did I was so thankful. The rest of the hike down was uneventful, and we were really making up some time—we hoped we would be back to the trailhead before dark but that wasn’t to be the case. Darkness soon enveloped the mountain, and when the realization actually set in that we were going to have to put on our headlamps again, I could have just sat down and cried. At that point, we were both cursing the Whitney Trail, and any other trail we had ever heard of for that matter, and were ready to swear off hiking for the rest of our lives—funny how that feeling instantly disappears once you finish a hike!
When we finally arrived back at the Whitney Portal, Dar was there to meet us and we were relieved to see that she was fine—the time was 8:30pm, exactly 18 hours after we had first set foot on the trail! We never expected that it would take us quite that long to complete the hike, but despite not breaking any speed records, we had all experienced Whitney for ourselves and we were proud of our accomplishment. Our reward for completing such a grueling endeavor was a huge hamburger and fries from Carl Jr’s—we ate our dinner in our room at the Best Western as we recounted the highlights of our journey. All three of us had something to be proud of and we slept well that night. The next morning we drove to Movie Road to get a picture of Whitney framed by the famous arch—it was a great way to bid farewell to our latest triumph. Mt Whitney represents for us a place of unlimited beauty, and I am sure we will back someday, but for now look out, fourteeners are in our blood—Longs Peak here we come!
Update: Human waste management is a major problem at Mt. Whitney and the Inyo National Forest has instituted a "pack it out" program. At the end of the hiking season in 2006, the Inyo National Forest removed the Outpost Camp solar latrine and will remove the one at Trail Camp sometime in 2007. For more information, visit this link Inyo National Forest-Pack It Out!