Last weekend we attempted to summit Mt. Whitney – the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, at 14,505 ft. elevation. We didn’t make it. But as the famous John Muir would say, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
If you or someone you know is planning on hiking the Mt. Whitney Trail, you first need to attain a permit by entering a lottery system. Groups can be no more than 15 people, but the smaller your group, the better chance you have of getting a permit. Entering costs $6 (and then $15/per person if you’re picked) and the lottery closes on March 15. I believe we found out our climbing date sometime in April, so in a way you need to be flexible with dates if you’re hoping to summit this monster peak. If you’re only day hiking, you will need to pick up your permit by noon the day before. If you’re planning on backpacking and have received an overnight permit, you need to pick it up by 10am the day-of. When you reach the trailhead, make sure you have both your backpack permits in addition to the paper permit that they give to you upon pickup. Just the backpack permit and/or the email confirmation are not enough! Don’t learn this the hard way…like we did 😉
There are a lot of ins and outs to the lottery system, and a lot of things to take into consideration, like weather conditions and trail closures, so I recommend fully doing your research before committing to this hike. If you hit the trail anytime before mid-July, you will most likely need additional gear like crampons and an ice ax to navigate the steep snow chute at 12,000 ft. since the 99 Switchbacks (yes, there are 99 of them) will be closed off. There’s a lot to consider! Here is a great site detailing the Whitney Permit system: click here!
The trail itself is 22 miles long round trip and has an elevation gain of about 6,500 ft. The original trailhead starts in Lone Pine Campground – where we made Base Camp our first night – and adds an additional 8 miles round trip to the trail. It also adds about 3,000 ft. elevation to the trip. If you’re planning on staying here, make reservations long in advance! If you can get lucky with a site at Whitney Portal, I would recommend that, as your body will be adjusting to a higher elevation! 22 miles might not seem incredibly crazy to someone who’s in relatively good shape, but remember that you’ll be carrying a 30+ lb. pack on your back, and climbing steep elevation quickly, all white battling the quickly changing elements.
Our Mt. Whitney Adventure:
I’ve mentioned a few times before on this blog about Al and Vince’s treacherous but victorious adventure to the peak of Mt. Whitney about this time last year. They made the trek in a single day, when most of the trail was closed off or completely covered in snow. I always found it amazing, but after having been on the trail myself now, I almost can’t even believe they did it. If they didn’t have the photos at the peak to prove it, I don’t know that I would trust them 😉
So when Al told me he was putting in for the lottery this year, and asked if I wanted to join, I knew I had to. 1) because it was over his 31st birthday. 2) because I am always always up for a challenge. And 3) because I found out that there were no women going on this journey, and I knew I needed to change that. So we put in for the lottery. And we waited. And we got them. Holy crap, we got them.
I don’t think the real fear of climbing the mountain hit me until just two weeks prior when Al *officially let me know that the 99 Switchbacks would be closed, and that we would be ascending the steep and dangerous snow chute up to the Trail Crest. The one that people die on, that one. This immediately sparked panic in me, but Al remained calm and assured me that – since he had done it once before when it was far worse – he knew I could and that I would do it. I just needed the right gear. So we added crampons and an ice ax to our repertoire. Crampons are like big metal spikes that attach to the base of your hiking boots. If you don’t have crampons, don’t ever try to traverse through snow or ice on a mountainside.
Luckily for Al, he was gifted a week off from work leading up to our Whitney trip! So he took himself up to Yosemite National Park and spent the week there camping and hiking on his own (I love that man). This is a great way for your body to slowly adjust to the difference in altitude. It’s also a great way to avoid a true shower for a week 😉 Josh, Vince, and I, on the other hand, headed out of LA on a Friday afternoon after work. Once we got out of the LA hell that is traffic, it was smooth sailing into our Lone Pine Campground.
Lone Pine is a cool little town where they used to film alllllll the Hollywood Westerns, and I totally recommend checking it out for a day or two! There’s some really cool history in that area.
The cool thing about the Lone Pine Campground – and about our Site 43 in particular – is that it’s home to the Original Mt. Whitney Trailhead. Right smack dab in the desert. When the trail was originally being carved out, members of the town would start here, carrying shovels and rocks and whatever other tools they needed, in order to clear out this trail. Pretty incredible, huh?
We stayed the night in Lone Pine. Had hot dogs around the fire. Saw the most incredible sky full of stars. And swapped funny stories. We got up bright and early on Saturday morning and made camping coffee – is there anything better in the world? We packed up our site, and we headed into town for a diner breakfast. We spent a small portion of the morning Off Roading in the desert. All the while, ominous Mt. Whitney sat in the background, watching us. It was pretty freaking cool.
We reached the Trailhead in Whitney Portal that afternoon. We were ready to go! …And then we were not. Remember that little bit I mentioned about having both your backpacking permit and the paper permit? Well, we didn’t have the paper permit. So Al and Josh had to head back to our Base Camp at Lone Pine to get it…ha! Don’t make this mistake!
And so NOW we were off! We weighed our bags – mine and Josh’s at 32 lbs. a piece. Vince’s at 35. And Al’s at 38. This was my first time ever backpacking, and I recommend splitting up gear as much as possible – Al, Vince, and I were sharing a tent, so being able to disperse the gear amongst the three of us was a space- and weight-saver. We also brought a water purifier with us (which is always a good idea) because we knew that there were multiple lakes along the way, and that this could cut down on some of the water weight we would have had to carry on our backs.
Oh! And a special note here: You will not be allowed to overnight hike on Whitney if you aren’t carrying a bear canister. This is a big almost-Tupperware-like container that seals and locks to hold all of your food, trash, and anything that has a scent to it (toothpaste, chapstick, etc.). Bears and marmots will tear into your campsite, bags, etc. to find these treasures. When setting up camp, always store your bear canister away from your campsite!
We had planned for our first day of backpacking to lead us up to Trail Camp, located at 12,000 ft. elevation, and about a 6 mile climb. This would mean that we could get up bright and early (between the hours of 3 and 4am) to tackle the snow chute before the sun came out and turned it to slush. We found out this was a good idea, as we passed a lot of groups coming down who weren’t able to summit that day because the chute got too slushy. On our way up, I think we passed only two groups who had made it to the summit. They say only 1 in 3 people/groups makes it to the top!
The route up to Trail Camp was honestly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. And one of the toughest. While we were all in really great physical shape, it wasn’t the physical fitness that was tough – it was the elevation gain. It’s hard to catch your breath when you’re ascending that quickly, and so we had to stop for multiple breaks…to drink a lot of water, load up on food (sandwiches, bars, and gels), and to just rest and let our bodies adjust to the change in altitude. It’s no joke. I recommend giving yourself an entire day to make it up to Trail Camp. Not only for the health benefits, but also for all of the amazing views that you’ll encounter along the way. Soak them alllllllll up! The trail starts with a steady climb of switchbacks through alpine forests and a few water crossings; called The John Muir Wilderness. The water crossings were my favorite 😉 Make sure you have a good pair of waterproof hiking boots! We saw a good amount of Bluejays and Robins on this part of the trail; this is also the shadiest part of the hike, so soak that up while you can.
Some of my favorite areas along the way included:
Lone Pine Lake, located about 3 miles into the trail. You can actually hike up to this point without a permit. It’s this gorgeous bright blue lake that sits inside the contrasting rock walls. There was one family there while we stopped, just hanging out for the day. I think I’d love to take a few extra days on the trail next time and spend a night here. Soon afterwards, you hit the Whitney Zone Entrance where you will need a permit to continue past. We ran into two Rangers along the way after this point, who were checking permits.
The Meadow. This is about a half-mile stretch of the trail with the most brilliant greens I have ever seen, up against the stark mountainsides. It’s a page straight out of a fairytale. Depending on the time of year, the stream that runs through here can get pretty high. You can spend the night on this part of the trail at Outpost Camp.
Mirror Lake is the smallest of the lakes on the trail, but man is it beautiful. We stopped here to purify some water before making the last (extremely long and brutal) push up to Trail Camp.
Trailside Meadows might be the most beautiful part of the trail (which is funny because Al and Vince didn’t even see it last time because it was covered in mounds of snow), but the hardest to capture on camera. The trail itself is on the rocky cliff of the mountain, but to your left there is a waterfall sourced completely from melted snow, that feeds into this valley of green plants and purple flowers. It was breathtaking. At one point, there was a couple sitting in the midst of it all, on a giant rock, and I so wished that I was them 😉 It looked like the most peaceful place to be. I’d love to come back here to try and really capture the beauty for you all.
Trail Camp/Consultation Lake. While I can’t speak for Consultation Lake (because I was just starting to feel sick at this point), I can speak for Trail Camp. And what I’ll say is this: When you think you’re close, you’re not close at all. HA! It. Is. Deceiving, man. And it’s a hell of a barren climb up to that point. The winds pick up, the temperatures drop, and you’re just surrounded by rocks and snow. Really really high up there.
And this is where the madness started:
We finally reached Trail Camp close to sunset, and this was about the time where I started to feel sick. Altitude Sickness can hit anyone, at anytime – even the most experienced climbers. They can climb the same mountain 10 days in a row and on one of those days, they can get hit with Altitude Sickness and have to turn back. Usually the first sign of AMS is a piercing headache (because AMS is quite literally, your brain swelling). Nausea usually follows. While I didn’t feel the headache, I did feel some nausea coming on. But it was getting dark, temps were below freezing, and we needed to get our camp set up. I was feeling pretty miserable at that point – I remember most vividly just not being able to feel my fingers. So the boys set up the tents in a spot that was blocked pretty well from the wind.
Al and Josh took all the water supplies to fill up at the nearby small lake, while Vince and I were in charge of getting the meals taken care of. When you’re backpacking, it’s a good idea to bring MRE’s or Freeze-Dried meals with you. If you have a jet broiler or a campfire, Freeze-Dried meals will work because you need boiling water. If you aren’t going to have a heat source available, an MRE is the way to go, as it heats up on its own. Both are comparable in price. MRE’s are a little bulkier to carry. It’s completely your own preference.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Vince was also starting to feel some slight affects of AMS…he was getting a headache. I was getting more and more nauseas by the minute, but I thought maybe it was due to the activity of the day. I knew I needed to continue to drink water and eat if I wanted to feel better. We all burrowed into our big tent with our meals in hand, once Al and Josh got back. This is where things get a little hazy to me. I remember not being able to finish my meal. I handed it to Al and told him to finish it. I said I was going to try and sleep off the nausea, and I fell asleep almost immediately.
I spent the majority of the night with my head out of the tent, vomiting. My body was ridding itself of everything I had worked so hard to put into it over the last 24+ hours. Alex told me he knew right then that I wouldn’t be summiting the next morning, and so he told Josh and Vince that they would have to go without us in the morning and that he would bring me down the mountain until I started to feel better. We would meet them at the bottom.
The wind was pretty gnarly that morning and Al had hoped to wait until it warmed up a little bit to lead me down, but when he tried to communicate with me, he and Vince found me unresponsive. I couldn’t register anything they were saying, my eyes were rolling around, and I was speaking gibberish. At that point, Al said, he knew he needed to get me down immediately. It was right around this time that Vince told Josh and Al that his head was pounding. None of us were summiting.
For those not familiar with Altitude Sickness, it can be fatal. Your body isn’t receiving enough oxygen, so it basically just starts to shut down. The only way to combat it is to descend until you start to feel better and/or administer oxygen.
Administering oxygen wasn’t possible. And getting any sort of rescue team up there would have taken too long. The guys had to get me down. Josh and Al picked me up, amidst my continued puking, and I didn’t even recognize who Josh was. They made the plan that Al would slowly lead me down the mountain, while Josh and Vince would carry my pack down to the bottom. (I owe these guys endless beers for life).
And so that’s exactly what we did. Al led me down the mountain. I wish I could tell you more about that initial 1,000 ft. descent, but from the moment I handed Al my meal up at Trail Camp, until we reached Mirror Lake, I don’t remember much. Al just told me I moved very slowly, I was wobbly, and he was worried. But he just kept telling me that once we made it to the lake I would start to feel better. And I did.
That’s not to say the rest of the trek down was easy. Holy hell was it hard. I had burned probably 2500 – 3000 calories the day before, and then my body had rid itself of everything else. I was dehydrated and weak. I couldn’t keep water down. I wanted to basically curl up in a ball and sleep for days. But obviously I couldn’t do that.
We made it to the bottom…eventually. Josh and Vince were napping in the car. I still can’t believe Josh carried my pack on top of his own, the whole way down. I count myself incredibly lucky to have made this trip with these guys. Incredibly lucky to call these guys my friends.
We sat in the car after that and it’s funny, but, there were no hard feelings about not making it to the summit. I think we were all just happy to have made it back down. The Mountain had other plans for us, and I think we were all feeling humbled by the experience. Cus the thing is, the entire trip was freaking beautiful. Whether we made it to the top or not, we recognized the beauty that was all around us the entire time. We awed at every step of the way. We were proud of what we had accomplished, and we knew that it was of no fault of our own that we didn’t summit. We were just grateful to be there.
Grateful to be here today though, is an understatement.
Maybe it sounds cheesy to say…and maybe I’m being a little dramatic…but after this experience, I feel like I have a whole new appreciation for life. Things that once seemed like a big deal just feel kind of trivial now. You realize that there’s a force out there greater than you and all the people you know – it’s Nature. And you realize that Nature will forever have a mind and plan of its own. One minute you can be climbing a mountain with your husband and friends, and the next you could be wondering if you’ll even make it down. The point is, and maybe what John Muir was trying to say, is that none of us are promised tomorrow, but it’s important to climb those mountains anyway; to reach upwards for the view.
No, I’m not paralyzed with fear to ever hike again. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m obsessed with the idea of backpacking more often. And I’m determined to summit Mt. Whitney someday. I think it’ll be even more bittersweet when I make it to the top…we’ll just rethink our game plan a little bit. Maybe we’ll spend a few more days up there beforehand. Maybe we’ll camp on the mountain more than one night. Maybe I’ll look into some of that altitude sickness medication 😉 And in the meantime, I’ve got SoCal’s Six Pack of Peaks on my mind. I’m determined.
I think I’m happiest when outside. When my body is moving and working for me; when it’s getting me somewhere on its own accord. When I’m breathing fresh air and wiping away layers of dirt from my face and hands. It’s like all the bullshit of regular life is stripped away and you’re just left with this beautiful canvas of the purest forms of color right before your eyes, and somehow, it’s enough. It’s more than enough.
Happy to be here.