Mt Whitney! The highest point in the lower 48! As part of our training for the Trans-Rockies Run Amber and I had decided to take on some of the higher peaks in SoCal. Since Mt Whitney is not that far away, it made our list. Neither one of us had been higher than 10,800 feet (San Jacinto) so we were fairly concerned about altitude sickness. Ideally when attempting Whitney, you spend time getting acclimatized by sleeping at altitude one or two nights prior to making the ascent but our calendar did not allow for that. Altitude sickness is nothing to mess around with so we did just about everything we could do to try to ward it off. We trained at altitude almost every weekend since coming home from Boston, took supplements (Aangamik) recommended by Vitamin City, drank a sports drink Amber had found called Acli-Mate which is an altitude and energy aid and committed to staying fueled and hydrated while keeping our heart rates down. Dehydration and a high heart rate are common triggers for altitude sickness. I had read that the summit of Whitney has 30 percent less oxygen than what we are accustomed to so when Amber pulled out a can of oxygen (see pic below) I laughed but I made sure she knew I was not laughing at her as I was certain I would want some of it at some point. Was it a placebo effect or would it really work? We didn’t know but why take chances if you have it? It was amazing how light weight it was.
We stayed the night in Lone Pine and set the alarm for 1:30 am. We packed up our gear and drove up to Whitney Portal we were on the trail by 2:50 am. There was sliver of a moon and the stars amazing! In front of us and behind we could see headlamps of other groups making their way to the summit. We kept a slow and steady pace which meant we were initially passed by some of these groups. But we had committed to keeping our heart rate down and with the hike beginning at 8400 feet of elevation that meant keeping it slow. Half way up we passed all the people who had passed us with some of them not looking so good since they had started way too fast. As the sun came up the scenery was amazing…
Soon we were up above the tree line with the remnants of the snow pack melting into cold rushing streams.
As we came into trail camp (12,000 ft) we got our first close up view of the rugged ascent we would be making to access the traverse which would take us to the summit.
In the pic below you can see the summit. Look to the far right of the back ridge line. See that pointy piece that is a little higher than everything else? That is the summit. But to get there the trail takes you up the left side of this section of steep terrain…
…and to get there you must go up ninety-nine switchbacks! Yes, ninety-nine! Since coming back people have asked if I counted them. No, I didn’t count them! I would have found that so discouraging!. About a quarter of the way up the switchbacks we came to the infamous cable section. Thanks to it being a drought year much of the snow had melted and we were able to traverse this section on solid rock and did not need microspikes. We still held on to the cable as we passed through as that is not an area where you want to take a chance with a fall.
Along the way beautiful flowers grew out of crevices in the rock, which was nice since at this high of elevation everything is virtually a moonscape.
When we finally reached the top of the switchbacks (about 13,800 ft in elevation) we were treated with this view of the other side. It was amazing as it looked out over the John Muir Trail which begins in Yosemite–200 miles away.
This is Guitar Lake which is also on the John Muir.
The entire trek to the top of Whitney is 11 miles one way, so once at the top of the switchbacks we had 1.9 miles to go.
The trail follows the backside of the ridgeline which I pointed out in the picture of Whitney. You definitely want to stay on trail as there are some steep drops.
As you look across the backside, Whitney comes into view. In the pic below it is the farthest point.
In this pic you can make out the summit hut which taunts you as you crawl across the traverse. It seems so much closer than it is!
Along the way we had views of the valley we had climbed out of through the “windows”.
A little before 10 am (7 hours into the hike) we summitted and the panoramic below was our view!
Looking down we could see the Whitney Portal Road which comes out of Lone Pine and connects to Hwy 395.
We signed the summit book at the hut…
…took the customary summit pics
…ate some food and headed back down. The pic below is the top of the switchbacks. The hike up to the top was not as hard as I thought it would be, but the hike down was far more difficult than I anticipated. I was so DONE with the ninety-nine switchbacks on the way down!
Eventually we crossed through trail camp and by lakes which had been hidden in the early morning shadows when we had come through that morning.
Soon we were by streams…
and back into trees. For those reading this blog who do eventually take on this trail be really careful when coming down the section heading to Mirror Lake (see pic below). This part of the trail passes over granite and it is easy to lose the trail. After coming home I have read up on this section and others have said the same thing. I had to really watch closely and sometimes stop to check out other possibilities. A week before we our trip a man had been separated from his group (probably due to slowing down with altitude sickness) and went missing. They found his body two days before our trip. He had gotten off trail and, not feeling well, had fallen down a chute to his death. I don’t mean to be depressing but it is important to remember this is very rugged territory and combined with altitude can be very dangerous.
Soon we were covering area we had not previously seen as we had passed thought in the dark. We hiked alongside streams…
…traversed lush meadows…
…had incredible views of where we had been…
and passed nearby waterfalls which we had only heard rumbling in the dark that morning.
Eventually we crossed this cool wooden bridge…
…and finished looking back over incredible scenery.
We walked into Whiney Portal at 4pm. The entire hike had taken us 13 hours (including our time at the summit and stopping to filter water twice). On the way up neither one of us had any altitude sickness (Yay!!!). Amber had a headache on the way down which began to go away once we stopped for water our second time. I think we approached this hike in a smart and strategic way with our altitude training, supplements, commitment to staying hydrated and fueled and keeping our pace down and thus keeping our heart rate down. We ended up finishing hours before all the people who had passed us early on. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping the heart rate down. Oh, and did we use the oxygen? Yep, we sure did!
For those who are interested the Garmin details are below with the mile splits below that. Happy hiking!