20+ miles, Hiking

Mt Whitney

July 13, 2015

FADE IN:

EXT. MT WHITNEY TRAIL, SOMEWHERE ON THE MILLIONTH SWITCHBACK – DAY

Nausea flows over the pair like the high tide pulsing into the San Francisco bay.  Heavy limbs drag in the thin air as they push past 13,000 feet, the highest either one has been on foot.  Traction on the shattered granite rocks is shaky at best, forcing the reliance on trekking poles.  The poles make the arms weak, forcing the reliance on good traction.  A vicious cycle…rinse, and repeat.

With every step, a question arises.  STEP.  Why?  STEP.  How?  STEP.  When?  STEP.  How much further?  STEP, SLIP, CURSE.  &#%@!

The dull headache is a companion now, a symbiotic relationship.  Existential crises occur on the order of minutes, not decades.  Hope is almost lost, swallowed by the summit of the mountain they dare not stare in the eye.  Who would do such a thing to them, they wonder.  What could have possibly led them to this moment of suffering and agony?

FLASHBACK TO:

INT. HOUSE IN BAY AREA – DAY (SPRING 2015)

ATRAILLESSTRAVELED

Wooooooo!  Who got Mt Whitney permits??  This guy!!  It’s gonna be awesomeeee.

PLAN


Alright alright, it wasn’t that bad.  Were there moments of hopelessness?  Possibly.  At the time, it was the worst thing I could have done.  Looking back…OK it was pretty painful, but it was worth it.  Chicks dig scars, right?

…do emotional scars count?

Humor aside — the plan was for a day hike.  Why a day hike?  Why can’t we just mosey on up the mountain in a few days, acclimating along the way?  Honestly, it was because coordinating a group of 4 to request days off over some unknown weekend in the summer was highly unlikely.  Our permits landed us on the 3rd of July and fortunately, no one had standing plans.  M’urica!!!

The idea was to leave the Bay Area in the early afternoon on Thursday — get to Whitney Portal some time before midnight — catch a few hours of sleep (as well as in the car) and start hiking around 3AM.  The whole plan hinged on getting in early enough so that we aren’t starting the hike exhausted.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.  But hey, at least we got some nice views along the way.

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INFO


WILDERNESS PERMIT:  Lotteries.  What a pain in the ass.  I guess that’s the price we pay for having such popular beautiful locations.  This website will explain the entire process of how to apply.  Open lottery dates are February 1 – March 15.  You have a roughly 50% chance of winning.

Yes, you will need a permit even if you want to day hike the mountain.  It’s not an overnight permit, but a permit nonetheless.  You can’t exchange one for the other.  Check this image for where permits are required.

Now picking up the permit can be challenging.  The website goes into great detail on how to pick up permits.  What is a bit hidden is that you can in fact schedule for a night pick-up of the permit.  You’ll need to call ahead a few days so they can throw your permit in the box.

COST:  $6 for the initial lottery entry.  $15 per person when you are selected (if you are selected) to reserve your spot.

MAP:  It’s not like you will be the only one on the trail, and there’s really no other way you can go but up.  If you are inclined to have a map with you (always recommended), this one will work.

PARKING:  There’s plenty of parking in Whitney Portal, but it does fill up if you get in late.  We arrived after midnight and there were only a few spots left.  I’d recommend not getting there so late so you can get some proper sleep!

ALTITUDE SICKNESS:  Read about it.  It’s no joke.  If you feel nauseous or throw up, turn the hell around.

 

TRAIL


DISTANCE:  21.7 miles
ELEVATION GAIN:  +6,850 feet
TIME:  17 hours 55 minutes
DIFFICULTY:  10/10
SEASON:  Summer / Fall

 


We got in late.  We pulled into an extremely full Whitney Portal after midnight.  Only a few spots remained in the lot designated for backpackers / day hikers.  It was too late to set up a tent in the campground, so we decided to split a few hours of sleep between the car and the adjacent empty parking lot (hoping to not get run over).  Fingers crossed that an hour or two will be enough sleep to get moving.

The Mt Whitney Trail is a killer.  12.5 miles right up the side of a mountain…then back down.  In a day.  Because people are crazy.

2:30AM.  Crap, that was definitely not enough sleep.  And we definitely aren’t going to make it by 3AM.

3:45AM.  Better late than never.  Despite the lack of sleep, everyone is in good spirits.  A huge plus for this trip — a full moon occurred just the night before.  The moonlight reflecting off of the mountains is surely a sight to witness.  We can look into the “portal” up the trail and see headlamps further up — where we would have been had we started on time.

It’s pitch black, obviously.  Eventually the sun starts warming the sky, and looking back down to Whitney Portal after the first climb out of the valley gives you a nicely framed view of the coming sunrise.  You almost forget you’re going up the first switchbacks.  Almost.

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There are several lakes along the trail.  The first is Lone Pine Lake.  As you can see here, it’s off the trail quite a bit.  The second lake, Mirror Lake, lies a few minutes within the Mt Whitney Zone right after Outpost Camp.  Outpost Camp is one of two campsites along the trail.  It’s in a great location, albeit a bit mosquito-y.  If you are backpacking Whitney and spending a few nights on the mountain, this would be your first stop!

Heading up further from Outpost Camp, you reach what seems like a natural ampitheatre.  Sheer walls surround a lush green field with a stream running through it.  If you time it poorly and leave an hour late (or right, depending on how you look at it) you’ll catch the first rays of sunlight hitting the tip of the ridgeline.  If you’re even luckier, you’ll catch both that and the full moon before it sets.

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If you’re not careful, you’ll get wrapped up in the sunrise and spend way too much time here.  Before you move on, though, don’t forget to turn around.  It’s a nice sight as well.  I’m not sure if it was the morning air, the warm sun, or the adrenaline of still not being halfway through the hike, but this next part was a breeze, despite the fact that you’re walking uphill the whole damn way!

You’ll soon come to another water site.  If you hadn’t noticed yet, there’s a lot of water on the trail.  I made the mistake of carrying 3L the whole way up, which is pretty freaking heavy.  You’ll need it for the last part of the trail, but until then you can get along with 1-2L and refill along the way.  Hey, at least this one looks like an actual oasis.

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Two more lakes to go!  The first one is big and greenish blue.  The next is right underneath Mt Whitney.  It also happens to be the spot of Trail Camp and your last available water on the trail.  Fill up here, and make sure you take 3L!  I ran out on the way down because I didn’t fill up the whole way and I was not a happy camper.  Also, beware of marmots.  Annoying little buggers.  And persistent!

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So here’s the thing.  When you’re at the last lake packing up your food and filling up the water, you tend to look ahead for the trail on the mountainside above you.  But you can’t see it.  Never a good sign, right?  You look up and go, “What the hell, I have to go up that shit?”.  99 switchbacks.  Pardon my French, but fuck my life.  You really start to feel a bit beat at this point, and now you have to climb that?

Not to mention you’re high at this point.  Not that kind.  The 12,000 feet kind of high.  It’s the highest I’ve been by a fair margin (I think 11k was my highest at Telescope Peak in Death Valley).  We all felt OK though, which was reassuring for us.  We were all pretty worried about altitude sickness before hand.  Alright, time to stop beating around the bush and start climbing.  Head down, one foot after another, and breathe.

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I’ll be honest…I thought I wasn’t going to make it.  I wasn’t doing so hot there for a while at about 13.5k feet.  Lightheadedness is a real pain in the butt.  But we powered through and made it.  Looking back you really can’t believe you made it up this far.

When you get to the top, you’re rewarded with an almost 360° view.  You crest over the ridge and see right over to the other side.

It seems to go on forever.  An endless sea of granite and peaks.

Take a break here.  You deserve it.

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Alright.  Here is where reality has to set in for you.  In a few downhill steps, you’ll see a sign that leads you to believe that there are 2 miles left to the summit.  I hate to break it to you but it’s true.  You won’t believe me, but go ahead and check your GPS when you’re done.  You’ll think you’ve been sucked into some space-time rift that makes time slow to a crawl and distances multiply.

Everyone you will pass will tell you that you’re almost there.  Don’t believe them, they’re lying to you.  They’re all assholes and are just tricking you because they’re happy because they’re on their way back down.

OK so it’s not that bad.  But seriously, it seems like way. longer. than. 2. miles.  Maybe it’s because the trail is literally a bunch of rocks.  Or maybe it’s because you’re almost at 14k feet and you’re exhausted after the day hike.  Or maybe it’s because everyone you see coming down looks so happy and you feel like your feet are going to implode.  No matter the reason, you’re almost there.  Power through.

Oh, don’t forget to enjoy the view.  It’s pretty damn good.

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I guess there’s a part of this section of the trail that people get a bit nervous about.  The windows.  There are several openings between the peaks of the ridge that basically drop straight down in front of you.  They’re pretty neat.  Imagine skiing down through these in the winter…

Eh, I’ll pass.

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Alright.  You’ve made it.  You probably feel something like this, right?

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Well sit back, relax, and let the good times roll.  But you probably don’t want to lay down, because it made us all pretty nauseous.

Enjoy the view!  You are now officially at the highest point in the lower 48 (+ Hawaii).  Pretty cool, right?  And if you squint and you’re Superman, you can see Death Valley from here.  The lowest in North America at -282 feet.

I supposed I should be responsible and say to NOT do what we did and sit on the edge.  It’s a long way down.  Please don’t freak your not-ok-with-heights friends and dangle your feet off of a basically cracked in half rock.

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Now all that is left to do is to turn around and hoof it back.  Oh, make sure to tell everyone on the way down that they’re almost there.  I heard they hate that shit.

You’ll probably understand why there are hardly any pictures taken on the way down.  Except one.

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