It’s been almost two years exactly since my last trip to Mount Whitney. I failed to make it to the top that time, but vowed that I would return someday and conquer this peak. This weekend I can say that I finally conquered California’s highest peak.
The permits make it quite clear that this mountain is the highest in California– in fact it’s the highest point in the continental United States.
At the trailhead there’s a scale where everyone weighs their packs. Last year my pack was over 40 pounds. This year my pack was just over 30 pounds including water.
The hike begins with a set of switchbacks that climbs rapidly out of the Whitney Portal area. The scenery was nice here, with the colors from the fall foliage running down the valley. At the top of the switchbacks is a creek that runs out from Lone Pine Lake. We stopped there for a short water break before continuing onward and upward.
Shortly afterward we entered the Whitney Permit zone. From here there the trail becomes quite rocky.
The trail then suddenly drops you off in a meadow. The orange and gold in the meadow contrasts against the green pine trees and the white granite. It’s quite beautiful, especially this time of year. At the end of the meadow is Outpost Camp, the first of two major campsites on the mountain. We thought about eating lunch at Outpost, but decided to continue on a little farther.
We stopped for lunch on the shore of Mirror Lake. We were making great progress up until now, so we had time to take a short nap after lunch.
Above mirror lake is another small meadow. We were starting to slow down at this point, the altitude was starting to get to us, since we were already above 10,000 feet at this point.
After the second meadow was a rocky climb towards trail camp, our goal for the day. The sun beat down on us relentlessly. There was no shade since we were already pretty far above the tree line at this point.
We camped at Trail Camp, which is just above 12,500 ft. Thankfully there’s a good water supply here, and there are rock walls to shelter you from the cold winds.
The scenery’s at trail camp is pretty epic. Despite being over 12,500 feet high the mountains still tower over you. It makes you feel tiny in comparison.
We woke up at the crack of dawn to filter water and prepare for our summit attempt. We decided to skip breakfast, which in hindsight was a horrible idea.
We started up the switchbacks above Trail Camp. There are supposedly 99 switchbacks here. It felt like way way more than that.
For the most part the trail was clear of snow and ice. The only somewhat treacherous part was the cable section. It was much easier than last time I was out here.
It seemed like we made it to Trail Crest pretty quickly. Trail Crest is the top of the switchback section, at 13,700 feet. There’s a short descent from the crest where the trail crosses over to the backside of the mountains.
At this point the altitude was starting to affect everyone. Some people get headaches from it, some people get weird, and some people stay completely cool.
The backside of the trail is pretty epic, with amazing views of the John Muir Wilderness. The trail is kinda scary at times, with sheer thousand foot drops at some points.
One of the easier sections, about a third of the way up the backside.
The Keeler needle area. This is where we turned back last time I was here. It was really disappointing last time, since you could see the Whitney Peak from here (it’s the slope in the background.) This time it was pretty encouraging to see that the end was in sight.
With the end in sight I started to quicken my pace, only to feel the effects of the altitude. I had to slow down to almost a crawl, otherwise my pulse in my neck would start to pound and I’d be gasping for air.
The marker at the top of Mount Whitney. Apparently it’s the highest trail in the United States. That means if I want to go any higher, I’ll probably need to learn some crazy mountaineering skills. Nah. I think Whitney’s enough for me– I don’t need to kill myself to go higher.
Tao made it to the top first. I made it a while after him. I ended up taking a nap on a rock and was woken up when Vishal made it to the top. He said that Steve was waiting down below the peak because the altitude was getting to him. We started down the mountain to find that Steve wasn’t where Vishal had left him. We were starting to get worried, but we eventually found Steve further down the mountain. He had made the right choice to descend to a lower altitude. The altitude was hitting him pretty hard at this point, so we slowly made it down together to trail camp, stopping every once in a while to catch our breaths.
When we arrived at Trail Camp we tried to eat a bit, but none of us really had an appetite, despite the fact that none of us had anything except some snacks all day. We decided to pack up and head down the mountain. Steve was ready first, so he decided to head out first. The rest of us finished packing and filtered some water then headed out as well. By this time the sun had already set, so we had to hike out in the darkness using our headlamps. Tao, Vishal and I decided to stick together, thinking that three lights on the trial were better than one. Even with the three powerful headlamps we lost the trail a few times. The walk down felt absurdly long. Our legs were all pretty sore already, and none of us had much energy left. We were worried about Steve since we didn’t see any headlamps ahead of us the whole way down, and because he didn’t seem to be in great shape when he left camp. Vishal, Tao and I made it back to the parking area a little before 11 at night. I was relieved to find that Steve had left a note on my car saying that he had made it down safely and was driving home.
So in the end I was finally able to conquer the trail to the summit that eluded me two years ago. For much of the hike I thought about my previous trip. In many ways the trip was the same– same time of year, same cold sleepless night at Trail Camp, same brutal hike out after dark. The difference was that this time around the drought made it so there wasn’t much snow on the trail. I think the only thing that was better about last time was that Jamie had brought Diamox, a medicine that helps the body acclimate to high elevations. If I had asked Steve to bring it, I have no doubt that he would have made it to the to without any problems. So now Steve is left where I was at two years ago– having had to turn back just short of the summit. I wonder if he has the same burning desire to return and conquer the summit that I had. I guess if he does, I’ll be down to come back and conquer this mountain one more time…