Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the continental United States, standing tall in the Eastern Sierras at 14,505. For many hikers who live in California (and many outside of CA), Mt. Whitney is at the top of their hiking bucket list. Not only is Whitney the tallest peak in the lower 48, it’s also a part of the historic John Muir Trail. If that wasn’t enough, the starting point of the Mt Whitney Trail is the end of the Badwater Ultramarathon at Whitney Portal. I’ve wanted to hike Mt. Whitney ever since I got into hiking back in 2010…the only problem has been that I couldn’t get a permit. Well, maybe the stars were aligned this year, as I was able to secure a permit for Half Dome and Mt. Whitney.
Julia and I drove out to Lone Pine on Saturday, and planned to sleep at Whitney Portal so we could begin our ascent bright and early on Sunday. We picked up our permits at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, which is located just off of HWY 395. The road to Whitney Portal stems right from the Center of Lone Pine, and after grabbing a quick lunch, we made our way to our campsite a.k.a the Whitney Portal Parking lot.
Whitney Portal is a great starting point for a big hike. The Whitney Portal Store serves food and drinks, and sells every type of souvenir imaginable. Starting in the afternoon, hikers begin to flood in from the trail to celebrate their summit accomplishments with savory cheeseburgers and the unmatched refreshment of cold beer. We took a look around, and familiarized ourselves with the immediate area. Had we known people would be coming and going all through the night, we probably would have brought a tent and stayed at the campsite just next to the parking lot. I can’t blame the hikers finishing late in the day, as the hollering was quite entertaining at 11:30. What I couldn’t quite force a smile over, was the triple wool socks wearing scout dad going though his checklist with 4 seemingly unprepared teenagers at 2 AM. I’m not sure what we expected, we knew full well that groups would be looking to get an early start. I just don’t know why it takes an hour to prep your gear in the parking lot at 2AM.
The early wake-up chatter wasn’t too bad, as it allowed me to wake long before I had set my cell phone to pull me from my sleeping bag to tunes from Asha Ali. The day before in Lone Pine I grabbed a cup of coffee from the Arco gas station. This cup of coffee had been sitting next to the rest of my gear in the bear locker at the east end of the parking lot. It’s hard to describe what happens to your taste buds while camping or before a big hike, but the cold bitter French roast was heavenly with my breakfast of four PopTarts. After breakfast, Julia and I took 15 minutes to stretch and then made our way to the trailhead to begin the 99 switchbacks and 11 miles to the summit.
We walked the first few miles in complete darkness, passing a few of the slower moving groups who had started well before our departure time of 4:45 AM. The temperatures shifted depending on our trail position, like a luke warm bath while the water is running hot. There were times when we would be full on sweating, only to feel a chilled gust of wind sweep down from the distance. The sun began to rise just as we were climbing away from Lone Pine Lake. It was a beautiful view as the dessert like oranges and pinks of sunrise splashed off granite and water as it fought it’s way over distant peaks.
After Mirror Lake, the trail becomes a lot more rocky, and the elevation starts to play a role. Groups that seemed far ahead of us a first glace, quickly fell behind and disappeared. Having completed a lot of training above 10,000 ft, Julia and I didn’t feel any of the adverse effects associated with altitude fatigue. The middle section of the trail is one of it’s more spectacular points, with Consultation lake and other bodies of water filling every view on offer.
After leaving the water behind, we set out to finish what remained of the 99 switchbacks and make our way to Whitney Trail Crest. Located at around 13,000 ft, the Trail Crest is what many believe to be the greatest vantage point on the entire Whitney Trail.
It was just as we departed Trail Crest to the summit of Mt. Whitney that the weather took a turn for the worse. A sunny day quickly deteriorated into whipping hail and rain. Dark clouds were rolling from as far as the eye could see, and for a moment, we were worried that our summit attempt might have to wait for another year. We pushed on past the JMT trail junction, zooming past the Windows and the Needles on our way to the summit. At this point the weather was getting a little more worrisome, but we were hoping it would hold out just a little longer.
I find that I learn a lot of life’s best lessons while outdoors. The anticipation of hiking a mountain like Whitney starts building months before you ever put a foot on the trail. It only grows larger with every blog post read, training hike completed, and conversation started. You’ll start imagining what every section of the trail will be like, and trust me, on this one the real life views are better than anything you can imagine. This mental preparation is only natural, but the disappointment that bad conditions can create hit just as hard the other direction. As we passed the JMT junction to see the summit completely hogtied with dark black clouds, my dreams of a glorious summit shot came crashing down around me. With thunder stampeding from somewhere off in the distance, I hoped that I could even make a summit attempt, bad visibility withstanding. This is the mindset of a person too focused on the end result. Hiking makes you remember that the journey is almost always better than the destination. It draws you into the process of living, and the beauty of life’s flow. To be aware of your presence in the moment, and not constantly focusing on the internal dialogue of “what’s next?”. Fighting back the thoughts of what I hoped my summit day would be like, we pushed through the hail towards the summit.
At 10:30 AM, we were standing on the top of Mt. Whitney. There was no one else on top, so we took the time to really soak it all in. The clouds were racing by overhead and where one moment it would be white and grey, the next moment would hold windows into some of the most beautiful scenery my eyes have taken in. To my surprise the visibility wasn’t so bad after all, as it never occupied the same space for more than a second.
We stopped inside the summit hut for a few moments, and then made our way back out onto the summit to catch the brief views of the spectacular scenery all around us.