Mt. Whitney stands at 14, 505 ft (4,421 m) and is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. I first heard of Mt. Whitney when I was shopping for a hiking book in my local REI store and it was love at first sight! I knew I had to hike this mountain and wanted to face this challenge alone. I had no idea if I could do it but I knew I had to try and after reading “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed, I felt inspired and capable of facing this on my own. So, on October 9th, 2014 I began my adventure to the summit of Mt. Whitney.
I had never done a multi-day hiking trip alone or a hike at this altitude so I immediately began researching what I needed to successfully reach the summit of Mt. Whitney. The first thing was to get a permit and I found that spaces were limited. Luckily my schedule was flexible and I was able to secure a permit during the week to hike through the Mt. Whitney zone. I had no idea how long it would take me to reach the summit so I planned on staying two nights on the mountain however I found I only needed one night (more on that later). There is so much information online to help plan your journey and it is sometimes hard to determine what is best for you. Some sites say it is an easy hike while others say it requires months and months of training. My advice is to give yourself plenty of time and if it takes you less time then good for you! I saw all types of hikers on the trail; some people run the entire trail up and down in one day, others take two or three days, and one guy did the entire thing barefoot. It is important to assess your level of fitness before you set out on a hike like this however with enough preparation, most people can reach the summit.
My next step was preparing for my hike by training and purchasing the required gear. The gear was the easy part since I already had most of what I needed and only had to buy and rent a few additional items (see my gear list). Although I wanted to be conscious of the weight of my backpack, I wanted to make sure I had enough clothes and food to keep me warm and safe since I was hiking alone. In the end my backpack weighed 40 lbs. including water. The most awkward purchase was the “poop bags”. Yep, you have to carry out all human waste on Mt. Whitney. No one likes to talk about that part of the hike but it is a reality so you might as well come to terms with the fact that you may have to poop in a bag and carry it with you! Fortunately I took care of “business” before I left the Whitney Portal and was back in time the next day to not have to use a “poop bag”. I did see one guy carry his all the way from the summit…he did not look happy!
Training was a different story because I did not have much time to prepare since I obtained my permit at the end of August…I only had 1.5 months. I was already in pretty good shape but I had not done any hikes in higher altitudes. My trainer Big Mike definitely helped prepare me for this as well as my previous hiking experience and endurance from long-distance road cycling. All this training paid off and I hiked-up faster than expected and had a great time! Where I suffered was on the descent and my knees gave out near the end. Perhaps more training would have helped prepare me for the extra weight on my knees going down…
My original plan was to hike to Outpost Camp (10,500 ft) on day 1 followed by Trail Camp (12,000 ft) on day 2 and finish with the Mt. Whitney summit and return to the car on day 3. I had no idea how difficult it would be to hike with a 40 lb. backpack or how the altitude would affect me so I gave myself plenty of time. I left Santa Monica at 4 a.m. on October 9th and headed to Lone Pine to get my permit. I arrived in Lone Pine at 7:30 a.m. but had to wait until 8:00 a.m. for the Visitor Center to open so I could get my permit. By 9:30 a.m. I was weighing my backpack at the start of the Mt. Whitney trail and was ready to go. I was nervous as I took my first steps on the trail. A part of me was excited to be leaving society behind for a few days however a part of me was also wondering why I was doing this and thinking of all the things that could go wrong. As I pressed on, my worries faded away and were replaced by an inner calm as the beauty unfolded in front of me. The scenery was spectacular and the silence was surreal. I passed a few hikers along the way and met another lone female hiker but I was alone for most of the day and it was great!
The first part of the hike was mostly along winding trails and switchbacks in the forest. Even at this altitude there were amazing views of the valley below and the high peaks above. The hike was relatively easy with gradual inclines and a well marked trail however I did get distracted by my surroundings and had to watch my step. On one occasion I did embarrass myself while trying to get an “artistic” picture and the weight of my backpack made me topple backwards and I could not get back up. Of course a hiker walked past just as I was awkwardly trying to roll over and he stared at me for a few uncomfortable seconds until he finally asked if everything was OK. I could only imagine what I looked like from his perspective and had to laugh at the situation! I finally got back up and added that to my list of things to avoid while strapped to a 40 lb. backpack!
My original plan had been to stop at Outpost Camp on day 1 however I arrived very early and felt great so I decided to head strait to Trail Camp. Shortly after Outpost Camp the scenery began to change dramatically. The tall trees were replaced with jagged rocks and boulders and gave little protection from the blaring sun. I started to feel the effects of altitude and had to take more breaks to rehydrate, apply sunscreen and rest. I arrived at Trail Camp at 2 p.m. with plenty of time to set-up camp and enjoy the scenery. The first thing I did was set-up my tent and replenish my water supply at the nearby lake. The temperature was dropping quickly so I changed into dry clothes, hung my wet clothes on rocks nearby, made myself a nice hot chocolate and reflected on my day. I was sitting on a big rock enjoying the view and I was suddenly struck with a bad headache. I had researched the effects of altitude so I knew it was not serious but it still made me nervous. I tried to eat but I was not hungry and it made me feel nautious so I went to see my camping neighbour and got her advice. As it turned out, she was a doctor studying the effects of altitude on hikers so she reassured me everything was OK, gave me a couple Advil and sent me to bed. I slept for an hour and woke up feeling amazing!
I made dinner just before the sun set and went back to bed…I had to wake up at 3:30 a.m. the following morning to hike to the summit of Mt. Whitney. I fell asleep immediately but had to wake up many times to go to the bathroom in the night because of all the water I had been drinking and the cold. I have to admit I was a little afraid to step out of my tent the first time…there are many wild animals on Mt. Whitney and it is very dark however I was not prepared for what was waiting for me outside. As I cautiously peaked out from a small opening in my tent I was greeted by a huge blood moon and thousands of stars…what made it more epic was the complete silence during that moment. I stepped out of my tent and took a short walk around Trail Camp…those are the moments you never forget.
I set out on day 2 at 5:00 a.m. in complete darkness. As I was getting ready I looked over near the water and swore I saw two shinny eyes reflecting back at me. I did not stick around to find out what it was however I don’t know if it was gear from another site or a big animal…honestly, I’m OK with never knowing! Hiking in the dark is a thrilling experience especially when you are alone. I left most of my gear at Trail Camp and only used a day pack so it was lighter but it still required a high level of concentration to make sure I followed the narrow trail and did not fall to my death. The trail was covered in snow and ice in some places but nothing I could not handle. It is difficult to describe the feeling of the sun coming up over the horizon as it touches the peaks of the surrounding mountains and you are completely alone. So many thoughts went through my mind at that moment; I thought of my dad and wished he was still with us so I could share this moment, I thought of my family and friends who were just starting their days and wondered what they were doing, I thought of how lucky I was to be in this moment…
I continued my hike and arrived at the summit of Mt. Whitney at 8:30 a.m. I was so excited to reach the summit and there were only two other hikers when I arrived. Although the view was spectacular at the summit and I was so proud, the hike up was more exciting for me. I was almost sad it was over…I wished there was more to climb because I did not want the adventure to be over. I spent some time at the summit then headed back down to Trail Camp.
I had to pack-up my tent and gear and head back to the car so I did not waste too much time at Trail Camp. It was 1:30 p.m. by the time I left Trail Camp and started my descent to the car. I knew it would take me longer to hike down because of my knees so I took my time and rested my legs often. I arrived at my car at 6:15 p.m. completely spent emotionally and physically. The descent was much harder for me than the hike up and on more than one occasion I thought of taking my backpack off and rolling it all the way down or dragging it behind me. I arrived just before sunset, loaded my backpack into the car, drove to Lone Pine and headed straight for the McDonald’s drive-thru. They were the best chicken nuggets I have ever eaten in my entire life!
Hiking Mt. Whitney was a very emotional experience; I laughed, cried, swore, contemplated, and admired. I saw the best nature has to offer and it just wet my appetite for more adventures like this one. Until next time!