Mt. Whitney

Panorama looking south from Whitney summit

Panorama looking north from Whitney summit

Distance: 15.7 Miles
Elevation Gained: 3,000′
Difficulty: Strenuous
Time: 11:00
Critters: Marmots, Chipmunks

Pros:
– The most epic mountain views I’ve ever seen
– Night hiking under an impressive canopy of stars
– Sunrise at 13,600 feet

Cons:
– Aside from a headache at the top, none
– Having to experience the wag bag at an inopportune time

Details:

I woke up in the middle of the night at Trail Camp in spite of some heavy melatonin doping. I emerged out of the pervasive warmth of my cocoon, and I discovered that the air wasn’t so cold as I had feared it would be. I unzipped the front door of my tent and looked out. Above me, completely unobstructed by cloud or light pollution or atmosphere, shone the heavens at a level of glory I’ve never seen before. Remnants of the Perseid meteor shower streaked by occasionally, and I basked in the cold silence of the mountains at night.

And this was before we even geared up for the hike.

The night before, we had agreed to wake up at 3:00 am for the hike up to the summit. There are about 4.7 miles to cover between Trail Camp and the summit, but don’t be fooled into thinking that all miles hiked are created equal. The entirety of this hike takes place over 12,000 feet.

Part of the hike involves climbing 1,600 feet up the side of a very steep, rocky slope. The rest of it involves a quick descent from Trail Crest, followed by a rapid ascent, all while hiking in last night’s frozen hail, making the already rocky and unsteady trail even more treacherous. From there, it’s a breezy 2 miles of hiking, mainly at 14,000 feet of elevation with numerous sudden drop-offs to the right and a number of wicked, rocky-strewn slopes on the left. All the ingredients for epicness (or nightmares, depending on how you look at it.)

Getting up at 3:00 meant that we would be hiking up in the dark. Although the idea sounds completely unreasonable and unenjoyable, the rationale was that an early summit meant we’d get back to the camp ahead of possible afternoon thunderstorms so that we wouldn’t have to tear down or hike while hail and lightning were coming down.

Additionally, a 3:00 AM start meant that we’d be catching the sunrise from Trail Crest, which is where the trail reaches the top of the Whitney Ridge and allows expansive views of nearly all of the Sierra Nevada covered by Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, which both rival Yosemite for being the most beautiful parts of one of the most beautiful states in the country.

As we got the necessary gear together – packs, water, snacks, poles, and wag-bags – we set off up the mountain in total darkness. The only illumination came from our headlamps and the billions of stars twinkling above us.

An additional surreal experience comes from watching the hikers, who had an even earlier start, climbing up the mountain. Rows of headlamps at various distances and elevations shone continuously on the mountainside, sometimes moving briskly and sometimes stopping altogether.

I’ve had a lot of great hiking experiences, but I can’t recall anything more beautiful or profound than the moment when we were halfway up the famous 99 switch-backs required to get up the steep escarpment leading to Trail Crest. At a certain point, we looked across the Owens Valley to the White Mountains on the eastern side. A Cheshire Cat moon rose cryptically out of the clouds and shone in the night sky. We stood at 13,000 feet and watched in awe at the combination of mountain, desert, moon, and night sky.

After a long slog up the side of the mountain, we reached the crest just moments before the sun would rise. The eastern sky was a spectrum of oranges, roses, reds, greys, and deep blues. On our right side was the Owens Valley, the eastern escarpment of the Sierras, the White Mountains, and the rising sun. To our left, the Great Western Divide – a ridge of mountains bisecting the Sierras at around 11,000′ – glowed in the rising sun. Below us, the Hitchcock Lakes and Guitar Lake loomed in the shadows, and the pinnacles and needles of Whitney Crest towered directly ahead of us.

Even though the view from Whitney is ultimately more expansive, I can’t think of a more dramatic and satisfying reveal than the one at Trail Crest. The change in scenery, and the sheer magnitude of what you see is unparalleled in any hike I’ve ever taken. This view nearly manages to upstage what’s available from Whitney itself.

The traverse across Whitney is a long, slow, treacherous one. We hiked for long periods through slippery hail and ice. The trail is marvelously maintained, but rocky and uneven the entire way. At intervals, the trail passes by the “Windows,” which are gaps between the rocky needles that jut from the crest. These windows open up to the east, and also offer perilous vertical drops that promise a quick and untimely end.

After we passed through this magnificent section, the trail then became a straight shot to the summit. The massive bulk of Whitney seems miles away, but the trick with this trail is to go slowly, steadily, and patiently. It takes a while, but slowly and surely the summit gets closer and closer, until, finally, it is right above you.

At this point, the trail takes a long, lazy S curve up the back flank. When you feel like the air is too thin and you’ve just about enough of climbing this beast of a hill, you see the emergency hut (which offers really poor shelter, by the way), and the broad, rocky summit.

Whitney does not offer a lot of solitude in which to revel in the views. You will share the summit with as many as twenty people, as we did. What it does offer is unparalleled views in all directions. This is, after all, the highest point in California, and the views reflect that.

To the south, slightly less massive Mt. Langley looms as if it’s a younger brother that rivals but never quite overcomes its more famous sibling to the north. To the east, 14,000′ White Mountain stands in a haze. To the north, the rocky high country of Kings Canyon stretches endlessly, while numerous alpine lakes lay languidly in the foreground. And to the west, the Great Western Divide towers over the long, linear gash of Kern Canyon. This is it; the heart of the greatest mountain range in the country, laid out before your feet.

And yet, there’s always something curious about a summit, or most destinations in these kinds of hikes. My experience has always been that the destination is somewhat anticlimactic. I don’t mean to say that Whitney isn’t worth climbing – it’s quite the opposite. Rather, after all of the experiences that come before and after, the summit itself is really just an object around which an epic journey is built. The object by itself is worthy, but the journey and all of the experiences along the way – the climbing, the camaraderie and cooperation, the narrative present in changing natural settings, the revelatory views, the thunderstorms, the frustrations, the quiet, contemplative moments – are what make it worth taking.

I soaked in the view for as long as my pounding head would allow, and then I decided it was time to turn back. At the summit, I thought of Kelly, and for a brief moment I even had good enough cell reception to call her for a minute. Embarrassed though I was to pull my cell phone out on the top of the mountain, it felt imperative to share this triumph with the girl I love. At that moment, I knew two things: I had to kill the headache, and I had to get back to my girl.

So, I turned back, and with remarkable efficiency, I headed back down the mountain, past the Needles, the Windows; down Trail Crest; through Trail Camp, Consultation Lake, and Trailside Meadow; down the switchbacks to Outpost Camp; past beautiful Lone Pine Lake, and then down into the valley in which Whitney Portal lay nestled in the forest. I got back to my car with the single-minded thought: I’m coming, baby!

This was a memorable hike that’s always going to stand up there as one of the greatest ever. I may not attempt Whitney this way again, since there are too many great hikes to justify repetition, but I’m grateful that I had the chance to take this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Kuns

August: 59.3 Miles
Year-to-Date: 911.4 Miles

One Reply to “Mt. Whitney”

  1. Getting to hear your voice for the 7 seconds before we lost reception at the top was the greatest way to start my day. I am curious (though have a good guess) as to what this 'wag bag' is you're speaking of… Poop in a pouch?

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