A few years ago, we were hiking around Smith Rock and jibber babbling as we like to do. The discussion turned to the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight States. Turns out it is in California, and it goes by the name, Mount Whitney. Being a person who likes words that almost rhyme but not really, I said, “I’m going to climb Mount Whitney when I’m fifty.”
It was that simple, if the mountain was named something else, this expedition, and this story, may not have happened. Glad it isn’t named Mount Wastey, because dragging myself up there in thirty years would be a bit more challenging.
Let’s get the pre-climb details out of the way. You must have a permit to climb Whitney. Recreation.gov is the place to go for the permit. They are given out using a lottery system. First you register for the lottery and pick several dates you wish to climb. We did this and lost out on the lottery. The good news is that any unclaimed permits go back into the available pool and us poor slubs that lost the first time get a second chance at it. If you find yourself in the same situation, find out what day the unclaimed permits become available and log on recreation.gov at the exact time they are released. Those permits go fast. I wasn’t picky, any date would work. I would choose a date, and before it could even open the page to pay for the permit, the date would be gone. I was beginning to whimper like a pitiful ball of sorrow when I chose July 25th and the payment page opened, I paid the fee faster than you can say, easy as pie. It was quite the emotional experience, I thought as I entered my credit card number that if Mount Whitney was anything like the permit getting process, I would not be disappointed. I was in a flop sweat laughing like a lunatic. What a rush.
The drive from Central Oregon to Mount Whitney is a long one. Here are the directions for you.
We arrived at Lone Pine California the afternoon of July 24th. Aaron had already reserved our campsite at the Lone Pine Campground. We thought it quite fitting to eat our last meal at the Mount Whitney restaurant, it was pretty alright, what one would expect from a café. Then we headed to camp.
We had good views of the mountain from camp, and we were anxious about how dang big it is and how, from a distance, it looks like you have to scale cliffs to get up there. I had experienced 14,000’ altitude before on Mount Shasta and it was horrific. It was the worse affliction of altitude sickness I have had. Aaron had not been up that high and he was concerned about how the altitude might affect him. Isn’t it funny how we choose activities with the possibility that we might end up feeling like we have the flu while pushing our bodies more than most people ever will? Some may say we are crazy, I say we are livers. We live our days. We are kind of like the organ, the liver, we filter out the nasty toxins of this world by embarking on adventures that leave us feeling fresh and clean. I’m sure that our livers aren’t all that happy while they deal with all the grease and fat and sugar that we force into it, it’s kind of like organ altitude sickness. You deal with it and move on. Thanks liver.
The morning of the expedition we were up around 6. The plan was to gain 4500’ and camp at trail camp lake. That would be around 12,000’, already higher than our Central Oregon mountains. We would spend the night acclimating, and finish up the last 2500’ the next morning. I will suggest that you do all you can to secure an overnight permit, your chances of making the summit without feeling like a dog yard are much better with two days to get there. The people we met that were doing it as a day hike were among the group really struggling. One dude passed us on the ninety-nine switchbacks but was really toast by the time we reached the top of the switchbacks. He stuck with us, and our slower pace the rest of the way. He was belching a lot, that’s the same thing that happens to me when I’m altitude sick. I asked if he was alright, and he stated that he was struggling. He made the summit, but he wasn’t enjoying it in moment.
Whoever designed the trail to the summit of Whitney deserves the highest honor a trail designer can get. The trail is never steep, it climbs at a very nice pace. The first three miles are about enjoying the spectacular views and entering the Whitney Portal. There are quite few places to fill up on water, I only filled one of my Nalgene bottles for the hike to camp as water was plentiful.
We took our time. Aaron described it as walking slow enough to be bored, if not for the wonderful sights. This is our new strategy for climbing the bigger mountains. We walk very slow. At no point did I lose my breath. I believe it is a big factor in not getting altitude sickness. When I climbed Shasta, I booked it up the thing. By the time I reached the false summit, I was sludge. There was a group of old folks with a guide, they had left a few hours before me and were slow walking, like really slow. They were laughing and talking light, they made the summit like the B-52’s were going to be singing the love shack up there and they had backstage passes. The Shasta summit was a little old place where they could get together. I loathed those happy old folk with all my being in those moments. I got over it finally and can listen to love shack again but for a while there that song would throw me into some bad sour cream. If you gain nothing else from this story but to walk slow up a big mountain, I will consider this a beneficial use of my time, and yours.
The first three miles are streams and huge cliffs and trees. Once you enter the Whitney zone it starts to take on a different tone. After passing through a cool meadow with a waterfall, it gets a bit more serious. You will start climbing in more earnest. Once you reach mirror lake, get ready for what I consider the toughest part of the trail. It was here that I felt the effects of the altitude more than any other part of the expedition, it was very mild. The landscape becomes much more rugged and the feel of the place changes. We took a short break at mirror lake, as we stood there at a loss for words, Aaron said it was majestic. I have heard that word used and have used it myself on occasion. That place is the best definition of Majestic I have seen. The variety and the fierce ruggedness, the unwelcoming feeling, where nothing is growing because it is cold, hard rock. The place it inhabits in the sky. It is a special place, it is majestic. We were there because it is the highest point in the lower 48, and it represents the grandeur and honor that that title carries with it. Mount Whitney went way beyond my expectations. There was only one thing that bugged me about the place, and it had nothing to do with mountain. I’ll get to that soon.
The section to trail camp lake from mirror lake is awesome. The trail gains altitude and the spirit of the place seeps into your body. Since you are walking on rock, the trail is marked with stones. It is fun to follow as it creeps you up higher. I was happy to reach trail camp lake and relaxation for the evening.
Now we come to the complaining portion of the story. WAG bags are provided at the trailhead just in case you must number two on the mountain. Since it is only rock up there, the bags must be put to good use. Well, people go up there and refuse to use the bags. They have turned Trail Camp Lake into a waste land. After I pitched my tent, I walked around a bit and came to this conclusion. Humans that do not deal with their waste appropriately on Mount Whitney are human waste. The only bad thing that exists on Mount Whitney is a small group of humans that show no respect for the mountain or the people coming up after them. Use the WAG bag.
I enjoyed the afternoon and had the pleasure of meeting some fellow travelers before dinner and an early sleepy time. I didn’t sleep well at all. My resting heart rate was around eighty beats per minute on the mountain, that’s a bit higher than my heart rate at home. I think when we fall asleep at altitude our breathing slows, we don’t get enough oxygen, and we wake up. Toss and turn kind of night. Plus, the thought of what lies ahead steal away some of the Z’s meant for the body. Our wake-up time was four, at 3:30 I asked Aaron if he was asleep, he wasn’t, we decided to pile out of the tent, get to it.
I got out of my tent in the morning darkness. Two ladies came walking up to me and one of them was talking to me. It took me a few moments to clear my brain and make sense of what was going on. It was too early to have to think. Turns out they had left the trailhead at ten pm and had been hiking all night to make it to Trail Camp. The older of the two ladies was very altitude sick and she just laid down on the cold rocks. I offered my tent and sleeping bag to her and after initially refusing the offer, she decided to scuddle in to rest and warm up. It was cool enough that I could see my breath, perfect hiking weather. It was not warm enough to lay down on cold rocks and expect anything good to happen. I thought there was no way she would continue her climb. As we were coming down, both of them were headed up. Talk about some grit, my hat is off to them. They made the climb in one day.
The first order of the day is the ninety-nine switchbacks. You may hear stories about how horrible they are, I say they are the opposite of that. The reason there are so many of them is to keep the trail from being too steep. They are no problem, they are fun. Take your time, walk slow, don’t let yourself run out of breath. Slow down when you find yourself gasping for air. Keep drinking water and eating. I know I’m sounding like a bossy Betty, it’s better than you feeling like Pukey Pete or nauseous Nancy on Mount Whitney.
At the top of the switchbacks, you make your way to the other side of the mountain. It is so cool over there. The views are good and the trail blazes through crumbly looking rock. It is very different from the rest of the trail. The altitude is over 13,000’ and soon the summit will come into view. Once you first lay eyes on the hut, figure you have another hour or two to go. It looks close and it is closer than ever, but remember the genius of the trail, it takes an indirect route to keep the climbing gradual. Good thing to, you are way up there.
Aaron had started feeling pasty and when he enters his “pain cave” he doesn’t like a whole lot of talking. I put a few minutes distance between us. I was feeling good and happy. I may have even hummed a little bit of love shack along the way and so the distance was a good idea. I didn’t want to be tossed over the edge by an angry Tanka. He figured out that he needed to eat more often than he was. Once he started doing that, he felt a ton better. By the time we made the top, he was feeling fine.
The last two miles of the hike are my favorite, the rocks that the trail takes you through are unlike any I have been on. It was like a big movie set. I expected some alien to pop out from behind a rock and offer me a discount haircut. I would have gladly accepted, it’s not everyday you get a good deal on a haircut.
The final push to the summit is a rocky trail and sweaty pits. The views are what you would expect from the highest peak. I must admit that I felt a little emotion when me and Aaron fist bumped and hugged it out at the top. What we had been talking about for years, we were living. I am very grateful that he joined me on the expedition. He is my brother. He is Tanka.
On the way down, at the ninety-nine switchbacks, it started raining. By the time we reached our tents, it was a thunderstorm. We didn’t use rainflies on our tents, so everything was soaked. By the time I got everything thrown into my pack, my DNA was waterlogged, I was freezing. It was misery trying to wring the water out of my sleeping bag and get it into the stuff sack. Then wringing the clothes to throw in my pack. I put my pack on and my mountain weary legs were like, “What kind of stupid, sick joke is this?”
I looked at Aaron and he looked at me. We could only laugh. It was exciting. The mountain had conjured up a storm and we were dealing with it. Aaron said, “Life just got heavy.”
The only way to keep warm was to start moving. Fortunately, a mile down the trail the rain stopped, and the temperature kept rising as we made lower ground. We came across a whole bunch of people going up as we were headed down on the backside of the mountain. Some of them were deep into pain caves of their own. I estimate they were close to the top when the storm hit. I sure hope everyone made it off the mountain ok.
My lesson learned is carry a raincoat on a mountain. A water-resistant jacket is the same as a paper towel in a downpour.
To climb Mount Whitney you have to plan ahead and if you don’t win the lottery, channel your inner wolverine and go after the unclaimed permit like it is a tasty bunny rabbit. It is a place well worth visiting. I am very blessed to have had the opportunity to stand on it. So glad that Whitney kind of rhymes with fifty.
The view from our campsite.
The trail takes you to the left of the rock formation that's in the center portion of the picture. Once you reach the saddle, you enter the Whitney Zone.
Plenty of water sources up to Trail Camp Lake
Aaron's trail name is Tanka. Here he is, refreshing in the stream
Looks like a castle wall up there
The peaks are all around. It's outstanding.
More good looks.
The place takes on a different personality once you enter the Whitney Zone.
The trees and dirt slowly turn into rock after entering the Whitney Zone.
Lone Pine Lake.
You will make your way through this nice meadow.
This is another picture of the Lower section of the Whitney Zone. I believe it's just below Lone Pine Lake.
Mirror Lake. For me, the hardest section of trail is from this point to Trail Camp Lake. The trail is marked with rocks. It must have taken a long time to make this trail as good as it is. We appreciate it.
Rocks and altitude.
Aaron making his way.
The view from camp. The fingers of Whitney are on the right, the top is not in view. The ninety-nine switchbacks are located on the slope in the middle of the picture. They start in the center of the picture and climb toward the left. They are very hard to see, even when you are actually there.
Day two: Part of the ninety-nine switchbacks.
The backside of the mountain. These rocks look like they are ready to fall down. The flatter looking section in the background is the final climb to the summit.
This is on the backside, on the way down.
I enjoyed this part of the trail. It was kind of surreal.
The views on the backside