Driving up to our campsite at Whitney Portal from the high desert town of Lone Pine I felt intimated by my first glimpse of the mountains. Who’s idea was this? Six months earlier I’d entered a lottery to win a permit to hike Mount Whitney which at 14,505 feet (4,421 m) is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (ie not including Alaska). The lottery system was devised to limit the number of hikers on this popular route. I hit the jackpot but the snag was it was a one day permit – most people prefer to do it over 2 or 3 days to split up the arduous route and to get used to the altitude. The 23 miles return from the trail head at Whitney Portal and an elevation gain of 6100 feet makes it quite a tough one day hike. Oh well, let’s hope my arthritic right knee holds up. To give some sense of scale the highest mountain in England is Scafell Pike at 3209 feet – so Whitney’s 4.5 times bigger.
We drove futher up the valley to the campsite and I was immediately struck by the sheer, vertical granite faces either side of the valley. Looking up skywards you could see jagged peaks and needles, a more dramatic mountain scenery normally associated with the Alps. We were definitely in high mountain territory. Lower down in the high desert the temperatures has been pushing 100 so I was concerned but as we ascended they dipped to the low 80s. Our campsite was exquisite, set amongst tall sequoias with Lone Pine Creek babbling in the background, an idylic pastoral setting you wouldn’t expect being so close to the desert.
We went to bed early the Sunday night as we were to start the hike at 2.30 am the next morning. An early start’s required when doing it in a day. Ideally you summit around midday as later on in the afternoon it’s common for thunderstorms to hit in July – and you don’t want to be exposed on a ridge or peak when lightning strikes.
The alarm went off at 2.15 and we were on the tail at 3am in the dark using headtorches to navigate. My backpack had 3 litres of water in a camel pack, a litre of Gatorade, two cheese sandwiches and enought sweets, energy gels, trail mixes, nuts and chocolate to open a sweet shop. I also carried a knife (bears, mountain lions, meth heads?), first aid kit, knee brace, map, compass, whistle, water proof top and fleece, beanie, small camera and hiking poles. It weighed quite a bit – approx 45 Ilbs. Starting in the dark we soldiered on – you could sense the immense beauty around us but only the small beam of our lamps made the rocks and immediate path visible. We encountered lots of switchbacks, crossed the river a few times, then after an hour or so the trail levelled out to what must be a meadow formed from alluvial muds brought down via the river over millenia. It was still dark. My knee was holding up (slight twinge, that’s normal) and I already had small blister in my palm from the hiking pole – time for gloves.
After two hours or so it started to get lighter – just as we encountered Lone Pine lake, still in quite a green section of the trail. After perhaps two hours we came to Outpost Camp and Mirror Lake (technically a tarn) – the white granite faces of the mountains glistened in the early morning light and reflected in the lake. Looking around the scale of the place became apparent, vase scree slopes, dotted with snow, remnants of the mild winter remained in patches, nothing now growing amongst the rocks and stone. It was like Game of Thrones meets the Hobbit. If the Romantic poets were that inspired by roaming around the Lake District to come up with such beautiful poetry, I can only wonder (or wander, ‘lonely as a cloud’) what they would have made of these environs. Simply sublime. We stopped to rest at the lake and kept guard from the marmots (large rat meets guinea pig creatures) who can easily get into your backpack.
Looking up from the Mirror Lake was the next part which was named 99 switchbacks and is a tough section which really gains elevation over a short distance. Little figures were dotted on the slopes – humans dwarfed by the landscape. I tried to not to be too intimidated by the sense of scale and what that meant for our already tired legs. Onwards and upwards.
The 99 switchbacks section was where the mental part of the hike kicked in. Trying to remain positive and upbeat – knowing there is a final destination in the future – and thus trying to override your exhaustion and the feeling that maybe I’m not really cut out for this hiking lark. It was also here that the altitude and subsequent lack of oxygen started to kick in. Getting out of breath, headaches, blurred vision and the feeling that your legs are made of stone were now part of the struggle. Altitude sickness is the main reason people don’t make it to the top of Whitney. On the day ascent there’s a 50% failure rate. To cope with the elevation gain we’d take a rest every 15 minutes and eat some sugar – and then keep going. Onwards and upwards, what what. Through snowboarding I had spent some time in high altitude regions, most recently in the Himalayas, so altitude sickness wasn’t a major concern, but I still felt the lack of oxgyen.
Finally we reached the top of 99 switchbacks at Trail Crest (13650) – this is where it really started to get breathtaking. From here you look outwards to Mt Hithcock (13186) with deep blue lakes in the foreground, parts of the Kings Canyon sequoia forest are visible in the high plateau valley and beyond that more wildnerness with multitple 13,000 plus peaks of the High Sierras as far as the eye can see. It was Narnia meets Lord of the Rings. An immense, vast uninhabited wilderness of sublime and spellbinding beauty. At this point we had completed 8 miles of the hike. Only three more miles to the peak. Although still 14 miles back to base camp after – if – we summit. It was a constant math equation in my head – how many miles down? How high are we? Are we there yet?
Psychologically I was in a good place – it felt like this was the home stretch. We’d come up through the steep valley and now were going to ascend the ridge that led up to Whitney. The path snaked around the ridge, quite treacherous with steep drop offs and lots of boulders, but with each turn the views seemed to get more insane and other worldly. A sign marked where the trail branched off to the Jean Muir trail and at this point the summit was 1.9 miles away. Finally we turned a corner and we could see the hut that lies on top of the smummit – although it was still a long way off. Two more hours away to be precise. Hikers coming down told us ‘not long to go’ trying to encourage us probably seeing the tired and anguished looks on our faces. Movement was slow as the altitude increased. I sat down every 15 minutes or so and ingested sweets and energy gels to keep my sugar levels high and to give me that surge required. Furstratingly it seemed like the summit wasn’t getting any closer. I had to resist stamping my feet in a childish tantrum. Are we there yet??
At this point it was where the trite ‘climbing mountains parallels life’ metaphors kick in. Despite the setbacks and struggles of the journey, keep the destination in mind as your goal. No pain no gain. Try and adopt a zen like meditative approach to the journey – mind over matter. Okay I hurt now but this is a passing moment. Keep going. Keep going. At 12.30 we reached the summit. I lied down on my back on a large slab of rock. I could have quite easily gone to sleep. Unfortunately clouds had come in so we couldn’t see much from the lookout. We’d did it! I treated myself to a Snickers bar (my dangled carrot motivational treat for the top) and we took our photos next to the Whitney summit sign. Then we signed the guest book in the Smithsonian hut. Then I thought to myself; ‘hang on, I’m only half way through – now I’ve got eleven more miles to go downhill whilst tired, arguably the most challenging bit. And I am totally cream crackered’.
Whatever they say, downhill is of course easier. You lose elevation and gravity is on your side. It’s tough on the joints though. Plus there were some quite technical sections over large rocks and boulders on the trail with steep and treacherous drop offs – one wrong step whilst tired and you could be toast. But always you felt ‘I’ve done it!’. I’m just returning. It’s just a long, long way home. The trail kept going on and on. At points I when I rested it felt like every molecule in my body was totally zonked – where can I muster the energy to keep going (more energy gels, more sweets). Despite the massive calorie burn I’m sure I put on weight on this journey. After five miles of the return journey I started to hate myself. ‘Who’s idea was this? I’m never hiking again. I hate hiking.’ Just emotional responses in the heat of the moment. I had to battle my way though my negative thinking. Rein in those thoughts and bring it back to the centre. Keep going.
It kept going on and on. And of course there was the whole 4 hour section of the hike which we’d earlier completed in the dark. Coming down we looked down the valley into the high desert. Beyond that another range of more barren peaks, part of the Inyo Mountains. Over those lies the desolate Death Valley. Not too far from the lowest point in the US in Death Valley (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) to where we’d just been, the highest point. A land of vast extremes, low to high, desert to forest, exhaustion to exhilaration, negative to positive, failure to success. I was in the 50% that made it. We are the 50%!
We descended and reached parts we hadn’t seen in the dark. Very lush, almost tropical sections with streams, rivers and waterfalls, deer and wild quail shared the trail, a place of Edenic abundance and beauty – except I was too tired to really appreciate it. We soldiered on. How much further? Four more miles. Three more miles. My legs were beyond exhaustion, joints acheing, ankles giving me gip. We’d started at 3 am and it was now 6. Finally we returned to base at 7. We did it. 16 hours on our feet hiking in high elevation – but we’d done it and conquered Mount Whitney. What’s next? A cold beer and a lie down I think. Maybe Everest.
More photos below: