Unlike our other summits, Whitney took a great deal more planning, time and forethought to execute. Instead of simply driving to the trailhead, loaded with water and some energy snacks we had to carve out a three day window for this event.
We loaded up our gear and headed up 395 to the sleepy little town of Lone Pine, which would act as our home base for the climb. We shared a large hostile style room loaded with bunk beds for the 7 of us who would ascend the mountain.
I arrived very late Monday night and everyone was already asleep in their bunks. I found an open one and quietly slipped into bed trying not to disturb anyone. The next morning we walked across the street to a great little diner and had breakfast. The diner was littered with pictures of Hollywood royalty from the golden age of Westerns.
After breakfast we shuttled up to a nearby trailhead in order to acclimate to the altitude. One of the biggest dangers for climbing mountains above 10,000 feet, is altitude sickness. Simply hiking above 10,000 feet the day before can go a long way toward insuring that there will be no unnecessary ailments when we summit Whitney. We had an enjoyable five mile hike that almost no elevation gain. I was skeptical that it was doing anything at all, but was insured that it is only necessary to be above the 10,000 foot level to do the job.
We came back had dinner at little pizza joint and headed for bed. We wanted to get as much sleep as possible going into the next day.
About 3:45 AM my alarm woke me to let me know that it was go time! We quickly and methodically dressed, packed our food and gear and loaded into the vehicles. It was about a half hour drive to Whitney Portal where we would begin our adventure.
We arrived at Whitney Portal about 4:30 AM and immediately started up the trail. We weren’t the only ones there but it definitely had an ominous feeling to being out in the wilderness in total darkness. I was especially happy to have my headlamp lighting the path. . . especially early on as I was taking the lead for the first several miles. It was also much colder than I had expected. I had three layers on and needed every one of them.
It wasn’t too long into the hike when the first light peaked over the distant mountains and greeted us with wondrous illumination. I really don’t know what I had expected the hike to be, but it was so otherworldly that my expectations were nowhere near the reality of the situation. Hiking in the dark, you have no concept for how far you’ve gone or how much ground you’ve covered. My Strava app was counting steps and miles for me but I was sure we had gone further that it was saying. (Note: this is no doubt to the fact that I was aware that the Whitney Trail was 22 miles round trip and I was really wanting to get to that 11 mile mark;-)
During these first several miles I was struck by the number of people passing us on their way down the hill. I started to ask each one as they passed us if they had reached the Summit. None of them had. They were all turning around for various reasons. Some had been injured. Others were experiencing altitude sickness and some were just in way over their heads. It caused my mind to wonder what laid ahead that caused so many to turn around.
One of the things we had learned in preparing for climbing Whitney was that the success rate was only about 50%. Even Mount Everest has a higher success rate of summiting than Whitney does. Which part of the 50% would I end up in?
We had set up markers for ourselves along the route. We would meet up as a group at each marker to insure that everyone was with us and making the needed progress to the Summit. At our second stop we reached Trail Camp which is where the smart ones who climb Whitney camp before and after they reach the Summit. It’s about 6 miles into the hike and we regrouped and prepared for the Switchbacks, a series of 99 brutal switchbacks made in two mile stretch prior to reaching Trail Crest. If ever I simply wanted to get through something as quickly as possible, it was the Switchbacks. Thankfully, we all made it and celebrated at Trail Crest.
I was thrilled to see a sign at Trail Crest that announced that we were at 13,600 feet. This meant we had less than 1,000 feet to climb to the Summit. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that from Trail Crest, the trail descends another 500 feet or more on the back side of the mountain before the eventual ascent to the top.
By this time we were spread out over a mile or more between the first in our group to the last. It was as if the mountain was requiring each of us to dig down deep and muster enough strength and grit to make it to the top. So we did. Step by step. We climbed higher and higher until the house at the top came into view. That was the last needed motivation to get there.
I made it to the Summit about 12:30 PM. It was exhilerating to reach the Summit. . . to be able to say I made it. Especially with having the difficulties with Baldy and even San Gorgonio, Whitney seemed like such a dream. But here I was standing on top of the world! It was unbelievable.
We ate lunch, took pictures and drank in the success of our climb. There were about 50 people on top of the rock most of whom were on the same journey we were. While we were there, one guy came up over the side of the mountain. Apparently he found his own way up that included rock climbing the Eastern face. He was an older guy who admitted that he had done this many times before.
At last it was time to head back down the mountain. We decided that we didn’t need to stop at every place along the way as we had on our way up. We did say that we’d meet at Mirror Lake which was more than half way down the trail. The two teenagers were out in front and I was trekking along in the third position on our descent. We made it to Mirror Lake and waited what seemed like an eternity for the remaining members of our team. Several times we considered sending up someone to check on them, but the thought of climbing after all we had been through was too much to make happen. After about 45 minutes of resting at the lake, our team was reunited for the remainder of our descent.
We arrived back at Portal at 5:30 PM, which was very important, because the little diner closed at 6. We ate wonderfully greasy burgers and drank cold beer in the back of Sandy’s pickup. I’m not sure anything could have tasted better at that particular moment.
Sleeping was not a problem for anyone that night. Though our accommodations were not 5 Star we all enjoyed one last evening together. Early the next morning we drove home victorious. . . with a little wobble in the legs from work that was done on Whitney.