A couple of weeks ago we climbed Mt Whitney. At 14,508ft, Mt Whitney is the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. I had wanted to climb Whitney ever since I was seventeen when I had stumbled across Galen Rowell's 'The Art of Adventure' at a second hand bookstore all the way back in Australia, where nobody even knows what the Eastern Sierra's are. The trail itself is 21 miles (33km) with 6000ft elevation gain and is not to be taken lightly.
I had originally wanted to do this hike in the summer, just because I am not the biggest fan of cold weather and because we would have been able to pack lighter and have longer daylight hours, but due to the fact that we are not American citizens and are unable to predict whether we will be in the country or not in a few months time October it was! Fortunately there had not been any snow storms up there yet so we were good to go. We had not done much hiking the past couple months and had not been getting much sleep with school commitments so we knew this was going to be extra tough.
We left on Friday morning at 11am from Los Angeles (where we are currently based) and headed for Lone Pine to the Eastern Sierra Visitors Center to pick up permits. It was crucial that we got there before 5pm as we were relying on walk in permits but we made it just in time!
We headed into town to pick up some supplies as we were embarrassingly very unprepared (we usually are but we always seem to manage, plus it makes for funnier adventure stories) and by the time we made our way up Whitney Portal road it was dark. After some final packing, we got to bed around 9:30pm, not by 6 which is what I had wanted... this meant there was no way we were getting up before 3am otherwise we were going to be two very grumpy hikers.
Our plan was to be on the trail by 4am but it was 4:20am by the time we were walking. The morning wasn't too cold and there wasn't a breath of wind. We couldn't really see much except for the looming shadows of the rock walls.
The first two hours went really quickly. We weren't anywhere spectacular for sunrise so it wasn't too special. We had our first break at 7:30am in a beautiful meadow filled with autumn colors. Breakfast consisted of the trusty peanut butter sandwich.
At around 9am the sun came out from behind the mountains and it started to warm up a little and the first layers of clothing came off.
By the time we got to the bottom of the switchbacks it was around 11:30am. Other than two guys who were doing the JMT that just passed us, we couldn't see anyone else on the switchbacks and it seemed we were the last. We brought three liters of water so we did not need to fill up at the lakes.
If you have looked into hiking Mt Whitney you will no doubt have heard about the 99 switchbacks that rise over 1700ft to the ridge above. I knew the switchbacks would be tough but I had no idea how brutal it would be with the quickly gaining altitude. They seemed to last forever! We had to rest several times and thought about calling it quits. We felt dizzy and sleepy but not sure if that was from the altitude or the lack of sleep.
About a quarter of the way up the switchbacks there is a section known as the Cables. The Cables are there to stop hikers from falling off the steep rock face to the right. This area always has snow or ice as it never see's sunlight so be careful.
Halfway up we passed two girls (one of them happened to be from Australia) who were also struggling which made us feel a lot better about ourselves. By now the first of the hikers were on their way back down. They tried to be encouraging by telling us we were almost at Trail Crest. When we asked where this Trail Crest was they replied "see those people up there..." and pointed to some tiny dots far, far, off in the distance. It looked at least another 45 minutes away! We had originally hoped to make it up there by midday. Our new goal was to just make it Trail Crest.
We finally made it to Trail Crest and collapsed. The views of the Sequoia Wilderness area were gorgeous. We had our lunch break up there and ate salami and swiss cheese sandwiches and some candied fruit which really seemed to boost our energy levels. We met a guy up there who was waiting for his friends (the two girls we had passed earlier) who told us they were also doing it as a day hike. We were comforted knowing we wouldn't be walking back in the dark alone.
Feeling motivated again we felt the need to reach the summit. As it was now 1:45pm we knew we had to get a move on. From here the trail goes downhill but disappointingly not for long. The back side of the mountain is very rocky and there is a steep drop off to the left the entire way. The rock formations up here are spectacular and out of this world! There are a few cut outs in the rock wall on the right side which allow you to look out towards the Lone Pine area (not good for those who are afraid of heights).
After hiking what felt like another 5 miles of rocky terrain we were beginning to wonder exactly where the Whitney summit was. We asked some returning hikers that pointed out the Summit house for us. Again we were devastated to see we had what looked like another hour ahead of us. Thoughts of the eight hour hike back to the bottom started to creep in. We started talking about how we could have been on a relaxing camping trip with our friends at Joshua Tree, climbing much smaller rocks and being warm in the sun. We spoke about how this was the biggest mistake we had ever made. But we were so close. It would be stupid to turn around now. We finally made the summit around 3:30pm.
There were four others up there but they left after ten minutes and we had to whole summit to ourselves! The view was of course incredible. And it was surprisingly warm under the sun. We ate some more food, had a lie down, took some pictures and were about to make our way back down when the girls arrived - minus their friend we met at Trail Crest. We were happy they made the summit and stuck around a little longer so we could chat and take photo's of each other.
BUT, it was not over yet!!! Things were about to get worse! We started the descent just as the wind started picking up. It was great having others we could curse Whitney with on the way back. Long story short, the hike down seemed longer than the hike up, if that's possible. The walk back to Trail Crest took forever, we were exhausted and it was only 5:30pm...
The endless switchbacks made us want to cry. Thankfully we made it to Trail Camp just before sunset because those switchbacks would have been tricky! We were so envious of the campers who were smart enough to do this as a two day hike. It got dark and I kept thinking we were walking the wrong way for sure. I cried twice on the way back. By the time we got back to the first campsite I was ready to just sleep under the stars somewhere but Jamie was not keen on that idea. We eventually reached the car park at 10:30pm. It was so cold. But we were thankful to be able to sleep in a real bed.
The next morning we were surprisingly not as sore as we thought we would be. We got some coffee from the store and soaked up the sunshine and eventually made our way back to Lone Pine.
For future hikers: The pro's of doing Whitney as a day hike are obviously the advantage of not having to carry camping gear or having to freeze overnight in tents up on the mountain. However, it is a long hike up and it might be worth it. You have the added bonus of not having to wake up at a ridiculously early hour.
By Arial Evans
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Two Aussies road-tripping across the USA. Our goal is to discover America's wild places and vibrant cities... and make the most of every moment. Read more