Mt. Whitney

View from basecamp of the range in the afternoon light.

View from basecamp of the range in the afternoon light.

Sunrise hits some peaks on the 99 switchbacks

Sunrise hits some peaks on the 99 switchbacks

We arrived basecamp for the night, tired, hungry and a little dizzy. With ripping winds coming from almost all directions, we set up camp and made our way towards the base of the snow line. With ice axes in hand and crampons ready, each of us took tuns practicing self arrest techniques. This practice became crucial later on.

When night fell, we prepared for our summit day and set the 3:30am alarm. All night I couldn’t sleep. I drank 1.5 liters in prep for the next morning and nature called. Later that night, we woke up to animals crawling in our packs outside the tent. With only half hour left until the alarm, we called over to our friends next to us who were also awake and decided to start early. Clearly, no one got much more than a few hours of sleep.

Emily and I had some issues in the morning and both felt too sick to eat much. We headed out a and soon we felt much better once we started moving.

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Since we camped under the switchbacks, that was our first battle. With headlamps on, and shot blocks in pocket, we carefully made our way up the ice and snow covered switchbacks, carefully counting them since we heard there were 99…We heard the previous day that there was a section under the cables where we could pass through an icy wet tunnel, or brave the icy narrow path that ran uncomfortably close to the edge, with a dangerous fall below. We reached this section and opted for the tunnel since it posed less physical danger, although we risked ice water running into our clothing and soaking into our gloves.

For the rest of the switchbacks, we had to keep our headlamps on and heads down, always looking for the patches of slippery ice. Around 4:30 I saw one of the best sunrises of my life. Everything was an orange glow.

We pressed on, hoping to stay ahead of the headlamps on the trail getting closer. We crossed a few sections that were still wet with snow, and were thankful for having the ice axe as a third point of contact to balance. Looking down some of the slopes, it was clear the self arrest training was crucial, and definitely made us more confident.

We crossed into the back of the mountain and started the final push to the summit. This portion of the hike was long, but the end was visible. We had probably the most serious section just before the summit. The trail was buried in the snow and it was unclear where the trail was. I started up a section and ended up scrambling a bit and then finding a vague, but used trail. Thankfully, crampons were not necessary, but an ice axe was definitely necessary for safety and balance.

Summit photo left to right: Sophi, Nathan, Ray, Emily

Summit photo left to right: Sophi, Nathan, Ray, Emily

All of us had the hardest time on the descent. Both Emily and I had issues with rolling ankles and our legs took a beating from the rocks and stepping down from rocks. Ray and Nathan were beat and tired from having the heaviest packs. For the last 5 miles of the descent I was deep in the pain cave, moving fast and keeping the tears at bay. I tried to not to think too much and just concentrate on not limping. At the car, my feet were swollen, I needed to poop (it had been 2 days) and felt beat to a pulp. The next night we caught up on sleep and I woke up in the night crying in excruciating pain from my ankle.

All in all it was a great experience. The group I went with was perfect, and we worked as a team. The first day we did an acclamation hike which I think made our group strong for the summit day. You might notice Nathan and I wore gaiters. This was amazing. my legs were warm and with the snow and the water, it kept my legs much drier and calves warm and loose through the summit. Although we never used the crampons, it was worth carrying them, and the ice axe was crucial for stability. Spending only 1 night on the trail was perfect timing wise and physically. This was last minute for me so I went with zero training and no recent hikes but managed just fine, granted I stay in good shape for most of the year. Personally it was grueling, fun and would definitely not do it in a day.

Itinerary:

Day 1: Drive up to Whitney Portal, quick hike to get used to the altitude. Sleep at the parking lot campground.

Day 2: Hike from the portal to basecamp, learn ice axe self arrest. Sleep at the base of the switchbacks at the higher camp.

Day 3: Summit Day! Return to pack camp and start the descent back to the car.

Sunrise from the 99 switchbacks

Sunrise from the 99 switchbacks

We followed a trail and some rocks the last few hundred feet to the summit and took in the view. At the summit of Whitney, you are standing on the highest point of the continental US, and look directly below at the lowest point in the US (Death Valley). We all felt pretty good at the summit, and were able to eat. For me, the shot blocks were a life saver. I downed 2 full packs on the way up, but didn’t feel sick, dizzy or dehydrated. I shared a 8am summit beer with a climber who had soloed the face of Whitney that same morning.

Descending the Summit: Photo by Nathan Flick

Descending the Summit: Photo by Nathan Flick