Climbing Mount Whitney

Posted by Ryan C. Jerz on July 16, 2014

On June 25, 2014, Jim Scripps and I hit the road from Reno to Lone Pine, California and west from there to the Mount Whitney Portal to embark on what would be a test of our physical abilities, mental fortitude and a test on our already fragile friendship. Not really. We just decided that we wanted to climb Mount Whitney in a day and figured this would be as good a day as any to give it a try. Not really there, either. Just read on to see how it all went down. I am sure I forgot some stuff that Jim can fill me in on in later edits, but this is my story.

Mount Whitney is the highest mountain peak in the contiguous United States. It's one of 67 mountains in the contiguous 48 states that are over 14,000 feet in elevation, yet it's only 14,505 feet high itself. So it's a close call for which of the mountains is the highest. With the trail beginning in the vicinity of 8,500 feet and running about 11 miles, it's a significant climb anyway.

One thing I noted early on is the difference between this climb and the Mount Rose climb I did about a month prior. With Rose, the first few hundred meters were uphill, but then it became a relatively flat couple of miles followed by a solid two and a half miles of climbing. With Whitney, it was all uphill from the very beginning. There were very small breaks in the climb, but it was a legitimate uphill slog for the vast majority of the ascent.

Whitney is not a mountain you can just show up to climb. You have to plan ahead--in both the physical preparation and logistics departments. Read up for all the basics. They issue two types of permits that directly relate to summiting Whitney. The first is a day use permit, meaning you enter and leave the Whitney Zone on the same day--no camping within the zone. The other is the overnight permit, which spans two or more days, depending on what you request and get. Our plan was to make the trip in a single day of hiking. It's a serious undertaking, but one that I felt we were in shape for and could handle. This is some great information on doing just that.

Here's the rub. Permits are issued through a lottery. You sign up, the winners are picked, then the winners must pay up or forfeit their permits. If not all permits are claimed, they become available. We had originally planned to go in August, but did not get selected in the lottery. So I scrolled back a week at a time to find available dates until we settled on June 26. That's early, and many places suggested we prepare to climb with snow. Due to the light winter, I thought we could get away with it.

With the plan to climb and descend in one day, we needed a place to camp. The best option, hands down, has to be the Whitney Portal Campground. It's situated about a mile below the portal itself and is perfect. We grabbed a site next to the creek, which happens to be the same creek you'll spend a few hours next to on your way up the mountain. There are some vehicle sites, but we got one with a tent space and a picnic table. Ours (space 8) required a tiny bit of climbing over rocks to reach it, but it was situated perfectly.

The first night was windy. It was a small sign of things to come and was a little scary. We got to bed around 10:00 and had heard stories of bears. Bears EVERYWHERE. In fact, we were all but guaranteed by the camp host that we'd see a bear. So the wind would flap the tent and wake us up scared that we were about to be murdered by a bear. We never saw one or signs of one. By the time we were to wake up, around 4:00, the wind had died, but the stream was roaring. While we expected to hear the throngs of people rallying to get up the hill, we heard nothing. The calming creek saw to that. As we would learn later, we were probably among the last to leave camp that morning to make our way up the mountain.

We drove the mile up the road to the Portal and loaded up. By the time we hit the trail, it was about 5:15. The sun was beginning to make itself known and we didn't need headlamps. The most striking thing I can say about the trail at this point is that it's uphill. Yeah, that sounds dumb. But it's relentlessly uphill. There aren't any flat reprieves or downhills. It's uphill from the start and it stays that way. For the first couple of miles, the best views are of the valley behind you. And they're good--especially with the sun creeping up over the hills in the east.

The sheer cliff walls on both sides of the canyon that we were essentially heading up were something that stuck with me throughout the first several miles. I knew we were climbing. I knew the kind of vertical progress we were making, as I kept checking my GPS watch. I even announced milestones at the beginning, which seems a bit silly now. I was saying things like, "We just hit 9,500 feet." That meant we had climbed about a thousand of the 6,000 we needed to climb to reach the summit. In retrospect, hardly a huge moment in the day, honestly. But those cliff walls never seemed to recede. As we moved higher, so did they. We wouldn't be rid of their torment until Mile 6 and the Trail Camp area.

We didn't see anyone on the trail until Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake is at around Mile 4 and 10,650 feet. We caught up to two women and chatted for a brief minute. They were also making the trip in a day and remarked on how light our packs looked. Mine didn't feel light at this point. I was doing pretty well and Jim was doing better. Mirror Lake is one area where the trail flattens for about a quarter mile or so. Then, you begin getting into the granite that the trail is cut into in this section until you reach Mile 6 and Trail Camp. Just up the first little climb out of Mirror Lake, we met three people who told us to look out for their friends and let them know that they were fine, just moving slower. It was at this point that we started to see people frequently.

As we got out of the meadow, we could see a lot more trail, and there were people on it pretty much all over. For the two miles to Trail Camp, we were passing people and they were passing us as everyone took breaks to eat or drink or just rest. It started to feel like a real task for me here. The climb was real. We were deep into it. It wasn't going to get easier. We did run across the friends and one of the guys wasn't doing well. They had come from sea level just the day before to climb and at 11,000 feet the one guy was pretty out if it. We passed them, then they went by us. When I passed them about a half mile before Trail Camp the guy who wasn't in bad shape asked if I knew how far Trail Camp was. I told him it was about 30 minutes. I figured, and learned later, that they would turn their struggling friend around from there.

It was surreal to see someone so affected by altitude for the first time. He was a bit like a zombie. I went to pass him and it took a few seconds for him to recognize. Then, he just looked at me for about ten seconds before moving slowly out of the way. He didn't appear to be a danger to himself, but was clearly going to need some real rest to be able to get up the switchbacks and summit. Luckily, he had friends who had their wits about them and could take care of him. The one guy he was with was clearly aware and knew what he was doing in this situation. As I said, I learned later that he had turned around and gone back. That's simply the best move in these circumstances.

Consultation Lake is the final landmark before reaching Trail Camp. A giant pool of water among the granite is an interesting sight. Coming into Trail Camp gave me a mixture of feelings. It was an accomplishment, to be sure. However, I was tired, cold and in a little pain. The cold was probably what caused most of the pain at this point. And standing directly in our path was the imposing 99 Switchbacks section--almost two miles and 1,500 vertical feet. And it looked straight up. I could see people that seemed like they were halfway up those switchbacks. In reality, they were a quarter or less, if I had to guess now. It is a brutal stretch and one that I have to assume makes or breaks many attempts. If you make it up, you're beyond the point where you can give up. But making it up is a legitimate challenge.

We sat down and ate lunch here and rested a bit before embarking on what would be the biggest challenge of the climb. With all the reading I had done on this trail, I wanted to try to keep track of our progress up the switchbacks. I counted about five before I got both bored and dumb. I just didn't have the energy to keep track. To top it off, along the first quarter of the switchbacks there are various streams running down that you have to avoid if you don't want to get your boots wet. I have waterproof boots, but I never trust that, so I was a little annoyed at having to step through some of these or jump over them. Every thought I had was to conserving energy because I had doubts at this point. I do a lot of physical training. I often wonder why I'm doing it and consider bailing out. This was the same. Thankfully, I don't bail out in my training, which is the only reason I was in the shape to make this.

I was probably two thirds of the way up when I began to realize there are some flowers growing out of the cracks in the granite. I checked my watch and marked that we were above 12,500 feet. That's pretty awesome that there is vegetation up this high in a very desolate place. It took a lot to muster the energy to take my camera out to get a photo of what I was sure was a unique and future award-winning shot. A Google search since then has informed me that I neither took the first nor best shot of those flowers with Mt. Whitney featured in the background. Oh well. But this shot did give me some resolve. I told myself, out loud mind you, that I was going to get to the top of the switchbacks and make this summit.

I stopped near the top of the switchbacks because I simply had to rest and eat something. I was also experiencing a condition informally called "#fathand." My left hand was swollen. Really swollen. I couldn't make a fist--not even close. My right was a little swollen as well, but not as badly as the left. As it turns out, this is a thing called peripheral edema, and is a regular occurrence in altitude situations (and old age and women). It was probably enhanced by how tightly I was carrying my backpack, which wouldn't allow blood to flow back up the arm as well as it should. I also thought at the time that I had been so cold and now I was at a break from the wind, so things were warming up, and that warming of my hand could be making me think it was more swollen, based on feel. I was being dumb about that. It was swollen. So I stopped to maybe give my body a few minutes to acclimate. When I hoisted the pack back up, I walked another 100 yards or so around a bend and saw Jim. He was at Trail Crest waiting for me. I had stopped just short of the top of the switchbacks and he probably stood in the wind for 15 minutes waiting for me catch up. I approached him and told him about my #fathand.

I saw some more interesting firsts on the switchbacks. I saw people huddled together to stay warm and out of the wind. They were possibly even trying to nap. You read stories of how weird it gets on a mountain climb. I didn't exactly expect to see those types of things on this climb--one that we, and many others were doing in a single day--but I did. You get this sense that these people might be in a little danger, but what can you do? It's not like it's easy to get anyone back down. There's no cell service to call for help. The best you can do is see if they need anything (they didn't), and let them make the decision that's best for them. That's unfortunately how I think it works up there. Everyone is an adult and has to take responsibility for themselves within reason.

As I look back, this was the point where everything became too much of an effort to document. I kept my phone in my front pocket--easily reachable--but was unwilling to take the time to get it out, unlock it and stop to take a picture. I just wanted to keep going at all costs. So, I powered on. From Trail Crest you descend a little until you reach the junction with the John Muir Trail. This is about two miles from the summit. Here, people leave backpacks for their final ascent. That is a good idea if you can carry a little food with you. I passed on that opportunity, and wish I hadn't. We talked on the way down about how much different the way up would have been without all that weight. It would have helped a lot.

Not far after the junction, I came around a corner to a small commotion. A woman was climbing back up the mountain to the trail on all fours and there was a backpack about ten feet down that looked like it had been ditched. It also looked like Jim's. It was. She had fallen down and Jim had gone after her. He was climbing back up with her pack behind her and in seemingly good spirits. She had done three backward somersaults down the hill and if she had done a fourth might never have come back. Seriously. She got lucky and didn't appear to be hurt other than a scratch on her face. Jim had felt like she was moving slowly enough down the hill that he could catch her, so he tried. I felt important just because I knew him, which is probably something I should always feel.

Just after that small detour, I saw a guy walking down that was wearing what looked like a kilt made out of a garbage bag. We passed and had a really brief conversation:

Me: "How's it going?"
Him: "Great. I spent the night in the hut, man."
Me: "Wow, that's kinda cool."
Him: "Yeah, it was a little rough, but cool."
Me: "Huh, well, good luck. Take care."
Him: "Yeah, we got up here at 9:30 last night and it was 20 degrees colder than now and the wind was 75 MPH, so we spent the night in the hut, man."
Me: "Yeah, that's crazy. See ya."

He seemed slightly out of it, for sure. I was in no place to fully comprehend what he was saying, and I just wanted to keep moving. I learned later that he and some other guys did, in fact, summit around 9:30 and it was cold. All along the trail we had heard that it was cold and the wind was around 65 MPH at the top. As we got closer, we kept asking. People told us that it had calmed, but was still not ideal. This guy was probably in 10 degree weather and 75 MPH winds at 9:30, so they realized they would freeze on the exposed trail down. They hunkered down in the hut--about nine guys, I heard--and spent the night. Several were in hypothermia by the morning and some early summiters helped get them back to normal so they could safely get down. Hence, the trash bag kilt.

Jim and I talked on the way down about whether the two incidents we experienced--the woman falling and the near hypothermic tragedy--are even known to the rangers. We didn't see a ranger until just outside of Mirror Lake on the way down. By that point, we weren't far from exiting the Whitney Zone. He was heading up the trail. Does someone report the problems? Did he run into the kilt guy? We saw the woman who fell just before we saw the ranger, so they definitely crossed paths soon after we did. It's a bit odd that this place that is actually regulated in the number of people allowed to be there on any given day would have so little oversight on the trail itself.

That last mile and a half, for me, took a long time. It was probably an hour and a half. I was stopping more frequently, despite the fact that I knew I would make it. I was just worn out--tired, cold, hungry and worst of all, I was hurting. I have a stupid hip flexor issue that pops up every once in a while during a run. It usually happens on longer distances and on the trails. I started to really feel it on the switchbacks at about eight miles. By the final mile, I was lifting my right leg with my arms over the higher steps. It was painful and probably exacerbated by the lack of oxygen. I did better on the flatter uphill, but those steps up were very difficult. This part of the trail is where you get the "windows." They're small (5-10 feet) openings between the needles that dot the landscape to the south of Whitney itself. Snow was still accumulated and they offer the only views to the east from the trail here. They drop off very steeply and this could be a very serious danger for someone suffering from altitude sickness. One step wrongly here and you're falling over a thousand feet straight down.

The last push up the mountain was numbing for me. I just decided to put my head down and slog it out without paying any attention to where I was relative to the finish. A while back I had noted that I could see the hut clearly atop the mountain. This was a great feeling. I was very close. I could see people moving around, too. I began to see people coming down who were encouraging: “You’re right there,” “It’s right over this ridge. You’ve got this!” That was good to hear. I probably looked like a train wreck. That last mile was the first place I started to get passed regularly by faster people. Others had passed me when I was stopped, but I ultimately reeled them in, giving me confidence that I was still doing well despite what my body felt like. Not anymore.

Then, I felt the trail flatten out a bit and looked up. I saw the hut right out in front of me. Somehow, I immediately got the camera out and took the photo you see here. This was the best feeling I had all day. Jim came down to meet me and asked if I was interested in the beer he had packed for each of us. I was not, so he gave it away to a guy who was on his final leg of the John Muir Trail—17 days in the wild for this dude. It made his day. He immediately did a short video about summiting and had Jim as a guest star because of the beer. That was pretty great. We signed the guest book (special thanks to News and Views for sponsoring us). I grabbed my wonderful dried mangoes and didn’t care about the massive amounts of calories they have in them as I hammered about ten right away.

We then walked up to the summit itself and I turned my phone on. A guy I had seen on the trail, who it turned out was 17 and climbed with his 15 year old sister, was on his phone telling his mom who was staying in Bishop that they had made it. My phone got a signal and started blowing up from two days without service. I went to text a summit photo to Christy and the phone died. I figured the battery was the problem. I had gotten a couple of shots, but not all I wanted (this was my camera). That sucked. The guy we gave a beer to, we call him Pastor Chris, offered to take a pano shot with us and email it later.

The hike back, while much easier, was just almost as long on the clock. One notable exception was the 250 vertical foot ascent from the trail junction to Trail Crest. That one hurt. My hip was great the whole way, leading me to the conclusion that climbing is its problem. I can work on that. We passed many of the people on our way down that we had seen on the way up, including the sea level foursome who had sent their friend back, the two women from Mirror Lake, and a guy with (I presume) his daughter. The guy was in Wranglers and had a super old external frame pack, which was the only one I’d seen all day. He was struggling, but was going to make it. The switchbacks, while easier on the downhill, were just as mind numbing as on the way up. We spent the five miles to Trail Camp with Pastor Chris and learned a lot about becoming a Methodist pastor. It’s pretty fascinating. He was great. He left us then because we were slowing him down. You learn to get really fast spending 17 days out there mostly by yourself. We saw him again at the Portal Store where his ride to town told us about the hypothermia guys and telling the woman who fell to turn back. She apparently wanted to summit still and a group of hikers advised her against continuing. Oh, and my phone powered back on at about 12,500 feet. Is there an altitude issue with the iPhone 5s?

We made it back just as the sun was receding behind the massive mountains to the west. We had ourselves a burger and a couple of beers, then went back to our own camp to relax and get some rest. The next day we packed up and left for home, stopping only to have breakfast in Bishop and grab some gas. I think we were both pretty sore. My calves didn’t feel too bad until the second day. Then they were sore for a week.

The trip as a whole was outstanding. Doing it a second time would be difficult. Knowing what you’re about to get yourself into would make deciding to do it again hard for me. I am much more inclined to move on to a new challenge. However, I think a spring trip up the Mountaineer’s Route would be fantastic. You would have to camp out for one or two nights, but the challenge and different route would be what makes that trip a blast. Also, having to learn a bunch about climbing in the snow would make the idea a great experience and good practice for my ultimate goal. Maybe in a couple years.

Here are some of the stats: