May 12, 2017
As I mentioned earlier, it is highly recommended that you get to the area a few days early if you can. That way you can get near 10,000 feet elevation and give your body time to acclimate. You need to get at least a full night at an elevation at, or above the Whitney portal elevation (8360 ft.). Do not attempt this climb without at least that much altitude acclimation. We got there a few days early, spent a night at 10,000 feet at Cottonwood campground near Whitney, and then did about a 10 mile hike the following day. The day after that we got a full day of rest, still at 10,000 feet. We also drank a ton of water those few days. It is so important to hydrate as much as possible the days before your climb. I firmly believe the acclamation time, the hiking and the hydration the few days before our climb were the keys to a successful summit of Mount Whitney as well as the key to avoiding the dreaded altitude sickness. A word on altitude sickness: It can start with a little bit of dizziness or a headache and can progress to nausea and vomiting. If you get to that point, turn back immediately. It will get worse and the only thing you can do to make it go away is to descend. It can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, or physical condition. If you press on it can start to affect your lungs and brain and can even cause death. The mountain is not going anywhere, so best to call off the trip and try again next year. The climb is not worth your life. So now, on to the climb.
On the first day of the actual climb, my dad and I arrived at Mount Whitney Portal around 8AM. This is the starting point of the climb to the summit of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney. The elevation at the summit is 14,508 feet and it is a 22 mile around trip hike. At the entrance to Mount Whitney Trail, as I said before, we weighed our backpacks to see how much we were carrying on our backs. I was carrying 30 pounds and my dad carried 40 pounds. Once we weighed, we put the packs back on and started our adventure. The trail was very well maintained and it's very difficult to get lost because there is always someone on the trail. At the start, the hike up isn't to extreme. They made the trail with many switchbacks so it's not as intense of a hill climb. Further into the hike, there will be places that it gets steep and there is a lot of stair climbing. For the first day, we were aiming to get to the second base camp (Trail Camp) which was a 6 mile hike. I found that the first four miles were tough for me. I didn't have the energy that I wanted, but later, I suddenly had a burst of energy for the last two miles to base camp. My father was the opposite. He had the energy at the beginning, but near the end of the first 6 miles was fatigued. Overall though, we kept a pretty good steady pace. With packs though, it wasn't extremely fast and took us about 6 or 7 hours including rest breaks and picture taking to do the first 6 miles.
It's important while on your trek that you keep yourself hydrated. For the first six miles, there is a river that runs alongside you. If you run out of water, you can refill your bottles using a water filter. The tricky part with the water, once you get to the 99 switchbacks, is that there is no place to refill so you need to bring as much as you can when you head up to the summit. I would recommend 3 liters for the summit and back from Trail Camp (about 10 miles round trip). The last place to refill will be there at Trail Camp. There is a small lake at Trail Camp right before you start the infamous 99 switchbacks, but fill up in the stream that is feeding the lake. The stream is definitely cleaner, but always use a filter.
We finally made it to the second base camp after so many false hopes that it would be around the next corner or up over the next hill. We were exhausted and hungry. Again, I think it took us about 6 or 7 hours. When we got there, we pitched our tent as fast as possible because it started to rain, and it did so for several hours, although it was a light rain. That was one of the coldest nights in a tent for me. Once it got pitch black and stopped raining, the night sky was so clear that I was able to see the Milky Way in the USA for the first time with my own eyes. I'd seen it other places, but not here. It was pretty amazing.
On the second day, we woke up at around 5am to start the next half of the climb, the summit. I took my empty backpack and put my hydration pack, snacks, and camera gear inside. Before heading up, I will advise you to leave your tent open so that marmots don't chew through your tent. You might be wondering what those are. It's kinda like a squirrel, but on steroids. They are quite large and are very curious creatures. Make sure to keep food in your bear canisters. If you leave food in your tent or somewhere outside of the bear canister, they will smell it and do everything they can to get to it. They are pretty bold and they will chew holes in your nice new tent if you leave food in there. The best thing to do is leave your tent open and be sure there is no food in it. This will allow them to check out your tent without chewing holes in it while your gone.
Now it's time to climb to the summit. What everyone seems to dread about this hike is the 99 switchbacks. I guess it's because they seem endless. If you really want to torture yourself, count each switchback on the way up to see if it really is 99. I didn't do that, but my dad did, and he said that he got less than 99. He got somewhere around the mid 80s he said. I'm pretty sure he miscounted. There are a few places that are sketchy. If you stay hydrated and get carbs into your system often, it's not too bad. Speaking of carbs, you definitely want to be consuming enough so you are not hungry if possible. It can get hard to eat at altitude. Trail mix, nuts, and food gels are good to keep you going without making you sick. Once we made it to the last switchback, there was 360 degrees of breath taking (pun intended) views from Trail Crest. This could be the best view that isn't at the summit. As you continue, the trail runs on the backside of the mountain. You want to be well rested for this. There is some boulder climbing, and that's done next to a sheer cliff some of the time, before you get to the 2 mile marker, which is the last push to the summit. I always have this hangup when I see a mile marker on any trail. I feel like the mile markers lie because it always seems like the trek is much longer to the destination than the mile marker said. So the last two miles to the summit felt like another five miles, probably because I was so anxious to be at the top of Mount Whitney.
The last hundred yards were the most exciting. When I saw the building at the top, adrenaline kicked in and I started to jog the rest of the way up. Out of breath, I was hopping rock after rock to get to the edge of the mountain where a group of people were standing. The view was absolutely incredible. There are mountain ranges that surround the entire area for miles. I looked behind me and there was a make shift sign that said “MOUNT WHITNEY ELV 14,508.” I grabbed it and, of course, had to get someone to take a picture of my dad and I for proof that we actually did this insane hike.
You know what was amazing about this hike? It was the people we met along the way. There were people from all walks of life and all different ages. The topic of the Chicago Blackhawks has never come up nearly as often as it did on this hike because of our Blackhawks hats. There were actually quite a few hockey fans that we met along the way. One of the funniest moments during our climb on Mount Whitney was when my dad was trying to call my mom on the the way up the mountain. He was holding his phone trying to get a signal. He used that to his advantage and made a funny reference to the game Pokemon Go. Someone came walking by and once that happened he took the opportunity to say “There must be a Pokemon around here somewhere!” The man that was walking by started to laugh so hard. I started to laugh because of the words that just came out of my fathers mouth. That was one of the most memorable moments of the trip. While on the way up the mountain, I was also so impressed by this cute little old lady. I would say she was in her 70's and she was coming down from the summit. We got into a conversation with her for a bit. And as we continued, I was baffled and amazed that she did this climb. I hope at her age that I can still climb Mount Whitney and be as active and fit as she was.
This is not for the faint of heart. I would only recommend this hike to people who have a huge taste for adventure. If you can look straight into the face of impossibility and say “I can do that.” , then I promise it will be one of the most rewarding and exhilarating experiences that you'll have, especially when you get to write your name in the summit book.
Please feel free to leave any questions or comments.
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