Trail Report: Mt. Whitney

All photos in this post can be enlarged by clicking on them. Please do not use without permission. This blog post documents our quest to reach the top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney.

Day 0: Before Setting Out

I went into this backpacking trip with several concerns:

1. Getting my heavy pack up a steep trail. (The Mt. Whitney trail has an elevation gain of over 6,100 feet. I needed to carry my sleeping bag, bedroll, clothes, extra shoes, camp stove, camera, extra lens, water, snacks, sunscreen, toiletries, and other miscellany on my back. Wayne had an even heavier load with the tent and bear canister filled with three days’ worth of meals, in addition to his other items.)

2. Staying warm through freezing temperatures at night. (Our camp, located at 12,000 feet, would be extremely exposed.)

3. Going to the bathroom in the great outdoors. (I had done it before but never on a trail that required me to “pack it out” – in other words, carry my solid waste with me.)

4. Drinking enough. (All water we obtained along the trail would have to be treated with iodine tablets, which made me a little nervous. I tried to bring salty, soupy items to eat, knowing they’d provide additional hydration and mask the taste of the water.)

I think fears magnify our hardships. All of these things were undoubtedly going to be hard, but I tried to tell myself not to worry so much, because doing so would turn my fears into self-fulfilling prophesies.

Day 1: Trail Camp (The grass is greener right where you are.)

We set out early (5:15 am), though not as early as we have in the past. We knew we had plenty of time to reach Trail Camp.

On our way up to Lone Pine Lake (our first designated resting stop), several late-leaving day hikers passed us. I found myself thinking, “Of course they are able to go so fast. They aren’t carrying their beds and their homes and three days' worth of food on their backs!”

In reality, though, I’ve had backpackers pass me when I day hiked on previous summit attempts. My thoughts at the sight of them? “Of course they are able to go so fast. They aren’t traveling the whole length of the trail in one day!”

But is the grass really greener on the other side? If you are too busy coveting the benefits of someone else’s journey, you’re failing to appreciate the rewards and beauty of your own. At the end of the day, summiting Mt. Whitney is hard, no matter your method; fortunately, it is also incredible.

We rested at Lone Pine Lake and fired up our JetBoil for the first time, enjoying hot chocolate and apple cider before continuing our journey up the trail.

We used lake water and didn’t treat it, since we were heating it. Our brief conversation about it:

Me: Did this water boil? Am I going to die? Wayne: I let it come to a rolling boil, yes. And you aren’t going to die from it. At worst, you’ll just get Giardia or E. coli.

From Lone Pine Lake, we hiked to Outpost Camp (10,365 feet), where many backpackers opt to spend the night before summit day. Our permits were for Trail Camp, 1,635 feet higher, so we continued after a brief break and went up to Mirror Lake. At Mirror Lake, we enjoyed what was seriously the best backpacking food we packed – bacon jerky. I don’t like bacon, but I think the reason this stuff tasted so good was because it didn’t taste dehydrated. It tasted like it was freshly fried and right out of the skillet.

We ended up staying at Mirror Lake for about two hours, snacking, talking, watching some men sport fish, and playing Phase 10. I was awed by the peaks that surrounded us – Mt. Muir, Thor Peak, and Wotans Throne. I think what was particularly daunting was the fact that these peaks looked so high, yet they weren’t Mt. Whitney. To look at the highest point and realize that you are going higher than that is a little overwhelming.

The next section of the trail – from Mirror Lake to Trailside Meadow and then the final ascent to Trail Camp – was definitely the hardest of Day 1.  The rocky uphill trail was seemingly endless, and the elevation made it even harder to amble up carrying one-third of my body weight on my back.

Regarding fear #3, above: there used to be a solar toilet located at Trail Camp, but the National Park Service had to remove it because it was a privilege that hikers were abusing – stuffing trash down the toilet and doing other things to destroy what would have been a really nice thing to have. Since there are no facilities on the trail, then, hikers and backpackers are given certain guidelines (do your business at least 100 feet from any trail or water source; pack out all solid human waste using a wag bag). I managed (it’s never comfortable), but I am shocked at how many people don’t follow these guidelines. We saw wag bags tucked between rocks, toilet paper near the trail on some occasions, and at least one instance where someone had gone right on the trail. This may sound disgusting, but really, it all just makes me so sad. I don’t have any delusions of nature being “pristine” even without a human presence, but really? Mt. Whitney is a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime experience for so many. Say what you will about government agencies, but the National Park Service is my favorite one. And the NPS indeed does a great service. Don’t take advantage of it and risk getting this trail shut down!

In our final ascent to Trail Camp, I rested in quite a few places and questioned hikers coming down the trail. How far is it to Trail Camp? I was tracking my mileage using GPS and I knew the distance between Trailside Meadow and Trail Camp (approximately 1.0 mile), so in reality I knew the answer to my own question. But it is always so interesting to me to hear individual perceptions of distance. About halfway between the two and with half a mile to go, I heard everything from 0.5 miles to 2 miles in response to my question, with 1.5 miles being by far the most common answer.

Night 1: Tossing and Turning

We arrived at Trail Camp at dusk. While Wayne set up our tent, I crawled into my sleeping bag for warmth and ate space ice cream. I knew I was operating on very few calories and needed to eat, but I found myself with very little appetite. I thought something hot might help; we fired up the JetBoil and made lasagna with meat sauce. I had a few bites before trying to drink some more hot chocolate and eventually calling it a night, promising myself that I would have a hearty breakfast.

I struggled through the night. It is hard to sleep at 12,000 feet (and, as I found out when doing a little research later, hard to eat as well). My breaths were extremely shallow. I fretted about dying in my sleep from lack of oxygen. I was thankful that I had brought a pillow (compressed in my compression pack with my sleeping bag) to prop myself up; I added my clothes to the pillowcase as well. I woke up several times in the night, each time (thankfully) breathing a little bit easier. Day hikers started to noisily come through around 2:00 am and continued in a pretty much endless stream until I finally gave in and got up around 4:30. I went outside to capture the dawn; just before the sun came up, though, it became incredibly cold and I scampered back into the tent and my sleeping bag.

Day 2: Summit Day (Ignorance is bliss on the 99 switchbacks.)

Despite my promise to myself, I had a hard time eating breakfast. I had about five bites of broccoli cheddar soup and nothing else. Wayne collected water to treat and we packed most of our stuff into our packs to leave in the tent. I opted to take only a small bottle of treated water, my camera, Excedrin, jerky, and sunscreen. Wayne brought two bottles of water with Gatorade powder added plus his full pack bladder (also with Gatorade).

Our first task of the day was to hike from Trail Camp to Trail Crest, up the notorious 99 switchbacks. (I have also seen the number given as 97 online, but my count resulted in 99.)

This is a very daunting section of trail, and at such high altitude, it is easy to get winded. We ran into one family on our way up with a teenage son who was struggling with hypoxia; Wayne gave him an electrolyte gel pack, which helped temporarily – but not too long later, they had to turn around and head back to lower elevations.

At first, I was encouraged by how quickly we were progressing up this 2.2-mile stretch. I counted the switchbacks, and in no time, we were already at #33 – a third of the switchbacks, done! By tracking our mileage, I could see that we were even more than a third of the way up. This is where I should have stopped to think, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

The first 80 switchbacks weren’t so bad. Switchbacks #81-92 were tolerable.

Switchbacks #93-98 made me want to cry.

And #99 made me want to die.

Why don’t the trail guidebooks ever tell you that?

While on the final torturous stretch to Trail Crest, we ran into two women and a teenage girl, headed back down. They looked at us with great concern.

Woman #1: Where are you headed? Wayne: The summit. Woman #1: You need to turn back. It’s too late in the day, and storm clouds are coming. The summit is clouded in. Me: I’m not turning back. This is my third attempt. I am making it to the summit. Woman #2: I’ve done this five times. I’ve never gone to the summit. Trail Crest is my summit. The mountain will always be here. You can always come back. Me: I’m going to the summit, because I don’t want to come back! Woman #2: What do you have to prove? Woman #1: Make 2:00 pm your turnaround time. If you’re not at the summit, you have to turn around. It’s not safe.

These women were really very kind. I regret being so stubborn, and I was glad that we ran into them the next day at Whitney Portal – where Woman #1 greeted me with a big hug and the question on each of their minds: “Did you make it?” There is a lot of camaraderie on the trail.

From Trail Crest, we had a very brutal downhill section to the John Muir Trail junction. Downhill portions of a summit hike are always brutal for two reasons: one, they are just creating more uphill for you later on; two, they become uphill portions on the return journey, when psychologically you are really only prepared to go down, down, down.

Speaking of the JMT: we encountered several thru-hikers finishing up their 210-mile trek from Happy Isles (in Yosemite) to Whitney Portal. The fewest number of days it had taken anyone we encountered was 8; the longest time spent on the trail was 29 days. They were all so proud. I did, however, notice two distinct types of pride. There was the pride of the young, lean, 20-something bachelor hikers, which amounted to, “I knew I could do this, and I did. What, you think I’m surprised? Of course I did it in eight days.” Then there was the pride of the sexagenarian, grey-haired couple, which came across as, “We didn’t think we could do this, but we did. I am so proud of my partner. I couldn’t have done it without him/her. We did it in 29 days.”

At the John Muir Trail junction, we started our brutal final ascent. This was very rocky terrain with a steep dropoff on one side for most of the way. The 99 switchbacks include a short area where railing can be used to stabilize yourself; I think the NPS should consider putting some more railing beyond Trail Crest. (I guess they assume that anyone making it this far isn’t going to fall.)

2:00 pm came and went. We encountered one gentleman who told us that the summit wasn’t worth it because it was clouded in. Nothing to see, he said. Don’t waste your time.

But the sky was getting bluer and the clouds were moving on.

I had to stop frequently for rest. And let me tell you, I will never mock Wayne’s Gatorade (for its unnatural color and ingredients) again. My water was long gone. (I found that I loved the lake water that was treated with iodine tablets and then neutralized with another tablet. It tasted like the bathwater I used to drink when I was younger. A little soapy and dirty. And yes, right about now, everyone outside of the cystinosis world is disgusted. But I guarantee that most of those who have cystinosis or have children with cystinosis understand.) It is possible that the Gatorade Wayne was carrying was what got me to the summit.

For a while, the summit hut was in view. As we got closer it disappeared from our view and all we could see were rocks. The pathway became more and more treacherous.

As time went on, people coming down from the summit became more encouraging. While it would still be a long time before anyone would tell us what we wanted to hear – you are almost there – we did hear a lot of people saying things like, “It’s worth it” and “You’ll make it.” The appearance of the final ascent was completely overwhelming, looking to be entirely made up of scree. As we turned the final corner, we encountered a man with his teenage daughters. He told us that we had about 200 yards until we could see the summit hut and then a final 200 yards until we were there.

I know my football fields, and he was a little off. I think it was actually about four football fields before we saw the hut, but then only half a football field until we were actually there. We arrived around 4:30 pm. The weather had cleared, and the view was absolutely breathtaking.

I cried at the top. I can’t even put words here to really describe it, which must be surprising given that I’ve used so many words to document the journey.

Since I can’t really describe the feelings I had pulsing through my veins at the top, allow me to be introspective about the past for a moment.

In November 2011, I was told that my pulmonary function was deteriorating. My lungs were not at full capacity, and they were not functioning even at the capacity that they had. I asked what I could do. I was told that “walking on a treadmill at an incline might help.” For several weeks, I had a hard time processing what I had been told. I wanted to help myself, but treadmill walking sounded so boring.

I had never been an outdoorsy person, but there was one goal I had in mind: hiking to the top of Half Dome. When I did it for the first time in June 2012, it changed me. I saw all of God’s creation that I had been missing. I also needed Wayne to make an emergency phone call to the park rangers, who brought me oxygen.

(God's creation is right where you are. You don't have to climb mountains to see it. You don't have to leave your home. But I guess I needed the wakeup call of the rocks crying out.)

I have done Half Dome two more times (fortunately, minus the ranger call and need for oxygen!) since then, as well as many other hikes in the Sierras. My lungs feel strong. Nature just doesn't get old.

So you know what I'm thankful for most of all? Not the mountains or the alpine lakes. Not the rocky trails or the breathtaking sunrises. Not anything I've done on my own (because I've done nothing on my own). I give up far too easily. I am a weakling through and through.

What I am most thankful for is the diagnosis that put me atop that mountain.

Without being told that my lungs were failing me, I never would have experienced all of this.

God blessed the broken road. Thank God for my imperfect lungs.

Okay, I'm going to finish up Day 2 before I start crying again.

Of course, once at the summit, we were only half done. We had to get back to Trail Camp, preferably before dark. The return trip was tough, with the sun finally out and beating down on us until it sunk below the mountains. We were still afforded some beautiful views of the areas below us.

Night 2: Weathering a Storm (Storm clouds make for beautiful sunrises.)

We indeed arrived back at Trail Camp just as it was starting to get dark, but before we needed to use our headlamps. I went straight into the tent and crawled into my sleeping bag without dinner. Aside from a few bites of soup, all I had had during summit day was about 20 ounces of Gatorade and a couple pieces of chile lime beef jerky. I heard Wayne filling the JetBoil as I drifted off; he brought me two cups of hot chocolate. I was able to drink about half of it.

I slept much better than the previous night, not waking up at all until the storm came. At about 1:00 am, I awoke to the sounds of rain and moderate wind whistling around our little two-man tent. A few hours later, my side of the tent had come up and was threatening to collapse on top of me, and the winds were so strong that we knew we just had to wait it out. To be honest, I was pretty scared.

Even after it started to get light, we remained huddled in the tent waiting for the winds to die down. When we did venture out, the sun was already up - and the most gorgeous sky greeted us.

Day 3: God Bless the Cook (If you made it on something other than a camp stove, you are my hero and I'm eating it.)

As the wind died down, it became evident that the rain might follow us as we hiked down the mountain, so we opted for an early start. It was difficult to put on our heavy packs again, but I was already dreaming of the infamous burger at the Whitney Portal Store.

We began our trek. My knees ached as we descended, with the rocky terrain presenting an additional challenge. (Stepping down from tall rocks can be more difficult than taking large steps up them.)

I was resting just below Lone Pine Lake waiting for Wayne (we sometimes hike separately) when another descending hiker that I had encountered higher up passed me by. "I thought you'd be eating that burger by now!" he called out. "I'm salivating," I replied.

Soon, he said.

Not soon enough. But I tried to remember lessons learned from Clouds Rest.

Clouds Rest is a mountain in Yosemite. It's a hike I did in September 2012, and the views from the top are stunning. It's a beautiful and prominent mountain, difficult but less strenuous than Half Dome according to most guidebooks.

Clouds Rest has a very distinctive shape. It seems to be smiling at you. The hike is an interesting one: a mile and a half into the hike, you very quickly gain 1,000 feet in elevation via strenuous switchbacks. This puts you on the ridge, but you see that smile shape? You then hike down before going back up. It doesn't look like much, and on the way to the summit, it doesn't even feel like you are going down so steeply.

On the way back, though, when you are already tired from hiking 10 miles, it is pure torture to then have to go steeply up. Every muscle in your body screams that you are supposed to be headed down.

Clouds Rest is the only trail on which I have ever cried tears of pain.

We passed Clouds Rest on the way to Lone Pine for our Whitney hike. Every time I see Clouds Rest, I hear Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" in my head. I will never do Clouds Rest again. (Never say never, right?)

But Clouds Rest provides gorgeous views. I didn't know when I hiked it that I would never do it again. What Clouds Rest taught me is that I need to enjoy every bit of scenery as if I'll never see it again.

So that's just what I tried to do as I descended the seemingly endless trail to Whitney Portal. Every time I felt discouraged, I tried to exit my own tunnel vision and observe the beauty around me.

When we finally arrived at the Whitney Portal Store, there were already many backpackers enjoying their burgers. I don't know if these are amazing burgers by normal standards, but they are what everyone - particularly John Muir Trail thru-hikers - dream of on their way down. God bless the cook, who has undoubtedly made the dreams of thousands of backpackers a reality.

We ran into the ladies who had warned us to turn around. They were full of genuine delight to hear that we made it to the summit.

As expected, the burger was delicious.

This was the hardest physical challenge I have ever experienced. I don't know how to top Mt. Whitney; I don't know that I want to try to top it. There are certainly other summits I have in mind, but for now, I'm just going to enjoy the memories of peak bagging this one.