When Josh told me that he had won a raffle permit to hike Mount Whitney, I didn’t even blink an eye. Growing up next to Longs Peak, I didn’t think much of it. “Oh, you wanna bag a 14er? Hell ya, let’s go!”
Well, it turns out I signed up for a little more than I initially thought. Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous US, at a whopping 14,505 ft (4,421 m) and the hike is 22 miles round trip with a 6145 ft elevation gain. Overall, while I was reviewing the hike, it didn’t seem that bad. But there was one thing that immediately caught my eye: 99 switchbacks. Oh boy….I needed to train.
So training began 3 months before the hike, which included going on some longer hikes, but most importantly, I was doing stairs at the gym about every other day. So not only was I prepared, but my butt looked pretty nice…just saying.
Josh’s permit gave us two nights at a camping ground on our way up, which was great because it divides the 22 miles into three days. So on June 29th, we drove from San Francisco and slept in our car at a rest stop outside of Bishop.
The next morning, we woke up and drove to the trailhead, Whitney Portal, only to discover that we actually needed to stop in Lone Pine to get our permit. This actually turned out to be a lifesaver because 1) I started to get altitude sickness (before even starting the hike, which was not a good sign for me!) and 2) we found out that there was actually a lot of snow on Mount Whitney…like, a lot. So when we went back to Lone Pine, where we picked up our permit and bear canister from the park’s department, we also were able to pick up some altitude sickness packets and an ax.
I cannot say this enough, I really didn’t think we needed axes. I mean, we were hiking, not ice climbing! What on earth would we use it for? Well, it turns out, there was so much snow on Mount Whitney, that those 99 switchbacks that we had trained for, were not even open. So instead, you had to go up “the chute”, an area between the face of the mount and the switchbacks of the trail, that was the 1700 ft elevation gain with an 80% grade (accounts for ~27% of your overall elevation gain). So lucky there was a place renting out axes in Lone Pine and they showed us how we are supposed to climb with them. While the axes are somewhat helpful while you are climbing, to help you keep your balance, what they are really for is to help stop if you slip and start falling. Fun stuff. (Here’s an example video)
So after making some much-needed stops, and after my altitude sickness went away, we once again got to Whitney Portal, parked our car, grabbed our backpacks and started heading up at 8,374 ft. There are two different campsites, Outpost camp and Trail camp, which was 3.8 miles and 6 miles from the star, respectively. Everyone thinks that they want to go to Trail camp because then you have less of a hike the next day, all the way to the summit. But Josh and I decided that we wanted to stay at Outpost camp because we knew it would be warmer and we really didn’t want to hike 6 miles (12 round trip) with all of our camping gear. So after we got to Outpost, we set up camp and set our alarm for 4am.
At 4am we started our hike, in pitch black. We may have gotten a little lost, but thankfully there were a few guys hiking behind us that knew the route well. So we were able to follow them up quite a ways. It wasn’t long (a mile or two) before we were in snow. We popped on our crampons and took a minute to watch the sunrise.
Afer we hit Trail camp, we hit the bottom of the chute. We took a break and switched out our poles for our axes. Right about this time, I was happy that the park ranger (and Josh) convinced me into getting an ax.
Heading up the chute, after some somewhat dramatic discussions with the locals, it ended up being fairly easy. The entire time I kept chanting, “slow and steady wins the race!” And it might have been my favorite part of the hike because we got to the top, which had the most stunning views of the range, and it made you feel like a badass. That feeling quickly changed, when it came to getting down the chute…but more on that later.
So we got to the top of the chute, at 13420 ft, and took a well-deserved break before finishing the last mile of the trail to the peak of Mount Whitney. This was, by far, the most difficult part of the hike going up, simply because you are at such a high elevation. In the last mile, you gain 805 ft, which isn’t terribly much, but since you are not taking in very much oxygen, it feels much longer than 1 mile. For every 20 or so steps I took, I needed to stop and take two or three very deep breaths. This was where the altitude sickness packets came in very handy!!
Overall though, the traverse from the top of the chute to the top of Mount Whitney was not bad. We had some amazing views and there wasn’t any snow on the trail. There was some elevation gain, but that was towards the very end of the trail and your adrenaline really kicks in. From the look of the book we signed into, we were the 13th and 14th person on the mountain that day. Like I said, slow and steady wins the race!
We spent about 30-40 mins at the top, enjoying the views, trying to take in as much air as we possibly could. We even found sombrero at the top! I don’t know who thought to carry a sombrero to the top, but they are my hero.
So it was time to finally get down the mountain and back to our campsite. Getting the extra oxygen, while you are climbing down, is nice, but it tends to be the worst part for me because I do not have very good knees. Thankfully, we thought about this before the hike and our friend let us borrow his nice hiking poles. We used the poles on the way up to the summit, which was great when it came to the creeks we needed to go over, but it was especially handy for going down the mountain on my knees.
But before we got to our campground, we had to go through the worst part of the trip, which was getting down the chute. I mean it when I say that it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was a combination of fear, exhaustion, and dehydration (we ran out of water once we got to the summit). When we got our axes, everyone told us about how to get up the chute. But when we asked about getting down, everyone would simply say, “oh you just slide on your butt and use your ax as a rotor. It’s called glissading, it’s fun!” Basically, you sit on your butt, like they said, and you put the ax in the self-arrest position. That way, if you pick up too much speed or lose control, you can simply flip over to your stomach and dig the ax into the snow to stop yourself. Maybe we put too much thought into it, but it was not “fun” for me. Not at all.
Like I said at the beginning, we were not expecting any snow. It was the end of June and it was very rare to have snow on the mountain. But the winter was a bit harsher, and there was a lot more snow during the season. At the end of June, we were really hitting the time of the season, where the snow was icy early in the morning, but by mid-day, like the time we were trying to get down the chute, it was more like slush. And because it was like slush, we could not use our axes to “break” very well. And with rocks staring you down at the bottom of the hill, you can say it was quite scary.
So we first put our crampons on and tried to, sort of, backward walked our way down. This was not working very well, as it was very slow and it was very easy to slip. So we tried a couple of different methods, from laying on our stomachs to sitting on our butts. Nothing was really working, but we had to keep moving downward, slowly. At one point, we got down to some rocks where I sat there, almost in tears, repeating out loud, “I just want to get off this stupid mountain!” Good times…
At one point, we were going down and we heard someone scream and we looked up to find that someone had fallen and they could not stop themselves. They screamed all the way down, while people just kept yelling, “PUT YOUR AX IN THE GROUND”. Thankfully, they managed to get down without a scratch, dodging the rocks and getting down safely. They were in complete shock at the end, completely shaken, after falling 1700 ft. But after a while, they got up and kept going down the mountain. I was a little bit jealous to say the least. Until one person did the same thing, except this time, she was able to whip out her ax and stop herself, only a few feet next to where Josh and I were. We asked her if she was okay and she looked at us and said, “Yeah, but I think I am bleeding…am I?”
We asked her if she was okay and she looked at us and said, “Yeah, but I think I am bleeding…”
Her face had blood dripping down it. Not a lot, but enough that Josh wasn’t even sure what to say to her. I told her that the head bleeds the most, so while it was bleeding, it probably wasn’t a bad cut (I couldn’t really get a look at her, I was just trying not to slide myself). After that, we kept crawling our way down until we reached a point that we could slide down without any issues.
No one got hurt that day, besides a few cuts and bruises. The girl who actually cut her head told us that she was supposed to catch a flight at 6am the next day…in Los Angelos. Not sure if she actually made her flight, but she got off the mountain that day.
So Josh and I made it back to our campsite at about 5pm. Nothing exciting happened, we simply made some food (freeze dried), took some Advil, chugged some water, and went right to sleep.
Surprising, the next day I wasn’t sore. I did, however, manage to sunburn my face to a fine crisp from the day before, because we forgot our sunscreen when we left camp at 4am in complete darkness. Just wasn’t on our minds! But, overall, we had a great trip.
We spent the rest of the trip in Bishop, enjoying the town. We couldn’t climb because it was too hot, but we really enjoyed our drive back.
If you have any questions about our trip, please leave a comment below! Happy hiking.