“May your dreams be larger than mountains and may you have the courage to scale their summits.”
Since moving to California I found my passion for hiking. When living in Florida there are no mountains and also the weather is usually too hot to do such outdoor activity. So my favorite store when moving to California became REI 🙂 I felt like a kid in a candy shop, buying backpacking equipment and hiking gear and emergency blankets (Ulli rolling his eyes). I even became a real geek in taking an adventure class at the local REI shop (yep –you can make fun of me). So I’ve been exploring different hikes in the area, Palm Springs, San Diego and San Bernadino. The most famous peak and the highest mountain in the contiguous United States is Mount Whitney with 14,505 feet (4,421m). It’s located in the Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and connected by a scenic highway in Death Valley. When you google Mount Whitney hiking to the peak, it is recommended that you do a backpacking trip over 3 days so your body can adjust to the high altitude. You also need to apply for a permit as there are only a limited number of permits allowed (I believe 200 per day). When Ulli heard about it he decided he wanted to do a hike/run in 1 day to the top by himself. I loved the idea of hiking this mountain, but would have preferred a multi-day backpacking trip. However, this was not “challenging enough” for my husband. So when we got the permit for May 31, I was excited and anxious to go with him. We arrived in the small town of Lone Pine at 8pm as this is the closest town to the mountain. We picked up our permit from the ranger station and after dinner at the local Chinese restaurant (that was the “healthiest” choice in town) we checked in at the Best Western hotel. We prepared all of our gear what to take on the trip with us the next day. The most difficult part was to decide what to pack – as we wanted it to be as light as possible to move quickly, but also needed some basics like food, extra clothing layers, emergency supplies, headlamp, and water. We got to bed early as we had a very early start planned.
“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” (John Muir)
At 2:30pm our alarm went off. We quickly got ready and where in the car by 3am. It is another 13 mile drive from the hotel to the start of the trailhead. When we parked our car we already encountered a few other hikers that either slept in the car or camped in this area. They had signs up to not leave any food or water in the car as bears are active in this area and may break in. Finally, at 3:45am we started our adventure to climbing Mount Whitney. For the first 1 ½ hours we hiked in the dark with our headlamps only – but fortunately, the trail was marked clearly. It starts out with mostly switchbacks through the forest and going over small rivers.
Around 5:30am the sun slowly came up and we arrived at a big meadow in a valley. It looked like a painting: snow covered mountains with waterfalls, the green meadow and a small river through the valley. Picture Perfect! We were in good spirits.
From there the trail goes to the other side of the mountain and now only very steep climb up. We had our first break at 6:00am when we were at the tree line with a view on Line Pine Lake at about 10,000ft. After this break we were in the alpine climate and the landscape changed to rocks/boulders (no more trees or flowers).
Around 8:00am we arrived at the trail camp (at 12,000ft) where we encountered our first snow. The trail was snowed in so heavily that we had to not only guess where the trail leads, but also climb in steep snow (knee high). Ulli was wearing shorts and we only had our trail shoes not prepared for snow climbing (but our Brooks Cascadia shoes didn’t disappoint).
We continued to climb up while I started to feel a bit dizzy and got a headache. The switchbacks on the trail where snowed in so heavily that we had to hold on to the rocks and a lot of people turned around at this point. Unfortunately, my dizziness and headache got worse. I took some advil and several breaks and was not sure if I wanted to continue. My feet were wobbly and for the upcoming steep climbs you couldn’t make any mistakes. However, I didn’t want to destroy Ulli’s goal to climb to the top. I just took it step by step – the same way as I overcome this in running. If I was by myself I may have turned around – but I’m so thankful for my husband’s support. He got me through this and we continued the climb together.
We already saw the summit and it was only 4km to go (I didn’t realize that the 4km would take another 4 hours as we were climbing in high altitude and the snow/ice would add to the challenge). Fortunately, my dizziness got better and I only was left with a headache.
We got to an area where the trail got very narrow. There was the snow covered rock face on one side and a very steep slope plunging several hundred feet on the other side. No railing or trail to see. One wrong step and you would fall down the hillslope. We saw some footprints in the snow and would just walk in these footsteps. I really had to push myself into the snow of rock face to not fall down. It was pretty frightening but I tried not to think about it too much. This was probably the most dangerous part of the hike, and I was dreading the way back down.
We arrived at trail crest (13,600’ft, 8.7 miles) and again the summit appeared so close – we already saw the house on top of the mountain. After trail crest section, there was no more trail for a while, and we had to climb over ice covered boulders. In addition, my headache got worse and we had to slow down a lot. It was only 1.9 miles and no thought about turning around now! It felt like the longest 1.9 miles of my life.
After 9 hours (around 1pm) we arrived at the top of Mount Whitney. Tears were streaming down my face from my physical and mental effort. It took me a bit to enjoy the 360 degree view on the Sierra Nevada.
We encountered several other hikers, a few of them not doing too well and throwing up. However, most of them were ecstatic of reaching the top and conquering this mountain. We talked to a guy from Arizona who had this hike on his bucket list and was overjoyed to have accomplished the summit.
After about 1 hour break on top, signing in the welcome book and taking lots of pictures we were ready for the hike down. It should be the easy from here on. Well…the mountain didn’t want to let us go.
We climbed back down over boulders, but couldn’t find our trail again. We arrive in front of a rock wall and there was only one steep slope with rocks down. We couldn’t see any other way, so we carefully had to take on this steep climb over loose gravel and rocks to the trail. We were hoping that we stepped on the right rocks so we wouldn’t fall down the slope. It wouldn’t feel so terrifying, if we hadn’t been hiking for 12 hours already. My knees were wobbly, my legs tired and I had a bad headache for the past hours. Thankfully we made it back to the main trail without injuring ourselves.
Now we get to the snow covered rock slope again that we have to make our own trail through the snow. We overcome this as well and feel confident about the rest of the way down.
We arrive at Outpost camp (no one there) and only see a big valley covered in snow. We don’t see any trail. We can’t remember what mountain side we came from. We are lost and I am exhausted. It’s 6pm and it’s getting dark very soon. We try one direction climbing over rocks and ice – no luck. I start to freak out. We hike the other direction again over snow and get to a small river where we finally see our connecting trail. After 45 minutes of me panicking we are back on the right trail. What a relief! As soon as we are back at the tree line, there’s no more snow and the trail is marked easily. We’re back at our beautiful meadow at 7pm.
That part of the trip we hiked in darkness this morning. So now we can enjoy the view of the forest, waterfalls and stunning nature. The last part of the trip it gets dark again and we can hear bears grunting. It was a little scary as we didn’t have anything to protect us. You’re walking the switchbacks and sometimes the grunting gets louder each step and I was hoping there’s no bear around the corner. Finally at 8:50pm we are back at our car! What a trip!
The next morning I wake up and my face is completely sunburned. Even though I had put sunscreen on, it wasn’t sufficient for the duration of the hike. My lips were swollen that’s how bad they were burnt. Also my knees were hurting (I injured my knees from walking down for so many hours, which would stick with me for several more months). Otherwise I was feeling great and so proud of myself of overcoming several mental and physical challenges. This experience was truly life changing as I surprised myself in what I’m able to do. You should try it! 🙂
“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.” (Friedrich Neitszche)
Route: Mt. Whitney Trail
Trailhead: Whitney Portal, approx. 20 minutes from Lone Pine
Climb: over 6,300ft
Distance: 18 miles
Mount Whitney summit: 14,505 feet (4,421m)
Timeline: 17 hours in total
3:00 Departure from hotel in Lone Pine
3:30 Arrival at parking lot Whitney Portal
3:45 Start of Whitney Trailhead
6:00 Stop at Outpost Camp
13:00 Arrival at the summit of Mount Whitney
14:18 Departure from summit
20:50 Arrival at parking lot Whitney Portal