This is a quick summary of my first time up Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states (and the second highest in North America after Denali). I did the hike somewhat spontaneously on Halloween weekend when I realized I wasn’t going to any cool parties. Also wrote it up pretty quickly, so apologies for the typos.
I’d been under the impression for years that I’d climbed Whitney when I was a kid with my mom — one of dozens or hundreds of hikes we’d done in the Sierras. But when I asked my mom, she had no recollection of it and I realized I couldn’t remember it either. So, I’d never done it. Time to correct that.
After quick reconnoiter of the portal and trail head on Saturday, I decided the the best way to do the hike was to leave at midnight that night / Sunday morning and try to get to the peak around sunrise, then get back to the car in the early afternoon for the drive back to San Diego. This decision was made based on a conversation I’d overheard while buying a stuff-sack at a sporting goods store in Lone Pine, and with just about no additional information. What could go wrong?
Turns out I don’t sleep well under the best of circumstances, so I was standing at the trailhead at Whitney Portal a few hours later without having slept at all. But I was so hyped on adrenaline and terrible coffee that I could barely stand it. It was totally quiet. The sky was clear and full of brilliant stars, but no moon to speak of. My headlamp cast a tiny LED cone of light into the total darkness. And my heart was beating like crazy. For some reason all I could think of was bears. Big, hungry black bears. Giant, famished, slightly deranged black bears in the black forest getting ready to hibernate and searching for one last snack before packing it in for the black, black winter.
GIANT MAN-EATING BLACK BEARS!!!
Okay, so I should point out that as a surfer (surfer lite) I regularly feel slightly superior and amused when people tell me they don’t like surfing because of all the sharks and scary stuff in the water. I quote statistics about shark attacks — about how rare they are, and how you’re more likely to be struck by lightning and hit by a meteor at the same time. Blah, blah, blah. For some reason whenever I’m alone in the woods I think a lot more about bears than sharks (well, that makes sense in the woods, but you get the point) and it’s not any more rational.
All of which is to say that between sleep deprivation, excessive coffee-based hydration, extreme anticipation, a lot of nervousness, pitch blackness, and all the damn bears that were going to eat me, my heart was pounding like a, well, like a really fast beating heart. I was amped, not creative. And so it was time to get going.
As the clever reader will note, it’s dark at night and this impedes photography. I don’t have many pictures of my hike up Whitney. That, combined with the aforementioned issues means that I also don’t really remember vast portions of the morning climb. It made for a weird, slightly delirious ascent and a far more mellow descent where I go to say, “Hey, I don’t remember that” or “I was here?” or the disturbingly common “No way was I on this trail before!” (which it turns out was true in one case, but we’ll get to that later).
How Far Apart are Deer Eyes?
A half hour or so into the hike I glanced into the darkness in the valley below and found two big, bright eyes staring back up at me from slightly up the trail. I stopped. They stared. I stared back.
So I’m thinking, bear or deer? Bear or dear? Should I be able to figure this out? Eye color? Head size? How far apart are a deer’s eyes? Has evolution made bear and deer eyes the same distance apart? Would that help the deer or bear? Why would that evolve in the absence of hikers wearing headlamps? How much coffee did I drink? Can the bear smell the coffee on me? Do bears like coffee? Is that why it’s not blinking? Do bears blink? More or less than deer?
Oh, screw it. I started back up the trail. The eyes followed me. When I was right next to them, barely ten feet away, I could see the slight outline of a cute little deer staring back up at me. Not afraid at all, but then I guess bears don’t wear headlamps or smell like burnt espresso. I wonder if it can hear my heart beating? I sure could.
Shawn Gets all Zen and Stuff (2 am)
After taking a quick snack break and putting on a second pair of socks, I realized I was totally calm. Bears? What bears? This darkness stuff rocks.
PIRATE BEARS! (2:12 am)
So I’m all happy and zen and my feet are warm and, Woah! A dozen or more bright eyes are staring at me from the rock face to my right. Two dozen. Holy crap. It’s a bear commune. I freeze. They stare back at me. At least a hundredth of a second passes before I realize they’re all cycloptic — just one eye each. Maybe they’re all looking north. What, too good to even look at me? LOOK AT ME! Wait, maybe that’s a bad idea. Or maybe they sleep with one eye open. Do bears do that? Does anyone do that?
They’re all wearing eye patches. It’s a clan of freaking pirate bears.
Okay, so, no I didn’t really think that, but I SAW it. In my minds not-so-ironic but highly impressionable eye, I saw a mountainside covered in pirate bears waiting to swarm down with a mighty HAAAARRRRRRRRR!!!!
And then I realized they had to be rock posts or markers or something. This all happened in about a third of a second, but it was sufficient to totally blow that whole zen thing all to hell.
Occasionally I’d pass through pools of frigid air. The temperature would drop ten degrees or more than then rise again minutes later. The cold spots seemed to correspond to campsites. Note to self; do not trust the US Forest Service.
It was so dark, pretty much the only thing I could see where the trees and rocks I walked by. So I tended to pay attention. And they were big. Really big rocks. Big enough to hide really big…
Somewhere in here I passed the junction to Lone Pine Lake and some other stuff.
Not So Much on the Trail (3:45 am or So)
Okay, so at various points on the way up I’d gone a few feet off trail, realized it, and easily corrected. At one point it took me a few seconds to realize that the trail went across a very nice stream, but it wasn’t a bother until I came to what appeared to be a giant pile of rocks between two towering cliffs that I really struggled.
Here was the problem. Trail over rocks; easy to follow. Just follow the more worn sections, nice rock guides and cairns, etc. Trail over snow; easy to follow. Just stay in the footprints. Trail over rocks under patches of snow with some partially melted things that might be footprints in the dark? Interesting.
Sufficed to say at some point around Consultation Lake, I realized I was not on the trail. I had followed very clear sets of footprints in the snow into a very pleasant glade from when there was no exiting trail of any kind. Anywhere. This raised two questions. First, where was the trail? Second, where did all those people go?
Large, man-eating bears.
But enough about them. Where was the trail? In trying to answer this question, I learned several things. First, I’m a man. Well, I know that, but what I didn’t know is that men don’t like to backtrack. We hate it; it makes us feel girly and week. Plus, it seems lame. So I didn’t want to do that.
Second, I learned that it’s hard to read a map in the dark. More importantly, even if you can read the map in the light of your headlamp, it doesn’t do you any good if you have no landmarks to compare it to. All the topo lines went up in a U all around me, and so I knew I was in a giant canyon. The large towering black walls already told me that. What none of them told me is where I was relative to the trail, though I suspected I was south of where I was meant to be.
The third thing I learned is that I love GPS, Google satellite maps and that pretty little arrow on the map that tells you where you are. And I was way off the trail. I had apparently been off the trail for a few tenths of a mile, but only a few hundred feet from it. so I stumbled north until I crossed it. And viola, I was off again.
Who put these switchbacks here?
A few minutes after finding the trail, I realized I was on The Switchbacks, of which there are notoriously 99, but that was a fact about which I was blissfully ignorant at the time (did I mention my careful preparation for this climb?). All I knew was that there were a lot of them. I made good progress on the snow in my microspikes, dutifully climbing upward, and upward, and…well you get the point; there are a lot of switchbacks. I passed a railing or something and then more switchbacks. I got thirsty, I drank, I got hungry, I hate, and…man. There are a lot of switchbacks.
At around 5:30 I looked down in the valley and saw as single point of light way, way down below. I wasn’t alone after all. For some reason it reminded me of that scene from Butch and Sundance where the posse follows the two heroes through woods and desert, day and night, until…oh man, not another switchback!
Dawn at the Trail Crest
The Whitney Trail reaches the Trail Crest, a saddle in the ridgeline below and to the south of the summit, after some minor switchbacks that you’ll hardly notice. I reached the Crest just in time to see the sun rising in the east. Not too shabby.
That Last 1,000′ is a Bear
It’s only 1.9 miles from the Trail Crest at about 13,700’ (?) to the peak, but it’s a slog. Right around 13,000’ I really started to notice the altitude. What I thought would be about an hour ended up closer to two. Plus there was the unfortunate and prolonged incident that resulted in the loss of my favorite balaclava. Yes, I had a favorite balaclava (and I’ve never been able to replace it). We’re not going to talk about that. It’s too soon.
On the plus side, I did this stretch between 6:15 and 8:20, as the sun rose, and the reddish light cast across the eastern Sierras was gorgeous. Someday I should bring a real camera on these hikes.
Mt. Whitney Summit (8:30 am)
Ha. Suck it bears. I made it totally uneaten.
The door on the hut at the top of Whitney tells the interested hiker that they’re in EXTREME danger of lighting strike if any number of conditions arise and that under no conditions should the hiker seek refuge in the shelter–which makes you doubt the veracity of the words “shelter” and “refuge.” I checked the sky. No distance thunder. No ominous clouds. And not a bad view, either.
Being a good son, I called my mom. Her first words were, “Where are you?” I swallowed by knee-jerk “at the bottom of a crevasse” response — it didn’t seem credible given the good reception — and said, “The Top of Whitney” instead. Excellent.
The Way Down
Turns out, things look really different when you can see them. Among the new visual elements were a few actual human beings I met as they huffed and puffed and wheezed with desperate aspiration toward the withering heights from whence I had so recently departed. Something about being the first one to the top forces me to right long, pompous sentences.
Plus, it’s really fun talking to people who can barely breathe. The secret is to ask them questions without simple yes-no answers. None of this, “beautiful day, isn’t it?” or even “How are you?” No, you’ve got to ask things like, “So what’s a Bergschrund, anyway?”
I ran into a group of chipper twenty-somethings at the Trail Crest just before putting my spikes back on and heading down the switchbacks. I don’t think any of them were sweating. Good thing I was taking care of that for them.
I spent a few minutes staring down a snowfield at the furrows dug by the butts of others who had opted to slide or, more ostentatiously, glissade past all the silly switchbacks to the valley floor. I thought about it. I had slicks in my pack, so I could do it without getting soaked. But without an ice axe, all I had were my trekking poles and I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk bending them, so switchbacks it was. They were actually kind of fun now that I could see them.
I had pretty much run out of water at the summit, but I had iodine tabs and planned to drink up when I got down to a stream or lake. On the way down I ate a few handfuls of snow–more out of habit then thirst–but other than that all I had the one last swig of water until I got to XX lake at around 11:30.
I took off my hotter gear and thought about purifying the water, but I didn’t want to carry the extra weight or wait the 30 minutes until I could drink the water, so I decided to give it a pass. Can’t say it really mattered all that much, but I was definitely thirsty and achy when I got to the car at 2:40 pm or so. Just a bad idea.
Long drive. I missed the bears.
Net-net, I’d gotten up in 8:10 and down in 5:15 or so, including getting lost-ish on the way up and dehydrated on the way down. According to various sites, that’s a moderately good time, with an actually good time something like 5 hours up and 3 hours down.