“YOU’RE going to climb Mt. Whitney?”
“YOU’RE going to climb Mt. Whitney?” The entire room gawked at me. My roommate’s male friend had already poisoned everyone’s mind into thinking that this out of shape recent college graduate could not climb a mountain. My roommate asked me if I was afraid of the climb being challenging since I hadn’t been training. I laughed it off at the time and went to my room. I was stung by their comments, but that wouldn’t hold me back from achieving my dream.
It was the Summer of 2013 and I was training to tackle my first fourteener. Living at an altitude of 52 feet with 360°views of flat land made training a bit of a challenge, but I had no doubt in my mind that come June 26th I would conquer the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. My father had climbed Mt. Whitney a few years prior and finished within 12 hours. In April, I had lucked out by finding a couple of returned permits online. We were confirmed to go for an overnight backpacking trip on Whitney Portal Trail in June. The only thing between me and the top was about 12 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain. Okay, and also, the fact that I'd never been on a summit over 11,000 ft. Challenge accepted!
While cooking in my tiny apartment kitchen, my roommate started asking me details about my upcoming trip. “But aren’t you afraid that you’re going to die?”, my roommate asked with a little hint of panic in her voice. “No”, I replied with a funny look on my face. But her panic continued as she blurted out, “How can you be so calm about this?! I can’t believe you’re going to climb Mt. Everest”. I started laughing so hard, “I’m not climbing Mt. Everest. I’m climbing Mt. Whitney.” “Wait, you’re not climbing Everest?! What’s Mt. Whitney?”, she asked looking very confused. “The highest mountain in the lower 48 states.” Ohhhh.
On Sunday, it will first start with a road trip from Davis, California through South Lake Tahoe and over Monitor Pass where I’ll join the 395 near the California-Nevada border. I’ll follow the 395 southbound through Bridgeport, Lee Vining, past June Lake and Mammoth Lakes, and meet my dad at the McCoy Family’s home in Bishop. That’s about a five hour road trip. After the McCoys, we will head an hour south to the Comfort Inn in Lone Pine for the night. Then, we start our trek up Whitney Portal in the AM.
Driving through South Lake Tahoe
After talking to the McCoys about our climb, I learned two things. One – the McCoys really have superhuman genes as one of Dave and Roma’s grandsons climbed Mt Whitney twice in a day. Ultra runner or not – that is next level. Two – we were ill-prepared for backpacking up a mountain. I did not own any trekking poles, so Dave lent us a couple pairs of ski poles for our adventure. Off to Lone Pine we go!
My dad had already picked up our permits from the rangers, so we were one preparing for the next day. I followed my dad into town and he decided to treat me to a nice dinner at Seasons Restaurant. The only other table in the room was a group of men and women in their late 20s/early 30s and they were celebrating with a couple bottles of wine. My dad and I listened on as we heard jokes and stories about their feat of successfully climbing Mt. Whitney. I looked at my dad and said, “That will be me in two days.” I especially meant the wine.
In 2013, I had never heard of an alpine start, which is part of the reason why we started up the trail at Whitney Portal at 8:00 AM the next day. We were just going to Trail Camp at the base of Whitney. 6 miles away. How hard could it be? I had no idea what 12,000 feet elevation meant. The highest I’d ever been before was 11,053 feet before while skiing at the top of Mammoth Mountain. I was a very inexperienced backpacker about to climb a very high mountain. But I need to make sure you understand a huge factor in this equation – I was determined. Climbing Mt. Whitney was half physical, but it was also half mental. A strong mental game goes a long way in the mountains.
My dad at the Mount Whitney Trailhead in Whitney Portal, CA
Let me tell you. This was no walk in the park. Carrying your camp up a mountain is no joke and this was the day that I found out how tough it can be. It was quite a journey across streams, over walking logs, and up rocks. The altitude wasn’t bothering me at this point. It was the heavy pack on my back.
Taking a break on the lower section of the Mount Whitney Trail
Ahoy, tent city! We made it up to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet around 1:30 PM. It was time to set-up our tent and take a break to eat that roast beef sandwich I had bought from Joseph's Bi-Rite Market in Lone Pine. For dinner we were having beef stroganoff with noodles courtesy of Mountain House meals, so I was happy to have something somewhat fresh for lunch. This was when I encountered my first interaction with a marmot.
Our tent city neighbor came over to chat with us while we were eating. He told me a story about a marmot eating through his toothpaste as I watched the marmots run through the empty tents nearby. They’re extremely cute, but don’t let the cuteness fool you. Lesson of the day: Don’t leave your toothpaste out of your bear bin. After discussing the marmots, we learned that our tent city neighbor was a cancer survivor in remission and he was spending five days on Mt. Whitney to celebrate. It was the second time the disease had come back for him, so this was quite a triumph. This was also one month prior to my mom’s cancer diagnoses. Later in time, I saw this encounter as part of our preparation for the next year to come.
Trail Camp at the base of Mount Whitney
After dinner, we went to bed around 7:30 PM. Our new tent wavered rapidly throughout the night in the wind and water leaked into our tent, dropping on me anytime I rubbed against the side of the tent. Let’s just say that we later returned this tent. This made for a tough night’s sleep but by morning, we were out of there! We were on our way to climbing up to the top. I was hiking at my normal pace at sea level when my dad said, “Slow down. You don’t want to waste your energy.” He was right. There was no way I could keep that pace up all the way on the switchbacks. Rumor has it there are 99 switchbacks on Whitney, but I lost count after twenty-something. No matter how many there are, I would have been good with half of them.
Mt Whitney in all her glory
The freakiest part I had heard about on Whitney was the cables section on the switchbacks. The slabs below the cables weren’t a joke, but we were fine getting through this section since it was a clear day. After breathing pretty heavy up the trail, we finally came upon Trail Crest and entered into Sequoia National Park. We were at approximately 13,600 ft. in elevation and 2 miles away from the Summit of Mt. Whitney. At this point, I knew I was going to make it. I was extremely grateful that I was not carrying our campsite up this far and had left our tent down at Trail Camp.
Trail Crest - Mount Whitney Trail
On the backside, there was a section of the trail that still had snow on it. While crossing this section, an older man with a camera asked if we didn’t mind if he shot photos of us hiking. We said it was fine as long as he caught our good sides. He told us that he was traveling the entire Pacific Crest Trail over three years to take photographs and that his photography would later be published on his website. Unfortunately we lost the card he gave us and never got to see the photos.
About thirty minutes from the top, I asked someone how much farther and they told me “twenty”. Another fifteen minutes went by, I asked someone how much farther and they said, “About twenty minutes”. I looked at my dad frustrated that I wasn’t at the top yet and he told me to give up on asking people. We were going to make it. Fifteen minutes later and we were there.
Top of Mount Whitney
The scattered pieces of large broken rock were unworldly. 14,505’. Slow and steady really does win the race. It felt fantastic to enjoy a protein bar on top of the highest peak in the lower 48. We took a great break up on top of my first 14er. We did it! But half of the success of climbing a mountain includes the going down part. Most injuries and accidents happen on the descent.
Me at the top of Mount Whitney
We made it down to Trail Camp a lot quicker than we made it up. I laid down at camp, exhausted from my accomplishment. Dad told me to help pack up the camp… a few times. I was so tired, but we still had to get down to Whitney Portal. We were also climbing down with heavy packs, which made our descent a bit longer than I expected and we finished the end as it was getting dark.
But I did it! I climbed Mt. Whitney!
The excitement from my accomplishment was drowned out by my exhaustion. We got back to the hotel room and I had a beer in the bath tub as my celebration. I looked a lot more beat up and ruined than the group of accomplished hikers we saw celebrating at the restaurant in Lone Pine. Maybe someday I’ll be as polished in the end as them.
In 2015, I went on to complete Mt. Whitney in a day and in 2016, I conquered 57 miles of backpacking on the John Muir Trail. I don’t know what it was that did it, but that adventure on Mt. Whitney really triggered a lost love I had in me for the mountains and the Sierra Nevada. The outdoors is a heavy part of my lifestyle today and I can’t wait to get back on the mountain. Until next time, happy trails!
My dad and I at the top of Mount Whitney
Smithsonian Institution Shelter on Mt. Whitney