Top of the World (Lower 49 states anyway)
Last Saturday I climbed Mt. Whitney, elevation 14,500 feet, making it the highest point in the United States outside Alaska. She’s big, she dominates the view around Lone Pine and is one of those mountains that you can feel the energy of. The weather had been garbage for several days prior to climbing and I spent a lot of time trying to stay warm and dry. Photography was limited because I still hadn’t seen the Sierra’s in their fullest since arriving nearly a week prior.
The forecast was for clearing so I got a permit and bear canister, even though I think the bears are still sleeping. I sat in the rain at the trailhead the night before, imagine that, and second guessed my decision as it poured rain. As it poured rain all night, I second guessed my decision for the second time. I had faith in the overall weather pattern but prepared for the worst. Snow and stormy conditions at 12,000+ feet can be serious and going solo, I had to be prepared. Given all that, you don’t want to know what my pack weighed at the start!!
The trail heads up, and up and up at a gentle gradient on a beautiful trail. You don’t really see Whitney on the way up, just gigantic granite walls that you know are LOWER than Whitney. Keep climbing. I made it to Outpost camp and stashed shoes and shorts and changed to mountaineering boots and snow pants with gaitors. My pack was back to normal:)
I made good time to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet and quickly found a snowy bench to camp on. It was sunny and nice but the air was cooling fast as the sun set behind the mountain. Sleeping at 12,000 feet is no holiday and I don’t think you can count it as sleep. More like practicing for the times you’re on fire.
I felt great in the morning despite not sleeping and snapped a few images with the big camera and tripod. I probably should’ve left that camera behind, given the weight of my pack. Oh well, it was worth it as I got a few decent shots. I slugged some coffee and oatmeal, and started my journey up. I quickly caught a group and made Trail Crest in good time. Between Trail Crest and the John Muir Trail junction, a trail was broke in the knee to waist deep snow with drifts. From that junction on, there was only a deep, snowy, untracked trail.
Within steps, I felt the 13,500 foot elevation sucking my energy fast. At each bend I thought I should turn around, let others beat a path in and come back the next day and rally to the summit. Or I could push on and potentially have this summit to myself. Done. Push on I did and it became a mental game of one step, one step…
That feeling of approaching and reaching a summit is exhilarating and the summit of Whitney is that and then some. To push so hard, to climb so high, to be prepared and succeed are all thoughts that were swirling around. It was a feeling I’ll never forget in my life. There was a guided group that climbed the Mountaineer Route that was just leaving and it was a short time after that when a couple from London arrived. They’d been hot on my heels as I approached the summit and I tried to stop and let them share the fun of breaking trail;)
1 1/2 hours of grand views in calm winds was enough and I had to make my way back down. Down was easy with much snow having melted and a trail beat in. There was too much crust to glissade the chute but it was soft and easy to walk down. I reached my camp and made the decision to sleep at a lower altitude that night. It is only 3 miles to the lower camp where my shoes were so I packed and hit the trail. Those miles went by quickly and soon I was at Outpost Camp. The rest of the trail was uneventful with the heat finally making a push up the canyon.
I learned my appetite goes to sleep at 12,000+ feet as I packed out 1/2 my food. I also don’t sleep well and headaches easily triggered. I also maybe over prepared but hindsight would have shaved 20+ lbs:) Oh well, I’m stronger now!
Mt. Whitney was the 2nd toughest climb of my life, behind Mt. Rainier, given the conditions of my climb. To go through this, solo, and complete the round trip safely was an experience I’ll never forget, ever. It surely will enhance my life and already has given me inspiration I never had before. The mountains don’t give this to you, they make you realize you had it all along.
I’ll post some other images of the Eastern Sierras, including more of Mt. Whitney, soon. I’ll also tell you of an interesting situation/person I encountered along the trail.
Thanks and enjoy, EE.