What do you say when a friend calls and asks if you want to climb Mt Whitney with her? You say yes. You don’t think about how high it is, how long the trail is, the dangerous weather or snow conditions. You just say yes. Absolutely, yes.
It was 2013 and I was working on climbing 30 mountains before I turned 30 years old. My BFF in California scored some permits for September and thought that I might want to add the highest mountain in the lower-48 to my list. I hadn’t really considered it before, but of course I was in. I booked a flight to LA and then did a little research. I found that the Mt Whitney Trail is not technical (when there is no snow present) but climbs 11 miles and 6000ft from the trailhead at Whitney Portal to an altitude of 14,500 feet and we were doing this all in one day. Yikes!
I really didn’t know if I would be able to do it, but I was going to try. I was also nervous about the altitude since I hadn’t climbed higher than about 12,000 feet and that was when I was acclimatized. But I just decided to take it one step at a time and evaluate how I was feeling. If I didn’t make it to the top, I didn’t make it to the top, no big deal. It would still be an amazing trip.
So I hopped on a plane and stuck my head to the window looking at the Sierra below and wondering what it would be like at the top of Whitney. Then we packed in the car and headed north to Lone Pine. The one horse town sits on a plateau at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains near the Alabama Hills. It’s picturesque location is famous for the many western movies shot there. I remember our dinner that night like it was yesterday. We sat outside and looked up at the mountains. I had butterflies in my stomach and a big smile on my face. I couldn’t wait to climb the mountain the next day.
We awoke in the dark and checked and rechecked our packs then headed up to Whitney Portal around 4am. In single file we trudged up the trail. For a few hours all I could see was the gravel of endless switchbacks and my boots lit up by my headlamp. Eventually the trail flattened a bit and we got to a stream. I looked up at the sky and saw nothing but stars. I will never forget the moment I switched off my headlamp, looked up at the endless stars, the water gently trickling nearby.
Then we began to climb more. We were at about 11,000 feet when we stopped for a break and a snack. I was not feeling great and was starting to worry about the altitude. I was hoping it was just nerves. I forced down a sammy jammy and lots of water and continued on. Not long after that we began to see the sun rising. We reached a basin with a lake (where many people camp) just as the ramparts of Whitney and others around lit up in alpenglow. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it seemed like some kind of magic. We stood, huddled together for warmth as we watched in awe as the sunlight painted the mountains orange.
Now finally being able to use my preferred sense of sight, I got a boost of energy. We could now see the clear switchbacks that tracked up seemingly unclimbable jagged peaks. This is when the altitude really kicked in. My head began to thump and it felt like it was blowing up like a balloon, it was also much harder to catch my breath. We slowed down dramatically here. Take a few steps, stop. Take a few steps, stop. I was so thankful for the switchbacks with their gentle grade. We passed some young men working on the trail with tools. I knew they carried those tools up there and I couldn’t even begin to fathom it.
At the top of the switchback section, the trail begins a long traverse across a row of pinnacles and then gradually climbs once more to the broad summit. Along the traverse, the trail fell away thousands of feet between the tall pinnacles. It is not particularly dangerous if you stay on the trail, but I definitely scooted across them being sure to not look down. Once back on solid ground, it’s not far to he summit. Many people were coming down and encouraging us, announcing “you’re almost there!” I got another boost of energy, so excited to see the ugly shelter and to actually make it to the top!
We signed the register, took many pictures, woofed down some snickers bars and took a nice long nap in the sun. We chatted with others from all over the world and snapped group photos for them. I could not believe that we were at the top of the highest point in the lower 48! And better yet, I got there with my friends.