My dad had suggested I might want to climb Mt. Whitney (14,945′) since I hadn’t done it in 15 years. So with three weeks to go till my Solo Double Badwater with Mt Whitney summit. I decided for practice to go down and climb from the Mt.Whitney Portal (8300′) to the summit and back in one day a 22 mile round trip I would be doing it solo.
I found out from the website and from talking to the rangers that there was still lots of snow on the mountain and they still considering it winter conditions. For gear the recommended an ice axe and crampons! This was going to be EPIC!!
So I went down to REI and told the young guy working there that I needed an ice axe and crampons! After he recommended a couple brands, I asked him how to use them ” He said ” Your guide will show you” I replied” Dude, I am the Guide!!!” After a quick lesson I left.
I left Santa Rosa Thurs June 24 at 8;00pm and found myself driving through the night with only a short sleep break so I could be the first in line to get my permit Friday morning. I would be climbing Saturday.
After I got my permit I headed up to the Mt Whitney Portal where I would be starting and finishing my hike. I wanted to talk to people about up to date conditions and gear I would need. I went to the Little General store at the Portal first.
There was a weather worn looking guy in his 60’s working there. He was talking to 3 people in there 30’s about going up the mountain. I listened for a bit. Then after they left I stepped up to ask a few questions. He answered my questions then asked me where I was from. I said ” The Bay Area.” He said you know those other people are from Back East. They live in the snow. Your from the Bay Area and your wearing a Hawaii shirt. I am not sure you should be going up there. I just smiled and thanked him and left. I thought this is definitely going to be Epic!!!
I then went over to the trail head to talk to some of the climbers coming off the mountain. A gentleman came down all bundled up and looking like a mummy. He had 3 layers on, He told me he had summitted after spending the night at trail camp. This is definitely more common then to do the summit and back in one day like I would be doing. Especially under these conditions! Camping at trail camp gives you a chance to rest and acclimate before pushing for the summit. He had used his crampons in one area and brought up hiking poles instead of an ice axe. That was all I needed to hear. I didn’t really feel like dragging the awkward ice axe all the way up the mountain anyway!! Crampons and poles it would be!! I went back in the General Store bought some poles. Asked how to use them( ha ha )and I was good to Go!!! It was also recommended to start at 3am to make sure I got off the top of the mountain before nightfall.
I got up at 1am to get my stuff together, eat and then drive to the Portal. I had gotten 3hrs of sleep just like the night prior, totaling six hours of sleep the last two nights. I thought this will defiantly be good practice, to make the Epic climb with some sleep deprivation. At 3 am I left the Portal (8300′) and started up the Mt Whitney trail in the dark with my headlamp on. I was told there wouldn’t be much snow until the trail camp about six miles up the trial. I passed several groups of people as I headed up the trail briskly. I felt strong! The only trouble I had in the early going was the streams crossing the trail were really flowing with snow melt.
There were large wet rocks that you had to gingerly cross to get to the other side. I was wearing Gortex trail running shoes and gators.
But after about a half a dozen stream crossings in the dark and a couple of missed steps. I had managed to soak both my feet. In addition to wet feet after an hour I noticed my breathing really started to labor. I had probably climbed to just over 9500′ in altitude and I was already having trouble catching my breath. I thought how is this possible in the past I had never had trouble with altitude till above 11,000 feet. I also thought that in the past I had done regular training in the high altitude area of Lake Tahoe area and I hadn’t trained regularly in Tahoe in more than a year. I was now paying the price I would have to stop every 5 or so minutes just to catch my breath. The people I had past down below were now passing me. I asked them if they had acclimated and they all said they had spent time in high altitude. This would be a major Fopa.
I arrived at 12,000′ trail camp exhausted I couldn’t believe how tired I was, it was way to early. I sat down at trail camp looked up at the 97 switch backs that take you up to the trail crest. I noticed there was lots of snow on the switchbacks and about 10 people were going up them. They were doing everything to avoid snow. They were spending a lot of time climbing from one switch back to the next through the loose scree rocks especially on the lower section. I took a 10 minute break, changed into dry socks. Reminded myself there is no place I would rather be and headed up the switch backs.
I was moving slow but steady in the ever-thinning air. Going through the loose rock scree in between switchbacks was very challenging. After an hour or so of moving up the switchback I came up on three guys, I thought I must be feeling better if I caught up to people. Two of the guys were watching their buddy crossing the area they call the cable section. Over this dangerous portion of the trail there were cables strung between poles for a couple hundred feet. I told the guys “Hey these cables weren’t here 15 years ago when I climbed this trail.” One of the guys said “people must have fallen and died here!” I looked down and said “yep, that was definitely a possibility, we had defiantly climbed a ways up the mountain.” There buddy was walking inside the cables then at the second to last pole where the snow was over flowing the trail, he stepped through the cables and climbed on the outside of the cables to pass the snow overflow. He then had to hoist himself up to get back on the trail. His buddies watched him and were giving play by plays, “Did you see that! He went on the outside of the cables!” One by one they both agreed. “Were done!” I learned later this was a very popular turnaround spot. After that I went down the trail and around the snow covered pole. The hoist I had to do from the poles to get back on the trail did get my attention a little bit. I told my new friend who had crossed the cables ahead of me, I didn’t think his buddies were coming and that I would be his new friend. We kept pushing up the switchbacks until we got to the trail crest. We were now over 13,500 feet and we were about to come to the most dangerous section on the trail. I had heard about this part of the trail. Scary news travels fast! It was again a couple hundred feet long and the trail was very skinny and covered in ice and snow and if you lost your footing it would be a long time till you stopped!!! My new best buddy stepped up to the skinny ledge of a trail and froze up, there was no cables this time. On the way up he had told me had trained for 5 mos for this climb and told everyone he knew he was doing it. He told me to go first, a guy on the other side was waiting to come down screaming at me that it was safe! He said he had crossed it earlier. Damn!! I always fall for peer pressure!! I stepped out on the skinny snow covered trail and just focused on stepping in the footprints of the people who had gone across before me. I never looked down. I moved slow and steady and after I crossed it, I took a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief!! I looked back at my new best buddy, he looked at me and said “I am done!!!” He would go no further. So much for my new friend, easy come easy go!! A lady later told me when she went across this section she had lost her footing and used her ice axe to stop from going down the mountain!! Her friend said it had scared her so much she started crying!! Maybe my new best buddy was smarter than me!!! After all the ice axe didn’t even make the cut on my equipment!!
I moved along the trails crest again for a while until I came across a hiker coming down from the summit, he told me I had 2 ½ miles to go to the summit. I couldn’t believe it was still that far! I continued down the trial crest for another half hour until I came to a big snowdrift on the trail. No one had crossed the snowdrift so using my best tracking skills, I decided the trail was lower down the backside of the mountain. I started climbing down the large slabs of rock on the backside of the mountain.. I remember thinking this is crazy hard especially with the 20+lb pack on my back. But I just kept dropping lower. I dropped down a little bit and thought I was on the trail. Then when I realized it wasn’t I just kept dropping lower. Don’t ask me why but I was just convinced the trail had to be lower. Finally, after climbing down the backside of the mountain for a half an hour. I looked up and I could see two hikers way up near the crest. I had to scream at them several times to get their attention. I asked them stupidly if they were on the trail to the summit? Of course they said they were, I told them what I had done and they asked me if I needed help and I said, “Nope, I am Good!!” I then started the agonizing climb back up the mountain one foothold and handhold after another. I was about halfway back up, another hiker came down the trail and spotted me climbing up the rocks. He got excited and asked me if I had climbed all the way up form the bottom. He had mistaken me for a real rock climber, but I said “You Bet!!’ Then I said “Just kidding just a wrong turn.” He pulled out a camera and took my picture and then went on his way. After another strenuous half hour I hoisted myself back onto the trial!!! I just laid there, trying to catch my breath and regroup, I still had another hour to go to get to the summit. I had been on the mountain for 10 hours, and had just spent an hour climbing with all fours above 14,000!! To say I was tired would be a huge understatement!! My spirits lifted when a group of four came upon me and they were still going to the summit!! I told them it was great to have friends again and asked if they minded if I tagged along to the summit! It was a father with his daughter, son and lady friend.
After a half hour the son got altitude sickness and him and the father stopped. The daughter and her friend were much stronger tan me and had left me in the dust. I guess we weren’t that tight of friends after all. Ha Ha!!! As I got closer to the summit I saw a ranger and my friends moving down the mountain. They had obviously just touched the summit and turned around. I asked the ranger how far to the summit, and he said 15 min. He said, “You might want to turn around now it looks like a storm could be blowing in.” I said I wanted to finish it off. He then said “if you go on you will be on your own!” I said, “I’m Good!!” As I approached the summit I was surprised to still see two guys up there! I asked them to take my picture then asked them when they were heading down. They said they weren’t, they were camping on the summit. I said “Aren’t you afraid of lightening?” They said “Nope.” I thought, my kind of guys and said it was nice knowing them!! I meant it and I headed down the mountain. It had took me 11 hours to summit and It was 2pm. When I did this 15 years ago on dry trails and rested I had reached the summit in 5 ½ hour. Man was this EPIC!!
I headed down the mountain very weak and I was moving at a very slow pace. After walking very slowly along the crest trail for about an hour. I stopped to take a break still above 14,000 feet. I stood there and began to shake I was so depleted. It was now 3pm, I thought to myself I still had plenty of time to get most of the way down the mountain before dark. As I sat down I was so weak I would have loved to crawl in a sleeping bag and go to sleep. But sleeping would not be an option I didn’t have a sleeping bag this was a day hike. Just a quick up and down!!! ha ha
After about 10 mins I summoned all my strength and rose to my feet and again slowly started moving down the mountain. After about 20 mins with the food I had just ate starting to kick in and the air getting richer with oxygen. I noticed I was starting to feel stronger and I was moving quicker. I came to the first of the skinny dangerous spots with nobody around but just me and this ledge of a trail. But with my new found strength came a confident attitude!!! I had already conquered this bad boy once!!! I didn’t even pause I just stepped on that snow covered ledge and walked right across it, like a kid on a curb!!! Yeh Baby I was rolling now!!! I moved briskly down the trail to the cable section and again had no problem with it. I was moving down the mountain and through those 97 switchbacks at a fast pace now!!! The trails were really wet with snow melt however. My feet got soaked again. Even going through the loose rocks was no problem. I was on fire!!! I looked down to trail camp and I could see some of the campers watching me come down the mountain. As I got further down I was pracrtically skiing the rock scree!!!
When I arrived at trail camp. It was 7:30 pm I had been going for 16 1/2 hrs. The first two campers I saw I recognized from earlier on the mountain. One of the guys screamed at me that I looked Great!!! Another big group asked if I wanted to have dinner with them. I said I was on a mission to finish this thing off. I wanted to get as far down the mountain before dark anyway!!!
After I said my good byes to the campers I headed down the Mt Whitney trail again for the Portal. I had 6 miles to go and I felt strong. I figured I’d be to the Portal in a hour and a half worst case 2 hours. Well after a half hour I got to where the trail goes over solid rock. Trail markings on the rock are just a couple small rocks strategically placed on the trail to let you know your still on it. Well I must have missed one of these rocks because I came to a dead end on a cliff overlooking a lake. I back tracked till I got to a dirt trail. But I was very delirious and I got on the trail on a horse shoe section I couldn’t remember which way I had come down the trail. I was now so tired I was not thinking clearly. It was now 8:30 pm, I sat down pulled out my trail map and couldn’t make head or tails where I was. As darkness was setting in I said to myself. What is the solution there is always a solution!!! In the distance I could see a lone figure moving down the mountain through the snow. I screamed a couple times but because of a raging creek between me and him he couldn’t hear me.
I packed up my stuff and began chasing the mysterious figure. I moved down the bank of the creek for about a mile before I was able to get his attention. He crossed over to my side of the creek and I asked him how to get to Whitney Portal. He said I was on the right trail. By chasing him I had gotten myself on the right trail. I said no chance I could get lost again is there. I must have looked pitiful bacause he volunteered to take me there. It got dark and we walked and we walked and we walked. He never talked we just kept walking. It was now10pm I had been going for 19 hours with only a few minutes of sleep. This was becoming the longest 6 miles of my life. Around this time he informed me he had made a wrong turn. After we got back on the main trail he told me we still had 3 miles to go. I had gone 3 miles in 2 1/2 hrs. I was beyond exhausted I told my new best friend I had to sleep for a half hour and that I would be fine and he could head out. With no sleeping bag I put on the 3 layers I had in my pack on. In the 50deg.f. temp, I Layed on the side of the trail. Careful to lay down pointing the way I needed to go when I got up.
I used my pack as a pillow. As I layed on my head on my pack I smelled something that was definitely not Flowers!!! On Whitney anything you carry in, You are supposed to carry out including solid waste!!! Yes I had gone the bathroom in a bag earlier in the day and put it in my pack. I was so exhausted I just said to myself ” Oh Well” and drifted off to sleep!!! A half hour later I awoke to the now familiar smell of not flowers!! I put on my pack and death marched the last 3 miles to the car!!! I arrived at the car at midnight. My day hike had tooken 21 hrs!!! I had to sleep in the car for 2 hrs. Until I felt it was safe to drive to the hotel!!!