Area: California, USA- Inyo National Forest and John Muir Wilderness
Significance: Tallest mountain in the contiguous (lower 48) United States
Distance: 22 miles (RT)
Elevation Gain: 6130 ft
Highest Point: 14,505 ft
Call it a summit fever, or an obsessive compulsion; summiting Mount Whitney was just one of those things I HAD to do. The reason it took so long for me to get on this trail was my inability to win the permit via US Forest Service’s lottery system. This year, I while filling up the application, I put down mid-week and shoulder seasons, and sure enough, we got the permit for overnight camping in the Whitney Zone for October- the tail end of the climbing season. I knew we most likely would be running into snowstorms, and may not succeed with our climb, but we (10 of us.. haha) had permits in our hands and we just had to try our luck!
The disclaimer is that I fell short by 1.9 miles and 900 ft to make it to the summit, but I bagged many stories of perseverance, tears of pain and joy, the difficulty of winter hiking, bruising snowstorms, unforgettable views, and countless memories that I brought home with a strong desire to go back to stand on the top, just like my son and my husband did!
So here is how it went –
Four of us along with six other friends drove 8 hours to reach Lone Pine on Wednesday night, to start hiking on Thursday, with a plan to summit the mountain and return on Friday. We heard about the snowstorm that hit the high sierras a week before, but after looking at the Whitney portal message board and a few other online sources, we decided not to pack microspikes with the hope that the ice probably had melted by the time we would get there. We drove to the Whitney Portal trailhead after a nice breakfast at our hotel in Lone Pine. We started hiking with a full enthusiasm and plenty of hope at 10 am. The hike started off through the forests with colorful autumn leaves marking the end of the hiking season. This was finally happening!
Day 1: With years of dreaming and months of preparations, there was nothing (other than mother nature) that would hold us back, but oh boy we were wrong.. At almost three miles up the trail, just before the Outpost Camp, we were stopped by a friendly ranger, who greeted us with a big smile and asked to see our permits, gave us all the necessary information about the hike, answered all our questions and asked us to see if we packed our wag bags (yes, yes and yes!). She asked us to see if we were aware of the potential incoming snow storm that was supposed to hit the area just in a few hours, and lastly, she asked to see if we had packed our bear canisters (sigh!). According to our (internet) research and message boards, there was no bear activity at the trail camp (at 12000 ft) where we were supposed to be staying at, and since we were not planning to leave any food in the tent for Fridays’ summit push, we were not worried about marmot (huge alpine cousins of squirrels) – attacks either. Apparently, on the contrary of all the information floating on the web, you are NOT allowed to camp in the Whitney zone without the Bear Canister – at all. At this point, the ranger advised us to descend to the trailhead and grab a bear canister from the Portal store and return or just to come back the next day.
We debated about what to do- finally, we decided to go back, and since there was also a snowstorm coming in, to grab microspikes as well from the town, and to return the next day. The only problem would be, now, we were forced to hike the entire mountain in a single day since our permit was only eligible for one night. We decided to make the most of it, even though, chances of success were a lot less now – to do this in a single day, we all agreed on giving it a try and enjoy the day in the Whitney Zone since we were already there! We spent the rest of the day going back down, visiting the nearby landscapes, grabbing microspikes and dinner in the town, and getting good sleep back in the hotel. Anuj (our 14-year-old son) got sick with having a hard time to breathe and swallow at night but he rested well with the help of medicines that we picked up from the town.
Day 2: We woke up at 1.30 am to reach the trailhead for a 3am start, we started hiking at 2.45 am with the help of our headlamps. Backpacks were a little lighter today after ditching all the camping supplies. Anuj started out feeling well, but soon after, he started having troubles breathing and also had stomach-ache. He, around 4.30 am, threw up and did not look to be in a condition to move on. Dharmesh (my husband) decided to descend with him and to take him back to the hotel and asked me to continue the hike along with Arnav (our 17-year-old son) and rest of the group.
Eight of us continued our hike in the dark, this is when Manav- another teenage boy- in our group started feeling stomach-sick. We slowly continued going up, and around 7.15 am, we witnessed the amazing sunrise, bringing the daylight, sunshine and a new hope for our hike.
At the Consultation lake, we saw Dharmesh coming back up, we couldn’t believe that he actually came back and caught up with us! Arnav and I were walking ahead on the trail, but we kept on waiting to try to stay together as a group. We moved up slowly and reached the Trail Camp at 12000 ft around 9am. We were already a little late according to my calculations to make it to the summit, but the goal was to do as much as we could do while having fun with it. This is where we met other hikers who stayed there overnight and also the ones who summited a day before. We heard stories of how bad the snowstorm was the night before and how cold the night got for them at the campsite. Every one of them warned us about icy trails after 40th switchback, just a few hundred feet above the campground. Brinda decided to return due to her fear of heights not wanting to be on the icy trails near cliffs. Manav decided to return with her.
This is also when we- the three of us- as a family- decided that Dharmesh and Arnav should separate from the group since they had a faster pace and were probably the only ones in the group with possible chances of actually making it to the summit. I decided to stay back with the group and enjoy the rest of the day. I knew that we were already late to the summit, we decided on 2pm turn around time – with or without the summit – before the groups separated. We filtered the water from the lake and refilled our water bottles. I watched Arnav and Dharmesh taking off really fast to the switchbacks.
Next part would be a steep climb over 99 switchbacks to the trail-crest reaching to 13,645 ft of elevation, followed by last 1.9 miles of climbing over the west side of the Sierra crest to reach the Whitney summit.
At 39th switchback, the trail started getting icy, we put on our microspikes, and continued our climb. We saw a ‘signature’ (last name carved in snow) left by Arnav and Dharmesh at around 45th switchback. We entered and passed through dense layers of clouds over on this -east- side of the mountain. We met climbers who were returning from their trek, who told us that there was a lot of sunshine on the top of the crest and on the other- west side of the mountain all the way to the top! Our steps `felt’ very secure with the help of microspikes. Tj and I were hiking ahead and taking a plenty of rest breaks, while rest of the group made a slow ascent. Breathing was getting increasingly difficult as oxygen level dropped. Although switchbacks seem to be way more than 99 (almost never-ending), I personally had fun hiking this portion of the mountain.
Finally, at around 1.20pm, we reached the top of the crest. The trail wrapped around the mountain and we moved to the west- side.
We still had last 900 ft, 1.9 miles and the most strenuous portion of the hike left before we would make it to the summit. We recognized that walking over 13000 ft where available useful oxygen was 40% less than the normal was not going to be a joke. It was also almost time to return. With 40 minutes remaining in the clock before our turn around time, we decided to walk past the trail crest to catch glimpses of the Guitar Lake and Hitchcock Lake. Weather was completely different on the west side with full sunshine. The spectacular panoramic views of the high sierras and the alpine lakes left us speechless! We spent a plenty of time here soaking the magical scenery in.
With our hearts filled with mixed emotions, we started making the descent at 2pm, we reached the trail camp at 5pm and back to the Whitney portal at 10pm. Dharmesh and Arnav caught up with us at 8pm on the return hike. I was choked with joy and sentiments when I heard that they made it to the summit! we drove back to the town and got greeted with hot dinner Brinda had picked up for us. We were relieved seeing Anuj and Manav feeling better. A fresh warm meal, cold beer, and hot showers were just what we needed that night.
I (and I am sure everyone else did too) spent the next day thinking about my unsuccessful attempt and all the factors that played roles during the hike, decisions I made, the dilemma of feeling a `failure’ vs. being `happy’ about what I actually could accomplish (and that – as a matter of fact- was a lot) and how I would do it again, next time around – to make it to the top!
At the Summit: During our drive home the next day, Arnav and Dharmesh described the challenges they encountered while making it to the top, how last part of the trail got really narrow and icy at times, difficulty finding the right trail leading the way up, extreme exhaustion especially at the last 100 ft to the top, altitude sickness that Arnav was hit with, urge of almost giving up, overcoming that with persistence and putting mind over matter to drag themselves up to the top! They couldn’t stop describing the views from the top, and showing photos and videos from the summit, I almost felt like I was there with them!