My Mt. Whitney day hike: up was easy; down … I’d rather not remember

My hiking permit was for Tuesday, August 2, 2016. So here’s how the adventure went:

Preparation

Day minus 2: Sunday, July 31, 7:30pm
Arriving at Whitney Portal (elevation ~8300ft). Checking into the Ravine walk-in campground and setting up tent. Going to sleep soon. (Can you see my tent in the picture? There are no others. Had campground to myself.)
Day minus 1: Monday, August 1
IMG_2797Breakfast at the wonderful Whitney Portal Store, also host to the extremely useful Whitney message board. Driving down to Lone Pine to pick up my hiking permit. Otherwise doing a whole lot of nothing, just acclimatizing and getting ready for the hike.
Preparing day pack: 3 water bottles. Water filter. Trail mix. Power bars and sugar pills. Electrolyte pills. Head lamp and hand-held flash light. Maps. Permit. Compass. Hiking hat, and warm hat. First aid kit. Waterproof poncho. Warm jacket. Wind breaker. Warm long underpants (will wear warm undershirt as hiking shirt). Sun glasses. Pocket knife. iPhone. Walkie-talkie. Extra batteries for everything. Tissues. Chap stick.
Going to sleep around 6:30pm. Amazingly, I manage to sleep close to six hours before getting up. Being far away from other campers certainly helps.

The day

Tuesday, August 2, 1:30am
Alarm rings and I feel good and ready. Applying sun screen. Putting on hiking clothes. Cleaning up tent so I can fall right in when I get back. Picking up prepared backpack, five pre-made sandwiches from the cooler, filling one of the water bottles. Forgetting to eat the danish for breakfast that I meant to eat. Drinking half a Gatorade, and a pint of water. Off to the trail head.
2:10am
There are maybe 10 other hikers there, getting ready. I weigh my pack — about 15 pounds. Once I fill up the other water bottles (2×1.5l) it will be less than 22 pounds; perfect weight. Off I go.
Soon thereafter
Darn, it is hot here! Temperature is probably in the mid-70′s, but I’m hiking up a mountain and I’m wearing long pants and a long-sleeved warm undershirt. Sweating like a pig already. So I take off my shirt and hike shirtless. Fortunately, the trail is built like a freeway (well, as mountain trails go) and rather easy to follow even in the dark. Sorry, there are no pictures, it is pitch-dark in a moonless night.
I start meeting people. There’s a group “We are from Modesto. Where are you from?” that altogether talks more than they would if they were experienced hikers. I meet them a few more times in the morning, but not later in the day. No surprise here.
Because it’s the new moon, an amazing starry sky is above me (did you know there isn’t really any spot in the night sky where there isn’t a star? You just need to look up from a place that is really dark!) and lines of little tiny flash lights are on the mountain behind and ahead of me. The park service issues 100 day hike tickets per day, and many of those people seem to have started around the same time as me. No solitude here, even at 2:30am!
5:00am
IMG_2826What’s this over there? The first hint of morning! Sunrise is only at 6am, but the first rays are making it into the mountains.
See the little white dot? This iPhone camera is really sensitive; this is a tiny flash light of somebody a quarter mile behind me.
IMG_2837It gets brigher every minute, and soon thereafter, I can make out where I am! Fortunately I have reached enough altitude already that the air has cooled off and I can put my shirt back on.
Breakfast: here goes the first sandwich of the day. And it’s time to put the flash lights away.
About 6:00am
IMG_2859The sun is coming up now. It is blood-red; there’s a lot of dust in the Owen’s Valley. I must have hiked beyond the tree line during the night. The scenery is all granite and gorgeous.
Some people are taking the first selfies. I trade photographing duties with a college-age girl; here is her work:
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Moving on, I’m clearly in the High Sierra now, and there is Whitney and Wotan’s Throne. (Whoever named this peak must have been a Wagner lover; one day I will research this…)
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Too inviting to not do a panorama:
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So far, being tired has not occurred to me. I’m having a great time, the landscape is amazing, I keep pushing up, my feet are fresh as if I had just started, no pains or anything; life is good. Press on!
7:00am
I have made it to Trail Camp and the lake next to it. Whitney is so much closer now! This is the last water source, so this is the time to fill up all bottles to the brim. Taking a break and sitting down for as long as it takes to pump the water.
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Shortly thereafter
IMG_2900Are there really 99 switchbacks? I don’t know, I’m too busy focusing on my breathing to count. It’s really easy to run out of breath at 12,000 ft when pushing up, so I find a rhythm of one-count, two-count, breath-in, three-count breath-out. I sound like a steam engine, but I figure if I can sound like that in the gym on the stair master, I definitely can sound like that on the mountain.
Higher and higher we go. No snow on the cables, so they are trivial to navigate. Some people climb up Whitney from the front. I have no idea how anybody could possibly … Onwards!
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9:00am
Yes, I did expect the switchbacks to eventually end. They did! I’m on the crest and I can see far into Sequoia National Park on the west side of the ridge. Time for a break, for a chat with fellow hikers, and another sandwich!
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9:15am
IMG_2940Now the trail is supposed to be easy because according to the map, it is nearly flat. Except that it isn’t. It’s not so much a trail, as a series of granite boulders to scramble over.
The views are absolutely spectacular into Sequoia National Park on the west side of the ridge. Some of the formations are really funny, like this one with a window.
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And finally, Whitney proper is coming into sight. While it’s going to take some time, what’s left of this hike does not look like it’s going to be particularly hard.
Here is one of the famous “windows”: I can see all the way down to Lone Pine in the Owen’s Valley.
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11:00am
I am on Whitney now, the only thing left is reaching the summit itself. The views are even more spectacular. The trail, on the other hand, isn’t much of one any more.
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What’s that? It must be the Whitney summit hut! Almost there!
11:30am
Summit!! All the hard work of training and running and hiking over months has paid off, I have made it to the summit of the highest mountain in the US (outside of Alaska) at 14,505 ft, or 4,421 meters. There are people all around me, and there’s a certain party atmosphere. Some kids appear as young as 10 or 12. Two guys loudly exclaim: “We are out of food and water, but we are not going to carry that can of beer back down the mountain! Cheers!” I sign myself into the summit register, take lots of pictures and have pictures taken:
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Now if this were opera, you’d have been hearing a slightly dissonant note somewhere for a little while. Did we talk about Wagner earlier? Like in the 3rd act of Holländer where the super-happy beach party is undermined by that low note representing the supernatural powers about to come out of the haunted ship and take over? Mind you, so far I’m feeling good. I’m eating, drinking, no headache, I am not particularly tired, everything seems fine. But after the fact, I look at the picture of my hand as I am signing the summit register, and note that my hand does not usually look so swollen.
12:15pm
Ok, I spent 45 min on the summit, had lunch, took pictures, and even managed to post to Facebook and call my wife. (Unusually, for the trail, there’s cell phone coverage on the summit.) Some clouds are gathering too for possible afternoon thunderstorms. So it’s time to go.
IMG_3047I hike off Whitney itself, and back to the mostly horizontal trail on the back side of the ridge. And now things are getting difficult. Out of nowhere, I’m basically out of energy. The trail goes up by 3 feet, and I feel I have to take a break to catch my breath and energy. What the? I eat some more energy/sugar pills. I drink more water with electrolytes. (Fortunately, I still have plenty!) Maybe I have a teensy bit of a headache, but it’s almost not noticeable. No nausea. Everything seems fine, except I feel like somebody clogged my fuel line. There’s still fuel coming, but at 1% of the rate it should. Darn. I’m 10+ miles out and at 14,000 ft altitude. Even in the best circumstances, that’s a six hour hike back down. At the rate I’m going and taking breaks, that’s going to take much longer. At least those breaks make it easy to take a few more pictures.
IMG_3051I push myself along. First priority: get off this ridge. If there’s a thunderstorm and I’m on this ridge, I’m in trouble. So, focus on getting back to the switchbacks and worry about everything else later. (Fortunately, there is no thunderstorm on the mountain that day; but I did not know that and for a while, the clouds did look blacker than I would have liked.)
Finally, I make it to the switchbacks and I start to descend. I’m in serious discomfort now. My mind is dozing off. I look at my watch, continue on my hike down for a long time, and look at my watch again. Four minutes have passed! What? After what feels like several times 99 switchbacks, I still haven’t reached the cables, which are somewhere in the middle of this stretch. What is going on here?
What could be wrong with me? I can think of two things: 1) mountain sickness. But I should have a splitting headache, and I don’t. I should also not want to eat and I eat just fine. 2) I might be out of blood sugar like it sometimes happens to marathoners. But my sugar pills should make a difference, and they don’t. I keep drinking and eating just in case.
A helicopter is circling around. (I later learn that it airlifted a girl out with acute altitude sickness who I had seen in the group of college-age kids one of whom took the pictures of me above at sunrise.) I’m feeling bad enough I seriously consider attempting to signal the helicopter to get me out, too. I can’t seem to be thinking it through how that would work, and so I don’t signal the helicopter; less out of conviction than out of lethargy. The helicopter leaves.
There’s a guy with a full pack (sleeping bag, tent etc) who I talked to earlier hiking down the same way I do, but he is way faster than me. And I only carry a day pack and am 20 years younger. Darn.
Finally, I get to the end of the switch backs and Trail Camp. I see a familiar face of somebody I talked to earlier who has set up his tent there. I basically collapse on the ground next to his tent. It takes me half an hour before I can open my eyes and sit back up. I eat and drink. Still no nausea or significant headache. I chat with the tent guy for a while, telling him how exhausted I am. He checks that I have food and water and warm clothes in my pack, and a flashlight, and encourages me to just keep “zombie hiking” down, going as slowly as I need to, through the night if needed.
About 4:00pm
I’m back on the trail. The rest was a good idea. I have a bit more energy, although it does not last long. My mind, however, is completely spaced out. It feels like extreme jet lag, combined with being drunk, many hours after I should have gone to sleep. It is hard to think about anything in particular. I am so glad I have the Mt Whitney iPhone app with me. It tells me exactly where I am, without me having to do complicated things like reading a map, because I’m not confident in my own abilities to do that any more.
From time to time, I force myself to observe how my feet are stepping. To my relief, I seem to be on solid footing. No shakiness, or tiredness in my legs. They seem to be stepping in all the right places, too. Maybe it’s just the higher brain functions that are out of commission. I come to the conclusion that my body must be running in some kind of emergency mode that humans kept around from their animal ancestors millions of years ago and that does not require any higher brain functions. At least I hope so.
I bump into the student group again whose member had to be airlifted out. They are quite distraught because of it, but nice and check in with me. I tell them I’ll be okay. They hike on, much faster than me.
5:15pm
IMG_3064I’m back to rock bottom. No energy left. I’m afraid I might simply pass out from one step to the next, and collapse on the trail. This would be a bad idea: I would likely injure myself from all those rocks around me, and might even fall off the trail down the mountainside. I need to stop somewhere real soon.
Realization dawns on me that in my current state, there is no way I will be able to complete the remaining 4+ miles down the trail. It’s just not going to happen. That means I need to spend the night on the mountain. And if I need to do that, I need to do that somewhere where there are other people. Fortunately, Outpost Camp is not too far. I resolve to make it to there.
6:00pm
I get to Outpost Camp. There are a few tents set up. I approach a family camping there and tell them what’s up. They offer food but I still have plenty myself. A young girl puts some of the water she just pumped into my bottle. That is very much appreciated because I’m about to be out of water and feel I have no energy to even pump some. I find a reasonably soft spot on the ground, and collapse.
After a while, I realize it is getting evening, and I better figure out how I make it through the night. I pull out my rain poncho as ground cover and wrap myself in it. I realize I’m quite cold, while everybody else is sitting around in T-shirts. I pass out again.
7:30pm
I wake up and realize my legs are quite cold. That’s because the poncho isn’t long enough to reach them, and the campground is close to a creek and a waterfall. The dampness is seeping through my pants. I haven’t put on my long underwear, but I’m not looking forward to how I will feel at 3am. This being the mountains, there’s a chance it might be substantially colder in the middle of the night.
With what’s left of my brain, I ponder my situation. It seems I have two choices: either I take my chances with staying over night, possibly dying of exposure if it gets really cold (note that I’m really exhausted so the usual “let’s move to get you warm” is not really an option), or I take my chances collapsing on the trail between here and my tent, with nobody around until the next batch of hikers comes up the mountain past midnight. (Note: I do not know how realistic these doomsday scenarios really were. I clearly was not thinking straight, and I knew it. But this is what I was thinking. It is hard to attempt life-and-death decisions with a dysfunctional brain, and know it.)
Shortly thereafter
I decide it’s do or die time. I collect my belongings and stuff them into my pack. I don’t care about how any more. I tell the other campers I will try and make it down, and off I am.
Fortunately, I have a bit more energy. Not much, but something. I eat some and drink some. I focus on not making any mis-steps. I walk as fast as I can. About 4 miles left. An hour-and-a-half if I’m very, very lucky.
It’s getting dark. Out with the head light. Oops, low batteries. I fumble replacing the batteries. There are deer on the trail that look at me with big eyes. Onwards, go!
Ouch, a mis-step. Did I sprain my ankle? It hurts but soon goes away. Keep moving as fast as you can!
What’s that? Those red lights! It must be lights from a car! I can see lights from cars. They are way below me, but Whitney Portal is close! A new surge of energy!
9:00pm
It is pitch-dark now again. But in the light of my head lamp, I see the wooden contraption that marks the beginning of the Mt Whitney trail. There are people with a flash light studying the map hanging there. I knock against a wooden beam hard and mutter to myself “Mount Whitney, thanks for being a beautiful mountain, but no thanks, you tried to kill me up there.” This is a bit harsh, because it wasn’t Mount Whitney’s fault, but that’s how I feel.
9:15pm
After stopping by the outhouse and the water faucet, I arrive at my tent. There’s a mouse waiting for me right outside the tent. It scurries away. Never, ever, have I been as happy to see my tent in my life. I throw clothes and pack and everything into the bear box, lock it and fall into my sleeping bag. It is warm. I am comfortable. I am safe. I drink some water and eat a cookie. I notice I do have a headache, and decide that a few Ibuprofen won’t hurt. I’m asleep within minutes.

Aftermath

Next day, 8:30am
I wake up because the sun shines on my tent and it’s getting really warm. When I get up, I have some soreness in my calves. Other than that, no pains, no complaints. I’m feeling a little tired. My brain seems to be back, too. It seems ready to think, imagine that!
I get dressed and hike up to the Portal Store for a big breakfast. While I wait, I read in the books they have there about Acute Mountain Sickness. No, what they are describing does not really fit what I experienced. So I don’t know what happened. But I don’t really care. I made it to the top of the mountain, and I made it back down to tell (well, blog!) the tale. That’s all that matters.

THE END.