Monday, July 26, 1:00 AM – Alarm went off.
1:20 AM – At the trailhead loading gear and going the bathroom.
1:24 AM – Group of five hikers starting the hike 30 yards in front of us encounter a black bear standing on the trail.
And that is how our day started when Mary and I dayhiked Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48 states at 14,505 feet of elevation. We had plans to hike Mt. Whitney in Fall 2020 but all permits for the fall were cancelled because of wildfires. We entered the lottery for the 2021 hiking season and were able to secure a two-day, one-night permit for late July – a perfect time to hike when most of the snow would be melted and the long days would allow for ideal hiking conditions.
You might have noticed that we had a permit to camp overnight on the trail but completed it as a dayhike. Yes, we prepped and planned to hike from Whitney Portal six miles to camp at Trail Camp, the last campsite on the trail before the final five mile climb to the peak. However, when reviewing weather forecasts the evening before, speaking with other hikers and consulting the staff at the camp store, we concluded the best chance to summit due to the weather forecasts would be Monday, not Tuesday.
Time to call an audible and adjust our plans. That meant a complete rethinking our of gear, food, and hiking start time. Lucky for us, it also meant shedding some weight in our packs. Instead of sleeping in, the alarms were set for 1 AM to get an “alpine start” to ensure we had enough time to get to the summit and back down to safer elevations before the typical afternoon thunderstorms rolled in. It also meant we wouldn’t need to carry a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads in our bags. Food, water, jackets, and our ten essentials were all that we needed.
Going back even further, we prepped for this hike with the San Jacinto Peak summit as well as the Hockett Meadow hike. The day before our hike, we got to the the Whitney Portal campground around 2 PM to get acclimated to the elevation at 8,000′ and started hydrating to prepare our bodies. So much water, Gatorade, and coconut water. So many trips to the bathroom. But it was just what our bodies need to combat altitude sickness. The rest of the day was spent near a waterfall, playing cribbage, and stretching. As we got ready for bed, we saw a mama bear and her cub about 200 yards away as the temperature dropped a bit and they looked for dinner.
Once we were at the trailhead and the group in front of us saw the black bear and scared it away, we quickly partnered with another couple to increase our size and noise as we hiked in the dark with our headlamps on. I led the hike and ended up coming across two deer on the trail, or as I yelled each time, “I see eyeballs!” and then proceeded to make as much noise to scare them away until I realized they were deer. Even Bambi can get your heart rate up! Especially when its dark and you can’t see the shape of the body.
It took about 3.25 hours to hike 6.5 miles to Trail Camp where we took a 45 minute break for breakfast, rest, and water filtration. It also allowed us to watch the sun illuminate the giant granite walls that surrounded us. Mary and I then made the push to the top. After Trail Camp is “97 Switchbacks” that zig zag up the mountain over 3 miles leading up to the ridge, Trail Crest. The “trail” along the final two mile stretch to the summit is basically boulder hopping that was easily the most challenging and draining part of the hike (“the longest 2 miles of my life” as described my Mary). One reason was the constant focus on our footsteps, but the bigger factor was the strong winds that were blowing the entire time. Once we summited around 8:45AM, the weather was around 40 degrees with a wind chill just above freezing. We took shelter in the Muir hut on the summit for some snacks and water for a few minutes. We then took some quick photos and started our descent knowing that the very windy, overcast sky was bringing the storm we heard about the day before.
The trip down the mountain was equally slow and methodical to ensure neither of us got hurt. We worked our way to the bottom of the ridge, took a snack break, and then tackled the switchbacks again to Trail Camp. From Trail Camp back to the van, we were excited because that stretch of the trail was in the dark on the way up, so we didn’t get to see all the waterfalls, lush meadows and lakes that we passed in the wee hours of the morning.
Just as the forecast predicted, around 2 PM, the rain started and a few thunderclaps followed shortly after. At that point, we were hiking through the trees with probably 2 miles to go and relatively safe from the elements. Scary for anyone who was still in the alpine zone.
We made it back to the car around 3 PM, making it a 13.5 hour day with 22 miles of hiking and 6,000′ of elevation gain. The elevation gain played an impact as we had to constantly focus on calories and hydration to ensure we didn’t get altitude sickness. We got a few small headaches but quickly rested and hydrated each time.
Sean: The sunrise at Trail Crest was really nice because it put a beautiful light on the mountains, but also meant we didn’t have to keep hiking with our headlamps on.
Mary: The two miles between Trail Camp and Outpost Camp on the way back down. I had heard this section was particularly beautiful, but because we hiked in the dark, I was completely surprised around every corner. It really is one of the most beautiful sections of the entire hike.
-Be adaptable- we planned for a two day trip and changed our plans the evening before. It worked in our favor, but we got lucky using the local resources of staff and hikers who just completed the hike.
-The altitude is no joke. Constantly focusing on hydrating and calorie intake was a focus while we climbed up to the top.
-This is a hike that requires training, but for the distance and cardio endurance along with the elevation. At the last minute, we brought an empty bottle with Gatorade powder and loaded up on electrolytes throughout the hike.
This was a great trip and one we had been looking forward to for a long time. Glad we were able to summit in a day versus our initial plan.