Featured photo for Mt. Whitney, CA

Mt. Whitney, CA

It was a goal I had committed myself to the instant I sent out a $15 check in February for a permit: to ascend the tallest of all peaks in the lower 48 states in one-day. I planned to do it on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, to give myself plenty of time to drive to and from Whitney. In addition, I planned to do it solo. This way, I could go at my own pace and have some time to myself.

I drove my ’00 Z3 through Yosemite to get there, stopping through Stockton to visit a friend for a couple of hours. The drive was superb and surprisingly free of traffic. The drive up took about 7 hours.

But that would not be the focus of the trip; the climb was! I arrive in darkness in Lone Pine at about 8:00 p.m. I have dinner at P.J.’s, the local 24-hour diner, and have a delicious plate of pasta. Afterwards I stay at a hole-in-the-wall of a motel (which nonetheless charged $65 or so) to sleep. Initially I was thinking of sleeping in Lina at the base of Mt. Whitney 13 miles away, but I decided to “luxuriate” here instead, thinking I’d sleep better here than in Lina’s seat which can’t even recline back more than 120 degrees or so!

Time Chart

Landmark Distance (miles) Altitude (ft) Recommended Arrival Time* Actual Arrival Time Comments
Trailhead 0 8361 4:00 a.m. 4:30 a.m. Started out with two folks from Southern CA.
John Muir Wilderness Sign .5 ~9000 4:30 a.m. 4:50 a.m. est. .
Lone Pine Lake 2.5 9960 6:30 a.m. 6:15 a.m. est. Left the two folks behind. Going at a fast pace!
Bighorn Park/Outpost Camp 3.5/3.8 10365 7:10 a.m. 6:45 a.m. est. .
Mirror Lake 4.0 10640 7:35 a.m. 7:05 a.m. est. .
Trailside Meadows 5.0 11359 8:35 a.m. 7:35-7:45 a.m. .
Trail Camp 6.3 12039 9:35 a.m. 8:40-8:45 a.m. I’m just about out of water around here!
97 Switchbacks 6.3 12039 9:50 a.m. 8:55 a.m. est. .
Trail Crest 8.5 13777 12:20 p.m. 10:40-10:45 a.m. .
Whitney Summit Trail/John Muir Trail Junction 9.0 13480 12:35 p.m. 11:00 p.m. est. Shortly afterwards, a hiker coming down gave me water.
Summit 10.7 14496 2:40 p.m. 12:40-12:55 p.m. Made it! Air is indeed thin!
John Muir Trail Junction 12.4 13480 4:15 p.m. 2:30 p.m. est. .
Trail Crest 12.9 13777 4:30 p.m. 2:45 p.m. est. .
Trail Camp 15.4 12039 6:00 p.m. 4:15-4:30 p.m. est. Stayed to chat with a wonderful group who gave me Tylenol.
Trailside Meadows 16.4 11395 6:30 p.m. 5:00 p.m. est. Met Mike here and would walk with him all the way back.
Mirror Lake 17.6 10640 7:10 p.m. 5:40 p.m. est. .
Outpost Camp 19.6 10365 7:25 p.m. 5:55 p.m. est. .
Lone Pine Lake 18.9 9960 8:00 p.m. 6:30 p.m. est. .
Trailhead at Whitney Portal 21.4 8361 9:20 p.m. 7:45 p.m. Just got pitch black; made it down without lights!

The Start

I wake up at 3:30 a.m., and almost immediately drive over to the Whitney Portal at the base of the mountain. It seems like this short 13-mile journey must have gained at least 2500 additional feet in altitude, and I begin to wonder just how wise was it for me to stay in Lone Pine rather than at the higher elevation. The Portal, at 8500 or so feet, was already 8500 feet higher than what my body was used to (and was at just 24 hours ago), and in another 10 hours or so I’d be 6000 feet above that!

Undaunted, I find a parking spot and am ready to start climbing by 4:30 a.m., half an hour later than I initially planned. Ah, well, still should have plenty of time. I don my new Princeton Tec headlamp. It’s only rated at 2 watts but was supposed to be good for an astounding 8 hours! And when I turn it on, I am pleasantly surprised at how bright it is. Well worth the $20.

After using the bathroom facilities 200 feet away from the gift shop, I’m on my way! Almost immediately I am lost, looking for the trail. Two other guys are too. We are searching for the trail for about 5 minutes when we finally find it. We start talking, and I learn the other two are from Southern CA.

“First time up here?” one of them asks.

“Yes,” I reply. First time for them too, it turns out, and they seemed to train as little as I had for this climb. “Just decided to do it,” the fellow continues. “Probably the wildest thing I’d have tried in my life. My friends back home think I’m crazy to try such a thing since I pretty much just sit at an office desk all day. And you? especially for going alone?”

“Well, I am sort of known for doing crazy impulsive things, so none of my friends were really surprised. But it still should be challenging, though.”

Just how challenging would it be, I wonder. How would it compare to a century? A double century? A half-marathon? A full marathon?

With these questions in mind, I lead the way and am going at a pretty quick, but still relaxed pace. Definitely faster than the 1 mph recommended in Sharon Baker-Salony’s book, How to Climb Mt. Whitney in One Day, but I wasn’t even tired so I didn’t slow down. The other two guys, after 45 minutes, were tiring already so they dropped back and even stopped to rest for a bit. Admittedly I was pretty happy to see them do so as I had always envisioned doing this hike solo, just in peace with myself and this monstrous mountain.

The Camps

I get to the first campsite, Outpost Camp, just after the sun had broken through the horizon. The camp’s not too much higher than the parking lot and it’s less than 4 miles into the climb, I think to myself? I wonder why people even bother to camp out here? I check out the solar toilets out of curiosity, only to see a sign saying “please do not urinate in the toilets.” (!) Apparently, the entire system would lock up if it sensed fluids going down. It took me a while to recall that toilets are traditionally used for not only urine but for solid waste, and it’s the latter that these are meant for out here.

I continue on, still feeling fine. I do take some time to take some nice pictures of a stunning sunrise, though. I had heard that the scenery on Mt. Whitney wasn’t all that beautiful but so far I am seeing otherwise.

When I arrive at the second and last camp, I look for some water. I had read on the internet that this was the last place to get water. What the article did not mention was that there was no drinkable water that did not require treatment first! And it looked like the only water was from the lake that this camp was right by. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I sort of expected something like a faucet like the ones they have at Half Dome. This was not good-I had only brought up 72 ounces of water to get me to this point, where I thought I could stock up on more water. Dehydration could be a problem?

But I refuse to think about it much-I am already halfway to the summit and still feeling fine. Woohoo! But here come the 97 switchbacks.

The Switchbacks

“They never seem to end,” I read in numerous places before coming to this mountain. It is here when I start seeing a lot of hikers.

One of the hikers was a skinny teenage kid with basically no gear, just a camelback hydration backpack. The storage compartment of his pack was unzipped and it looked like he had nothing in it! At the base of the switchback he runs right by me. “What the heck is this punk doing running up the mountain like that,” I wonder. Certainly not following the 1-mph rule!

It is about here that I start to feel the onset of a headache. I have very little water but I try to force myself to drink. The water in my new water bladders is starting to taste awful. “No plastic smell” proclaimed the packaging of the water bladders. Yeah, right, I think to myself.

Still, I am feeling relatively at ease although starting to break a sweat. Ice is evident on some of the trail-enough in one section that cables had to be put in by the maintenance crew. My timberline low-top hikers didn’t instill much confidence, especially since aren’t the most comfortable and are stiff and just a tad bit too large, but I didn’t switch over to my Nike running shoes (which were in my bag) since I read in the How to Climb Mt. Whitney book that running shoes are even worse for the slick surfaces of Whitney. I wish I brought ski poles for these areas where traction is sketchy.

Near the top of the switchbacks (which didn’t seem endless on the way up), I catch up to the teenage punk. He is telling a woman that he “ran up the mountain, but not feeling so good anymore.” Well, duh, I think to myself. That’s what you get for trying to go up fast!

But in the midst of this conversation I start to evaluate how fast I was going. Certainly faster that what was recommended, but not stupid fast, I thought? My headache was getting worse and water resources running low. But as I reach the Trail Crest, just 2 miles and 700 feet from the top, I am encouraged. I can do this!

To the Top!

The encouragement quickly subsides, though, as my head is now throbbing. Just two miles, I keep telling myself, piece of cake! But the reality of the situation starts to sink in… two miles means two hours at the pace I’m going.

Soon, it seems like I can only take 20 or so steps before I’d have to stop to regain my senses. At this altitude, it feels like every step I take is depriving my brain of oxygen until my migraine is so bad I have to stop. A climber on the way down sees me as I’m stopped, and instantly recognizes that I’m dehydrated. He offers me some water to fill up. “I’m not going to need this on the way down,” he says. “Please take all of it.”

Which I do, but the water tastes as plasticky as the little I had. Forcing myself to gulp it down, though, I carry on. With every turn I expect to see the top; it can’t be far. But where is it?!

Finally, as the trail starts to become undefined, I become convinced that the top is just a wee bit further and higher. I am practically bouldering now. My legs were really not all that tired, and at lower altitudes while feeling fresh, I would be going three times as fast. But my head continued to throb, and my footwork is clumsy.

But at last! There’s the cabin at the summit just above! I can see and hear some climbers up there. My spirits are up! And ten minutes later, here I am, at the top of the continental United States of America!

On the Way Down

I only stay for 15 minutes to quickly chuck down a protein bar and some beef jerky, get my picture taken, and sign the registrar. “Thanks to Sarah Duvon for inspiring me to do this,” I write, almost illegibly. She, a true adventurer, had done this years ago with her mom and sisters over a periiod of days. While her sisters were suffering tremendously from altitude sickness, she was hauling up everyone’s gear, taking one step at a time. Only now that I have made it to the top carrying far less gear and still having some difficulties can I truly appreciate how difficult that must have been.

Despite going downwards, I really don’t seem to be able to go much faster than when I was going up. This was contrary to how I imagined myself practically running down. I guess that despite the lack of preparation, I always imagined myself to be feeling strong and pain-free, bursting with energy–a true high-endurance athlete. This was supposed to be a walk in the park, and less physically daunting than, say, the Terrible Two Double Century or running my first marathon. But the altitude really got to me–at least my head–despite how capable the rest of my body might have been. Endurance is more than just one’s VO2 Max or physical condtioning; it is at least 50% mental, dependent on morale, patience, motivation, and determination.

Fortunately, despite my headache, I still have ample quantities of the latter, if only because I know the only way I’d feel better is to get down to lower altitudes as quickly as possible. This still does not stop me from stopping several times. People pass me pretty readily, which is slightly demoralizing. Going down the switchbacks is especially an demoralizing experience. I can see the bottom very easily, but yet the switchbacks seems to go on forever! It certainly seems like it is taking longer to descend than it did to go up them, although in reality this probably is not the case.

At last, I am out of the switchbacks and very close to Trail Camp. I sit on a rock with my head in my arms for minutes. Finally, a group of 3 women and 2 men see me and inquire if I’m okay. “I’m all right, just have a really bad headache,” I assure them. “Do you have any Tylenol?” one of the women ask. “Unfortunately, no,” I reply. She invites me over to the group’s tent to get some.

We then talk for about 10 minutes. I ask where is she and her group from, as I couldn’t quite pinpoint their accents. “From all over,” the woman, a very attractive blonde about my age might I add, replies. Some from Ireland, Norway, Denmark, etc. They work for Phlips in Silicon Valley. “That’s where I’m from!” I reply. We chat for a little longer, and under virtually all other circumstances, I would have stuck along longer to get their names, contact info, etc., especially since they’re from my area. But my energy reserves are few at this point, and soon I force myself to carry on while they were going to camp there for the night and save the final push to the top for tomorrow morning.

So after a ranger checks my permit here (yes, permits are strictly enforced, apparently!), I make the final descent down. The Tylenol still hasn’t kicked in yet, and still despite being below 11,000 feet now I still don’t feel any better. I still am stopping every 10 minutes or so.

With five miles to go though, I pass by a 45-year-old man named Mike who is resting himself. “You look like you need some water,” he says, promptly offering some. I gladly take it. We then start walking down together.

Turns out Mike is from Salinas, and has climbed Mt. Whitney practically every year for the last 12 or so years. He always climbs it in one day, too! In addition to hiking he plays a lot of tennis. He has climbed Shasta a number of times too.

And so it is with his company and his water that I finally start to feel much better. The headache is still there, but it has allayed considerably. With just two miles to go I take the lead and am picking up the pace. Darkness is setting in but we should be able to make it down just as it gets completely dark, Mike says.

I start seeing car headlamps below, which is extremely encouraging! And another half an hour later, we are down. I shake his hand with thanks and congratulations. We had done it!

So what would be the final impression I take away with me from Whitney? Surely, I’ll be remembering the dehydration and headache I had from Mile 9 on. But equally as much, I’ll rememberall the friendly people I’ve met on the climb, people I’ll probably never see again nor got to know past a very superficial level, but ones who embodied not only passion and physical aptitude, but also compassion and cheery optimism. Whitney really screws around with your head, but it brings out the best of your soul.

Gear List

Note: I went up wearing two pairs of synthetic socks, cotton boxers, jeans, a cotton T-shirt, Pacific Trails jacket, and Timberland low-ankle shoes. Nothing fancy or technical at all, but due to the mild weather conditions, I stayed reasonably warm and comfortable. I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND FOLLOWING THIS EXAMPLE EVEN THOUGH I WAS LUCKY AND SURVIVED. DO NOT WEAR COTTON ON A MOUNTAIN!

Item Comments
Backpack (as for school) from the Gap Daypack was large enough for everything, as I did the hike in a day and didn’t need to bring up any overnight camping gear. Many compartments to organize everything.
(2) 32-ounce water “bladders” (like Camelbacks) with hydration tube Ran out of water after 5 hours. Water tasted AWFUL due to plastic taste after that time; basically was undrinkable! BRING MORE WATER AND/OR WATER TREATMENT SUPPLIES (so that you can fill up with untreated water at the camps)
1974 Minolta XE-7 SLR Given to me by my dad years ago (thanks); takes great pictures. Most of the photos I took on Mt. Whitney was with this. Definitely worth bringing despite its 2 lb weight and bulk.
Samsung Impax 210i APS My “foolproof” camera, with flash, timestamp, and 28-56mm zoom. Can switch between panaramic, wide, and standard frames.
Timberland leather shoes Waterproof, but caused blistering along big toes despite wearing two pairs of socks.
Red water resistant Pacific Trails jacket Trusty but well-worn 7-year-old jacket lined with fleece inside. Nothing fancy, but warm enough.
Princeton Tec 2-watt headlamp Claimed 8 hours of burn time on AA batteries. Just $20. Excellent!
How to Climb Mt. Whitney in One Day by Sharon Baker-Salony Essential book that doesn’t take much space in pack at all. Consulted it several times for altitude/distance and “where am I” questions.
Pearl Izumi lobster gloves Water resistant and warm, if dorky looking
Kleenex Essential
Baby wipes Not essential but nice
Compass Came in handy a couple of times
Running shoes Did not use, but probably could have until the switchbacks where there was some ice. In fact, I should have switched over to them when my feet started to blister due to the hard, ill-fitting Timberlands…
Shorts Did not use
Bug spray Did not use
Bandages/first aid Did not use
Trader Joe’s food bars Yummy with a 40/30/30 mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat
Promax protein bars Filling with lots of carbohydrates and protein
Raisin nut bars My only bread product; helped hold water down as they acted like a sponge
Trail mix Tasted okay on the trail
Beef jerky Strong odor and require a lot of chewing. Probably contributed to dehydration; disgusting after eating it for awhile.

Things I Wish I Brought Along

Item Comments
More water! Dehydration was a big problem for me, inducing altitude sickness and a big headache. Headache would not significantly subside until I was five miles from the finish and a 45-year-old hiker I met on the trail gave me some water (thanks, Mike!). Iodine/filter/etc. would have been essential for untreated water that was available on the mountain.
Sandwiches and other “real” food My food bars, trail mix and beef jerky was NOT particularly appetizing and I basically had to force-feed myself.
Ski poles or walking sticks My legs were not very tired, but ski poles would have allowed me to descend with more confidence and more quickly as they aid with traction.
Beautiful sunrise at 5:45 a.m.
Lone Pine Lake (?) in the distance.
Pink sunrise.
Outpost Camp, 3.8 miles out and ~10,500 ft up.
Outpost Camp: "Do not urinate in the [solar] toilets" (!) sign
Waterfall adjacent to Outpost Camp.
Pretty trees.
Mirror Lake.
Rock formations along Trailside Meadows.
Consultation Lake: halfway up!
Remnances of snow.
The view of Trail Camp from the 97 Switchbacks.
The view of Trail Camp from afar.
Felix Wong at the Trail Crest at 13,777 ft (10:40 a.m.). Just 2 miles to the top!
View of lake in the National Sequoia Park along the Great Western Divide
The last mile to the top is almost like bouldering!
The top is in sight!!!
At the top: Mt. Whitney National Service sign at 14,496 ft (12:40 p.m.)
View at the top towards the cabin with the registrar.
View from the top. Up here the air really is thin...
Another view from the top.
Yet another view from the top!
After making it down Mt. Whitney okay, I got to go back through Yosemite in my Z3.