We left the Central Valley of California the first morning on our four-hour drive to the Whitney Portal. Only 45 miles out of town, I had a flat tire. My husband left work and came to the rescue, trading cars and sending us on our way while he dealt with the tire. The delay meant that we wouldn’t arrive to one of the campgrounds near the trailhead until dusk. We went as far as we could until it was difficult to see. The campsites were all filled. We ended up in this odd little area right next to the trail. We set up our tent, climbed in, ate a few bites of trail mix, and slept. Well before sun-up we heard many, many footsteps walking right next to our tent on the trail. Most hikers start between 2 am and 4 am. It was impossible to sleep so we got up and prepared to join them. We left the tent and other unnecessary belongings at our site and began the ascent with our headlamps.
Thankfully, the sun was fully up when we reached the switchbacks. There are so many and they’re relatively short so there is this lulling back-and-forth sensation you get similar to the rocking on a boat. The only difference being that you’re exerting energy for the hike instead of just being rocked with no effort by yourself. I don’t really remember much about the switchbacks. My theory is that it’s the hardest part of the hike and you’re just concentrating on moving one foot in front of the other with no room in your brain for anything else.
There are an estimated 101 switchbacks which are difficult in and of themselves. Considering the elevation and lack of air, it was difficult on steroids.
We went in June so that we wouldn’t need climbing equipment to summit. In spring or fall, you might need crampons or axes on the switchbacks to get through the ice. There were some icy areas, but not to the point where we needed equipment to get through it.
As the sun rose so did the temperature. It was hot and getting hotter, we had to hydrate often which we had planned for. We grazed on trail mix, jerky, granola bars and other easy to access food as we went along. Once we completed the switchbacks, there is still hiking to do. You must continue the ascent but in a more linear way. You are now on the Trail Crest which junctions with the John Muir Trail. The trailhead and the switchbacks are south of the summit, near the top. There is a saddle with a somewhat narrow passage to continue north and up. As we passed people coming down, they would encourage us by saying ‘You’re almost there,’ ‘Keep going, it’s worth it,’ and such. We were slower than many of the others and most of these nice folks had passed us on their way up.
By the time we reached the summit we were exhausted. We hadn’t slept or eaten well, and the sun had felt very hot. At the top, the temperature changed dramatically, and the cold air was welcoming. There is a small cabin which is now abandoned but has a guest book inside for summiteers to sign, which we did. Most pictures of Mt. Whitney climbers will include them with the little house in the background. There were hardly any people up there with us since we were lagging from the herd. It began to snow. The light jacket that had been around my waist was now on and fully zipped. A man came up while we were resting. He took off every stitch of his clothing and asked if we would take his picture. We agreed. He posed on a rock laying on his stomach with his legs bent up and crossed, smiling at the camera, similar to poses babies and female centerfolds use. Once the shots were approved, he got dressed and left. Later, my husband asked if we were upset or shocked. I explained that we were half dead, and it had no effect on us one way or the other. He could have been a knife welding mass murderer for all we cared.
When we had sufficiently rested, we began our descent. I took a bite of jerky as we walked and within seconds, and without any warning whatsoever, threw it back up. I had no time to find an appropriate place to hide the content of my indiscretion at all. I’m guessing that it was the altitude although I never did feel nauseous.
Once we were down a bit, the weather turned hot again, and I had to tie my jacket once again around my waist. The descent is hard because of the strain on your joints. Most of the trail is rock and you’re more likely to slip coming down than going up so we needed to be somewhat careful of our speed and balance.
We got back to our campsite and packed up. There was a debate between us. I wanted to stay the night, relax, have a nice meal, a campfire perhaps. We could go to one of the campsites and visit with others since we were early enough to still snag a site for our tent. She was insistent on heading to the car and sleeping at a hotel in Lone Pine. Our permit did not allow for a second night and she didn’t want to get penalized for camping without a permit. I argued that no one would penalize two older women who were too tired to hike out. She was adamant and the tent was hers, so we hiked all the way back to my car and drove to town. We could only find one motel with an available room, the historic Dow Villa, which was famous for hosting celebrities like John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. We called home to report that we had summitted and were now safely tucked in for the night.
I had read bloggers talk about the altitude sickness. My research showed that you could get Acetazolamide to elevate the ailment. I had been in Breckenridge, CO a few years earlier and had been nauseous for the first days. Reading a Whitney blogger enlightened me to what must have happened in Colorado, and, now I would be able to prevent it on this adventure. The doctor said I was wise to come to him. His son had attempted Whitney and was so sick from the altitude that they had to air lift him out. Thankfully, the medication worked.
Many hikers train for Whitney. We did not. I work out with weights and/or running and as a result I was fit. My body did not complain on the hike whatsoever. I wasn’t sore the next day. The one and only challenge was oxygen. People do train for the altitude, but we had not. I knew of people who had attempted to summit Whitney but had to turn around because of the altitude.
I noticed that a vast majority of hikers were twenty-something males. There were very few women, or older people. Given that my cousin and I were both female and older made me feel like we had bragging rights. I read that only an estimated 1/3 of the people who attempt Whitney actually summit. I attribute our success to the determination that we were going to summit no matter what. I think mental tenacity is the best training. Fatigue and the inability to properly inhale oxygen were not allowed into our psyches and as a result, we beat the odds.