A year of many valleys and one high peak: Mount Whitney

2020

What a year it has been.

For me, it began in February when I submitted my lottery request (for the third year in a row) to hike Mount Whitney trail.

Sadly, just a short month later, the world was in the midst of a pandemic.  Families shattered, businesses closing doors, and society crawling like catepillars into cocoons.

Just as the world was beginning to shut down, Murphy’s Law played it’s cards.

Sure enough my lottery request was accepted to hike Whitney.

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Lottery Winner!!!

As with the rest businesses, parks and recreation services followed suit.  Closed.

So, here I was in limbo, unsure if the adventure would even happen.

In the meantime, another adventure was set to take place on July 23rd and thankfully no closures occured.

I became a dad.

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I think this makes me more nervous than any hike and certainly will be my biggest adventure.  

Now, as society began to slowly reopen, including parks and recreational services, another obstacle or should I say responsibility was on my hands.

However, with the blessing of my wife, I was given the green light to tackle my journey!

With the pandemic came many changes in peoples lives and my hiking partner list dwindled to zero.  I needed to find a cohort willing to embark upon an above average challenge in less than two weeks.

Finally, a week before the lottery date, I found someone willing enough to give it a try.  For me, my partner was a perfect teammate.

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My hiking partner, Benji, weighing his pack at Whitney Portal.  Fellow nurse and adventurous soul.

Because the hike was not for certain, I had about a week to “train”.

 

However, in 2018 thru 2019 I hiked the six pack of peaks (link below), which are the highest peaks in Southern California.

https://socalhiker.net/a-six-pack-of-peaks/

If you are located in the area, I would highly suggest hiking these peaks before attempting Mount Whitney.

In particular, a month before attempting Whitney, hike San Bernardino and Jacinto in successive weekends.  These hikes will give you some sense of distance and elevation you will be up against.

There are many sites to research Mount Whitney trail and how to prepare.  Again, I suggest you take time to due your own research.  In the meantime, here are a few recommendations and how I planned to hike to the highest peak in the continental  United States.

First and foremost: PERMIT  (print it out and have it with you)

A.   Baseline fitness (hiking) level.

  • Be sport specific.  Hike.  Find the longest and highest hikes in your area and be sure you can do them.  I would shoot for hikes that are at least 10 miles long and 6000 feet high if you can.  Also, wear the gear you plan to hike in to get accustomed to the weight.

B.  Nutrition and hydration

  • Fuel your body appropriately.  This is a 22 mile hike at altitudes over 14000 feet.    Donuts, cakes, and soda will not work.  Fuel the systems you will be using.  High carbohydrates to obtain glycogen reserves prior to hike and long/fast energy foods for the hike.  Have a minimum 3 liters of water.

C.  Proper apparel and gear 

  • Depending on season, choose clothing appropriately.  Always check the forecast prior to going.
  • Good hiking shoes, preferably above ankle as the terrain is very rocky.
  • Hiking poles will definitely help when your legs turn to jello.
  • Hydration pack (3 liters), extra bottles, and a water purifier.
  • Headlight or light source
  • Electrolyte pills or source to replenish electrolytes.

  D.  Health and Safety 

  • Sunblock.  (The hike is very exposed)
  • Bear spray (They do live there)
  • GPS system or map (research your route and get familiar with landmarks). Find a system that will not need cellular service.
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Look at a map and spot landmarks such as Mirror Lake, and Consulation Lake near Trail Camp because this portion of the hike is not well marked at all.

  • Walkie Talkies or means to communicate or call for assistance; whistle…
  • Basic first aid supplies
  • Garbage bags for garbage and waste bags for waste.  Yup, your body waste too.
  • Always tell someone when you plan to start and when you plan to exit

  E.  Acclimate

  • If you are day hiking, it would be wise to head up before the day of the hike to acclimate a bit.
  • If you are doing an overnight hike, well, you are literally 50% ahead of day hikers because camps are found halfway along the trail AND they are above 8000 feet which will give you time to acclimate.

What was my routine?

  1. As mentioned in 2018 and 2019 I hiked the 6 pack of peaks, but due to a world pandemic this year, fitness was limited to workouts in the garage. A week before the hike I did 30-60 minute treadmill walks with inclines from 5-15% .  I wore all the gear I planned to have.  I took 3 days off prior to hike to rest.
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Give me a break.  This was at 330am!  What you see here is what I trained in.  Pack was 15 pounds. 

  1. My nutrition consisted of 50-70% carbohydrates and 4 liters of water a day for one week leading to the hike.  I usually drink 3 liters minimum a day anyway.  I also calculated an approximate of how many calories I would burn and packed my nutrition for the hike accordingly.
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If you notice in the picture, I used zip block bags measuring 1 cup to hold an assortment of nuts.  Also had some bars, bananas, and electrolyte sugar beans.  About 5000 calories sitting there.

  1. My basic gear was a 3 liter camel back, an extra liter in containers on my waste belt, and a water purifier.  I wore a wide brimmed hat, long sleeve shirt, shorts with pulled up socks, hiking poles and a pair of very old hiking boots.
  2. For health and safety purposes, I loaded up on sunblock, carried bear spray, used walkie talkies for communication during hike with SOS capability, had a tourniquet and first aid supplies, matches, and tried to use ALL TRAILS live tracking app but that was useless.
  3. As for acclimation, we did not do this due to schedule conflicts.

 

Midland walkie talkies (Amazon) worked great throughout hike and Black Diamond hiking poles purchased at REI were holding at least 160 pounds at some points in the hike. (below)

We actually drove up the day before and pulled into Lone Pine around 530pm.  Immediately we knew something was just not right.  Usually when you get into the area you can see the High Sierras in the distance.  All we saw was a haze and a fire ball sun.

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Benji, where are the mountains???

Apparently there were a few wild fires surging surrounding the area.  We would have to wait until the morning to see if the fires were contained and hope for the best.  Best case we hike but certainly the air quality was not going to be great.

The day of the hike we woke at 300 in the morning.  I drank a liter of water, ate a bagel with banana,  and washed it all down with a cup of coffee.  Benji, I think he  coffee.  Thats it.

As he would find out, not a good plan, even for an iron man athlete.

We arrived at Whitney Portal at 330 in the morning and the stars were visible which was a good sign.  As it turned out, the fires were being contained and the journey was a go!!

The first three hours of the hike from Whitney Portal was in the dark and not very difficult.  Our energy was fresh and minds were positively charged as we crossed streams, jutted through rocks, and watched the sunrise over the boulders. morning whit

About six miles into the hike you will come across trail camp (link below) which is at about 12,000 feet elevation.  This is where most people camp with overnight permits.

https://www.timberlinetrails.com/WhitneyHighCamp.html

By this time, the sun was already rising above some of the lower peaks just in time for the more strenuous portions of the hike.

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From trail camp you come across the infamous switch back portion of the hike.  I believe there are about 97 switch backs in this part of the hike.  I highly suggest not counting each switch back and try not to listen to any of the descending hikers say “your almost there.”

When your tired, hearing “your almost there”  every 10 minutes at a hike ascending over 6000 feet makes you want to say,  “I heard that 10 minutes ago!”

Stay focused, take slow breathes.  Inhale, hold, exhale.  Remember, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.  Mr. Ironman did not hydrate much and it got to him fast.

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Altitude Sickness can hit anyone.  This guy is an Iron Man stud!

The picture above is at trail crest: https://www.timberlinetrails.com/WhitneyTrailCrest.html

This portion of the hike separates the switch back section of the hike from the John Muir Trail section of the hike that ascends about two miles to the peak.

It’s a great place to take in the views.

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Views looking back from the Trail Crest portion of the hike about 8 miles in andt 13,000 feet elevation. 

 

Or in Benji’s case, take a seat and decide if you want to continue.

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Benji contmeplating continuing while catching some shade underneath an overhang.

Don’t get me wrong, my lungs were certainly not working at full capacity as I had an oxygen saturation in the 80’s but I’m not sure if the device was working properly:

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regardless, I knew how it felt, was hydrated, and took electrolyte pills.

At this point Benji was having a bit of altitude sickness so I told him to stay back to rest, hydrate, and take in some simple sugars. If it got worse he was going to descend and in the meantime I was going to test the trail ahead and let him know how it was.

After a ten minute ascent, I radioed down to him to let him know, thus far, it was not that bad.  He decided to keep going, so I waited for him to get to my vantage point.

Needless to say, the next two miles felt like ten miles as the terrain got trickier, the sun was now at high point, and we were heading into the 14000 foot elevation range.  He was not happy and to be honest, I was not whistling dixie.

Seriously at an earlier point in the hike I was whistling and a man said, “well your having a good time.”

Finally, after nine long hours (numerous stops to assure my hiking mate was okay and taking photos) we made it to the peak.

Below is the Smithsonian Institution Shelter also know as the Mount Whitney Summit Shelter.  Built in 1904 and used for high altitude research.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithsonian_Institution_Shelter

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This will be your North Star and first sight when you get near the peak

 

 

Take some time to absorb the views and the task you just accomplished!

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The summit was short and sweet as Benji needed to descend sooner than later to rid himself of sickness, so, I grabbed the nearest sign made out of cardboard and he snapped a quick photo.

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We did it!!!

Well…..the first half that is.

We still had to descend and hike 11 more miles out.  Our legs were wobbly and our minds were drugged on altitude.  What should had taking about five hours to get back took us about 8 hours and at one point I was walking so far ahead that I lost sight of my partner.

If I stopped, my body would cease, so I had to keep moving.  Unfortunately are radios had died, sunlight was fading, and it was not a good situation.  Luckily, after waiting about 30 minutes in the brush with my bear spray activated and ready to go, I saw him descending, we converged and made our way to trailhead.

Certainly we did not set a record time.  We finished in 16 hours!  I truly believe in the dark we went off route a bit which added about one hour, if you count stopping for photos.  Then altitude sickness hit my partner on switchback and I needed to stop a few times which set us back an hour at least.  Not to mention the 30-45 minute wait when we were separated on descent.  We could had finished easily three hours quicker.

Regardless, if your day hiking, leave by 4am and plan for a worst case 16 hour hike.

I hope your travels and adventures take you to high places.  Be safe and be well.

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Touching the surface at the summit of Mt. Whitney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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