Mt. Whitney-Summit Day

August 26, 2014

We woke up at 11pm on the 25th to leave for the trail head.  We had prepped our backpacks the night before and stashed them in our bear proof box at the campsite.  We just had to get ourselves up, dressed and to the trail head for a midnight start.  We decided on a midnight start because the trail is 22 miles long with an elevation gain of 6,000 feet.  We figured it would take us between 14-16 hours to complete the hike.  In addition, it is advised to be off the summit before the afternoon as thunder showers are typical during the summer months.

The night sky was amazing.  It was new moon, so no moonlight and the stars were abundant.  

Trail sign at the Mt Whitney Portal.

Trail sign at the Mt Whitney Portal at Midnight.

We were on the trail by the light of our headlamps for the next 6 hours.  It was an remarkable experience.  None of us had hiked over this distance or length of time with headlamps, and I will say it was really magical.  Many times we would stop, turn off our headlamps and just look to the sky.  I have never seen anything like the night sky on 8/26/2014.  

There are several notable points on the trail that mark your progress.  One of which is called the “98 Switchbacks” that cover 2.2 miles and around 2,000 feet of elevation gain. We reached the base of the 98 switchbacks at around 4:30am which is located 6 miles along the trail at 12,000 feet.  There are two lakes here were you can refill water (with a water purification system) before you start the switchbacks that lead to final push to the summit.  Once you pass this area there is no other option for water so having enough water at this point is a must.  

Because it was still dark we passed the lake and were unknowingly already on the switchbacks.  It was hard to tell we were on the switchbacks or had passed camp because it was so dark and the signage was nonexistent.  Let’s not forget it was 5am we were at 12,000 feet and 6 miles into an 11 mile ascent.  The good news is we noticed we had missed it, doubled back, found the lake, and refilled our water so we could continue on.  It cost us about 30 minutes–but we were making good time so no big deal.  At this time Joe (our friend) started to not feel so well, with a slight headache and a bit of nausea.  He kept quiet and we continued on.  As we reached close to the middle of the switchbacks we saw Venus rise in the Eastern sky.  This morning, Venus would be one of its closest distances to the earth in 2014.

Early morning sky on the 98 switchbacks

Early morning sky on the 98 switchbacks

5:30am  on the switchbacks

5:30am on the switchbacks with the light of the headlamp

Joe (our friend) and Ginny on the Switchbacks

Joe (our friend) and Ginny on the Switchbacks

Guideposts on the switchback about 3/4 of the way to the top.

Guideposts on the switchback about 3/4 of the way to the top.

As we reached close to the top of the switchbacks our friend Joe grew increasing uncomfortable with how he was feeling.  He had not slept at all the night before we hiked and was experiencing altitude sickness.  This is something you don’t mess around with.  We were at 13,000 feet and still  had another 1,500 feet of tough climbing to go.  Joe made a great decision to turn around and go back down to the Trail Camp (at 12,000 feet) to rest and wait for us.  This created a bunch of indecision on our part which included us assessing our decision to continue up several times once we reached the top of the switchbacks.  Joe really wanted us to continue, seemed coherent and lucid, so we did.  

We reached the top of the switchbacks which crosses the Pacific Crest Trail.  From here you actually descend steeply and then start climbing again when the trail meets up with the John Muir Trail.  The last 2 miles to the summit are very tough, as the trail is narrow and very rocky with an over 1,500 foot gain of elevation.  It was slow going at over 13,000 feet.  We summited at 9:30am and were very happy.  It was quite cold and windy up top but the sun was shining.  

Our first view of Mt. Whitney (left)


Ginny on the trail from the switchbacks to the summit


Almost there…good view of the storm shelter on the summit.


We Made It!


Emblem marking the top of Mt Whitney

Emblem marking the top of Mt Whitney

We were fortunate that there were very few people atop the mountain when we arrived.  We spent about 20 minutes up there taking in the sights and enjoying the accomplishment.  Then reality set in: we still had 11 miles of hiking to go!  So, after an almond butter and jelly sandwich and a few gulps of water we donned our packs and headed down the same way we came.  By 12:30 we were back at the Trail Camp and lakes where Joe was to meet us.  After a few unsettling moments looking around for him we met back up, purified some more water for the hike down, then set off by around 1:30.

The hike back down to Whitney Portal was really enjoyable and, since we had done it entirely in the dark on the way up it was like a brand new experience.


On the trail down


High Alpine Lake


Waterfall on the hike down. We could hear it in the dark going up and were stunned at its beauty coming down!

At about 5:10pm we arrived back at Whitney Portal.  Just over 17 hours on the trail, essentially all of it walking the 22.5 miles.  No fanfare awaited us…just a half dozen folks getting ready for their journey that night or the next day.  We went into the Portal Store to get some souvenirs.  Doug wasn’t there but we silently thanked him for his sage wisdom and advice.  The only regret is that Joe didn’t make it all the way with us. You can’t forget that (a)he did hike 18 miles and over 4,000 feet of elevation making it to 13,000 feet–an amazing accomplishment, period; and (b)he was personally secure enough to listen to his body and forego summiting rather than put himself (and us) in any peril.  We so appreciate Joe for lots of things–this is one of those experiences that really tests someone and reminds us why we like him so much. Thank you, Joe.

We had done it–summited Mt. Whitney up and back in one day.  Definitely an Epic Journey.

6 thoughts on “Mt. Whitney-Summit Day

  1. suzi

    so so proud of you three! and ‘friend joe’ was awesome at 13k feet & should be proud. always better to be safe. can’t wait to hear more about it!!!


  2. mike fitzhugh

    Way to go! Doing a climb like that is no joke, and the downhill can be killer on not-young knees and toes. But not a word about muscle soreness or joint pain! You rock! I hope you enjoyed an epic meal and washed it down with some good juice!



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