Mount Whitney

~Teri Clifton’s collection of hilarious short stories, THE THINGS I CANNOT DO, is now available on Amazon and includes the story of Teri’s perfectly imperfect solo trip up Whitney!

~Here’s How You Do It

**If you dream of this but wonder if it is too late or beyond your capabilities, take it from this misfit, it is doable.

For the hearty weekend traveler who would like to put a notch in the belt and/or braggadocios bumper sticker on the car (yes, there is one on the back of this bragger’s car) Mt. Whitney fits the bill. At 14,505 feet elevation, hiking, this highest point in the lower 48 states gives “thin” a whole new meaning when you contemplate oxygen above the tree line. Thin air, it’s what’s for dinner.

Above the tree line at Trail Camp

Above the tree line at Trail Camp

 Prepping a little for this beauty is a must if you want to stay on the right side of your lung capacity as well as the rangers. Permits are not only required, they are strictly enforced and the ticket for ignoring this is quite steep. Some On A Dime compadres can give an accurate quote and it is (un)healthily above the $100 mark. The rangers will politely write you a ticket and then turn you back down the mountain and, given that this is a pack in/pack out adventure, you will potentially leave with only the expulsion of wasted energy and your actual waste to show for your attempt. Permits are of the 24-hour variety (hardest to get) or the multi day backpacking variety (still hard but a smidge less).

 Now for the good news, Whitney can be a gem but think of it as a diamond in the rough. One of the biggest bangs (roughs) for some teeny, tiny bucks. People, the backcountry permits are free on the first come, first serve (not lotto). You only pay if you reserve in advance in the lottery. The ranger station, located immediately south of Lone Pine opens every morning at 8am. Get there before they open and get in line to up your chances for extra permits. Always check weather conditions and plan accordingly. A casual storm at the top of Whitney is not funny, it is life threatening.

 Permits secured, it is time to park up at the portal, remove EVERYTHING from your car that might entice a bear and yes, they’ve been known to party down on sunscreen and fruity lotions so I mean get it ALL out. If you doubt the seriousness of this, check the fantastic photo at the trailhead of a bear shredding a vehicle right before loading his buddies in and taking off for Tijuana. And damage aside, people, please fully “get” that it is beyond obscene for a ranger to have to put down a bear because he was brushing his teeth and shaving in a Subaru owner’s side mirror while the owner shrieked at him to get back where he belongs… uh, he is where he belongs.

 So now that everything you’re not using is secured in the bear lockers and what you will be using is in your bear canister, it is trail time. Breathe deeply of the pine-scented air, take one last look at the portal and remember the burgers and pancakes will be waiting. Casually place your pack on your back or do as an adventure website creator did and brace yourself against the car bumper, rock to your feet with a little too much force, pitch forward and, like a drunken marionette, stumble across the parking lot trying to balance. THIS is backpacking, it is not for the faint at heart, it is for the iron clad, blender carrying, few who know a hand pumped margarita at 10,000 feet is both nirvana and insane.

 At this time, those who did their homework and packed light are to be commended, envied, and sized up (by the over packer) for carrying the blender. The first part of the trail, after passing through the arbor of horrors, a row of photos with warnings like “Remember, the top is only halfway there”, is a zig zag of switchbacks that will induce a mellow pace. Approximately 3 miles in is Lone Pine Lake and a gorgeous spot to take a load off and rest a bit. This is also the area where you enter the Whitney zone, translation; if you ain’t got no permit, take your unprepared self home. It is also at this point that if hiking in the dark, the headlamp and battery check should be made. Above the tree line can be a little tricky without the aid of ample light and that is where you are headed.

 Now at this point you may be wondering why anyone would hike Whitney before sun up and the answer would be weather. This hiker’s first solo hike began at midnight as nasty weather was on the table for the next day starting around noon. To fully understand the weather phenom, take note that the trip down was made by running, in freezing rain and lightning. The trekkers that were encountered on their way up, sans weather report and clad only in t-shirts and shorts, were quickly reversed when the rangers closed the mountain.

Cooking trailside at a lower altitude
Cooking trailside at a lower altitude

 As you hike upward an important factor is water and food. The altitude has a peculiar effect in killing appetite and creating an aversion to eating and/or drinking anything. This is where the words “force feed” come into play. It will make or break your experience. Force water and eat a ¼ of a Cliff Bar every time you can get it down. Often by 13,000 feet, eating is off the agenda. If a multi day trip is possible, camping is allowed and most backpackers pile in at Outpost Camp (10,365 feet) the first night and then Trail Camp (12,000 feet) the second night. The biggest advantage of multi day ascent is the luxury of settling in to the altitude. Sleep at the 12,000-foot mark is uncommon so be prepared to spend a long night waiting to summit and go ahead and plan for sunrise pics on the switchbacks. Two FYIs, Trail Camp is the last place to get water (purify it!) and do not shirk on this as hydrating sufficiently will directly influence your experience on this last leg and FYI #2, absolutely, the best sunrise photos are before you loop around back at the 13,000 mark. The entire face of Whitney is lit a gorgeous orange for about a half hour so the lower switchbacks provide no-brainer photos. Whether you are of the National Geographic pro variety or GoPro/I-phone crowd, you can grab shots that are insanely beautiful.

Sunrise
Sunrise

Once the 99 switchbacks have been conquered and the photos taken at the Trail Crest marker (13,000 feet), don your cold weather goodies, as it is time to go hard or go home. The backside of Whitney can be gracious, with lovely views and pleasant breezes or it can be the abominable snowman with freezing winds and shade. You get what you get so don’t get upset. Pull your big kid pants up, take an Ibuprofen for headache and swelling and get moving. The summit is 2½ miles away and this is the mind game part. It will constantly feel like it is just around the next corner and adding to the torture will be people hiking back who say chipper things like “you’re almost there” when you’re NOT. Just keep in mind; it will be your turn to do this on your return. On a cheerful side note, the “windows”, three areas of open drop on both sides, are not as terrifying as they are cracked up to be, the trail is ample in width and for those with height issues, it is very doable to stay focused forward and avoid any fear factor moments.

 And then finally, there she is. The wooden shack. Yep, that’s right, just a shack. What a view. And truth be told, first trip for this hiker and that was as far as it went. Arriving with a migraine and nausea will quell any interest in anything beyond the Facebook status photo of the shack and elevation. And that, friends, is the disadvantage of the 24-hour climb, which is why a multi day trip is the way to go. This Whitney conqueror can vouch that the view is so much better without a crashing headache and the threat of vomit.

Highest point in the lower 48
Highest point in the lower 48

 Lastly, be kind to the rangers and if altitude sickness threatens in a serious way by 13,000 feet, turn around. The mountain will always be there and the embarrassment of having rangers bringing you down because you were stubborn voids your right to the bumper sticker and t-shirt. Do note that if the altitudies get you, descent brings incredibly quick relief. Move down and do so as fast as you can manage.

 The trip back to the portal after the summit is pretty relaxed if you’ve paced yourself. Though there is fatigue, generally you catch a little euphoria rush and that makes it smoother. As you near the portal, pull out the last trail necessity, the ATM card. A honkin’ burger or dinner plate sized pancakes are waiting so page your inner foodie and get your game on at the picnic tables. You just “did Whitney”.

*If you think you are too old, I was past forty the first time I climbed Whitney and check out Grandma Emma’s story to see where my inspiration comes from!

Need a guide? They take a lot of your pressure and planning and handle it for you and they bring the big gun – expertise. I realize no compensation from these shout-outs.

April Mayhew

Sierra Guided Trips

 

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