Mount Whitney

 For the hearty weekend traveler who would like to put a notch in the belt and/or a braggadocious bumper sticker on the car (yes, Teri could not resist), Mount Whitney fits the bill. At 14,508 feet of 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.

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. My cousin and daughter can give an accurate quote and it is 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 can be of the 24-hour variety (hardest to get) or the multi day backpacking variety (still hard but a smidge less). For tips on getting permits, see the section titled, “Permits: a hiker’s best friend or community service, you choose”.

 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 for some teeny, tiny bucks. People, backcountry permits are free on the first come, first serve. You only pay if you reserve in advance. The ranger station, located immediately south of Lone Pine, opens every morning at (details). 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 and remove EVERYTHING from your car that might entice a bear, some of whom have 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 portal 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 it was brushing its 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’s 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 Teri 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 hated just a little. They are also to be sized up for carrying a blender for the over packer. 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 2.8 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. Teri’s 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 she made it down but only by running, in freezing rain and lightening. Also take note that the people she passed who were 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 force it down. Often by 13,000 feet eating is off the agenda. If a multi day trip is possible, camping is allowed almost anywhere along the trail so long as you are 100 feet from water but 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: 1) 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 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 insanely beautiful, no-brainer photos whether you are of the National Geographic pro variety or GoPro/iPhone crowd.


 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 breeze or it can be the abombminable 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 2 ½ 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 that 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 if you stay focused forward and avoid any fear factor moments. If height is not a challenge, grab some righteous photos.

 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 Teri and that was as far as she made it. 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. And the experience, sans side effects, is outrageous. The feeling is like standing on the wing of an airplane and any direction you look is mind blowing. Go ahead, relax, recline in the warm (hopefully) sun and savor the moment.

 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 summitting 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 conjure your inner foodie and get your game on at the picnic tables. You just “did Whitney”.

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