This week’s journey takes me back exactly one year ago this month, to my solo summit of Mount Whitney (Paiute: Tumanguya). At 14,508 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States, and a popular but challenging trek for hikers and backpackers from around the world. In a year of many incredible outdoor adventures, this was my favorite of 2021!
Located in the eastern Sierra Nevada range of California, Mount Whitney is one of the most accessible “14ers” (peaks above 14,000 feet) in the country. The hike is strenuous – 22 miles in length, with 6,650 feet of elevation gain – and covers wide and varied terrain, including both lush forest and stark alpine tundra. Overcrowding on Mount Whitney – and the resulting pollution and habitat destruction – has necessitated tightly controlled access to the mountain, and as of 2022, only 100 day hikers, and 60 overnight campers, are permitted to be in the Whitney Zone every day of quota season (May 1-November 1).
I was fortunate to receive a one day wilderness permit for July 15, 2021. A day use permit for Mount Whitney allows you to step foot on the trail (in the Whitney zone, specifically) at midnight, as long as you complete your hike by 11:59:59pm on the same date. Given the length and difficulty of the trail, most day hikers make an “alpine start” – setting off in the very wee hours of the morning – and my friend and I did the same. We hiked the first several miles – from Whitney Portal to Mirror Lake – in total darkness, with only the light of our headlamps illuminating the trail (hence no photos!). Dawn began to emerge as we took a rest on the shores of the lake, and we were rewarded with a gorgeous sunrise as we made our way up to Trail Camp, six miles from the portal.
It was here that my hiking buddy decided that a summit was not in the cards that day – no altitude symptoms, just not wanting to continue – and headed back down the mountain. I was feeling good, and had my own permit in hand, so I opted to continue on solo.
I arrived at Trail Camp alone, but was quickly welcomed by a large group of fellow day-hikers from the Bay Area, who invited me to join them as they snacked on the shores of the small tarn next to the camp. Most hikers with an overnight permit utilize this camp as the closest to the summit, and there were a dozen or so tents scattered around the area.
After a small snack, I steeled myself for what is arguably the most unpleasant portion of the Whitney trail: the “97 switchbacks” ascending from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. They cover the distance of about 3 miles and 1700 feet of elevation gain, and are considered particularly onerous given their exposure and increasing altitude (above 13000+ feet). Luckily, I had the pleasure of taking on the switchbacks with two friendly ladies from the larger group, which made for lots of lively conversation and fun. I filtered water at the 23rd switchback – the last water source before the summit – and had no issues traversing ‘the Cables’, a 50-foot section of the trail lined with metal cables to prevent falls from a sheer cliff.
The views became increasingly beautiful as the trail climbed – a prelude to the truly breathtaking vistas from Trail Crest to the summit – and resembled a hilly moonscape. Very little vegetation grows at this altitude, with the exception of cheery little pockets of blue skypilot, alpine gold and alpine mountain sorrel, and the most prominent features of the landscape are the jagged spires of nearby Mount Muir.
After what felt like forever, we finally made it to Trail Crest (hooray!), now within only two-ish miles of the summit. Many Whitney hikers consider this stretch from Trail Crest to the summit to be the most challenging – the terrain is tricky, the wind ferocious, and the altitude ranges from intense to debilitating – but it was actually my favorite of the entire trail! The views were breathtaking, and I was running so high on excitement and anticipation that I bid a fond farewell to my unhurried switchback companions and forged ahead on the trail alone. Here, the path traverses the backside of Mount Muir for approximately one mile. To the west are stunning views of Hitchcock Lake and Guitar Lake, both in Sequoia National Park, visible often through the jagged rock formations that intersect the trail.
Several “windows” in the peak also offer occasional but spectacular views to the east, including to the distant valley below.
Eventually the craggy formations give way to what feels like an endless sea of rock, but what is actually the last mile to the summit. With the summit shelter in sight, but dark clouds gathering overhead, I hoped I’d reach the top before the skies opened.
As I wearily stumbled toward the summit, my legs shaking and my heart pounding, I was flooded with an intense mixture of emotions I hadn’t experienced since little A. was born: wonder, relief and disbelief that I had made it to the top of this mountain – my first 14er! – in one day, on my first attempt. I immediately placed my trembling hands on the summit hut – officially, the Smithsonian Institution Shelter, built in 1909 – as if to ensure that it was really there before me, and clumsily scribbled my name on the summit register. Another hiker and I took turns photographing the other’s summit achievement, snapping selfies, and marveling at the spectacular vista before us.
The dark clouds that had gathered as I approached the summit hung over it ominously, and I knew from prior research how quickly violent thunderstorms can form here in the early hours of the afternoon. As much as I wanted to linger, I knew it wasn’t safe to do so for very long. I took a few minutes to catch my breath, and then hurriedly headed back down the way I came. A million hours to get there (not really, it just felt like it), and only 15 minutes at the top!
I thought I might find the 11+ mile journey from the summit back to Whitney Portal to be a tedious one, but it was actually quite the opposite. I loved seeing the mountain landscape bathed in new light, its features illuminated in the afternoon sunshine in new and totally unexpected ways. Indeed, the whole trail northeast of Mirror Lake – including Outpost Camp, Lone Pine Lake, and the portal itself – was a revelation, as we’d traversed it in total darkness earlier that morning. Discovering these places for the “first” time was one of the highlights of this trail for me.
Many Whitney hikers end their trek with a stop at the Whitney Portal store – famed for their delicious burgers – but alas, I’m not a burger gal. I’m a pie gal. A pie à la mode gal. So my friend and I headed back into the nearby town of Lone Pine, and I ordered two – yes, two – large pieces of cherry and peach pie with ice cream. Delicious, and a great way to celebrate this epic day of hiking!
I’ll never forget this adventure, and hope one day – if he wants – that little A. will join me back at the top. Thank you so much for viewing! -B. June
Our next journey: Heidelberg Castle – Germany