Last July, I spent a few days camping in Yosemite and hiked up Half Dome. The trip was unintentionally timed to fall at the end of what was a rather dramatic (and traumatic) week and served as one of those cathartic releases that provided a healthy dose of general life perspective and metaphorically launched me into my new life.
This past Thursday, I continued my now-annual tradition of hiking something big by climbing Mt Whitney with Alex and Andy. As Alex and I drove out of Lone Pine on Friday morning and rehashed the saga, we both simultaneously remarked that there could’ve been all of this symbolism in this trip, that climbing to the highest point in the lower 48 states should be some representation of us each respectively summiting this past year and feeling on top of the world and freedom and all of that.
There was no great revelation found up in that cold thin air.
It just physically freaking hurt.
We got into Lone Pine, which lies about six hours south of Tahoe down 395, a two-lane route that winds through California and Nevada through a variation of landscape and crossroad towns into the Eastern Sierras, on Wednesday evening to collect our permits and set up camp outside of the entrance to Whitney Portal. After consultation with Julie at the Visitors Center (oh Julie! Sweet Julie.), the guys in the local sports store and each other (as thunder rolled around us), we decided that our only option to avoid the onset of the forecasted 11am thunderstorms was to set out at the ripe early hour of 1am, aim to be at 14,000ft by 10am, and walk really, really quickly back down to camp after that.
Let’s pause here to highlight some of the insanity of this and set more of a stage:
Summiting Whitney is kind of a deal. Half of the people I hang around, upon finding out we were doing this, expressed a general sentiment of confusion about why this sounded fun; the other half responded with something more along the lines of ‘oh yea, I did that! We ran up, you should do that instead!’. In my head, it was sort of a thing somewhere in between those sides.
It turns out (with some further investigation last week, why I didn’t do this before is beyond me) that summiting Whitney from the Portal trailhead is a 22-mile roundtrip hike up 6,145ft, and doing that in one-day is a bit… cray-cray.
Also, being at 14,000+ feet in a thunderstorm is kind of a death wish, and once you get up, there really is nowhere to go but down.
Also, starting a 22-mile hike at 1am is not something I routinely (slash ever) do.
Also, while Alex and I live at 6500ft and have a slight elevation advantage, 14,000ft is a massive increase in altitude, and altitude sickness is a real thing that even a lot of very fit endurance junkies experience.
Also, (see recent posts) I have cut my endurance activities into a very small piece of what they were and haven’t really done anything over 11mi in quite a few months.
Anyway, we accepted that all of the above was reality, and that night-hiking (morning-hiking?), potential storms and throwing up on the side of the trail were all likely to happen. As a consolation to all of that though, Whitney does have very well-marked route up and down from that starting point, and a finite number of people (in the 100s) on it at any given time. It is not hiking in desolation. While strenuous, it is not overly dangerous if you are smart and use a bit of common sense.
We were on the trail by 12:54am, bright eyed and bushy-tailed and giddy on adrenaline after a sound three to four hours of sleep alternating between hiding in our cars during very close thunderstorms and curled up in our tents, and we stomped in darkness up a gradual incline over the next five hours, stopping briefly at regular points to eat or drink and wardrobe change and remove shoes to cross through freezing water.
Hiking in darkness with only the few feet ahead of you lit by the glow from a headlamp is surreal; you lose complete track of where you are and what’s around, and time blurs together. At one point we stopped and turned our lights off to wallow in the light of the stars and silence penetrated only by the rush of a nearby waterfall, and there is nothing quite like the quiet envelopment of summer darkness.
After about five hours, we reached the bottom of the 99 Switchbacks (yes, there are exactly 99) just as the sun was beginning to crest over the horizon in the distance and stopped to rest, eat and re-clothe ourselves while the sky turned from a vivid to pastel rainbow and illuminated exactly what we had been walking through.
Buoyed by the light and realization that we were halfway (..ish), we eventually rallied ourselves to slog slowly up the two miles of twisting gravel until it finally reached the ridge and cross over to the backside and into Sequoia National Park to finally meet the end of the John Muir Trail, where a lovely sign informed us we were a mere 1.9 miles from the summit. We rejoiced, because 1.9 miles is nothing, right?!
It turns out that those 1.9 miles were actually 1.9 miles of trail made up almost entirely of granite slab steps winding along a cliff (and did I mention the sheer precipice on the other side?), and 1.9 miles of stone staircases when you have been up since 1am after three hours sleep and have already hiked 8.1 miles is kind of hell.
Really – I’m not exaggerating. It was hell. A gorgeous hell, but a hell where you could see the top, and even with knowing how far you’d come and how near to the ‘finish’ you were, turning back still seemed like a better idea.
By the time we hit the final portion and pushed through the last ascent, we were so exhausted that our summit victory consisted of collapsing on the rock, throwing back some shots of Scotch, power-napping, and then immediately hoisting ourselves up to haul our butts back down all of that while the dark clouds billowed in the distance and the wind began to pick up.
Downhill always sounds, in theory, better than uphill, but as anyone who’s hiked or ran knows, the repeated pounding wreaks havoc on your joints and muscles in an entirely different way, where suddenly every step is a full-body jolt of pain in new places that makes you desperately want to go faster to make it stop and just be done, but also desperately want to slow down so you can glide gracefully on pain-free tiptoes. There is no way to win. Add to that knowing what is coming (those damn 99 Switchbacks), and suddenly taking a longer sleep in some rock crevice is the only thing that sounds divine.
Coming down took us six hours total compared to the eight it took us to go up, which is about normal. We stopped regularly to keep eating and drinking (and peeing, so much peeing, thank you, hydration). Luckily none of us were hit with anything more than a headache despite the huge altitude increase, and that was likely brought on by not only the thinner air, but the lack of caffeine, minimal sleep and extreme exertion. Also on the plus side, coming down during midday brought to light everything we had hiked through in pitch black darkness, and the lower portion of the trail lived up to the high expectations set as being one of the most stunning places to be. The variation of terrain through each twist and turn is amazing, and despite our descent-with-a-purpose cadence with its quiet stomp-clack rhythm, it was hard to not stop and take in everything around.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not, and I will never jump readily at doing something so long and elevated in a day again. If you go – and you should, if it’s something you’d like to do – do it in two days so you can appreciate it without a rush, but it was not a walk in the park. I ate consistently every hour and drank solidly, was in shape, and didn’t get affected by the altitude, and it still wore me out. I never hike with trekking poles and only bought them at the last minute because of sweet, sweet Julie at the Visitor Center, and those things saved me from both exhaustion and falling flat on my face (or off a cliff) every few minutes. I carried a 40L pack with water, some extra clothes, food and my camera, and it was comfortable and slightly heavy, and I wouldn’t have brought anything less or more. We kept a decent pace with regular breaks, and it still took us 14 hours. We were lucky with weather and things we couldn’t control, but we were also well-prepared and smart about how we tackled it.
Some parts were amazing, some were rough, some views were fantastic, some were slightly terrifying, sometimes I felt strong and infinite, sometimes I felt weak and defeated. I finished and wanted to be like, ‘body, you rock!’ but also ‘body, I’m so sorry, I won’t do this to you again.’… and all of those contradictions level out to a neutral that was a pleasant adventure and a check off the ol’ outdoor bucket list. Veni, Vidi, Vici.