Today was finally the day, it was time to wake up and push my body one last time. After 5 days and 56.5 miles of beautiful views and hard hikes, it was time for 15.6 more. Today was the last day of the hike, the longest day of mileage and arguably the toughest day of climbing. It was finally time to climb Mt Whitney the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, standing a tall 14,505 feet. Between the snow, the climb and the altitude, this was going to be a tough day.
I woke up a couple times in the morning. I wanted to get a head start but I also did not want to by climbing up an icy mountain in the dark. I was not familiar with the trail ahead, so I decided to wait till right before sunrise to get up.
I woke up, and shoved a bunch of calories down which did not need cooking. I didn’t want to waste time cooking, so I ate all dry food (Peanut Butter, Granola, Beef Jerky, and a snickers bar).
Once we packed up and made it past the lake, the trail was quickly covered in snow, which was frozen over. This was the plus of starting early, having the snow fields frozen so we were not sloshing through slush or post holing our way to the switch backs. There were a couple groups of hikers, we were spread out over the snow field all looking for the trail while heading in the general direction of the base of the switch backs. We never planned with the other groups, but it was an unspoken team effort to spread out and find the trail head.
The switchbacks were not to bad, just a few patches of icy snow here and there, but it was a climb.
Once you get to the top of the switch backs you are on the crest of the mountain, and follow this skinny path with cliffs to your left falling straight back down to guitar lake. Forgive me for not taking a lot of pictures while on the trail to the summit, it was about 30-35% covered in snow and ice.
A couple of times, I felt as if I was just hanging off the side of Mt Whitney by just my ice axe. In reality I really am not a huge fan of heights, but I have gotten a whole lot better with heights over the years of being in the military.
There was one guy on the trail who we met who was just in sandals, he made it to the top… so the trail was no where near impossible. On that note, I would never recommend hiking in the snow to the top of Mt Whitney in sandals…. just don’t do it, don’t even think about it. Hiking with the right gear helps keep you alive and may even just help you stick to your plan.
The particular hiker in sandals asked to borrow my Delorme to text his buddy. Sandal man, planned to meet his ride home in Whitney Portal, but without an Ice Axe could not safely get down the chute on the east side of Whitney. He texted his buddy from my Delorme and told him to me him at horseshoe meadow at 9pm. His text was sent at 8:43am so he greatly extended his day just because he did not bring the right tools.
As we got close to the final push, there was a long stretch of snow field. There was a nice trench stamped out my the many hikers that have pushed through it and I did not need crampons climbing. I just kept my ice axe in my hand at the ready, and safely climbed up.
On the way up toward the summit, we took a lot of breaks. It was the end of an entire week of climbing. We met a couple of day hikers who woke up at 2am from Whitney Portal. We leapfrogged each other all the way to the summit, but they ultimately beat us to the summit.
A few times where we stopped at the same location, we picked their brains on the 99 switchbacks. I knew that climbing to the top of Mt Whitney was not our only challenge of the day, going down would also be a challenge with the 99 switchbacks covered in snow, the steep icy chute would be the way down. They told us a lot of people turned around in the morning because of how icy the chute was, a lot of hikers just couldn’t get up.
Once we made it to the top, we found out the two hikers we were leap frogging all morning were from the next town over from where I live in California. They graciously offered to give us a ride back to Lone Pine from Whitney portal and were our saving grace at the end of our amazing trip.
Once we got clear of the final snow field, I could almost see the summit. We stopped for a five minute break. I stood up ready to make the final push of 300 – 400 meters and I took one step and sat back down. I was feeling really tired due to the week of hiking and the altitude. I sat back down for another five minutes. Once we could see the weather shelter, I knew the top was close and got a second wind.
When we got to the summit, I was tired but I almost didn’t feel it because of how I excited and accomplished I felt. It was an amazing feeling and one I will never ever forget. From the weeks of planning, the route, the logistics, food and finding a buddy crazy enough to take a week off from work to join me. All the time, effort and energy was worth every ounce of squeeze and paid off!
We made it to the summit at around 11:30 in the morning and left about an hour later just past 12:30. We took a lot of pictures, and ate a lot of food, I had another bag of beef jerky and two or three snickers. Another hiker shared some Jameson from his flask with me, and everyone was just happy and relaxed.
On the way back down we stopped at the first big snow patch to put on our crampons. Going up was one thing but having to look down the entire time, I felt much safer with my crampons on. Even in between the snow and ice, I left my crampons on. I did not want to slow down on the way down and there was wet mud my crampons sank into and I just overall felt more comfortable.
The hike back over the crest went by a heck of a lot quicker on the way down. It was also our turn to encourage the hikers who were still coming up to the summit. I knew how they felt, and I was glad I was going down this time.
Once we made it to the chute, I saw why our buddies we met on the trail said a lot of people turned around at the chute in the morning. The chute was completely covered in snow, and boy was it steep!
There were two older gentlemen, my buddy and the two guys we met on the way to the summit all sitting at the top of the chute. The two guys we met and the older gentlemen all had never glissaded before. I gave a quick lesson at the top of the chute and one of the guys started climbing down/sliding a little at a time. I move a little over, observed a clear path down the chute, sat on my but and prepared my ice axe.
I proceeded to unhinge myself from the side of the mountain, and I instantly started to slide. I slowly picked up speed until I felt like I was flying! Making it to the top of Mt Whitney was obviously a great amazing feeling, but glissading down the chute was just down right one of the most fun experiences of the entire trip. If I wasn’t so tired, I would have hiked back up and glissaded down again!
Glissading down the chute not only was a lot of fun, it cut off a lot of hiking time down the 99 switchbacks. Once at the bottom it took us a few minutes to acquire the trail again. Once on trail, it was easy to stay on track the rest of the hike back to Whitney Portal.
As we hiked further from Whitney I couldn’t help but looking back at the shoot and smiling. I just kept laughing and couldn’t believe we just glissaded down the slope!
As we hiked further and further down toward Whitney Portal and the end of our hike, I realized how much work our two friends we met on the way to the summit did today. The hike up to the 99 switchbacks was steep and grueling, I was glad to be going down it, and would not want to hike to the Summit of Whitney in one day. The hike down was absolutely beautiful!
As we neared the bottom, my feet and legs were beginning to get sore. My body was finally beginning to feel the effects of a week of backpacking. The final switchbacks to the floor seemed to go on for ever. Having not started our hike at Whitney Portal, I had no idea how much further we had. I finally put my map away and was pushing myself toward the finish.
I was getting pretty tired despite the downgrade of the trail, and then I made the turn around one switchback and I saw a parking lot and cars. I was elated when we reached the bottom, it was a week of long hard hikes, testing my fitness and mental fortitude. The feeling of accomplishment was one I cant describe, a mixture of great joy combined with exhaustion. I was finally ready to take off my pack and kick of my boots.
At Whitney Portal, where the day hike starts they have a place for hikers to weigh their pack. I was proud of carrying a week worth of gear and food, and not ditching my pack to summit Mt Whitney. On the crest of Whitney toward the summit another hiker commented on the size of my back. They asked me why I didn’t ditch it at the intersection of trail crest and the John Muir Trail and summit without it. I didn’t drop my pack before the summit because I never surrender and will never cut corners to accomplish my goals. The mountains will always remind you who really are inside.