Having been to the Mt. Whitney hike once in 2016 (we did not end up getting to the summit.), we wanted to retry again this year. So, me and a buddy of mine (2 of the original party of 4) decided we would apply for the lottery, and try doing it if we got permits.
We did end up getting permits, so we decided to do it over two days – 7th and 8th of July. It’s a pretty standard 2 day itinerary. Get to trail camp on Day 1, and then try to get to the summit and back on Day 2.
Back in 2016, a lot of things had gone wrong. While we were setting up our tents (thankfully at the trailhead), we found that the REI rental tent had a broken pole, and we did not have duct tape or a pole stub (the thing you can use to patch aluminum tent poles). So we had to go find a hotel for the night, and buy a tent the next morning before starting on the hike. Needless to say, that meant a pretty late start. Also, while climbing up, I had somehow accidentally dropped one of my crampons on the trail. No crampons = no day 2 climbing for me. I would have gladly stayed back in the tent, and have the others complete the hike, but they did not want to, and hence we turned back from Trail Camp. Also, this was in early May – so there was way more snow on the trail. In fact when my other friends attempted it a week before us, they did not have any existing footprints on the chute to work with.
Come 2017, I had learned a few lessons from the previous hike.
(a) Climbing 6100 feet from 8360 feet is very different from climbing the same from sea level. Sure, it’s over 2 days, but still as you get higher, it gets harder to hike.
(b) Carrying a lot of weight in your backpack is also very different when hiking at altitude. I have been comfortable(ish) carrying ~45 pounds on a Grand Canyon hike. Carrying the same on Mt. Whitney was a terrible idea.
Considering I did not want to make the same mistake of carrying a lot of weight, I spent considerable money in trying to lighten my backpack. I think I was able to bring it down to ~30pounds with water added to the mix. Which is 2/3rds the weight of 45 pounds. Considering I was carrying a 2 person tent, 6.6 pounds of water, food for 2 days, a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a summit pack, dry pack, clothes and crampons and ice axe, this was pretty ok. I might have been able to drop another 2 pounds with some more sacrifices. My friend did carry the bear canister, and Jetboil in exchange for the tent 🙂
Pack and pack contents:
- Boreas Bootlegger – with all 3 packs. One to be used as raincover, one for the second day summit, and one regular. This was a little heavier than maybe carrying my Bergans Helium 55, but I would have needed a separate rain cover, and a separate summit bag.
- North Face Hyper Cat sleeping bag. (20F < 2 pounds, Synthetic). Not only is this a light bag for the temperature rating, but it also packs down really small. Also, please don't use down if you can help it. Down is made from plucked Goose feather, and sometimes, this is borderline cruel.
- Klymit Static V Insulate sleeping pad (1 pound 9oz for 4.4 R value) – This is perhaps where I will try to cut a pound the next time. There are pads that weigh ~1pound for a lot more money of course.
- Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 HV tent. (<3 pounds for a 2 person freestanding tent is pretty impressive.) The tent did feel a little compact – both me and my friend are 5'11" and not really skinny. This was a little cozy with both sleeping pads touching, but considering it was cold, we managed fine. For warm weather, might want a roomier 2 person tent. But with the tent staked correctly, it withstood rain and hail at trailcamp.
- One set of thermal inners, one Columbia fleece jacket, one pair of extra socks, first aid kit, toiletries, Maglite flashlight, energizer head lamp. Couple of trash bags (for waterproofing needs, trash …etc)
- Platypus 3L big zip hydration bladder.
- Marmot Precip rain jacket and pants.
- 2-3 freeze dried meals + 2-3 trail mixes + 2-3 cliff bars.
- Black diamond crampons, tent stakes, black diamond ice axe, Komperdell hiking poles. Yaktrax.
I think that was pretty much it. In terms of what I’d leave behind, I’d definitely leave behind the yaktrax – which were of no use whatsoever. I’d also leave behind the flashlight.
In terms of fitness, I think I was in worse shape compared to the last time over! So much for learning lessons. I think going into the first week of June, my training was coming along well, when I fell sick with a cold/allergy. The ensuing 3 weeks was mostly spent recovering from the above, and then trying to recover from a horrible dry cough that wouldn’t let go, costing me valuable preparation. I tried training despite the cough, but the coughing fits that followed were not fun!
So we landed in LAX on a Thursday, and drove down to Lone Pine, picked up the permits, went crampon renting, and bought a few miscellaneous stuff from one of the store at lone pine. Had breakfast at Dennys on the way, and lunch at a burger place in Lone pine. We then headed to the Base camp, which was full of mosquitoes! Had to buy a bug repellant which I had left behind, since I did not see bugs the last time. After setting up the tents – (I had taken a second 1 person tent, since I didn’t want day 0 tent experience to be tight as well. We were going to leave it in the car anyway), we had an early dinner at the Whitney Portal Store – burgers and fries again, and went to sleep around 6pm.
The plan was to start at around 4 am, which might have been a little early. We finally ended up starting only around 6:30 am, since we had to pack the tents and stuff, and my backpack was so small that things had to go in in a particular way for everything to fit – so I basically had to pack things in the morning after folding up the tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad from the previous night.
We mostly kept going with very few breaks. We took a break every 2 hours or so. Once we got to within a mile of Trail Camp, there was snow on the trail, and at this point, people just start walking up the snow straight instead of through the actual trail (which is also covered in snow).
As we got close to trail camp, there were signs of dark clouds and possible rain approaching. At this point, I realized the pain of putting my backpack into a dry bag and then attaching the strap system to it. If it were to every suddenly start pouring, I would have a difficult time doing this.
Once we got to Trail Camp, which I believe was around 12:30 – 1pm, we searched for a good spot, found a great spot to pitch the tents, pitched our tents, unpacked some, made our meal, and had the meal quickly. At this point, we decided to go to sleep early around 3pm or 4pm or so. As soon as we got into the tent, and changed clothes and stuff, it first started raining and then pelting small sized hail. This was of course accompanied by lightning and thunder. I was later told that some people were still trying to get to trail camp when the showers started. The only thing I was worried about was the hiking poles and the ice axes we had placed nicely at the head of the tent 🙂 Hopefully it wouldn’t attract any lightning or else we were toast. It rained/hailed for about an hour and when I walked out the tent, the area surrounding us was covered in hail/snow – so was the rainfly of the tent. Considering this was a lightweight backpacking tent, thankfully the hail was not any larger, or it would have done some damage to the tent.
I finally went to sleep some time around 4-5pm, only to have to wake up later to have to pee, frantically trying to find my socks and shoes :).
We had spoken to a few people that walked down before we started the hike. One person informed us that the switchbacks were mostly not covered in snow, and if you got to the cables section, it was mostly no snow after that to trail crest.
Also, when we spoke to others who had returned to Trail camp while we were there, some reported having taken 5 hours to get to the summit.
Figuring it would take us at least 4.5 hours, we wanted to leave around 2am so we would finish the hike while there was still light. Unfortunately, we woke up at 3:15 am, and by the time we started it was 4:30 am. Still pretty early, but 2.5 hours behind where we wanted to be. We started walking up some footprints towards the chute. Once we reached the point directly below the cables, we could see a steep slope lead up to the cables – we decided to climb it in the hopes that from there on, we could remove out crampons and hike normally. This climb was pretty ok, but we had to hoist ourselves up near the end of the cables section. Slightly treacherous if you ask me. Then we removed crampons, and started walking the switchbacks. while it was true that most of the switchbacks were snow free, there was snow in portions, and where there was snow, it was pretty steep – I guess that’s the point of the switchbacks :). We decided to boulder over rocks instead of walking over snow at those points – something that took a lot of energy. Once we got to the last few switchbacks, it was mostly covered in snow all the way to trail crest. Did not put the crampons back on, but walked carefully and slowly with ice-axe in hand.
At 7am, 2.5 hours after we had started the hike, we still had a little ways to go before hitting trail crest. Post this point – refer images below, was covered in snow.
We finally reached trail crest at 8am. 3.5 hours after starting in the morning. Pretty slow going.
In retrospect, the chute might have been faster. The dry section of the switchbacks was too small, to get any benefit out of it.
By 10:30, a full 6 hours after starting in the morning, and 2.5 hours after stopping at trail crest for a while, I had reached the hill on which Mt. Whitney is, but had absolutely no energy left to do the last 0.4 miles to get to the summit. 14,157 ft. Another 400 ft to go. 🙂 The point is shown on the image below.
I turned back after sitting and contemplating for some time as to what to do. I thought it was safer to not deplete the last ounce of energy I had so that I did not make mistakes while descending.
In the meantime, my friend had gone onto the summit, and returned back and joined me on the trail back to trail crest.
We reached trail crest around 12:30 pm. 8 hours since starting the hike in the morning. At this point, I knew I did not have the energy to take the switchbacks down, but also was a little scared to glissade down the chute. But it was decided that we were taking the chute down anyway, because we had to get down quick, and we didn’t have a whole lot of energy to hike down. After hiking down the steepest part of the chute, which to me was scary – I slipped a few times – hadn’t worn the crampons, because it was slushy snow anyway. thankfully planting the ice axe firmly in the ground was reassuring, and probably saved me from plummeting down.
Once we got to the less steep section, my friend glissaded down first. And only after I found him alive and well at the bottom of the chute, did I start my glissading down. It was reasonably well controlled – a little faster than it should have been – because of the slope – but also, I was digging in the ice axe (pointy end), with all my might to slow myself down. 🙂 Finally got to the bottom of the chute, and literally walked as fast as we could to the tent.
We got down to the trail camp around 2:45pm. 10 hours!
I wanted to rest a while before doing anything else, so I just lay down outside the tent for some. We then prepared our meal, ate it, and slowly started unpacking the tent, and packing the backpacks. I think it was 4:30 pm once again before we started hiking down.
On the way down, we stopped once we reached Outpost camp, and then not once afterwards. The moment you stopped, you’d have mosquitoes feeding on you – so it was better to just keep going.
I finally finished the hike at 9pm. My friend was ahead – so he probably finished 15-20 mins before I did.
16.5 hours of hiking. I still wasn’t really tired in my muscles though – just an overall sense of weariness. The other thing that killed me was my waist belt had come undone while trying to tighten it – so the 30 pound pack was kinda killing me on my shoulders on the way down.
We went to our hotel, had baths, and then dug into a large pizza! I slept like a log for the rest of the night.
For me personally, the second attempt has also been unsuccessful. Having a cold/allergy 1 month before the hike, and not being able to train for it for an entire month leading up to the hike thanks to a persistent cough for which I saw 4 separate doctors, was debilitating in terms of my preparation. While my overall fitness levels were perhaps ok, not training for 3 weeks to a month definitely costs you some fitness.
I think the next time I attempt it, it’s going to be later in the season, and most likely a day hike.