Top of the [Contiguous] U.S. – Hiking Mt. Whitney

WE DID IT!!!!

Dan and I hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney, which, at 14,505 feet, is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. I won’t lie. It was hard. It was a long hike. Our backpacks were heavy (42 and 44 lbs.). The uphill never ended. Then the downhill never ended. It was hot. It was cold. It was crazy windy. It was dirty. It was sunny. The altitude got to us. But, we made it to the top. Together. Amen to that!

In the week leading up to our departure, we were getting pretty nervous. Would we be physically able to make it? Would the altitude make us too sick? Would we make the right decisions to keep us safe? A seed was planted in both of us a long time ago, giving us the desire to hike this tall, yet accessible, mountain. We had the drive. But would we have the power?

Planning

Our preparations for this hike were actually not that great. I worked out as I normally do. We stopped drinking alcohol three days before our trip (I know – what a sacrifice!) and started drinking a lot more water. We stocked up on shot blocks, Cliff bars, ibuprofen, and Pepto tablets. We cut our toenails short and bought new hiking socks. We checked our gear and made sure that we had all the supplies that we would need. And we read up online about the hike and other peoples’ experiences. I poured over the Timberline Trails website and Dan read over the Modern Hiker website.

Day 1 – Whitney Portal

We started our adventure on a Sunday, which meant that we had most of the weekend to relax and pack without rush. We drove to Lone Pine; picked up our permit, bear canister, and WAG bags at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center; ate dinner at Bonanza Mexican Restaurant; and then set up camp in the Whitney Portal Family Campground. We had a lovely campsite (15) by Lone Pine Creek. We hiked up the Whitney Portal Recreation Trail to the Whitney Portal pond, store, and trailhead. It was a beautiful evening and when we got back to our campsite, we sat around a campfire until it was time to crawl into our tent and go to sleep.

First View of Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine

First View of Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine

Whitney Portal Campsite

Whitney Portal Campsite

Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail - Lone Pine Creek

Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail – Lone Pine Creek

Day 2 – Hike to Trail Camp

Because we were tackling Mt. Whitney on a three-day hike and not a crazy one-day hike, we didn’t set an alarm clock to wake up on Monday morning. We still woke fairly early, packed up camp, and prepared our backpacks for our hike. Just as we were about to leave the campground and head up to the trailhead, Dan realized that he wasn’t wearing his wedding band. We searched everywhere for it – in the backpacks that we had just perfectly packed, in the tent that we had just taken down and packed away, in the car, in the dirt around the campsite, in the bear box, in the bathroom. No ring. Eventually, we had to go and get on the trail. We told the camp host about the missing ring and I spent the next three days praying that we would miraculously find it. It would be one of many, many, many prayers that I would say over the next few days.

We parked our car directly across from the trailhead, took our last pit stops, posed for a picture, and then started up the Mt. Whitney Trail. Over the next three days, we would hike 22 miles and gain/lose 6,145 feet. It would definitely be our most strenuous hike to date!

Mt. Whitney Trailhead

Mt. Whitney Trailhead

Our plan for the hike had always been to just take it slow and steady. We were in no rush. We’d rest when we wanted to and forge on when we could. We also drank lots and lots of water. And, to try to get ahead of any altitude sickness headaches, we took ibuprofen pills.

Our first stop along the way was Lone Pine Lake, which was stunning. Although it was only 2.8 miles up the trail, it felt like we hiked 10 miles before we arrived at its shores. We took our packs off, ate, refilled our water bladders and bottles, and watched two crazy kids jump into the very cold water.

Beautiful Scenery

Beautiful Scenery

Lone Pine Lake

Lone Pine Lake

After leaving Lone Pine Lake, we entered the Whitney Zone. We continued to hike up. By the time we got to Bighorn Park, we saw the first person of the day who had summitted and was now on his way back to Whitney Portal. It was also at this point that we started seeing snowflakes. As we hiked up to Outpost Camp, Mirror Lake, and beyond, we started seeing more clouds and more people coming down off the mountain. Some had made it to the top and some were turning around due to the weather that was rolling in. After we got above Mirror Lake, the trees gave way in favor of the granite and we felt the elements more acutely. It started to get very windy and cold. Hiking the last mile of the day from Trailside Meadow to Trail Camp was pretty miserable due to the weather. Right below Trail Camp, other hikers were telling us to set up camp as soon as we found a spot and to stay nestled as close to the big boulders as possible to protect against the wind. We found a spot inches from the trail, dropped our backpacks, and set up camp, making sure to weigh our tent stakes down with rocks upon rocks. We had hiked 6 miles that day and were now at 12,000 feet. Dan was feeling it and it wasn’t good. After refilling our water bladders and bottles again and eating a quick dinner, we crawled into bed. Before we fell asleep, although we didn’t admit it to each other, we were wondering if we’d be able to make it to the top the next day. Although we knew the weather was supposed to clear by morning, it was currently quite yucky outside the tent. And, like I said, Dan was feeling pretty nasty due to the altitude.

Bighorn Park with Clouds Rolling In

Bighorn Park with Clouds Rolling In

Cloudy Trail Crest

Cloudy Trail Crest

Trail Camp Campsite

Trail Camp Campsite

Day 3 – Summit Day!

We woke the next morning to the sound of footsteps outside our tent from early morning day hikers making their way up the trail. We peeked out the tent and it was beautiful outside – blue, sunny skies! And, Dan felt much, much better! We were invigorated and excited to see so many people around us preparing to hike up to the peak. We again refilled our water bottles, packed our day packs, and, at about 8am, started hiking up the famous 99 switchbacks.

Summit Day!

Summit Day!

Amazing!

Amazing!

We hiked slow – nearly everyone passed us. But, again, we were in no rush. We weren’t planning on hiking down to Whitney Portal after summitting, so we took our time, enjoyed the amazing views, and rested a lot. About halfway up the switchbacks I started feeling pretty yucky. The ibuprofen was keeping my headache light, but my stomach wasn’t so happy. Dan encouraged me to take a Pepto tablet and that made all the difference.

At the Cables

At the Cables

Resting on the Switchbacks

Resting on the Switchbacks

We were so excited to make it to Trail Crest and see the backside of the mountain range – into Sequoia National Park. We only had 2.8 miles to go until we reached the top of the mountain, but when we turned the corner and saw how far away the top still was, it seemed like it would be hours and hours before we would be there. And, well, it did take us a long time. Hiking from the John Muir Trail junction to the summit of Mt. Whitney was the hardest part of the hike for me. The altitude had me exhausted. Every ten feet I wanted to sit down and rest (and most often, I did). I was breathing like I imagine a woman in labor breathes. Basically, IT WAS HARD!

Trail Crest

Trail Crest

Backside - Still so Far to Go

Backside – Still so Far to Go

Eventually, after what seemed like forever, we turned to head up to the summit and the Smithsonian Institution Shelter. And then, we were on top of the contiguous United States! The views were amazing, but, honestly, the views were amazing the entire way, so it wasn’t like we stepped on top of Mt. Whitney and all of a sudden stepped into a picture painting. We’d been hiking through spectacular scenery since we first stepped foot on the trail. It did feel like we could practically touch the clouds from up there, though.

Smithsonian Institution Shelter

Smithsonian Institution Shelter

Top of Mt. Whitney

Top of Mt. Whitney

We made our way to the three USGS markers, went inside the shelter, took pictures, and signed the register. We were one of the last people on the top, as it was already 2:30pm. As we were leaving, a guy came out of the shelter smoking a cigarette. I could hardly believe it. I could barely breathe, and this dude was smoking?! Dan said that when he saw him in the shelter, he was holding a joint, too – probably waiting for us to leave to light it up. Apparently the amazing beauty surrounding him was not enough.

USGS Marker

USGS Marker

We didn’t stay on the top all that long. We still had to hike 5 miles back to Trail Camp, so we started down the mountain. We passed a few people still heading to the top, one of whom was in pretty bad shape. Dan gave her a few Pepto tablets to help her nausea and I prayed she’d be okay. Although the hike down was certainly faster and easier, it was still long and the wind had kicked up. While still hiking across Trail Crest, military fighter jets rushed over the top of the mountains, dipped into Sequoia National Park, circled around, and practically grazed the top of the mountains on their way back over them. We stood there – with no one else around – and watched them in awe. The sound was amazing as it echoed from down in the valley to the top of the mountains.

Hiking Down

Hiking Down

Finally, we made it off the last switchback and back to Trail Camp. We originally planned to hike back down to Outpost Camp and stay there, but we were tired and we were the second to last couple to get back to Trail Camp (we later saw the woman who Dan gave Pepto tablets to come down off the switchbacks with her hiking partner – whew!). Trail Camp was already super windy and cold. We refilled our water bladders and bottles yet again and opened our tent to crawl in and rest. Because of all the wind, everything in our tent was covered in a thin layer of dirt and sand. Arg. And, those damn marmots that you read about (and see everywhere up there), had chewed a hole to get into our tent and then chewed another hole to exit our tent. As instructed, we had NO food in our tent, but those rascals still came in to look around. I had read that you should leave your tent open so that the little bastards can come and go as they please without destroying your tent, but I unfortunately did not listen to that sage advice. After we brushed the dust off our sleeping bags, we crawled into our tent and did not leave until the next morning. We were too tired and cold to make dinner, and, plus, it was insanely windy. All night long the wind furiously whipped at our tent.

Day 4 – Hike Back to Whitney Portal

On Wednesday morning, we packed up camp, strapped on our big backpacks, and headed down, down, down. We passed all the same sights that we did on the way up, but this time the weather was much nicer, so we got some better photographs. It was fun to see people heading up the mountain, beginning their journey, and chat with them about our experience. Many people asked us if we made it to the top and I was so proud to say YES! Just before we exited the Whitney Zone, we saw two black-tailed deer, the only decently-sized wildlife we ended up seeing on our adventure (there were no bear sightings on this trip). Again, the hike from Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal felt much longer than 2.8 miles. We were so anxious to be done hiking – to eat real food – to shower – to pee in an actual toilet. I nearly cried when I got back to our car – not from exhaustion (although I was tired), but from happiness and relief. We threw our WAG bag way, peed, got the stuff that we had stored in the trailhead bear box, and hopped in the car to drive home. (Note for those who don’t know what a WAG bag is: it’s the Mt. Whitney pack-out-your-shit system. All solid human waste must be packed out and off the mountain because there isn’t enough dirt in all that granite to decompose everyone’s poop. So, yes, you see hiker upon hiker with their shit bags hanging from their backpacks, and, you, too, are one of them.)

Trailside Meadow

Trailside Meadow

Tree in Granite

Tree in Granite

We stopped at the Whitney Portal Family Campground to see if the host found Dan’s wedding band, but the host was off duty and we hadn’t received a call about it either. We drove down to Lone Pine and returned our bear canister and then drove to Adelanto where we grabbed Rubio’s for lunch. Ohhhh…that tasted so good!

Home

After we got home and showered, I started unpacking our bags. I took everything out of Dan’s backpack, including the water bladder. Then I patted it down. And that’s when I felt it in his water bladder pouch – his wedding band! It was with us all along. And somehow, amazingly, even after taking his water bladder in and out of that backpack and that pouch many, many times on the trip, it never fell out. It must have originally slipped off his finger while he was stuffing his water bladder in the pouch before we left to head up the trail on Monday morning. Whew!

Final Comments and Observations

We never saw a ranger on our hike. No one ever checked our permits. We were not sore after this hike (just dirty!). We did not get sunburned. I felt so icky on summit day that I actually only ate three shot blocks and a bite of Cliff bar, but, somehow, I had enough energy in me to hike 10 miles. We both lost weight on this hike. We also feel like we’re now part of a large, but unique club – those who’ve hiked Mt. Whitney. So many people who we tell about our adventure get excited and tell us that they, too, have hiked (or tried to hike) Mt. Whitney. I don’t think I’ll ever hike to the top of this mountain again (Dan said he would consider it, though), but I am so glad that I finally did make it to the top. Check this off the bucket list!

About Carrie

I'm a Midwest transplant in SoCal...spending my time exploring, questioning, reading, writing, baking, skiing, and running.
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3 Responses to Top of the [Contiguous] U.S. – Hiking Mt. Whitney

  1. mizwrite says:

    This is sooooooooooooo cool, Carrie!! I’m so amazed you did this, and with such pinache. I can’t imagine hiking that far or that high. Actually, I can’t even imagine sleeping in a tent on a cliffside on that windy night! What an exciting and amazing experience for you and Dan to have shared, and to be able to reminisce about forever. Did you use your walking poles on this one? Does anyone use hiking sticks?

    • Carrie says:

      Thanks, Laurie! Oh, yes, we certainly used our hiking poles, as did most other people hiking the trail. I can’t imagine doing long, steep hikes without them anymore!

  2. wow pretty spectacular, I may have to do this one day…

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