Two old college friends and I were discussing our autumn backpack trip in the John Muir
Wilderness. I had already been training, long day hikes carrying a few pounds on steep trails. Dan had just attempted Mt. Shasta and summited San Gorgornio. He then mentioned he had a permit for Mt. Whitney, and I was surprised. I had read stories of the reservation lottery system, with no guarantee of winning a day permit. “There is a spot available I think if you are interested. We are day hiking it.” I stopped and thought about it. Am I in good enough shape? How do you train for 14000+ft? Felt like an opportunity of a lifetime, a checkmark on my bucket list. I have long wanted to attempt the climb to the summit of the California Rooftop.
“Long day. Starting on the east side I presume?” I asked. “In thru Whitney Portal. Yes, very long day, probably 18+ hours. Have to peak before noon, so we will be starting at like 1am.” Dan described. Am I ready for that haul? I have never even attempted any single day strenuous hike with a massive 6000ft ascent. What would I need? How do I train? What if I get altitude sickness? What about my mild acrophobia? I had to begin preparing. The hike was just under 3 weeks away.
The Training and Planning
I had been prepping for our backpack trip for a while. Long mountain bike rides, steep hikes, but Whitney would be different. Very different. No stopping and setting up your tent and calling it a day. No “I am done” and turning around. I decided the best approach would be to hike with weight. Lots of weight and at or above altitudes of 10,000ft. I unpacked my backpacking gear and loaded it up. Sleeping gear, tent, bear box with food, extra clothes, cooking equipment, the works. Roughly 40lbs, including the weight of the pack itself.
I pulled out the trusty Tom Harrison “Mammoth High Country” and “Mono Divide” maps and looked at a few trails which might fit the requirements. There is one, Mono Pass at 12000ft. And looks like there are a few perfect camping spots. The dog and I could comfortably hike in and out in two days. Perfect. A permit for the area would be pretty easy to reserve. Grabbed the first available weekend and went shopping for backpacking food.
A few days before, I woke up early and feeling great. Even better, had the day off, as it was July 4th. “Let’s do Duk Pass, Elwood!” I whispered to the dog. The trail is pretty steep in the first and last couple of miles to the pass. Figured it would be a decent test. Loaded up the truck with the backpack and off we went. My legs and heart felt strong, passing lowlanders who were not carrying any weight. I could do this. Ascending the switchbacks over the pass at 10,800ft, I continued my elevated confidence, pun intended. Would this be a good enough tryout for Whitney? Not sure, but Mono Pass would be more suitable.
Three days later, we went on our overnighter on the Mono Pass trail, a better primer. I knew I would slow down at 11,000ft, but didn’t realize how badly. Felt like I hit a wall. Counting steps and resting seconds. Could I do Whitney? This was over two thousand feet lower and a fraction in length. I had to keep training. Decided on a different approach.
I knew of a few steep hikes in the area which I had completed in the previous years. Still steep and above 10,000ft. Spent the next two weeks hiking them at a good pace with the same weight I would carry on Whitney. Pretty easy and my confidence improved once again. Rested in the days before I would drive down to Lone Pine to meet Dan and my other hiking partners. Anxiety arrived with a fervor, but my confidence did not wane. Whitney, here I come you steep bastard!
Hot. Damn hot. That was Lone Pine and the Owens Valley. I met Dan and his friends at the Historic Dow Hotel, with a view of Mt. Whitney under a shroud of thunderstorms. Two of the crew had peaked Whitney before. Should I be intimidated? My highest excursion was at 12,000ft just two weeks prior. Should I be thankful I was with prepared and experienced hikers who knew the trail? The latter, definitely the latter. And a bit daunted.
The Sierra Monsoon had been impacting the granite range with drizzle and torrential downpours for the last few afternoons. Whitney Day would be no exception. I was prepared, packed with a rain jacket, whisper down, and extra clothes. Would the backpack boots be good enough? Should I have brought lighter boots? How slippery would the trail be? How many creek crossings without a decent bridge? All of my questions would be answered after a night of zero sleep.
The Whitney Zone
11:30pm arrived. We had two alarms set, just in case. I could tell from the brief discussion our hiking partners were punctual, a trait much appreciated. Unbeknownst to me, I would be a driver, taking two of the laides in my vehicle to Whitney Portal. One of them questioned my chosen apparel a few times during the 25min drive to the trailhead. A light-weight breathable short sleeve shirt and shorts. I knew I would be warm in 10-15mins, and I was correct.
The hike started at a much slower pace than I had wished. Even though we were close to 9000ft, my breathing was no harder than would be while walking the dog on a leisurely stroll. Dan and I trailed the back of the pack, Jon led, with the ladies in between us. Walking a steep rocky trail with only a headlamp was a new experience. I had to become accustomed to it quickly. We would be hiking in the pitch black for a few hours. A group of 20-something-year-olds cruised passed us. We had to start walking a bit faster, our goal was to summit by noon.
One of the ladies stopped to shed a layer. Dan and I continued on without hesitation. The night before, we had planned our hiking logistics. The ladies would hike together, the guys each go out at their own pace. I took the lead on a trail I had never walked before, with LED’s guiding my way. My current goal was to attempt to meet the same pace as the pack who had just passed us, and without entering the heart rate red zone.
After the first meadow crossing, a bridge built with several logs lined up, I waited for Dan and Jon to catch up. They were further back than I had anticipated. We kept chugging along as a group, Jon and I leapfrogging one another. I had a better headlamp, but his pace was just a bit faster than mine. Dan started to trail behind us, wasn’t sure if he was saving his energy or the elevation had begun taking a toll.
The Thunder & The Wait
We reached the first tricky section, one I had not anticipated. The trail had turned into an overflow for the creek, a trickle of water over granite steps. I accessed and tried to figure out the best path. We silently decided to take a quick rest. And then I began to hear thunder. I looked up and just saw stars and darkness. The sky was clear. Where were the clouds? The thunder kept going and going. After 10sec or so, I looked in the direction of the noise, slightly muffled over the sound of the creek, and saw sparks (granite hitting granite) on the mountainside. The thunder was not stopping. Dan and I looked at one another, and I said something along the lines, “I don’t think that is thunder.” At that moment, we arrived at the same conclusion. I tried to say something, but the words had escaped my vocabulary. “Rock Slide! Get behind that boulder!”, Dan yelled. We quickly found our granite protectors. Would this be it? How close was the slide? Felt like it was right above us. What about the trail ahead, would it be blocked?
The slide lasted for a good 45-60 seconds. We all took a deep breath before leaning out to verify if the granite avalanche had stopped. We waited a few more moments, and I couldn’t help myself anymore. “Holy shit!” What were our options now? None of us hesitated, we took a sip of water and got back on the trail.
Jon and I took the lead, climbing up the steepest section so far. I could feel the reduced oxygen now but tried my best to keep up. My competitive juices began flowing. Dan started falling back, this time though was different. I could tell he was struggling as the sight of his headlamp grew dimmer down the trail. Just before sunrise, Jon and I reached Trail Camp at 12000ft. I could see the “97 Switchback” section, a path of lights going up the side of the mountain. I decided to wait for Dan, I figured he was only 5-10mins back. I wanted to summit with him and take a few selfies to show our mutual friends. Jon kept trucking along, he knew of a spring on the trail to filter water and wanted to refill his reservoir.
The cold wind went through my body and sweat-soaked shirt, I had to warm up. I put on a fleece and tuque, ate more gorp and rehydrated. And waited. And waited. Where was Dan? Did he lose the trail? Stop for the ladies to catch up? Taking an extended break? What happened? Each group who passed by, I would say “Is there a Dan Wheeler in your group?” I saw two headlamps off in the distance. This would be it, if Dan weren’t one of them, I would take off and catch up with Jon.
The pair of headlamps were finally here. Dan noticed my distinctive red LED lamp. “Is that you Bryce?” Dan found a hiking buddy, a younger talkative guy, who was at the same pace. I asked Dan how he was feeling. The altitude was having an impact, but he had no quit in him. They waited as I got my gear back on, and I took the lead. Would we be able to stick with one another? My question would soon be answered. After ten or so switchbacks, I looked back and noticed how far I was already ahead. I realized then, if I did not catch up with Jon, I would be summiting alone. I decided to put my head down and climb the infamous segment I had read about the week prior. One turn after another, not too steep, just relentless.
The sun started to peek over the ridge. I could finally begin to take in the beauty of the
area. Attempted to shoot the first photo of the day, but the light was still too low. No longer needing the headlamp though, I put it away and took aim at the group of hikers in front of me. I wanted to be the passer, not the one being passed.
The Last 2.5mi
After an hour or so, I reached Trail Crest, the top of the “97 Switchbacks” and saw the sign indicating I was entering Sequoia National Park. The trail led downhill, and I started to question if I had missed a turnoff. Pulled up the map on the GPS, and nope, still heading in the right direction. Then I started to worry. “Oh shit, I would have to climb back up this hill after summitting.”
I had studied photos of the hike and knew this last stretch would be the most difficult. Damn, I was right. At 13,500ft, the elevation had started to have an impact physiologically. Breathing became more labored, and heart rate was much closer to redline. Then there was the trail. Climbing up and over sharp granite slabs, with a steep drop-off on my left side. The acrophobia kicked in. My eyes stayed focused on the task at hand, 4-6ft in front of me. No looking up or over, just straight ahead. I put away the trekking poles to free my hands. Easier to step up. Saw a backpacker ~200yds up the path, my next goal to pass.
Now I was struggling. I realized I had to be both mentally and physically tough to meet the Whitney Challenge. Hikers who had peaked would typically say something like “you’re almost there!” or “not much further, you can make it.” The shelter hut was not in sight. I knew though, once I saw it, only a few minutes remained to mark a checkmark to on one of my bucket list items.
I finally caught up to my objective and chatted it up. The older gentleman and his family had been backpacking the John Muir Trail (JMT) for a few weeks, and this was their last day in the wilderness before heading home. Mt. Whitney is the southern terminus of the JMT. Talking to a fellow hiker quickened the time, and before I knew it, I could see the summit shelter. The last bit of adrenaline shot through my arteries. I was close, very close. Once again, put my head down, counting my steps, taking short breaks, and plowed up the last 200 yards.
After reaching the top, I found a flat rock to sit down on and take off my pack. 8:45am, 8hrs from the trailhead to peak. I looked around for Jon. No sign of him. Did we pass one another on the way down? Did he turnaround and not summit? There were a few unofficial paths up the last hundred yards or so, it was very plausible we just missed one another. After resting a few minutes, my mind cleared up from the hiking daze, and I knew I had to eat and hydrate. Then it was photo taking time. The granite shelter, the views, the geological marker, I walked around looking for mementos to show friends and family. Found the sign-in sheet and entered my name. Attempted a few times to see if I had cell service, I noticed several others who were talking on their phones or texting. Nope, zero bars. Looked at the time and it was approaching 9:30am. Clouds were forming on the western slope. Grudgingly lifted the pack on my sore shoulders and started heading down. Turned around, and under my breath whispered: “I fucking did it!”
I decided to take my time on the descent, did not want to twist an ankle or knee. My other focus was finding the other members of the crew. I knew if Dan had not already started heading back to the trailhead, I would see him on the segment between the summit and trail crest. I looked down the trail and saw a guy who met Dan’s description and attire. Could it be? By this time, I had been hiking alone for nearly 4hrs with no sign of the original team. “Holy shit!” I quipped it was Dan taking a breather. A sigh of relief had washed over me. I saw who he was talking to, the ladies in our crew who had caught up with him.
Dan had encountered Jon on his way down. Jon had summitted, I must have just missed him. The ladies had split up, one had a more severe case of altitude sickness and turned around smartly. The remaining ladies would attempt to summit, even though the weather was deteriorating. We realized we had a logistical issue. Dan and I had driven, and someone would need to wait at the trailhead. Dan gave his car keys to one of the ladies. After a few minutes of chatting, I looked at Dan and said I was taking off. “I’ll only be a few minutes behind you.” By this time, I saw clouds flowing over the crest. In my gut, I knew I had to get off the mountain before the thunderstorm arrived.
As I descended down to the trail split, Whitney Portal in one direction, the John Muir Trail northbound in the other, I had regained some of my lost energy. I was not alone on this trek. Climbing up to Trail Crest then down the 97 Switchbacks, all I had to was just focus on putting one foot in front of the other, not slip too far, and I would be safely down.
Roughly halfway down to Trail Camp, a helicopter, a colossal twin-rotor Chinook, appeared coming up the canyon, following Lone Pine Creek. Was it exploring the rock slide? Delivering a ranger and supplies? Most of the hikers stopped to watch for a few moments, I did as well. Then it began hovering in between Trail Camp and Consultation Lake. I was just too far away to tell what it was doing. I snapped a few photos and kept descending the switchbacks.
I talked to a few hikers who were coming up and got the gist. A male hiker had experienced severe altitude sickness, coughing up blood and unable to continue down to Whitney Portal. I was hoping to catch a decent close-up photo of the rescue, but then the Chinook took off, and a strange silence grew. Whitney had taken its first victim of the day. Would I be one? I took solace, figuring Dan was not far behind.
Made it down to Trail Camp and needed to eat. I laid my pack down on a rock near a pond and started to scarf down gorp, beef jerky, and dried mango. The sky was covered entirely now by darkening clouds. Then I felt the first drop, then another. “Here it comes.” I did not fear the lightning, I was off the most exposed section of the trail. Just six more miles to go, the segment I hiked in the dark just a few hours prior. I was going to see the beauty of what I missed.
I quickly put the rain jacket on over the fleece, lifted the pack back on my shoulders, and was on my way. By this time, my neck grew pretty sore. The bag I chose for this journey, a trail Camelbak, did not have a good hip belt. Most of the weight rested squarely on the region between the neck and shoulder/arm joints. I did my best to adjust and try to alleviate the pain, but nothing seemed to work. I had a more pressing issue.
The downpour had begun. I started to feel drenched. The trail turned into a stream. Water always follows the path of least resistance. I had to watch where my feet landed, granite can be quite treacherous when wet. I tried to find some quick shelter, an overhang or tree to stand under. There was neither to be found. Just had to keep chugging along carefully.
By this time, my pace was that of a tortoise, one slow step after another. Out of the blue, an older gentleman came up from behind, asked if I was alright, said “you now have had the full experience today,” and flew by me like I was standing still. It then it dawned on me. During dinner the previous night, Jon had mentioned Crazy Jack would be up here. Jack Northram has summitted Mt. Whitney over 150 times, including several “yo-yos,” double summiting in a 24-hour period. I scanned his footwear and equipment quickly. Super lightweight rubber shoes, poncho, and an Osprey pack. Had to be him.
The trail was no more, just a stream I followed downhill. My boots were soaked through, each weighing 10lbs. The pack was full of water, and everything wet inside. There was no stopping though. The rain and hail continued for three miles, as I was descending down the steepest segment of the day. Perfect timing. I was hoping to take photos and relax a bit. That was not happening. I muttered a few times “Fuck Whitney, fuck this trail, fuck Camelbak, fuck these boots. Fuckity fuck fuck.” Not a happy camper.
The Final Stretch
Once I reached the lower Outpost Camp at 10,500ft, the rain stopped, and the hydrophilic ground turned dry. I still had 3mi and over 2000ft descent to go. A couple of backpackers asked about the condition of the trail, and I just said “It is not a trail, it’s a fucking stream man. Be careful.”
One step after another, down the hill. I didn’t have to worry about slipping now though. The trail was mostly dirt, a few rocky sections, but I was home free and able to relax finally. I looked around, up the canyon, the waterfalls, the meadows, absorbing the gorgeous surroundings. I had to visit this place in the autumn. I could see where the rock fall had occurred, noticing the puffs of dust off the slope. We were pretty lucky though. Finally, Whitney Portal Road came into view in the distance. Not much further now, and I could take this backpack off and enjoy a cold malted barley beverage.
Bumped into a forest ranger and she asked how I was doing and if I had summitted. I gave her the quick lowdown and asked if she knew about the rock slide. “What rock slide?” I did my best to describe kind of where it was, but to be honest, my internal navigation was fuzzy. She jotted down notes in her trail book and took off up the hill.
The parking lot was a relieved sight. Put my pack in the trunk, and went searching for Jon. It was just after 4pm, I had been hiking for over 15 hours, my body felt beat up. When I had met Dan on the descent, he mentioned Jon would be waiting at the Whitney Portal Store for us. Walked around the area of the store and picnic tables, but no sign of him. Then it started to rain. Shit. Returned to the car, grabbed a Mammoth Yosemite out of the cooler, turned on the radio, put the seat in a reclined position, and chilled.
After the rain subsided, I returned to the store and quickly found Jon. He had been here since 2pm. I knew I was slow on the descent, not that slow though. We shared our experiences and swapped stories, wondering if we would see Dan before dusk. I estimated he was 2 hours behind. We just sat there, chatted with the others who had just completed the summit hike and waited. Two minutes before 6, I saw Dan coming up the driveway. We waved, and he shared his stories, what happened to the ladies, and ordered food. Highly recommend the bacon burger with fries and a Coke. Jon found a ride to Lone Pine. By this time though, the sun was setting behind the mountains, and a chill came over me. My feet were still soaked, my extra pair of socks were just as wet. And I needed to warm up. We had no idea when the ladies would appear.
I started worrying about mild hypothermia. My feet had been drenched for hours. I decided to drive down to Lone Pine and enjoy a warm shower at the hotel. Dan was dry, he had definitely chosen better apparel and boots than I had worn. Dan would wait for the ladies at Whitney Portal and send a text when they arrived. Moments after getting out of the shower, the familiar sound of an incoming text filled the hotel room. I quickly checked it, and it was Dan. Two of the ladies were off the mountain. Where were the other two? The sun would set shortly. I drove back up to Whitney Portal and picked up the waiting party.
Dan and I crashed on our respective beds. Unlike the night before, I immediately fell fast asleep. Before I knew it, the room permeated with daylight and it was 7am. Dan checked his phone, the other pair of ladies were off the mountain. The text had come in at 11pm. I cannot imagine, ~22hrs roundtrip, beginning and ending the excursion in darkness. And I thought I had a story to share.
Ever since moving to Mammoth Lakes, exploring the wilderness a few miles at a time had developed into a summer passion. Whitney changed how I approached hiking though. Specifically, my pack and footwear choices needed an overhaul. The leather boots are great for multi-day backpack trips but too heavy for longer day hikes in the woods. I needed to find shoes which would drain water effectively. The dependable Camelbak used for hundreds of miles is okay for carrying less than 10lbs on 5mi strolls, but insufficient for anything more. I also needed better outerwear to protect from unanticipated downpours. Lightweight enough I can bring just in case of high country thunderstorms
Whitney, you steep bastard, you’ve humbled me. I will be back though, and even better prepared for what you throw at me the next time.