It's My First Time
A group of friends at work have done Whitney three times previously and had an extra permit. They invited me to join them. I said yes in April and was shocked in August when Bill reminded me that the trip was Sept. 8. I hadn’t been out much and was not feeling real confident, but I said I’d go so I was going.
We did three training hikes. The first was a 13-mile roundtrip, 4,000+-ft elevation gain trek from the top of Lake St. in Altadena to the top of Mt. Lowe. It was hotter than hell and I suffered from very sore toes on the long downhill. The next week we hiked from the Mt. Baldy ski resort parking lot, up under the lift and to the top of Mt. San Antonio. It was 3,800 ft in 4 miles or so each way. Very steep but not hot and it went pretty well. The next hike was Bear Canyon to the top of Mt. San Antonio. This trail is 13 miles roundtrip with almost 6,000 ft of elevation gain. Seemed like good training, but again it was really hot and our legs were sore from the last hike. We made it to 8,000 feet (4,000 of the 6,000 feet of elevation gain) and turned around. I had intended to go up a day early to Horseshoe Meadows to acclimate a little, but something came up. I was as ready as I was gonna be.
On Thursday, 9/7 we left Los Angeles about 12:30 and got to the Portal before 4:00. It was raining lightly and a little chilly. I set up my tent on one of the pads near the parking lot, stowed my food in the bear locker and we ate hot dogs and fries in the rain outside the Whitney Store. I smoked my last cigarette for the next 24 hours. The other two guys in our group never showed up so I got into my sleeping bag as soon as it got dark and slept until Bill woke me up at 11:30 to start getting ready. It took me about an hour to pack my Camelbak and my fanny pack because I took a ridiculous amount of food. I brought a ball cap, a very warm Patagonia fleece jacket, a wind/rain shell, wind/rain pants, a t-shirt to layer and shorts, plus sunglasses, Chapstick, two liters of water, and two bottles of frozen Gatorade, Advil, Rolaids, and calcium pills (helps with muscle cramps), the obligatory wag bag and some tissues. I wore a warm beanie, gloves, long pants, and a long-sleeve t-shirt under a short sleeve t-shirt. For food I packed: a tuna sandwich; a peanut butter sandwich; salami, cheese and crackers; a hard boiled egg (with salt); beef jerky; Cheez-its; white cheddar popcorn; string cheese; an apple; baby carrots; grape tomatoes; a peach; trail mix; a Danish; two candy bars; five PowerBars; and ten Power Gels. I had some other stuff I wanted to bring but I couldn’t fit it in. At altitude my appetite gets very finicky and I wanted to make sure I had enough to eat. The food alone must have weighed five pounds!
By the time I got through packing all that up and putting the extras back in the bear box, loading up my sleeping bag and mat, it was after 12:30. The moon was full and bright and it was warmer than it had been but still pretty cold. We started off.
The moon was so bright I didn’t use my headlamp most of the time. The falls were loud and the Whitney Portal store generator was off and it was absolutely gorgeous. We slogged on until we took a snack break just before the turnoff to Lone Pine Lake. It seemed pretty steep to me, but I knew it was too early to think about that. A few other groups caught up to us but then they stopped to rest and we leapfrogged for a couple of miles.
We stopped just below Trail Camp to use Bill’s filter to refill our water bags. His was empty and mine had only about a third left. I had recently bought a new bladder because my dog chewed up the first one. After filling it, I discovered it was leaking where the tubing was connected at the bottom. I put it in a ziplock bag but couldn’t close it all the way because the tube had to stick out so the bag filled up too and started to drip. I was furious! I’d only used it twice. We consulted and decided that since Bill had his Camelbak and a liter bottle of water and I had two bottles of Gatorade, it would be enough to continue. I wish I had thought to seal the broken bladder in the ziplock and not worry about using the tubing – just use it as an extra water container. But I didn’t.
We got to Trail Camp at dawn and rested a bit. We started up the switchbacks just as the sun was coming up (dawn being first light and sunrise being when the sun actually makes it over the horizon, right?). After a few switchbacks, Bill let me know that there was no shame in turning back and he wouldn’t mind if I wanted to stop. I said let’s keep going, I’m not ready to quit yet. There was lots of water on the trail and lots of ice so it was tricky going. I was using a breathing method that another friend taught me – breathe in as you step and breathe out as you step. So down below I could take four steps for every breath, then I got to three steps on every breath and later I’d be taking two steps for every breath. I felt pretty good actually, no headache and in good spirits.
When we got to Trail Crest I was elated. It was stunningly gorgeous and I was so happy to be there. It was about 7:30 in the morning, not a cloud in the sky, no wind – perfect!
Bill was feeling pretty pooped and his sunglasses had broken so his eyes were bothering him. He gave me a walkie talkie and told me to go on without him. It was a shame but I felt strong and ready to continue. I passed a few people and felt incredibly good. The view of the Sequoia and the lakes below was magnificent. I kept thinking about standing on some of those peaks looking at Whitney and wishing I could identify them. The Owens Valley and the White Mountains were awesome too. I was trucking and enjoying myself immensely – thinking of people who were special to me who I wished were there to see it also. As I approached the second window, Bill called on the walkie talkie and asked me to wait for him. So I did and we went on together.
I didn’t enjoy the last mile and a half nearly as much as the Crest. It was kind of barren and boring and seemed much longer than it should have been. You could see the hut on the summit but it was ridiculously far away.
We finally made it though at about 9:30 and it was thrilling. The views were spectacular and the weather was perfect. There were about 20 people up there. I signed the register – something stupid like “Can you believe this shit?? Ohmigod!” I think I spelled believe wrong even, and we took pictures.
I found a lovely little windbreak and settled in to make a serious dent in my lunch. At some point I smelled the aroma of urine and realized that the windbreak was actually a “privacy screen.” I was eating lunch in the bathroom!! Oops! Perhaps the altitude was clouding my judgment a bit? I scurried off to a cleaner site and gobbled what I could. The peanut butter sandwich didn’t appeal to me. The candy bar tasted terrible and after one bite of the boiled egg, I put it away. I ended up eating grape tomatoes, carrots, and salami and cheese with cracker crumbs (um...they broke). I had about half a bottle of Gatorade left. We started back down by about 10:30.
It became apparent pretty quickly that the downhill was going to be an ordeal. Bill was tired and I have bad knees so even though they were both wrapped with ace bandages, I had to go slowly. We stopped again at Trail Crest and I insisted that he drink some water. I couldn’t get him to eat anything though. At this point his eyes were very red and his arms and face were sunburned. His legs were pretty wobbly too and I was very concerned about him on the switchbacks. I kept lecturing him about eating and drinking until he finally said “OK Mom!” and gave in. At this point I only had about two mouthfuls of water left but I had an apple and carrots and trailmix, etc.
After the railing section we crossed snowmelt in the trail and Bill filtered some. Halleluiah! The water restored him quite a bit and I got him to eat some salami and some popcorn. After a rest we continued down and the worst was behind us. Now we had water and more oxygen and it was just a matter of walking the many miles back to the car. Ugh!
Bill was tired and his legs and back were sore, plus his eyes were really bothering him. My knees were hurting and my toes were hurting but we just kept going, almost without resting until we finally got back to the car at 6:00 pm. 16 hours roundtrip!! I cracked a cold beer, took down my tent and we immediately drove to the Pizza Factory in Lone Pine. I have to say, I don’t recommend the “Gormet” artichoke pizza – it has no sauce! But the salad bar and the Sierra Nevada were good. I drove to Mojave and then Bill drove the last leg. We were pretty tore up but we made it. When I got home I got some ice for my two black and blue toenails, popped the huge blister on the bottom of my big toe and slept for 14 hours! Saturday I felt much better than I expected and today I feel almost normal (except for my feet!).
I decided to write this because I read a trip report before I went and it really helped. Here’s what I learned:
Even if you’ve done it before, be careful
Bring duct tape
Be prepared for all kinds of weather
Wear sleeves, a hat and sunglasses
Bring lots of food and water (Gels are great!)
Try coordinating your breathing with your steps
Take small intermediate steps when possible instead of stepping up high
Don’t eat your lunch in the privacy screen
Have cold beer waiting at the bottom
Best of luck to all who take on Whitney. It is a fabulous, joyous journey and well worth any temporary suffering. Be smart though and make it back down!