3 days on Whitney
After successfully climbing Boundary Peak
Nevada, my friends Brandon, Curt, Greg and I were off to Bishop, California, where we would get some needed R&R, so we could prepare for our climb of Mount Whitney. Climbing Boundary was the perfect appetizer for Whitney. It was remote, rugged, steep and most importantly, we got a little taste of altitude that would surely help us on Whitney the next day.
When we arrived in Bishop we grabbed a quick bite to eat and found some rooms at the Best Western hotel on Main Street. After cleaning ourselves up, we spent some time arranging our gear, deciding what we really needed and what we could throw out to lighten our loads. Brandon and I decided to share some of the essentials and that eliminated some unwanted weight, although my pack still seemed way too heavy. After we got all of the gear ready, we both relaxed and went to bed, knowing we wanted to be well rested for the hike in the morning.
We met the “goats” (the nickname we gave Curt and Greg the day before on Boundary Peak for their hiking prowess) at 9:00 am and we decided that we would head over to Denny’s for breakfast. We were not really in a hurry, because our permit was for 3 days and we were only going to hike in to Outpost camp, so we were not rushed at all, although we were a little concerned, because the sky was dark and it had started to rain. After a heavy breakfast that did not sit well with me, we were off to Lone Pine and Mount Whitney. We were really excited, but we also got more and more worried, as the weather only seemed to deteriorate as we made our way to Lone Pine and my Grand Gut Bomb…. Errrr Grand Slam breakfast was wreaking havoc in my tummy.
We never could see the mountain on the drive in, because the entire range was covered in storm clouds and it was still raining really hard. We arrived at the Whitney portal and decided to go into the store to talk with the staff there to see if they had a recent accurate forecast for the weather. We talked to the proprietor, Doug and he told us that the forecast was for stormy weather for the next two days, which really put a damper on our spirits. We went back to the cars for a group discussion and it became clear quickly that Curt and Greg wanted to go get a hotel room in Lone Pine and I was opting to hike up to Outpost and take our chances. After about 15 minutes of some rather spirited debate, I persuaded them that it wouldn’t hurt us at all to hike to Outpost, because the worst thing that could happen is we get a little wet and we were all prepared for the weather, so that really wasn’t a huge issue. The goats finally agreed and within minutes we were all gearing up for our adventure. We all put on our rain gear and donned the full packs and it seemed like the rain let up a little, which made us a little more optimistic.
The goats took the lead and set quite a quick pace, while Brandon and I brought up the rear. After about 20 minutes of hiking in a downpour, the rain relented and it was only drizzling slightly, so we all took a break to remove some of our gear, because we were all heating up with the extra layers. Almost immediately the rain burned off, although the clouds still looked very threatening and we continued our hike up to Outpost, passing several people on the way down, including many that wanted to share their summit experiences and that seemed to get our summit fever going again.
Brandon and I decided to stop to take a break about a mile from Outpost camp and it was nice to get a rest from the heavy full packs and after a few minutes we were gearing back up and we met an older gentlemen that came down the trail to talk with us. We asked him how much farther it was to Outpost and he said “Oh about six miles,” to which I quickly responded, “oh you mean to Trail Camp?” He was adamant that it was 6 miles to Outpost, so after he left Brandon got really discouraged, even though I told him I was certain we were almost there and after we arrived at Outpost he was completely relieved to see the Goats setting up their tent.
The scenery at Outpost Camp was just fantastic! There was a big waterfall coming off of a large cliff and there were trees and granite walls in every direction. I was stunned at the beauty and was happy we had decided to stay there. We set up the tent and were surprised that the rain had stopped, although we were extremely happy about it. After we got our things set up, we had a nice long talk with the goats about what we wanted to do. They said that they were going for the summit in the morning early no matter what. If the weather was really bad, they could always turn back, but they were going for it and we decided to do the same. Brandon and I proceeded to cook our Mountain House dehydrated meals. I chose the lasagna and suggested Brandon give the Beef Stroganoff a try, as it has always been a personal favorite. While we were eating a ranger approached us and asked to see our permits, so we obliged and made small talk about the difficulty of the trail going forward. He stated that as long as we were in good physical condition we should be fine and he was a really nice guy and I thought it must be a pretty sweet job to get to climb Whitney every day. After our meals we hung all of our food in a tree well outside of camp and retired to the tent to relax. We had some great conversation and Brandon was a little nervous, because he had not been on a peak like Whitney before and he wanted to make sure we were going to be safe, so I reminded him that there was a trail the whole way and that if the weather ever got dodgy we could turn around. We would be fine.
Brandon’s alarm that was set for 5 am did not go off and at 5:30 I woke up. I quickly woke up Brandon and we gathered our day packs and made sure we had everything that we would need. When we were ready we checked on the goats and they were already gone, so we continued on up the trail at a fairly quick pace. It soon became very evident that the training hikes we had done in the Wasatch and our climb of Boundary Peak Nevada two days before were paying off, as we quickly passed several groups that were really huffing and puffing up the trail and we made great time and I was surprised how quickly we made it to Trail Camp.
When we arrived at Trail Camp, I could not believe the stark contrast to the setting at Outpost Camp. It was very cold and windy and the ground was wet. There were a few groups camped there and they all looked terrible, like they had not slept well and were feeling the affects of the altitude. We both commented that we were so happy we had stayed at Outpost. I talked to a guy just coming out of his tent and he said that they wind had pounded them all night and he had barely slept. After a quick bathroom break, we headed for the famous 98 switchbacks. The mountain was still completely covered in clouds, which was somewhat disappointing, because I had seen so many really incredible pictures taken from this area. On about the 4th switchback we came across a younger teenager that looked really bad. He said he was sick and not feeling well at all and we both recommend that he get down ASAP and he appeared to be in good enough shape to get down under his own power and he refused any help, so we told him to get back down to his camp and he proceeded to turn around and head back.
The switchbacks seemed to go a lot faster than I had thought they would and we really got into a great rhythm. We were moving fast and we passed several groups that seemed to really be moving slowly. Brandon and I both felt great and I was surprised how quickly we were moving, because during our entire previous warm up hikes we had not been this fast. The cables section was really cool and I really liked the exposure. Without the cables it could be pretty precarious, especially since there was still a sheet of ice covering the trail, so we made sure to have a good grip on the cables and stopped to snap a few pictures along the way.
After a strong push I knew that we were getting close to the crest, so I really pushed hard, because I was feeling really good. Brandon was keeping up and said he felt good as well, but after about 10 minutes of really pushing he needed to stop and take a break at about 13,500. He was really tired and said he wasn’t sure he could make it up, but I told him he was doing incredible and that not another person had passed us on the trail so far, while we had passed several parties. After a brief break he was ready to go and we eased up slightly on the pace and pushed for the crest.
Reaching the crest was one of those moments I will remember for a lifetime. The images are seared into my memory and I can still remember exactly how if felt. The views are stellar and the air is thin, causing an almost euphoric feeling. We gave each other a high five and snapped a few pics, but we were a little nervous at the dark clouds moving in from the west, so we downed some clif bars and headed down the trail, which loses some elevation here and I was dreading this section on the way back.
After about 15 minutes we caught up with a group from Southern California and Brandon got to talking with one of the guys about skiing and the conversation made the time go by fast and before we knew it, we had reached the first of the “windows” and they were absolutely stunning. There were clouds blowing through them from the other side and it almost seemed like a scene from a movie or a haunted house, with the sharp jagged rock windows and clouds blowing right through them into our faces. It was something I had never seen before or since and with the dark storm clouds now enveloping the mountain, it was a dark and almost surreal scene. When we reached the last window we stopped for a quick break to take a look and we heard some thunder in the distance, which made everyone pause and take notice. Brandon and the guys from So Cal wanted to go down, but I was not so sure. I had come all of this way and to me the conditions were not that bad. If I had heard any lighting, I would have been out of there, but it was thunder way in the distance, so I told them I was going for it. I know Brandon wanted to keep going, but his outdoor training told him it wasn’t completely safe and his instincts were to get down and I completely understood, so I told him I would meet him back at camp and he decided to go down with the So Cal guys.
Once I decided to go for it I knew I had to hurry to beat the storm, so I took off running as fast as I could go up the trail and after about five minutes I passed the goats coming down from the summit. They encouraged me to go for it and said that it was about a forty minute hike to the top from where we were and I knew I could cut that in half if I ran, so I told them I was going for it and we said our goodbyes and I bolted for the top. I ran as hard as I could even though my lungs seemed to be on fire, but really it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I passed several people and some of them asked me if they should keep going and I told them they had to make that choice for themselves, but the weather only looks to be getting worse. I did not stop running, although the final push was much tougher, because it got steeper, but I pushed on to the top. Just before I reached the summit a group of 5 or 6 guys came off of the top and told me that they were the last to leave the summit, so as I crested the apex, I knew that I was the highest person in the United States (outside of Alaska) and that gave me a rush of adrenaline that made all of the pain in my lungs go away instantly. As I reached the top visibility was terrible, because of the thick cloud that had moved in over the mountain and through the fog I could see the dark outline of the summit hut and I knew I was finally there.
I finally stopped running when I reached the summit hut and I pulled out my camera and realized I only had one picture left, so I snapped a picture of the hut and then spent about 20 seconds on the summit before deciding that I better get down, because it started to snow and I knew it was only going to get worse, so I took off running again and decided that I would not stop until I reached the crest. On the way down I got a little disoriented, because the visibility was atrocious and I was actually going down the wrong way, when I saw another party coming up from a different direction on my left and I realized that I was going down the wrong side of the mountain. I quickly turned around and ran over to the group coming up and they confirmed that they were on the trail leading back to the crest, so I told them they were going to have the summit to themselves and wished them luck and then I took off for the crest.
I’m not even sure how long it took me, but I ran as hard as I could back to the crest, passing several groups along the way. It seemed like almost every person I passed asked me if they thought they should keep going, because the snow and sleet were still coming down pretty hard and the wind had picked up as well. I told them the smart thing would be to go down, but I went up, so take that for what it is worth. A few turned back and some kept on going. I was getting close to the crest and I ran into a couple from Northern California that had turned around. They were asking my opinion about whether they should have kept going, so I stopped running to chat with them. The guy seemed really bummed out and I told him that he probably made the right decision and that the mountain would always be here for him to climb and he lived so close that he really shouldn’t feel all that bad. We walked together to the crest and I could tell that he was extremely disappointed.
When we reached the crest the ranger we had chatted with the night before was there stopping anyone trying to go up. There were about 10 people gathered there, some vocally expressing their displeasure, but most realizing that the ranger was right and they needed to go back down. He said that there was no way he could let anyone go up in these conditions. I did not stay long, because I wanted to get down and I was really feeling the effects of running up and down the peak at over 14,000 feet for over an hour. My body was really aching and I just wanted to get down and back to camp, so I took off by myself and made really good time heading down the switchback. After about 15 minutes of descending I saw a group of hikers on the trail below me and one of them had a yellow jacket just like Brandon’s, so I yelled his name and sure enough it was him. He waited for me to get down to him and he was excited to hear if I had made it to the top. When I told him I had, I think he was disappointed, but he said he felt like he had done the right thing and I couldn’t argue with him. We gave each other a high five and while we headed down I told him about my experience and he told me about what they had done. I was surprised that I had been able to catch up to them, but I had been moving pretty fast and they stopped to take a break at the crest
We made fairly good time heading down the switchbacks, but the last 30 or so were just pure hell, as I was feeling miserable and each step was a new sensation in pain. My head was pounding and I just wanted to get back down. We stopped at Trail Camp and took a small break to have some snacks and I found some Ibuprofen in my back and took 800 milligrams.
The hike back to camp was pretty uneventful and the clouds would clear up at times, but it would just be a teaser, because we never did get the incredible views we were looking for. When we got back to camp the goats were already taking their tent down, because they wanted to go back to Lone Pine and get a hotel and they told us they had made the round trip to the summit and back to Outpost camp in just over 5 hours, while it had taken Brandon and me about 7.5. After chatting with them for a few minutes both Brandon and I crashed in our tents and took a nap, as we were both completely exhausted. We both woke up just long enough to make dinner and chat with a few other hikers coming down and then we both crashed again for the remainder of the night.
In the morning we both felt much better and we lazily cooked some oatmeal for breakfast and lounged around camp, taking in the tremendous views that the location afforded. The weather had cleared and it seemed like a much nicer day. We chatted with a few hikers going up and we were glad that we would be heading down. The hike out was uneventful and we took out time taking in the views and snapping a few pictures. When we arrived back to the trailhead it was off to Lone Pine for a burger and then to the Mount Whitney motel for a hot shower and a change of clothes. That evening as we went out to grab a bite to eat, we got our first view of Whitney without cloud obstruction and it was incredible. We stared up to the high sheer cliffs and we were both in awe of this magnificent mountain and we thought it was much larger and grander than we had expected. Reaching the highest point in the lower 48 states was a thrilling experience and both of us could not wait to come back here and experience this truly incredible place again.
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