How do I begin writing about this amazing moment in my life? Do I start with the moment I summited or with the months before, when I started training for Mt. Whitney? Countless possibilities, I’ll just start with introducing this mountain.
It’s the tallest mountain in California, as well as the highest summit in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada.with an elevation of 14,505ft. (that’s 4,421m). You don’t need any mountaineering skills to reach the summit (when you take the regular trail), but you sure need preparation, endurance & knowing how to handle the altitude.
The trail is about 22 miles (35km) round trip and has an elevation gain of over 6,100ft. (1,860m). The best time to hike Mount Whitney is from the end of May until the end of October. This is due to the snow, which is present in late spring & late fall, but there will be some snow on the higher parts of the trail in any kind of season! So don’t forget to bring your microspikes!
First things first! The permit!
So before you start your journey to the summit, you need a permit to hike the trail! You have two options; you can do the hike in a time span of 24 hours or you opt for the overnight camping! Depending on your fitness level, choose the permit that suits you best! I participated in the lottery in the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to get my overnight permit because those permits go fast once they are online.
When you decided a date to summit Mount Whitney, just go to the official recreation website (recreation.gov) and search for Mount Whitney. Click through until you see the calendar. Choose your date, the type of permit you want (Day hike or Overnight) and fill out your group size and then you’ll see the availability. This applies to booking permits from April 30 until the end of October.
These types of permits usually use a lottery so everyone has a fair chance to ‘win’ a permit to hike Whitney, the chains on Half Dome have a similar system. The lottery opens on February 1st and closes on the 15th of March, each year. On 24 March the results are published and then the winners have until 30 April to pay the fees to secure their permits. All of the unpaid and unclaimed permits open up after the 30th of April.
If you weren’t lucky enough to get a permit (any type), you can go down to the visitor center & ask if they have any slots open for your chosen days. In my case I had a day permit but wanted an overnight permit & there was one other guy that wanted an overnight, so the ranger held a lottery between us.
If you want to hike in the off-season (that is from November until the end of April), you won’t be able to book a permit online, you have to go down to the Visitor Center.
The trail starts at Whitney Portal, 13 miles west of Lone Pine, California. The town is built along the US-395. There are a few hotels and motels along the road with restaurants and a few outdoor shops and even a McDonald’s!
There are no buses or other public transport that take you from the small town to Whitney Portal, so come by car. When you arrive in the town, just look for Whitney Portal Road and follow the road until you arrive at your destination. You first come across the campground, so if you could only score a campsite in that campground, put your tent up and then move along to the trail parking. Don’t forget to put your parking permit in the car when you leave your car there!
Cross the parking (it should be behind you) to get to the trailhead. You can weigh your backpack here and you will see some signs with information about the trail and the wildlife on trail. Get a picture and then you’re good to go! My journey started at 12.45pm on Saturday 28 October, my pack weighed around 25 lbs (that’s about 12kg).
I gave myself until 6 pm to get to the trail camp, because then sun starts to set, and admit it, putting up a tent in the dark is no fun! I moved along pretty smooth & fast, made frequent stops to take in the views and took a 15-minute break every hour to eat something. It was not until I reached Mirror Lake that I started to feel the chilly winds coming from higher on the mountain, the air was colder and you felt that there was less oxygen in it (I carried Tylenol and Dramamine in case I felt any symptoms of altitude sickness kicking in).
At 5.15 pm I finally made it to Trail Camp (so a lot faster than I calculated)! Yay! So after asking a few fellow campers where the best spot was to put up my tent I went to the Trail Pond to filter some water for dinner. At the pond I started chatting with another camper (his name was Sam), telling that he wasn’t gonna climb the rest of the trail, but his friend was. So when his friend (Jun) came, we decided to get up early the following day to face the 99 switchbacks together! It’s safer too to hike with someone else, you never know!
The final 5.5 miles
To be honest, I had a terrible night’s rest. I crawled in my sleeping bag at 7.30pm, to get up at 2.45 am the next morning. There were terrible winds during the night and the stones were icy cold & came through every layer, so I freezing. But I got up anyways, getting ready for our adventure. Jun (the guy I was gonna hike with) was waiting for me by his tent and around 3.15am we started our way up.
The switchbacks were ‘easier’ than I imagined them, we moved in a steady pace, a few stops along the way (one of them to put on our micro spikes!) and were relieved to see that the ‘chains’ weren’t totally covered in snow. Every time we looked down, we saw headlights of fellow hikers moving up on the switchbacks, but so far we hadn’t passed anyone else, so that meant we were the first on the trail that morning! After 90 minutes we finally made it to Trail Crest! We had a snack and then moved forward.
The darkness made it less daunting to walk along the stoney path, for the simple reason that we couldn’t really see how deep we could fall if we took one misstep. To be honest, the last 1.9 miles (so when you see the sign of the John Muir Trail), were the longest in my life! The wind was aggressive and icy cold, so we had to grab something to hold onto when passing the ‘windows’. It was so cold! Even my peanut butter sandwiches were more like popsicles!
We moved along quickly but careful, because it was our goal to summit Mt. Whitney just before the sun started to rise. Finally we saw the emergency shelter in the distance. My goal was so close! Jun sprinted up and I followed a bit further because I was getting hungry and tired and I didn’t want to lose any extra energy.
My goal. Obtained. Months of physical prepping for that journey and we were the first up on the summit! It all happened so quick. One moment I was still stumbling on the big, white rocks and the other I was mesmerised by the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen in my life! And to be the tallest human being in the continental US for those 5 minutes felt amazing.
We watched the whole sunrise and then we went to the summit shelter and regained energy and strength. So we spent about an hour on the top. After resting for a while, we wrote our names in the register and started to make our way down! Then it became clear how narrow the path sometimes is. The wind was even stronger when we passed along the windows, but the good news was: it was ALL DOWNHILL!!
The views on the Sequoia National Park were amazing, we stopped more frequently to take in the views and to take pictures, encouraging hikers who were going to the top and just being content that we made it. Don’t underestimate the journey down, because that still is 11 miles! There were actually moments where I wished I was going uphill with my pack, call me crazy! The best moment of going downhill was when all I could think about was pizza and all of a sudden there was a girl, going up, who carried pizza with her. Call it coincidence or the law of attraction, but it felt like she was an angel carrying pizza!
If you loved my journey, please drop a comment! It was nice sharing this experience with you!
In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.John Muir