Walking Up Mount Whitney, Lone Pine, California

Elevation Gain: 6137' - High Point: 14,497' - Low Point: 8360'

What it is like to climb Mount Whitney in pictures

July 17, 2013 -  A hike to the top of Mount Whitney had been on my
bucket list since I ran up the trail a couple miles from the Portal while
on a vacation a couple years ago.  The Sierras appealed to me
immensely; I had to see and experience more.  As mountains go, the
climb up Whitney is straightforward on the standard route, a Class 2
hike at best, but it is a long round trip at 22 miles in the 6000+-foot
climb to the summit and back.  My original plan was to follow the shorter,
more challenging Class 3 Mountaineer Route to the summit and then
bag Mts. Russell and Carillon as well, but opted at the last moment for
the longer standard route as I was slightly feverish with a sinus infection
from a cold airplane ride to get here and not feeling 100%.

My entire Whitney experience was framed by the spectacle of the 
Badwater UltraMarathon.  I had witnessed an entire day of the first
finishers climbing to the Portal at the base of Mount Whitney after
spending more than a day of running across Death Valley on road
temperatures up to 134 degrees.  As I watched some of my heroes in
the sport crawl by me on the strength of pure will power, the physical
magnitude of what I was witnessing could only be surmounted by the
indescribable emotional drama.  I watched in awe as inspiration
welled up within me for these brothers and sisters who share many of
the same passions with me, with my running and choices for suffering.

I hit the trailhead in the dark at 0415 amid the continuing drama of the 
final Badwater finishers approaching the finish at the Portal, where 
the road ends and the trail begins.  On the dark drive up the Portal Road
to reach the trailhead I had driven by no fewer than 15 weary contestants
making their way as best they could, giving the last full measure of their
will to finish before the 48-hour cutoff.  Some of these exhausted souls
would meet their ambition and celebrate their grand accomplishment,
while others would still be wearily weaving toward the end of the road
long after sunrise to finish with mixed emotions of elation and 
disappointment.  I paused to watch with reverent empathy that only 
another sojourner of this grand illusion can feel.  With a great sense of
humility I started up the dark trail on my own quest.

In the first three miles the trail switches back on itself many times as it
climbs up from the parking lots at the Portal below.  Each time I cut back
across the head of the valley I could see the blinking emergency lights of
support vehicles as they followed their runner to the end.  Periodically a
raucous cheer resounded off the surrounding granite walls and up the
canyon as another runner completed the journey to enthusiastic hollering
and the blowing of horns.  As I moved away from the spectacle below
I could not help but continue to feel the emotions of what I had witnessed
in the last twenty four hours.

By 0515 there was enough ambient light to see without my LED lamp.  I 
had already passed several hikers who had started earlier.  I could see their
lights ahead of me in the darkness as I closed the gap and reeled them in
one after another.  With the emergence of daylight across the great Owens
Basin I stopped frequently to capture a mental image and save a memory
on my camera.  Aside from these pauses I moved steadily up the glaciated 
valley past beautiful mirrored lakes, stepping across snowmelt streams,
through giant fir and pine sentinals of the mountain's gate toward my
ever-looming 14,000-foot objective.

Various tents were set up along the way, enabling some hikers to break the
long climb into two steps - a wise choice.  After reaching Trail Camp above
treeline, where most of the tents were amassed, I engaged a series of about
a hundred switchbacks up the headwall to the crest of the mountain.  Most
of the way up to Trail Crest I began to noticably weaken from the effects of
my infection and fever.  I stopped to eat some snacks and continued to reel
in more hikers who had started earlier, some as early as 0200.  By the time I
reached the Crest I began also to encounter stronger hikers who had started
early and were already on their return trip down the mountain.

Past the Crest the trail meanders through dramatic rocky terrain for about
two miles to reach the summit of Whitney.  The trail here was still in shadows
from the sun behind the craggy edge of the ridge and needles.  Without too
much difficulty I took my time delivering my tired body to the summit by 1030.
After a half hour of rest, a bit of society, and photographs on top I checked
out the chute leading down the mountain on the Mountaineer Route that
would have taken me over to Mts. Russell and Carillon.  Except for needing
a windbreaker on top the temperatures were warm to more than warm for
most of the day.  Aside from a quick side trip up Mt. Muir to make claim to a
second fourteener, I kept a steady pace on my way back to the Portal 
without hurry and arrived back at my car at exactly 4:15 in the afternoon,
exactly 12 hours to cover the 22 mile journey.

Mount Whitney is not a difficult trail and has only mild exposure, but it is a 
long hike to bag a fourteener.  In that sense it was a challenging
experience.  I was glad to finish without injury or incident, just good
memories.  The Badwater folks were all gone.  The 2013 event was now
history.  It was a powerful and personally inspiring event to witness and
share in emotionally with some of the participants and crews.  Even as a
long time runner it is still hard to conceive of doing what they just did in a
single sustained effort.  I am truly humbled by such extremes of dreaming
and achievement.  My own achievement of climbing Whitney and Muir
on this day seems mild in comparison.  I guess crazyness and insanity must
be measured by degree, eh?