Something I’ve learned is to never underestimate the climb. Every mountain has it’s own challenges. From switch backs, to steep elevation climbs through loose scramble, to maneuvering yourself between uneven surfaces and tree roots puckered out 1-2 feet (not to mention the distance and the actual elevation gain), climbing can be a dangerous gamble and depending on the time of year, must be considered as a key determining factor.
Mount Whitney, located in Sierra, Nevada was one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen to date. With a distance of 22 miles roundtrip and an elevation of 14,505 feet, Whitney is the tallest mountain in California as well as the highest summit in the contiguous United States. She was everything I expected and then some. Surrounded by gorgeous lakes with this delicious dark teal hue, beautiful meadows that stretch a mile long, and bold, jagged rock formations. The views were captivating the higher you climbed.
My friend and hiking partner Joe and I set off on a Saturday with the hopes to receive a lottery permit to climb the next day. After waiting patiently for any remaining permits, a few more hikers with the same hopes showed up. After drawing the last number, I knew the climb wasn’t going to happen the next day. I was pretty devastated , all set and ready to go… but that wasn’t going to stop me. We decided to get permits to climb that Monday. There’s 100 permits available to climb daily. If they’re taken, you can show up the day before and wait until 2pm. At that point should there be any permits that were returned, you have the chance to snag them.
We spent 2 nights camping at Lone Pine Campground, just 6 miles from the portal. The elevation was around 6,000 feet which was a good start to acclimate for the hike. Temperatures at night dropped to the mid 20’s. We had accounted for the weather, and were prepared with the right tent’s and sleeping bag’s to stay warm. During the day we hiked in the beautiful Alabama Hills, and the balmy temperatures being in the 70’s were the perfect way to keep our spirits warm and high.
On Monday, we packed up at 2 AM and headed to the portal. Excited and tired, we trekked our way up to the summit in the dark taking in the incredible views as daylight started to break. As our body temperatures changed rapidly to the drop in temperature and high winds, we would adjust our layers to avoid over heating. Our Arc’ teryx Gortex jackets were vital to cut the wind and lock in our body heat. One thing you never want to do is sweat. If that happens’ you loose your hydration along with risk the chance of you getting cold and sick with wet clothes.
One of the most difficult parts on the trail was the 99 switch backs. Yes, there are actually 99 of them which seemed endless and harsh, especially when they’re covered in snow and winds at 15 mph. We had micro spikes which we put over our boots upon entering. Along the side were cable wires running along a 50 foot section to ensure the safety of hikers from falling off the steep rock face to the right. Mid way through the switch backs I had to sit to catch my breath and check in with myself. Acclimating is different for everyone and it’s important to listen to your body, and take your time, with it as the effects of altitude sickness can set you back and cause series harm.
After completing the switch backs, we had reached Trail Crest, with an elevation of 13,600 feet and views of a life time (seen in the photo above with the 2 lakes). Unfortunately, my friend had started to get altitude sickness and felt nauseous and weak. After resting, we assessed the situation and decided to continue as we were only 1.9 miles and 905 feet from the Summit. I admit I had summit fever and needed to finish. At this point, the trails were are narrow and very rocky, requiring full concentration as there is a steep drop off the west of you. We continued for an hour until a dark cloud started to roll in. I stopped disbelief and looked on at the safe-house on top Mount Whitney hovered by a dark cloud. Sadly, we had to make a decision: was the climb worth risking our lives. Should a storm roll in, we would be exposed to extremely high winds and lightening. We decided to turn back.
It’s important to remind yourself that mountain climbing is an experience and we’re so lucky to even be able to do it. It’s ok if things don’t go to plan. It’s what you do in challenging moments that shows your character, that’s what builds us. For me, it was shifting the notion of failing into succeeding, learning and letting this be a positive experience. As unfortunate as it was to not summit, I also had so many amazing memories and an unforgettable journey. The walk down was sober and so long…
I told Joe this was my last climb of the year. I arrived home and took a few day’s to recover mentally, physically and spiritually. I got the itch to go back. Maybe this year, or maybe next… to continued.
A special thank you to Joe Flores for the incredible adventure, and my dear friend Emma Zander and Don Lee for all your love and continued support.