• Pathloom Guest Blogger

Mount Whitney: Backpacking the Tallest Mountain in the (Contiguous) United States


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. I had been told that to summit it was just “a lot of switchbacks,” but my journey to the top was much more complicated. Altitude sickness, heavy snowpack, melting suncups, and ice-covered trails made this 22-mile journey more difficult, but also more rewarding… and way more interesting of a story to tell than just walking up switchbacks! In July of 2019, a record snowpack year in the Sierra, I pushed my limits physically and mentally, and ended up with some bumps and bruises… but I made it to the top!



Permitting and WAG Bags

The first step in planning a hike of Mt. Whitney is securing a permit. Permits are awarded on a lottery system through recreation.gov - I had great beginner’s luck and secured a permit on my first try! Once you have a permit, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of the area, especially the Leave No Trace Principles. It is required to use WAG-- (Waste Alleviation and Gelling)-- bags (aka poop bags) when hiking the Mt. Whitney Trail. One bag per person will be provided with your permit. Please use them, and please PACK THEM OUT! As unpleasant as it is to use and carry one of these bags, it is even more unpleasant to come across a used, discarded WAG bag - or worse, a brown surprise hidden under that rock you grab to secure your tent stakes! As the hike up Mt. Whitney grows in popularity, the need to properly dispose of human waste is becoming more and more apparent.


Ok—back to the fun stuff!


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



Day 1- July 6, 2019


After picking up our permits and arriving at Whitney Portal at around 2 pm, it was time to hike! Day one would be a short and (relatively) easy day to acclimate to the altitude with a night planned at Lone Pine Lake. After setting up camp we explored the lake, taking a quick dip (it was cold!) and enjoyed the sunset. Dinner the first night was a homemade dehydrated lentil soup. A first attempt at homemade backpacking meals was a success!


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



Day 2- July 7, 2019


Waking up as the sun began coming over the mountain, breakfast was shared with a deer walking alongside the lake. It was another beautiful day! Hiking up from the lake and rejoining the Mt. Whitney Trail, we passed through a meadow that my hiking companion had dubbed “Bear Meadow '' on his prior treks up the mountain. As we gained elevation, it became more difficult to catch my breath on the steeper sections, which slowed our pace. Before long we reached our first snow-covered section of trail. On went the crampons, and we easily crossed to a dry section.


Near our second night’s destination, the trail was becoming more and more snow-covered. At one point we were unsure of which path through the snow was the actual trail and which was a side trail. We chose correctly and arrived at Consultation Lake to find it completely encased in snow and ice. We switched to plan B and continued on to the more popular Trail Camp to find a place to set up for the night.


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



After setting up camp, we explored the area and talked to some people who were coming down from the summit. We heard reports of “sketchy” sections and snow-covered trails. One area people talked about was the cable section, which they said was blocked by snowpack. One group was descending from the summit on a non-stop trek from the lowest to highest points in the continental US -- Badwater Basin to Mount Whitney! We also met a few people who turned back due to the conditions, and a few who were completing the entire trek in a day. The mileage itself wouldn’t be difficult to complete in a day, but at that altitude and with an elevation gain of 6,000 feet I was glad to have the opportunity to take our time up the trail to acclimate and enjoy the journey.


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova


I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude at this point. My hands were swollen, my fingers cold, my whole body was shaking, and I had no appetite at all due to bloating and nausea. I didn’t feel it was bad enough to turn back, but I would have if it had gotten any worse. Safety first, the mountain will always be there if you need to try again another time!


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova


Day 3- July 8, 2019


The day started early with a 4:00am wakeup call. As we began the trek up the almost 100 switchbacks, we encountered some icy spots on the trail - but nothing that wasn’t doable until we got to that “sketchy section” that people had told us about.


The picture above doesn’t quite capture how dangerous this section of the trail was under this level of snowpack. As the trail reached this section of snow, these guardrails had been pushed out to the side from prior snowfalls. The trail essentially had become a sheet of ice from yesterday's snowmelt, freezing over with subzero temps at night. To the left was a wall of snow, to the right a sheer drop down the side of the mountain.


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



Other hikers were traversing this section by using an ice axe to provide stability while crossing. My hiking companion attempted it with someone’s ice axe, and was able to reach across with his 6ft tall arm and leg span - but returned to me and told me he didn’t think I would be able to reach across safely (I am 5’5”). There was no place to get a hand or foothold between the ice and the snow. At this point I thought this journey was going to end without accomplishing the summit.


As we turned back, we noticed a couple of people climbing up “The Chute”. The Chute, or Glissade Route, is an area where people will slide down in the snow from Trail Crest on the return to Trail Camp to bypass the switchbacks, using ice axes to slow their descent.


Map Routes Created on CalTopo.com



As we stood at the base of the switchbacks and surveyed the area, we decided it was something we could do. The morning temperatures were still cold enough to provide a hard snowpack, and there were numerous rock outcroppings that would allow us to take a break from the snow climb. We cut across from the base of the switchbacks and began our journey up the Chute.



This climb was difficult and tedious. Climbing up through the snow was technical, requiring kick-stepping and constant three-point contact as we crawled at a nearly vertical angle through the snow. As I reached the rock outcropping, I was thankful to take off the crampons and switch to solid ground for a while, scrambling over rocks instead of through snow-- or so I thought.


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



During the scramble up the rocks, I reached up for a handhold - and when I took my weight-bearing foot off the rock that was holding me up and attempted to pull up onto the next foothold, my handhold rock came loose, tumbling 50 feet below me. I clung unsteadily to the side of this nearly vertical rock outcropping and managed to pull myself up to a stable point. Given the instability of many of the rocks in this outcropping, I opted to continue the climb up through the snow.


As the sun continued to rise and the snow started to soften, we were climbing up through suncups and slush. It became more difficult to get solid footing in the snow as it softened. As I made my way towards the top-- almost at Trail Crest, almost off the damn snow and rocks-- my foot hold broke loose and I slid down through the snow, 10-15 feet before I was able to dig into the snow to slow myself enough to continue climbing. As I crawled over the edge and onto the trail, a southbound JMT (John Muir Trail) hiker exclaimed “Whoa! Did you just climb up that?!”


From Trail Crest it was less than two miles to the summit! The trail was mostly clear of snow for the majority of that span. There were many boulders of various sizes littering the trail- I wondered if they were a result of the earthquakes in the preceding days. As we progressed, I spotted people in the distance walking through a field of snow. Refusing to believe they were on the actual trail and thinking they must be coming from a different route I said “no f*cking way am I hiking over more snow”.


About 40 minutes later I discovered that the snow-covered expanse was in fact the trail, and I would be strapping on the crampons once again to make that final trek.


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



But that was it! The hard part was over! I made it to the top!


A friend gave me a princess tiara to wear at the summit, so I could be “princess of the mountain”! I enjoyed the views, reveled in the accomplishment, signed the book, took pictures, had a snack, and enjoyed the views from 14,505 feet!


At the summit I was approached by a man who was looking for someone with cell service as his phone was dead. His friend had gotten hurt and they needed to call Search and Rescue. I had a battery pack that I gave him to charge up his phone. He explained that he and his friends had hiked to the summit in a single day. His friend who was hurt admitted that he began feeling pain in his ankle at Trail Camp but didn’t want to turn back, so he pushed through the pain. By the time they made it he wasn’t even able to walk the last 1,000 feet to the summit. They called for a helicopter evacuation to get him off the side of the mountain.



Our journey back to Trail Crest went quickly. Full of adrenaline from the accomplishment and ready for a warm meal, we made it back to the switchbacks. The trail was new to us since we had skipped that section that morning in favor of The Chute. The trail was mostly clear, but there were sections of deep snowpack and steep drops to navigate as we made our way down the mountain.


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



Once again, we approached the “sketchy” part of the switchbacks: the area where we turned back and opted to climb up The Chute that morning. Since it was later in the day the ice had melted off the trail, making it more traversable - but it was still a very treacherous crossing even without the ice. My hiking companion went first, stepping from the trail, past the snow and placing his foot on the remainder of a pipe that had once been a support bar but was now a 2-inch diameter piece of rail sticking 1 inch out of the ground. One foot on that, next step to the other side of the trail. Again, he has 7 additional inches of wingspan, so this was a much more difficult step for me.


As I stood on the edge of this slope, I tried not to think about how one misstep or slip would lead me to fall hundreds of feet - a fall that I would not be likely to survive. I made the step onto the bar and pushed myself off that small 2-inch x 1-inch pipe, leaping to the other side as an outstretched hand helped pull me to solid ground.


Like any good backpacking trip, all the thoughts of real food we wanted upon return to civilization eventually crept into the conversation. Burgers, tacos, pizza! I was also still feeling the effects of the altitude with a mild headache for most of the day. These two factors made the next decision rather easy-- we would return to camp, pack up, and head back to the car. Back to real food, at reasonable altitude, in the comfort of a hotel.


Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova



We arrived back to Trail Camp after sliding down through the snow to cut past the last few switchbacks. Hastily we filtered water and broke camp. At that point it was 5:30 pm - we had been walking, climbing, scrambling, and sliding for 12 hours and we had another 6.3 miles to hike out before sunset in 3 hours. With poorly distributed backpacks causing some aches and pains we hustled down to “bear meadow” just in time for dusk. Fortunately, we only came across deer, no bears in the meadow on this particular evening.


Map Routes Created on CalTopo.com



As the sky darkened we made it back to Lone Pine Lake. Debating whether to stay the night or continue on in the dark, we decided to push on - It was less than 3 miles back to the car! I strapped on my headlamp, and continued the descent as the sky darkened. The hard part is over! This section of the trail is wide and well traveled with a good elevation grade….


*Crash*


One misstep landed me face-first on the trail. It was just a little rock that I missed, but between the muscle fatigue, mental exhaustion, darkness, and the weight of my pack it took me down. Forehead bleeding, feathers flying from my puffy jacket, knee scraped and bloody. But we were only 1 mile from the car at that point, so with some help, I got back up and continued down the mountain.


It was midnight by the time we reached the parking lot. Exhausted, starving, sore, bruised, and scraped… but oh so happy, and full of the feeling you only get after accomplishing an amazing feat...


...Like climbing a mountain.


Summit of Mount Whitney, CA - Photo Credit: Josie Sova


Guest blogger Josie Sova is a pediatric occupational therapy assistant who started travel therapy about 3 years ago to have the opportunity to explore more of the country. She enjoys backpacking, hiking, hot springs, kayaking, and car-camping road trips. Follow her adventures at www.josiesadventures.com and on Instragram!


Check out these other articles by Pathloom which you may enjoy:

The Glory of Yosemite

Very Superstitious: Phoenix In The Fall

The Resilience of the Redwoods: Big Basin’s Rise from the Ashes

Leave No Trace Principles

Types of Camping

Where the West Begins



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