Changes of Altitude, Changes of Attitude
SONGS CONTINUED to stick in my head like one of numerous annoying pebbles that popped into my boot about every mile along the Whitney Trail. I Want to Take you Higher by Sly Stone had been replaced by 99 Bottles of Beer as I negotiated a section of trail known as “The 99,” a stretch of steep zigzagging switchbacks totaling between ninety to one hundred turns depending on who was counting. I lost track at twenty five and didn’t plan on starting over for a recount. A hiker in front of me shouted out, “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll!” Great—that tune stuck.
Last year my daughter and I had hiked Boundary Peak, aptly named for its location along the Nevada and California border. With a 13,140 foot elevation, it’s the highest point in Nevada. The last 1,000 foot climb to the summit lacks an established trail so some bouldering was required. That challenge, along with approaching lightning strikes, caused us to constantly decide if we should continue or not. We eventually made it to the top (see last year’s blog post, The Trail Ahead) and it ignited an interest in hiking other peaks. I didn’t yearn to be a “peak bagger” and I mostly prefer remote areas, but I felt drawn to hiking high altitude trails and the rush they provide.
Going up . . .
Mount Whitney had been on my radar for quite some time, and in March I finally applied for a permit. It’s the tallest peak in the lower forty eight with an elevation of 14,505 feet, and the grueling eleven mile hike gains more than 6,000 vertical feet. The trail sometimes receives a bad rap because of the high traffic count. The large volume of hikers made it necessary for the Forest Service to institute policies to protect the area, including a permit lottery and “WAG Bag” requirement (Waste Alleviation and Gelling). Yes, you have to pack out your poop.
I trained throughout the summer in Tahoe and summited Mount Tallac (9,735 ft), Dick’s Peak (9974 ft), Job’s Peak (8785 ft), and Freel Peak (10,881 ft). In addition, I backpacked into Mokelumne Wilderness and Desolation, hiked as much as possible, and tried to run a few miles every other day. I felt prepared, although also realized the reality that only one-third of Whitney hikers make it to the summit based on records by the Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest.
My base camp at Consultation Lake.
There are several routes to the top, and the Mount Whitney Trail made the most sense to me. At twenty two miles round trip, most hikers camp at the village-like Trail Camp, located at the base of “The 99.” I decided to camp at Consultation Lake in order to avoid the crowd. I had originally applied for four permits with the idea of finding hiking partners after receiving the permits, but I ended up not being drawn the first time and had to re-apply during a second lottery. This time the online calendar listed what days were open and I saw a slot for October 11th. I thought, What the heck, I’ll take a chance on the weather and hike it solo.
Whenever I tell people I’m trekking alone I always receive the same response: “Oh no.” But aside from the medley of tunes haunting me, I enjoy hiking by myself. As a graphic designer by day, and writer by night, I spend a lot of hours in front of a computer. Time to myself off-the-grid serves me well. (Note: in the book “Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-To-Summit Guide,” the very last planning tip is, “Don’t Hike Alone.”)
Looking down from “The 99” at Consultation Lake, where I camped.
Camping at Consultation Lake was a wise decision. Aside from a steep scramble down to the lake (there is no trail—why the heck am I always hiking off-trail?!) it was beautiful, and only one other party was camping there. I did, however, realize my miscalculation of low nighttime temperatures at the 12,000 ft. elevation in October. Ice, both inside and outside of my tent, resulted in frigid sleeping conditions. Brewing morning coffee when water bottles are frozen solid also presented a bit of a challenge.
As strenuous as it was summiting Whitney, failed attempts by other hikers created even larger psychological barriers. Altitude sickness and fatigue were main obstacles as I listened to numerous voices reciting “maybe next time,” “it’ll still be there,” and one whispered “sorry” to a hiking partner. Jagged, towering granite walls also added to an intimidating atmosphere that required a deeper focus.
A little icy along the cables.
I lucked out and partnered with another solo hiker on the final stretch to the top. Most of her party had dropped out, and one had gone ahead of her. We decided to hike together as morning turned to afternoon, time becoming a factor. My hiking partner had begun her journey at 3:00 am from the Whitney Portal trailhead and planned on hiking back down after summiting—a one day/night twenty-two-mile hike. She had trained all summer, and had also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
We made it to the summit about 1:30. All the training, all the work, all the strains and pains, had led us to the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Gazing out across a panoramic landscape, we cherished the moment in sublime silence. Feelings of accomplishment, and a relief that I had made it, vaporized into the thin high-altitude air.
Once in a Lifetime. Another song crept into my head . . .
Made the summit!
More photos from Mt. Whitney Hike