Earlier this year, Alex and I decided to enter the lottery to hike Mount Whitney. We had never really done a hike of this magnitude before, but the more we did our research, the more we dreamt of summiting the mountain. Since the Mt. Whitney Trail works off a strict permit system, we heard that the chances of being selected in the lottery were pretty slim, and that getting your preferred days were even more rare. When we finally submitted our applications, I don’t think either one of us really expected to get picked. Lol Well, not only were we picked in the lottery, but we actually got our preferred days, so as you can imagine we were pretty stoked…and to be honest a little nervous too.
We figured we had a decent amount of training time before our big hike, which was scheduled for September, so we focused on hiking mountains that would prepare us not only for the distance and elevation gain, but that would also introduce our bodies to high altitude. We actually chose to hike some of the mountains part of the 6 Pack of Peaks. If you’re not familiar with the 6 Pack of Peaks, they are basically 6 hikes within 2 hours of the Los Angeles metropolitan area that can help prepare you for a long distance backpacking trip or a difficult hike like the Mount Whitney Trail. For anyone thinking about hiking Mt. Whitney in the future, I couldn’t recommend doing the 6 Pack of Peaks enough! It not only helped prepare us for our 2 day backpacking trip, but it also helped us feel more confident going into the big hike!
Since the elevation on Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft!) kind of scared us (AKA me), we decided to drive up to Whitney Portal 2 nights before our scheduled hike. Whitney Portal sits at 8,000 ft., so it ended up being a good elevation to sit at to help our bodies acclimate and it wasn’t too far from the trailhead. We took the full day we were there to explore the area and just enjoy the beauty around us. There’s actually a little store that sells food and backpacking supplies near the trailhead. We were pretty surprised to see how many people just take a day drive up there to visit the popular area.
Finally the day of our hike! We woke up at 6am, packed our bags, and headed straight to the trailhead. There is a weigh station right before the trail starts, so we decided to check the weight of our packs since we were quite curious. Alex’s pack weighed in at a whopping 50lbs., while mine came in at 35lbs. I think we were both pretty shocked at the weight since we made an effort to not pack anything unnecessary. I think next time we will have to reevaluate how we define “unnecessary”. Lol
After weighing our packs, off we went. I remember just starting our trek and being in shock that we were actually on the trail. We had spent months training and just thinking about the day to come, so it was definitely surreal to actually be there. Now, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like quitting the entire 1st mile. I think the combination of my heavy pack and the fear of climbing this mountain made me second guess my decision until maybe mile 2 or 3. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that this was also our 1st backpacking trip! Probably not the greatest idea to start off backpacking on a difficult trail like this. Lol Finally at mile 3, we hit Lone Pine Lake, where we were able to take off our packs and enjoy a little break. Lone Pine Lake is pretty much the furthest you can go without a permit before entering the Whitney Zone. It was a nice spot to have some lunch and take in the beautiful scenery.
Right after Lone Pine Lake you quickly enter the Whitney Zone. You must make sure you carry a permit beyond this point. We were asked to present ours shortly after passing this point, so I wouldn’t recommend trying to hike this trail without a valid permit.
Not too long later we hit a beautiful meadow, near Outpost Camp, and we knew we were closer to our destination. By this point in the hike I was used to my heavy pack, and putting two feet in front of the other just felt like second nature. We started to really take in the scenery and just appreciate how much untouched beauty there was on this trail. I felt really grateful to be hiking out in the wilderness with my best friend. Cheesy, I know, but it’s true!
We finally made it to Trail Camp, which is roughly 6 miles in and sits at 12,000 ft. We only had time to setup our tent because it literally started POURING rain. We knew the weather could be unpredictable on Mt. Whitney, but we definitely didn’t see all that rain coming, especially since the forecast was pretty clear. Since it was pouring, we decided to throw our packs inside the tent and ran inside to avoid getting wet. Not too long after, the rain lifted so we were able to cook ourselves some dinner and just hang out. At this point in the day we didn’t really feel any sign of altitude sickness, which is something we had previously worried about.
When it came time to go to bed, let me tell you! My head was pounding so hard, I felt like I couldn’t even think! Alex had the same symptoms, so we both didn’t get a lot of sleep. At some point in the middle of the night I felt myself coming to terms with not being able to summit Mt. Whitney. Before our hike we had talked about the possibility of having to turn around if we didn’t feel right. We had agreed that our health and safety were more important if it came down to that point. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it was to accept that we were more than likely going to have to pack up and head down the following morning.
4am eventually rolled around and we both still felt like crap, so we decided to sleep another hour. When we finally woke up at 5am we actually felt a bit better, so we agreed we would try to summit unless our symptoms turned. As tired as I was from the lack of sleep, I was still so excited that we would attempt the summit push! The dreaded 99 switchbacks were the first thing we had to tackle, and I actually didn’t feel they were as terrifying as I had heard. Don’t get me wrong, it is no cake walk but I had feared it was a portion of the hike that I would struggle with. I’m sure not having to carry my heavy pack from the day before also helped.
Towards the very end of the switchbacks, I did start to feel some symptoms of AMS, so I made sure to take it slow. I think the toughest part in this piece of the hike is getting used to the elevation. Once we hit Trail Crest, we took a small break and took in the crazy beautiful views of Sequoia National Park. We were now sitting at 13,700 ft. above sea level and had roughly 2.8 miles left to the summit.
The wind had really started to pick up on us here, so it helped that we were now on the backside of the mountain climbing the ridge. This part of the trail seemed to be easier than the switchbacks because we had a good amount of downhill climb. The famous Mt. Whitney “windows” definitely unleashed some gnarly winds on us though. We had to hurry past every window pocket just to avoid getting pushed over by wind. Lol By this point, we were pretty close to the summit. I remember my AMS symptoms started to kick in a bit more as I felt more fatigued than normal and it became hard to take any food down. Fatigue and lack of appetite is very common hiking at high elevations, but it’s so important to listen to your body and not ignore the signs. Thankfully Alex and I had each other to make sure we both were doing ok and not pushing ourselves too far.
I think when you’re close to any summit, you start thinking that the next rock formation is the top. Lol Luckily the top wasn’t far away at all. We just had to walk through some snow and push our way up through the landscape of rocks. We eventually saw the famous shelter (aka summit hut) at the top, so that was our sign that we were just feet away. I remember walking up slowly to the hut and just feeling completely overwhelmed by what we had just accomplished. I couldn’t believe it, we were finally there! At this point, fatigue, hunger, and everything else took a backseat to our overwhelming feelings of joy and relief. The summit views were amazing, so we tried to take as many pictures as possible. But it was so cold up there, especially with the added wind chill, that we chose to take our butts to the shelter to have a snack. Right before we could climb down some of the rocks we were on, we actually witnessed a proposal! Talk about an eventful day!
I still can’t believe we hiked Mt. Whitney! Just last year I remember seeing people go on some gnarly adventures, and was in awe of their stories. I figured one day we could go backpacking, but I never thought we would be able to tackle the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. The journey of getting here was amazing in itself. We experienced highs and lows, but through it all we had fun. I’m so blessed to have had the physical capability of hiking this mountain, and my hope is that others will be able to join in on the same experience. If you are able and determined, I would strongly recommend putting this hike on your bucket list. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.