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17 Hours, 22 Miles, and 6,100 feet: Summiting the Lower 48's Tallest Peak, Mount Whitney

Summiting the tallest peak in the contiguous US is no walk in the park but the views and sense of accomplishment are more than worth it!

By: Sonja Saxe + Save to a List

At midnight on Friday, June 9th I awoke from a fitful bout of rest to the distinct sound of my alarm ringing. Instinctively, I reached to snooze it, but when my blurry gaze fell upon the dial that read 12:00am my reality hit me. Snoozing my alarm didn't mean that I wouldn't have time to shower before work it meant that I would delay my attempt to summit the highest peak in the contiguous US: Mount Whitney. Suddenly sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. 

A mere nine hours prior to our early wakeup call Alex and I were sitting in our rental car at the Whitney Portal trailhead. All around us were hikers loading up their packs, sizing up what was worth taking on the trail and what could be left in their vehicles. These hikers had an overnight pass but would likely be attempting to summit the next day, with Alex and I who had only managed to score a day permit. I wondered if our fellow hikers were feeling as nervous as I was. Alex and I had come to the trailhead to scope it out and try to acclimatize. I meticulously monitored my breathing and heartrate but it was proving difficult. Did my heartrate just pick up even though I'm sitting here doing nothing? Is that shortness of breath due to the elevation or my anxiety? I eventually decided the close monitoring of my vitals was affecting them too much and tried to just relax. I was unsuccessful and by the time Alex and I arrived back to the trailhead at 12:45am I was feeling even more nervous but there was no more time for preparations, summit day had arrived!  

The Mount Whitney Trail is a 22 mile out-and-back route that delivers hikers to the top of Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park. The hike gains 6,100' of elevation before peaking at 14,505'. In the most favorable conditions (late summer) it takes efficient hikers about 12 hours to get up and down, but we weren't attempting this hike in the most favorable conditions. We were attempting it early in a season that saw a record-breaking snowfall and reports showed that much of the upper portion of the trail was entirely blanketed. Not wanting to miss out on summiting due to poor timing we decided to leave as early as possible. We settled on a 1am departure. At the trailhead we shouldered our packs, clicked on our headlamps, and headed out on the trail. I looked at my clock. It read 12:57. Perfect timing. 

Not more than ten minutes after we started the hike we reached our first stream crossing. In normal seasons this stream is not an issue but again, this was not a normal season. Snow melt was flooding the stream and it was rushing onto the trail. There was no way we could cross the stream without our hiking boots getting completely submerged so we took off our boots and socks and forded the stream. I could only see the small radius of light my headlamp afforded me but I knew that to my left was a drop and if I slipped it was likely I would go over that drop so I carefully placed each foot into the water and grit my teeth, trying to fight back the pain the frigid water caused to shoot through my feet and lower legs. I so desperately wanted to sprint across the stream but knew I had to be careful. The stream couldn't have been more than twenty feet across but by the time I made it to the other side both of my feet and calves were entirely numb. I immediately sat down and started rubbing some warmth back into them. Not the best start to the hike but we put our socks and boots back on and continued up the trail. 

We hiked in silence. I tried to keep tabs on the sole hiker behind us; every so often I would turn back and see a glimpse of his headlamp through the forest. We hadn't seen anyone ahead of us since we started the hike but after about three miles I noticed two headlamps in the forest above us. I assumed we were catching up to the hikers but after a few moments it was quite clear the lights were moving towards us, which was curious because it wasn't even 3am yet. When we finally met the pair of hikers it was apparent that they were not doing well. One asked us how much further the trailhead was. We informed the pair that it was about three miles further and they were visibly relieved. "We've been out here since 6am yesterday", they informed us. Alex and I, wanting to help in any way we could, offered food and water but they said they had a filter and had filled up recently. It was at this moment I wondered to myself if we should have packed a filter. Definitely. I started a mental list of the things I had forgotten to bring on this trip: one water filter, check

After our fellow hikers continued on towards their refuge we set out on the dark trail once again. We followed the switchbacks up, up, and up through the woods. A few times we lost our way but a quick check-in with our GPS re-routed us. Weeks prior to our hike I began stalking The Outbound and AllTrails trip reports and the Whitney Portal Store Message Board, constantly refreshing the pages to see if any new hikes had been logged. I knew that the route was going to be tricky due to the winter's snowfall and I wanted to be as informed as possible. I learned from other users' trip reports that the trail below tree-line was difficult to navigate due to intermittent snow so I made sure to download a GPS route before heading out. We used the Gaia Maps app and it worked really well. 

By the time we ascended above tree-line the sun was finally beginning to rise. After four hours of hiking in the dark the glow of the dawn light was encouraging. As the sun began to rise we found ourselves front and center for one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. This energized me like no coffee ever has. I've seen sunrises over mountain peaks from far below but I've never been in alpenglow before. The light was on the peaks above us but it was also all around us, turning the snow at our feet a vivid orange. Feeling a rush of energy we picked up the pace and made it to Trail Camp by 6am. We stopped, found a large boulder to huddle behind to escape the wind, and we enjoyed a few snacks. 

After a half an hour break we decided to continue on to the next obstacle: the chute. Typically this portion of the trail is covered in 99 infamous switchbacks but they were still completely covered in snow so instead we opted to climb up the chute. This ended up being an especially slow slog. In order to stay motivated and moving I would make the tiniest goals for myself. Take 30 steps and then you can take a break, I would tell myself. After a short break I would then tell myself okay, this time you're going to take 50 steps before stopping. And so this went on for 2 hours until finally, finally(!!!), we made it to Trail Crest at 13,600'. The hike was far from over but we were able to check off another portion of it and that was reason enough for a small celebration!

At Trail Crest I refueled with even more water, Clif bars, and a few melted chocolate-covered banana chips. Despite being completely worked during the arduous climb up the chute I was in high spirits. I knew that Trail Crest was a benchmark; many people, overcome by altitude sickness, opt to turn around at this point but I was feeling great. The summit is right there I thought. But, I was sadly mistaken. From Trail Crest to the summit there is "only" 1.9 miles of trail left and it "only" gains another 900' or so. But this section was brutal. To see the summit in the broad daylight, to see how close yet still how far away it was was demoralizing. 

This portion of the trail was also blasted by the wind. As we slowly made our way toward the summit I looked down at my hands, they were bare. I was taken back to a moment a couple days prior when Alex and I were packing. He asked, "do you have gloves?". "I don't need gloves", I defiantly responded. One water filter, checkOne pair of gloves, check. I balled my hands into fists, breathed into them, tucked my trekking poles under my arms, and futilely tried to will my hands warm.

That final push was full of stops and instances where I looked up at the peak and pushed myself, you can do this, you CAN do this was my mantra. And finally I did it. 2.5 hours after leaving Trail Crest I found myself at 14,505' at the summit of Mount Whitney. My head was pounding, I felt nauseous, and despite reaching the top and accomplishing my goal I was overwhelmed by one thought: get me off this mountain. So we snapped a few summit shots and turned around. Realizing we were only half way done with our day was sobering but I doubled down on my efforts, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other.

We made it back to Trail Crest about an hour later and took another break. We had one of the most exciting portions of the trail just ahead of us: sliding down the chute. So many people had slid down the chute in the same spots that luges had formed. While we were hiking up we highly anticipated our slide down but now that we were at the top we were a bit more hesitant. The bottom was a long way down. We had our ice axes and knew how to self-arrest but still, the bottom looked so far away. Eventually we went for it and it was an absolute blast! The portion of the trail that took us two hours to ascend took us a mere fifteen minutes to descend. But my butt was soaked and numb. I was just wearing leggings and they were not water-resistant. One water filter, checkOne pair of gloves, check. Water-resistant pants, check. Thankfully, my pants quickly dried and my butt de-thawed in the high noon sunlight and we continued on. 

We eventually reached the trailhead at 6pm, 17 hours after we had departed. By the time we got back to the car I was exhausted but also elated. I had set a goal for myself, knowing very well that I could fail (and I was ready for that outcome), but I succeeded. I had thought that I would need to sleep for the entire drive to Ventura (we were visiting Channel Islands National Park the very next day) but as I rested in the car at the trailhead and recounted what I had just done I suddenly felt as energized as I had when I first saw the sunrise that morning. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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