I think I’m the kind of person who is really good at following through with something. Whether it’s a physical goal, or just making plans with a friend. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. When 2021 rolled around, I decided to set goals for this year instead of resolutions. One goal was hiking Mount Whitney.
Standing at 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48. The hike is 22 miles and about 6,400 feet of elevation gain. Oh, also, it’s only about 3 hours north of Los Angeles, so I really had no reason NOT to do it.
In February I put in for the lottery spot to get a permit. I read somewhere that they only issue 100 permits a day and only 70% of the people who apply actually get one. 70% is still pretty good odds. When I applied for the permit, I was able to put in for 15 different dates that I wanted. I put in 15 different weekend days starting Memorial Day weekend and I hoped for the best.
In mid-March I found out I did get the permit!! I was so excited until I realized my permit date was May 29. May is very early in the season and there was very good chance there would be way too much snow on the mountain for me to do the hike. When there’s a lot of snow, you need equipment like crampons and ice axes, which is way beyond my area of expertise.
Thankfully, after doing some research, I found out that the snowpack was extremely low this year. I checked the weather every single day for a month to make sure there weren’t going to be any more rogue snowstorms that could affect my trip. I even watched a Youtube video from a guy who hiked it at the end of April and there wasn’t much snow in his video. I felt pretty good about the amount of snow on the trail.
Of course, about a week before my hike, a snowstorm DID blow through. I couldn’t tell how much snow it dumped on the mountain, but I started to get worried. Thankfully, in a Mount Whitney Facebook group, people were saying it wasn’t bad and that the trail was still pretty clear.
Fast-forward to May 28, the day before the hike. I had spent a few days in Sequoia National Park camping with my boyfriend (who did Whitney with me). We did a hike in Kings Canyon National Park that was pretty much RIGHT NEXT to Whitney as the crow flies (see map below). However, there are no roads that connect the western side to the eastern side of Sequoia. So we drove 4.5 hours from our campsite to Lone Pine.
We arrived at Lone Pine around 2pm and headed to the visitor center to pick up our wag bags (a bag to shit in because you aren’t allowed to poo on the mountain). We then explored Alabama Hills a bit, which is the area between the city of Lone Pine and the actual Sierras. Then we checked into our hotel, took much needed showers, and had an early dinner around 4pm. After dinner we went back to the hotel, packed our hiking bags, and went to bed around 8pm to prepare for a 1am wake up call.
I was way too excited and nervous. I don’t think I slept for a single minute. When the alarm went off, I popped up out of bed and started getting ready. It’s hard to know what to wear for a hike like this. You don’t know what the mountain is going to throw at you. I opted for a long sleeved shirt, a vest, brought a down jacket in my bag, leggings, wool hiking socks, hiking boots, and then I brought a warm hat and gloves. As far as other supplies, we each carried 3 liters of water, tons of food (Clif Bars, gummy worms, PB&Js, gels, etc), microspikes, trekking poles, headlamps, sunglasses, sunscreen, and our permits. Oh, and the poop bags.
We left the hotel and arrived at the Whitney Portal (trailhead) around 2:15am, put on our headlamps, and began the hike. The first 4 hours were a dark blur. I really couldn’t see anything beyond my headlamp, and honestly I didn’t want to see anything. All I could think about were bears and mountain lions stalking us. The good news is, if there WAS a mountain lion, I would just need to out-run Jordan, which I’m sure I can do.
Anyway, after a couple of hours of hiking through dark woods, we reached the tree line which is about 11,000 feet I would guess. We then started hiking more uphill on some uneven rocks. The sun also started to come up between two of the rocky peaks which was beautiful.
Around mile 6, I started feeling really bad. I just felt tired, nauseous, and irritated. This was probably due to a complete lack of sleep and needing to eat. We stopped and had some food and water. I was a new woman after that! That was one thing I learned on the trail, whenever I felt bad it was time to eat.
Soon after our break, we reached Trail Camp. When you register for your permit, you can opt for a day pass or multiday. If you do multiday, then you backpack up with all of your camping gear and spend the night at Trail Camp, then you summit the next day. I considered this, but I really didn’t want to carry up a bunch of shit for 6 miles up a mountain and then camp in the cold with no fire.
We got to Trail Camp around 6am and pretty much everyone there was out of their tents and getting ready to start their hike to the summit as well. This was nice because we had seen pretty much no other people on the trail until this point.
Right after Trail Camp, was the 99 Switchbacks. I had heard of these before, but they were far worse than I expected. FAR WORSE. I will LITERALLY HAVE NIGHTMARES ABOUT THESE SWITCHBACKS FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.
So yeah, as you could guess from the name “99 Switchbacks” there are NINETYNINE SWITCHBACKS. That’s a fuckload of switchbacks. The worst part is that the switchbacks lead you up a steep, rocky part of the mountain but the scenery never changes. You just keep going up and looking at the same shit the entire time. It feels like you are making no progress whatsoever. Not to mention that some of these switchbacks were covered with snow. There were at least 3 times where we just climbed up the rock to get to the next switchback to avoid piles of snow or ice.
These switchbacks are also on the edge of a very steep slope. So if you slip or something, you are probably going to fall to your death. There was one section where there were poles set up with two wires running along them (pictured below) so just in case you fell, the wires were supposed to catch you (pretty sure they wouldn’t actually catch you). In this particular section, one of the switchbacks was covered in SOLID ICE so I had to crawl on all fours slowly to make sure I didn’t slip and fall 2,000 feet to my death.
I ALMOST turned around at that point. Traversing this ice and snow was taking SO long, I felt like the switchbacks were never going to end. At one point, there was so much snow that we ended up putting on our microspikes. After that part, there was almost no more snow THANK GOD.
27,662,8000 hours later, we FINALLY FINISHED THE FUCKING SWITCHBACKS and reached Trail Crest, which is at 13,000 feet. At Trail Crest, you kind of come over this edge and suddenly you are on the back side of the mountain. You are also only 1.9 miles from the summit! Who knew 1.9 miles could end up taking so long…
This section gave me a whole new set of challenges. To give you some perspective, you are on a very narrow trail, right on the edge of a 3,000 foot cliff, and the trail is essentially only made up of very unstable, large, jagged rocks. I almost had a panic attack looking down. I’ve only had one panic attack in my life and I wasn’t ready to have another at high elevation, inches from death, so I decided to just look forward and move VERY slowly.
We trudged along for awhile and people were passing us coming from the other way, meaning they already reached the summit (lucky bastards). I passed a girl and said hi, then we both did a double take. It was a girl named Melanie who I worked with in college. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES!!? We screamed and hugged and I’m pretty sure everyone around us was very confused. Melanie is thru-hiking the PCT and decided to make a little detour to summit Whitney. This was her second time doing Whitney, and she assured me that she was also scared the first time she did it and that it would be okay. And she was right! Because I am here today, alive, writing this post.
After we saw her, we only had about a mile or less to the summit. At some point, the trail finally leads you away from the edge of a cliff and you’re just walking up a very rocky hill with no end in sight. I could tell we were getting close, but the elevation started taking a toll. We were walking at maybe 1-2mph but my heart rate was like 170 and I could not catch my breath. We ended up stopping every .1 miles or so to chill out and catch our breath.
After what felt like an eternity, we came up over a hill and I could see the hut at the summit! I was so happy and relieved, but my head was starting to hurt pretty bad too. We reached the summit around 11am and a nice lunch of PB&J and ibuprofen. We only spent about 15 mins at the summit because it was cold, windy, and I wanted to get down to some thicker air.
We were MUCH faster on the way down. Obviously, in the scary section we still went very slow, but coming down the switchbacks wasn’t bad. At this point in the day, the ice and snow had melted. In fact, it was almost WARM out! I had shed my coat and vest, but still had my gloves on.
There were only about two spots on the switchbacks that were kind of sketchy because we had to climb down rocks to avoid snow. Thankfully, the area of solid ice had totally melted though. Once we finished the switchbacks and got to Trail Camp, spirits were high! We shared some celebratory gummy worms and put on a murder podcast to enjoy on the rest of the way down. Just past Trail Camp, we knew we only had like 6 miles to go and those were easy miles.
Those 6 miles felt like an eternity though. The thing is, since we started in complete darkness, we didn’t really know what this part of the trail looked like or any specific landmarks that would tell us how much longer we had to go. We got to a meadow that we remembered from the morning. For some reason, we both thought the meadow meant we were getting pretty close to the bottom. BOY WERE WE WRONG. After the meadow, we probably still had another 3-4 miles to go.
At the Portal, there is a store that sells cheeseburgers. Every person I know who has done this hike just raves about those fucking burgers. Honestly the only thing that kept me going for those last 3 miles was the thought of a burger and a beer. I pretty much RAN the last two miles of the trail. We reached the Portal around 5:30pm. I had a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a beer. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it was the best burger I have ever had.
We got back to the hotel around 6:30, took much deserved showers, and we were off to bed by 7pm. I slept for 13 hours that night.
Whitney was an amazing hike, but it is not for the faint of heart. People do die up there a lot (mainly when there is a lot of snow on the trail). The elevation also isn’t a joke. We both got lucky that we had almost no issues. Some people ignore elevation sickness symptoms and end up dying. I knew that if either of us started feeling bad, we would turn back immediately.
While it is 22 miles, honestly the trail itself isn’t super steep. Hiking Mount Baldy, you gain about 1000 feet per mile, but with Whitney it’s only like 500 feet per mile. However, hiking for 15 hours is really hard on your body so you need to make sure you have the endurance to handle something like that!
All in all, it was a fun day and a huge accomplishment. Would I do it again? Probably. But maybe not for a few years. I would also try to get a permit later in the summer to guarantee no snow on the trail!
So what’s next for Carolyn? In August, I will be heading to Wisconsin for the USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals. I will also be doing the Malibu Triathlon in September, a half Ironman in October, and a full Ironman in November!