Robert brought three geocaching friends, Vincent, and myself to Mt Whitney, for his third (I think) attempt at reaching the summit. The prior two were early morning, one-day attempts. This was going to be the first try at a base camp, overnight trip; the goal to have an overnight stop to acclimate to the altitude, and hopefully overcome some of the issues stopping the previous attempts.
Reserving a permit to climb the peak is difficult: you try and book across many days, and hope you get in on the lottery. Obviously, Robert was successful, and so we headed down to start the two day trek.
Planning for a Backpack Trip
Backpacking itself isn’t terribly complicated. Plan your calories, pack your gear, don’t get too heavy. The last backpacking trip I took, it was Death Valley, warm, dry, and so it was sleeping under the stars. Hiking Whitney is a different beast. The weather can turn, someone may not summit, and most importantly, you have to carry out all of your waste. And by that, I mean your poop. 160 people climb Whitney daily, and this is all rock. There’s no way to bury that waste. Some people stuff it in rock crevices, and it just sits, being gross. Part of the permit process is ensuring you have bear canisters for your food, and poop bags.
Each of us brought extra bags. We had our food. We had our tents. Robert, Vincent, and I had already done Beveridge, and this was simpler. Besides packing and planning, the only other item we planned was heading up the day before to acclimate to the beginning elevation, visiting the trail head, and just killing time before the start.
Morning, Day One
4:30am, we started our trek. Making our way from Whitney Portal out to the base of the trail is just a pleasant mountain hike. While not “easy,” there’s nothing about it more difficult than managing the weight of a pack, managing five people all hiking together, and just going. In all, the first day took us just over four hours, so it’s obvious how people can up-and-back in a day. However, our goal wasn’t to race, it was to hike, to camp, and to acclimate as much as we could, hoping that everyone would avoid altitude sickness.
Mt Whitney Trail Camp – High Camp
Arriving late morning, it was now time to hang out for 22 hours. We were not the only ones at camp, but it wasn’t horribly packed. While we spent time refilling water, eating lunch and dinner, setting up tents, and preparing for the next day, we also spent time chatting with others at camp.
One interesting group was a team who were studying the affects and causes of altitude sickness. They were camped and collecting volunteers to hit the clinic in town and look for a micro-hole in the heart, to determine if its a factor in who does and does not suffer (patent ductus arteriosus or atrial septal defect?)
As Vincent had suffered twice from altitude sickness on the previous two attempts, he expressed his willingness to participate in the study after the hike.
Evening – Day 1
As we approached evening, a few things happened. One, the weather began turning south (slightly). Two, we all began to get tired and prepared to sleep. And three, Vincent started feeling ill, headaches, weariness, slight nausea. This wasn’t good news for summiting the next day. As it was, it seemed like Vincent would have to stay back. In the end, it was decided that if we couldn’t make it, Scott, Robert, and Vincent would stay behind. Robert had his heart set on summitting, but staying with his son was more important to him.
So we went to sleep, and prepared for a 6am wakeup to start the summit hike.
It was raining heavily at departure time, so we gave it a half hour to see if it would break. Then another half hour. Then another. When the skies finally cleared, three of us decided to start the trek up to the summit, just half the group.
While Eric was a runner, and the general fitness of the three of us was good, I’m not sure the mental state was. With every opportunity, the other two with me wanted to stop and rest, which is fine, but a one minute break and then getting moving again is different than a ten minute break every ten minutes. It took quite a bit of coaxing to keep the three of us heading up to the summit, and I’m glad I put pressure on our pace because…
Summit and Storms
We made the summit, and just in time. With a few minutes to grab the geocaches at the top, sign the log, and take a few pictures, we had to make a hasty retreat. The weather had turned.
Never in my life have I been inside a storm. At 14,500 feet, you’re not in a storm, you’re IN THE STORM. This had to be one of the scariest moments of my life. We began rushing down the hillside. As we approached one overhang, we joined several other hikers in staying in a slightly safer location while some of the worst passed. We continued to trek down when it was a bit safer, until we reached Trail Camp and began teardown.
The remainder of the downward hike was fairly uneventful. We continued all the way down the mountain, met up with the other three who had participated in the aforementioned research study, and made our way home. For me, this was a success! I’d love to be able to spend more than five minutes at the top of Mt Whitney some day, but if not, I can at least say that I made it to the top of the highest peak in the lower 48!