Summit: Sunday, July 27, 2014
Elevation: 14,505 feet (highest point in the lower 48)
Distance: 22 miles
Time: 12 hours
Summit Buddy: Robert Shackelford
Prep and Training
A few months ago our friends the Hassetts secured a few Mount Whitney permits and invited us to summit with them along with 20 other friends. We immediately accepted and began doing training climbs. We spent a week at Mount Baldy doing repeat summits, one Mount Gorgonio summit, and another week or so going up and down Noble Canyon. My first few peaks felt sluggish and I wasn’t sure I would be ready by the end of July. As time progressed, I grew more confident and our last summit of Mount Gorgonio the week before Whitney left me feeling strong and excited.
In retrospect, although those other summits were fun, they did very little to actually prepare for Whitney. Life above 12,000 feet is a completely different experience and until you climb that high, you really don’t know how your body will react. All those other summits were like running a bunch of 5Ks to train for a marathon. Of course, that’s the best training most of us have in the SoCal area.
I attribute some valuable conditioning to switching to a standing desk. I do a lot of writing and I work from a laptop. For the past several months I have done all my work with my laptop sitting on a box on our tiny RV cupboard. Between writing and running, I was on my feet sometimes for 12 hours a day. I felt a huge physical change. It was challenging the first week (my legs felt wiped out, as if I had raced a marathon), and then I got used to it. Now I only sit while driving or eating. I truly believe this helped immensely on Mt. Whitney where I was on my feet for 12 hours.
Before Whitney, I had only been above 12,000 feet once: at Hope’s Pass in Colorado as part of Transrockies 2012. I didn’t have any elevation issues and other than a slow climb, I felt wonderful. I was able to bomb the downhill although I was gasping for breath at the exertion.
For Whitney, I planned to take it a little easier, but I still wanted to test my limits and do my best.
On Friday morning we dropped Ginger off at the doggie kennel, a sad event we must endure if Shacky and I ever want to run together. (She had surgery a few months ago to repair a torn CCL ligament and she can’t run until October.) Ginger was distraught and so was I, but I knew it would be worth this epic weekend. Shacky later told me that sometimes people got in trouble for tying their dogs up at the top of the 99 Whitney switchbacks (at the National Park border) and continuing to summit Whitney without them (dogs are not allowed in the final 2 miles). WTF?? That’s a terrible place for a dog with very volatile weather that can change fast. Disgusting.
Mama Kitty stayed in the RV as a bear-guard (or was it bear-bait??). In any case, she made the trip with us. Mama Cat sat by the window and enjoyed the views all the way up to Horseshoe Meadows where we camped on Friday night. It was a long and hot road, and we had to stop a few times to let the RV cool. Much like Shacky, our little Rialta doesn’t do well in extremely hot temps like, say… around Death Valley in July. We had to drive most of the climb without any AC to keep the RV as cool as possible and we were all glad to finally see Paul Hassett waving us down at the Horseshoe Meadows campground.
We hung out with our friends for a bit while they set up camp. We went for a short walk, played some cribbage, then shared a dinner of hot dogs and salad and cherries. After that we played some Cards Against Humanity and went to bed.
We were camping and sleeping at about 10,000 feet to help us acclimate and I found that the elevation didn’t seem to really bother me. I attributed it to spending time on Gorgonio just a few days ago. I could jog normally on anything flat or downhill, though uphills still left me winded.
Poor kitty didn’t know what was going on. She continued her regularly scheduled exercise regimen of running insanely fast laps around the RV and over our sleeping bodies at around 2am, but after one lap she would have to stop and gasp for breath for a few minutes. When she recovered, she’d start again. Run, gasp. Run, gasp. It was a good demonstration of what we would be doing on Sunday.
The next morning, we drove to Whitney Portal bright and early to try and get a walk-in campground at the Family Camp. We ran into the camp host Lee at around 8am and he was extremely helpful and accommodating. We had about 15 people and one RV (ours), and we wanted to camp together if possible. Lee somehow worked his magic and we ended up sharing a site with Bill and Christine.
As soon as we got settled, Shacky and I emptied all our food into the bear locker, which was quite a feat since the RV is our home and we carry a lot more food than normal camping folk. We had dog food, cat food, cat litter, a million little scented things… We almost took up an entire enormous bear locker. On the bright side, it was a great inventory of what we had and we ended up giving away a lot of edibles we didn’t really need.
I was still really nervous about bears because I was sure there was still some sort of scent in the RV. Kitty bats her food around all over the place and there’s always some crumb. I cleaned up as best I could and crossed my fingers
As soon as the food was up, Shacky and I jogged / hiked to Lone Pine Lake. The views were so spectacular I got caught up in taking photos and running and aweing at everything. I was having a blast. The lake was breathtaking (literally). The hike did a great job of testing my lungs. I jogged some uphill, let myself get winded, and pushed my elevation potential to get an idea of what my limits were. I got back from the hike wanting more and I was confident I could do well on Sunday.
We went to bed right after an awesome group dinner of carne asada tacos. I filled my belly knowing I wouldn’t be hungry at our 2:30am wake-up and went to sleep with the sun.
Sunday (Summit Day!)
Many in our group had trouble sleeping at elevation but I had zero issues. I fell asleep quickly and on Whitney-eve I got a solid six hours. I shot up when the alarm went off at 2:30 am, excited to start the day.
After getting dressed, I emptied the kitty’s cat bowl while she slept. She would have to make do with no food until we were finished hiking (I couldn’t leave any cat food in the RV due to bear break-ins). It would be a long day and she’s not used to waiting for her meals, so I was a little worried about what she’d do when I failed to feed her in a timely manner.
Our friends were slow getting around, so we waited for them and got to the Whitney trailhead at around 3:30am. Our entire group except for three people had already left. I was with Shacky and our friend Jon. After they used the bathroom, we began a steady climb in the pitch dark.
I decided not to force myself to eat or poop in the morning, which is the opposite of what most people do. I knew I wouldn’t be at all hungry or needing to go that early and I really wanted to eat by feel. I had no idea how my body would react up there, but if I tried to stuff myself with food, I knew it for sure it wouldn’t do well.
Not pooping in the morning was a bit of a risk since Whitney has a pack-it-out rule. If I got the urge to poop on the trail, I would have to carry my poop with me the entire day in a special poop-bag. My hope was that I just wouldn’t feel like pooping at all.
About a mile into the trail, my handheld light started going dim. I had forgotten to swap out the batteries. I fell into pace in between Shacky and Jon who both had really strong headlamps and mooched off their light. Soon we passed Bill and Christine, then sometime later Rachel and the rest of the girls. Elizabeth was with them and she hopped on to our train. We hiked along with Elizabeth, Jon, Shacky and myself. Paul and Allen stayed ahead of us.
At Lone Pine Lake I started getting hungry and Shacky wanted to eat as well, so we stopped and I pulled out my sandwich. I was sad we were missing so many awesome views in the dark, but I knew we’d catch them on the way down. I ate my sandwich plus a Salted Caramel gel and felt much better. I was carrying a 3L Camelback bladder in my UltrAspire Omega pack as well as an extra handheld stuffed in my bag. I was drinking a lot of water, to thirst.
I didn’t hydrate well the night before. I meant to, but then I had a Lime-arita instead. When I peed in the morning, it wasn’t that clear. It was pretty warm in the morning as well, so I expected it would be a scorching day. I was drinking like crazy.
After our snack stop, we continued into uncharted territory. Everything after this, you needed a permit to hike. We all had our permits on our packs and we could vaguely start making out the outlines of the rocks and lakes as it got lighter and lighter. The sun never fully came out. It got light, but overcast. I was glad for the cloud cover.
The views, as we started to see them, were amazing. We weren’t stopping much to rest either, keeping a steady pace uphill, sometimes chatting and sometimes just walking. We passed several hiking groups and I was really pleased with our progress. Jon and Elizabeth were awesome company and all was fun and games until we got to the Trail Camp right at the foot of the 99 switchbacks.
I had never been to Whitney before, but I had heard of the 99 switchbacks. At first, I was confused about why people would count 99 switchbacks on one particular spot, when there were clearly switchbacks before and after as well. It was more obvious when I saw what they looked like: just one relentless straight-up climb.
Elizabeth started counting the switchbacks, which was helpful because I didn’t want to count them myself, but I wanted to know where we were. A few of the turns were tricky and it was hard to tell what counted as a switchback. Elizabeth kept us motivated to calling out the milestone crossings.
“30 switchbacks! … 50 switchbacks!”
We had to stop twice on the way up to catch our breath and drink water (it was hard to swallow and breathe at the same time). I was the only one with a GPS so I watched our elevation climb and called out our milestones.
“Twelve thousand feet! … Thirteen thousand feet!”
I later learned that the elevation was hitting Shacky hard and he was struggling not to doze off. He got really sleepy and said later it helped him that Jon was leading.
Jon did a great job. He was walking slowly which was about as fast as we could handle, stopped for two short breaks, and then pushed on ahead. Elizabeth called 95 switchbacks and I thought, “OK! We got this! Only four more!”
Except that 96th switchback felt about a mile long, and it started getting steeper. We stopped for the third time after only about five minutes of walking, recovered, then found the trail crest. We had made it!
We had miscounted the switchbacks: we were already at the end of them. What a pleasant surprise! I was hoping if we had miscounted it would end up this way instead of the other way around: counting to 99, then realizing you still had a few more to go.
At the trail crest we saw the sign for Sequoia National Park and it was mostly a scramble after that. We were near-bouldering up and down rocks until we got to the 1.9-mile sign. Less than two miles to go!
I knew those last two miles would take us about an hour, but I didn’t expect them to be the hardest two miles of the day. There was no real trail – it was mostly a bed of loose rocks strewn with larger boulders. We scrambled and climbed and scrambled and climbed. So near yet so far….
We stopped a lot to wait for Jon and Elizabeth to catch up. They both had their cameras and were taking some awesome shots. Our camera had broken in the first mile, but we were planning to steal their photos so we were glad to wait for them. We kept seeing people way off in the distance and it felt like we would never get there… until all of a sudden I spotted the cabin. We made it!!
We found Paul and Allen waiting at the top. They had been waiting for two hours and Paul would wait until Rachel and the girls made it to the top.
The summit was windy and cold, but when you lay on the rocks and the sun peeked out, it was glorious. Lots of photos were taken and we took our time to chat and eat. We saw Carlos and Leslie summit, then Bill and Christine.
Finally, we decided it was time to head back down. Jon and Elizabeth followed us on the gnarly descent. We ran into Rachel and the other ladies. They looked the way that we had felt going up, but we assured them they didn’t have far to go.
I was in great spirits on the descent. Finally some downhill! After we left the girls, it started to hail. At first it was just a little bit and it didn’t bother us at all. Then it got harder and harder until it was just pelting us. I put my hand up to my face to stop the hail from slapping my cheek and that’s when I spotted Deborah. She was the last in our group still heading for the summit, and she had been waiting for the storm to pass, trying to decide whether or not to push on. It was tough to chat with the hail-attack, so she hoped behind Shacky and I and started following us down.
The hail seemed to get worse. I wrapped my extra buff around my face and turned off the trial to try and find shelter. There was none. Shacky got in front of me and we both knew our only choice was to haul ass (safely) downhill. We got to the 99 switchbacks and the hail was still pelting. It stung my skin as it hit my wet jacket and it now covered the trail like fresh snowfall, only it was mostly ice-slush.
The wet rocks were extremely slick and soon the switchbacks had turned into a mini-river. Snow, water, and hail were gushing and flowing down the trail, racing us down. I was uncomfortable, but not particularly cold. As long as I kept moving, my core temps stayed high and the adrenaline kept me descending fast. We passed almost everyone we saw, even managing to run on some of the less-slippery spots.
We lost Jon and Elizabeth somewhere, but didn’t want to wait in the hailstorm. It turned out they had hung back with Deb and descended together.
Shacky and I forged on past the trail camp and over more rocks. We were doing the fastest hike/jog we dared on the slippery, soaking trail. Although we each slipped a few times, no falls were had and I was impressed with our descent considering the weather. Shacky had never run in hail before as it doesn’t rain much in San Diego, but he stuck right by me. I had experience with both and I actually preferred this to the boiling heat I had been expecting.
It was awesome to take in the views we had missed in the dark and my spirits were high. I stopped to eat, but the hail forced me to keep moving. Thankfully, I found my ability to chew and breathe at the same time had greatly improved. I ate an avocado and turkey sandwich as well as a pack of shot blocks while ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the views. I was so thankful for the downhill. It felt like gravity was doing all the work while we just cruised.
The hail turned into rain and then just a drizzle. While a lot of hikers were still trying to keep their feet dry, we charged through the creek crossings and soaked ourselves to the bone. As long as we were pushing the pace, I stayed warm. I was having a blast.
Before we knew it, we were at Lone Pine Lake again. My legs were starting to get tired, but it was only 2.5 miles to the finish. We started talking about what we would eat at the Whitney Portal Store (they serve awesome burgers and a kickass breakfast). Shacky decided he’d have a burger and I wanted an ice cream bar. We chatted and jog / hiked all the way down. I was high from this awesome experience, absolutely in the zone. I was so proud of us.
A few yards from the finish we saw a couple walking two dogs and I stopped to pet them. They had questions about the summit, so we chatted with them for a bit. We started seeing people with zero supplies just going for a stroll, so we knew we were super close. And then we were done!
Big high five! We weighed our packs at the finish. I had started with 13lbs and I was down to six. I didn’t finish all the water I had brought, though I did eat most of my food.
(Thanks to Jon and Elizabeth for all the following photos!)
Everything was wet back at camp. Shacky and I had been trying to outrun the rainy spots, assuming it was due to elevation, but it had apparently rained everywhere.
Shacky got a burger and a beer at the camp store, and I got ice cream with an iced tea. After enjoying our food, we made the half-mile trail trek back to the campground and Shacky went right to sleep.
The first thing I did was feed kitty. She was indignant, but didn’t appear to have visibly lost any weight.
I peeled off my wet clothes, gave myself my regular hobo bath (full body cleaning with no running water), and then ate some watermelon. I felt refreshed and energized. I couldn’t settle down. If someone had offered to take me for another run, I would have gone in a heartbeat. I was buzzed from our summit and I couldn’t wait for the others to finish. What an epic day. I was completely in my element. I always knew I preferred mountains and elevation, but this really sealed the deal for me.
Other than feeling breathless when I tried to run / speed hike uphill (which happens even in non-elevation), I had zero issues. No headaches, no nausea, no sickness of any kind. At one point I felt a slight throbbing my temples, like feeling your heartbeat in your head, but it didn’t hurt or bother me.
I can’t take credit for any of this—I didn’t do anything special as far as training or acclimation. I feel like I’m built to be in the mountains. My body wants to play there, forever scrambling summits at altitude. I’m learning that it’s a big part of who I am and where I belong, not just what I can do.
Recovery was flawless. I slept well, ate well, and my hydration levels are back to where they should be. I am so, so thankful for this body, not forgetting for one second how blessed I am to enjoy these physical freedoms and what feels like limitless potential.
I weighed myself today and I only lost one pound. That makes me confident that my decision to eat by feel was a good one. I ate much less on this summit than I normally do in a 12-hour stretch, but it felt right, and I’m glad I went with my “gut” (haha). I didn’t end up pooping on the trail, but all is back to normal on that front as well.
We left camp early to have breakfast and pick up Ginger as soon as possible. She was thrilled to see us, but she had a cut on her nose from constantly nudging her food away. Ugh. We both get separation anxiety…
I had to scold the cat today who had come to believe that Ginger’s bed now belonged to her, so therefore it was okay to attack Ginger upon her return. She’s sitting in her box right now, sulking at this unforeseen turn of events.
We’re driving to Huntington Beach today to pick up our friend Pat Sweeney and his beer. Then we’re taking all of us to Colorado where I plan to get my butt on more mountains. The plan is… no real plan at all, except to thru-hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier in Washington at the end of this August.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll just wake up one morning and my whole body will have gone to shit and I won’t be able to do any of this awesome stuff anymore. But it appears that today is not that day… so I might as well go climb something.
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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker