Thoughts on Hiking Mt. Whitney

October 31, 2019 // Tom - hiking , climbing

Looking up at Mount Whitney’s Peak (Right) along with the fingers (Left). Taken at Iceberg Lake before the last climb.

Anxiety

I did a thing recently, which I think is personally remarkable. I hiked one of the tallest peaks in the US, via a difficult trail. This hike was the culmination of a few years of personal betterment, taking some newfound hobbies and putting them to good use. This is a journey that began my senior year of college.

My senior year at Iowa State was tumultuous. On the bright side, I had just finished an internship at LinkedIn with an offer in hand and more to come, all I had to do was graduate and I’d be gainfully employed. On the not so bright side, I fell into a deep depression after discovering my ex-girlfriend cheated on me the summer I was away. It was the dagger in an already lifeless relationship. Shortly after, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and put on medication to prevent me from spiraling. Needless to say, it was a rough time.

Me at ISU’s Climbing Gym (2017)

For those who don’t know me, I’ve struggled with keeping my weight up and this condition was a recipe for disaster, at my lowest I weighed 129 lbs. at 6’ 2”. A roommate of mine convinced me to try rock climbing, it was an easy way to get out of the apartment, and it turned out to be the thing I needed most. It started out as most things do, you’re terrible at it, and you want to immediately quit. Having anxiety didn’t help either, I’d be so nervous from the judgement other people were giving me that I shook and sweat so much I couldn’t hold onto anything. I persisted. I woke up early and continued to practice when no one was in the gym. I was going every other day, and naturally I kept eating more and more to have enough energy to get through the day. From V0 routes, to V6’s I learned how to control my fear response, how to manage my anxiety, and how to focus all my conscious energy into one thing: getting to the top of that route.

Graduation

My Dad and I road tripping to California (2017)

Fast forward to graduation senior year, I hadn’t failed any courses and I walked across the stage to get my diploma. Well, okay, I just attended my department’s commencement ceremony and I was mailed my diploma, you get the point. I packed up all my stuff and drove out to California with my dad. I was excited to start my new job, see friends from last summer, and soon enough discovered I enjoy hiking. At face value, hiking is pretty boring, you’re walking in a curvy line. Sometimes uphill, sometimes downhill. Sure, the environment you do it in can be exciting, but it’s just walking. And that’s why I fell in love with it. Hiking is self-paced, you put exactly what you want to get out of it. You don’t have to bring a ton of gear to go out and have a good time. I did it in tennis shoes for a year before I got my first proper pair of boots. I would hike every other weekend, hitting up Black Mountain via PG&E trail or Mission Peak. When my girlfriend was in town from London, we would go on long hikes together, we still do.

A few months later, I got forwarded an email looking for interested parties to organize a group hike. Naturally, I signed up and waited for the destination to be decided. A week passed and the group organizers decided on Mount Whitney. This mountain, located in the Sierra Nevada range just northeast of Los Angeles, is an amazing sight. It’s the tallest mountain in the lower 48 at 14,505ft, with massive walls of granite and shrubs dotting the cliffs and crags. In order to qualify for the hike, I had to submit a couple training hike GPS traces and host a group hike myself. The Whitney route is 22 miles round trip, taking around 16 hours to complete, and that’s not to mention the fatigue that comes with hiking at 14k feet.

Training hike after training hike pass, I ended up burning most of my weekends, pounding up and down Mission Peak and others. It’s fairly difficult to gauge your own pace when temperature, food and morale are so volatile. I hit my desired pace a week or two before we were scheduled to hike, all my GPS traces checked out, so I was more than eligible to hike.

Travelling to Lone Pine

We set off at 3am, I had barely slept the night before. Packing and re-packing my bag, making sure everything fit and that I’d be comfortable with the weight distribution. It was more of a nervous tick than anything, I had done the research on typical amounts of food, water, first aid supplies needed. I ended up with the following gear loadout:

- 16L Cotopaxi Batac Backpack
- Black Diamond Carbon-fibre trekking poles
- Patagonia Mid-weight Base layer (top/bottom)
- Mountain Hardware "Ghost Whisperer" Down jacket
- Arcteryx Zeta SL Wind/Rain Breaker
- La Sportiva High ankle Hiking Boots
- 3L Water bladder
- Some first aid stuff / water purification
- Spare socks

All told, my pack ended up under 10lbs (w/o water). When you’re hiking for 16 hours, it really pays to shave down every ounce. I brought a second bag with toiletries for the hotel in Lone Pine, which I didn’t weight.

Anyways, with my gear in tow, my girlfriend dropped me off at the shuttle, I boarded, and promptly fell asleep. A few hours into the 7-hour ride, I woke up with the sun shining in my face. We had just gotten off of I-5 highway and began the climb up to Lone Pine. Stopping to pick up some sandwiches along the way, the rest of the trip was fairly un-eventful. That was until we started our acclamation hike at Whitney Portal.

View of Mt. Whitney from Highway 395

Now, as you get higher and higher there’s less oxygen, and less oxygen means you’ll be sucking air much quicker than usual. If you aren’t exhausted by the hike, altitude sickness can still give you a major headache and nausea. There’s a lot of ways to fight altitude sickness, one of the best being to wait a while and acclimate. Fortunately, I didn’t feel any side effects when we started our test hike out of Whitney Portal which is at 8,000 ft.

Driving up to Whitney Portal is surreal, one minute you’re watching the dry and dusty landscape pass by in the valley, then you’re ascending up and up and up, watching the massive trees and boulder pass you by on either side of the pass. The view from Whitney Portal into the valley is stunning enough as it is, you can see clear to the mountain range over the other side of the valley. Giant Redwoods framing everything like a postcard.

View of the Whitney Portal and the valley, from the start of the Mountaineer’s Route

Then there’s the mountain, Whitney peaks overlooking a massive granite valley, covered in boulders at the very top and a skirt of 40 foot tall redwoods at the bottom. Whitney has 3 “fingers” to the left side, where the regular trail cuts back towards the summit. It’s honestly hard to describe it in writing, and pictures barely do it justice.

“The Ledges”

After we all got our bearings, we started the test hike. Earlier, I had overheard a group of guys discussing attempting the Mountaineer’s Route, a trail whose ascent is half as long distance wise but involves Class III hiking and scrambling. Our test hike was the first portion of Mountaineer’s. It involves some light hiking and vaulting over some boulders, and two stream crossings.

We hike a few miles up the route and turned around as the sun was beginning to set. While out at dinner in Lone Pine, me and a coworker decided to join the group doing Mountaineer’s.

The Mountaineer’s Route

We set out at 4:00 am from our motel in Lone Pine, the shuttle took us up to Whitney Portal. I had spent an hour repacking my back and making sure I had everything I needed. We grouped up and made sure our headlamps were in order, checked our packs and began the ascent.

6:00 AM, Two Hours after we embarked

The first leg was fairly uneventful, the air was calm. Crossing the first stream was a bit easier the second time around. We crossed the Ledges by headlamp and headed up to Lower Boy scout. As we climbed higher, the trees thinned out, and the terrain got rockier.

Looking down at Lower Boy scout Lake

We took a short break to fill up our water bottles at a nearby stream from an ice melt. At this point the sun had risen above the Sierra’s across the valley, flooding the entire landscape with golden light. As we hiked up to Upper Boy scout Lake, we followed carefully placed cairns, which are stacks of rocks indicating the trail, setup by hikers earlier in the season. These landmarks typically get knocked over by the snow patches in the spring. After a couple more hours hiking, we reached Iceberg Lake.

The lake sits at 12,000 ft. which is 4,000 ft above Whitney Portal. At 8 miles in, the peak of Mount Whitney is just 6 miles away and 2,000 ft. of elevation. Due to this, we had to decide if we had enough willpower to make it to the peak, otherwise it would take too long to down hike the way we came. This is largely because Mountaineer’s Trail is mostly large boulder fields and scree, finding the way down can take quite a while. We all decided we wanted to push to the top, we topped up our water bottles, I changed my socks just in case.

Overlooking Iceberg Lake



The route up to the top
via highsierratopix.com

The Chute

We knew the final push to the top would take 4 hours, and with the elevation we’d be sucking air the entire way up. We powered through the initial scramble, getting up to the first difficult section. We all had GPS traces running, and we had ventured up the wrong crevasse, we reached the top of a chute, met with a rock face. I checked my Fenix watch and saw we were about 100 feet away from the correct track. We decided to take a risk and climb up and over. At this point the grade was around 45 degrees, with loose rocks underfoot, a fall from a few feet could end up seriously harming you.

Fortunately, my climbing experience came in handy. I was able to find a line on a nearby rock, found some footing and climbed up and over. The other members in my party were less experienced. One guy, Rohan had been climbing for a month, both Yuli and Hiro had little to no experience. Nevertheless, they were all more than capable of climbing, with a little coaching from me on how to approach the route and tips on staying close to rock face.

Feeling good after doing some climbing!

With a short pep talk and some careful hand and footwork, we all climbed out of the crevasse and shortly found the correct path up. We had a few more short climbs, nothing more than a few meters, and lots of breaks in between. An hour or two later and we had reached the top of the chute, one of the hardest parts of the route. We only had one last segment until the peak.

The Notch

The Notch

The feeling of elation was immense, we reached the top of the chute. We took a break and took in the view, we were now on the backside of Whitney, overlooking the Sierra’s, a breathtaking sight. I ate some energy chews, downed some water as we prepared to climb the last leg. There are two routes to the top at this point:

The final push.
via highsierratopix.com

Depending on the weather, there’s a bypass which would have added 2 hours. The climbing segment is firmly Class III, with an optional Class IV at the top, which would have required ropes, harnesses, etc.

Do you see the way up?

While we were figuring out the heck to climb the face, there was another hiker up above who down climbing to camp at Iceberg Lake was, he gave us the start of the route, a giant crack working its way up 2 or 3 meters. Feeling confident with the other climber’s advice, I faced the rock wall, pushed myself into the crack, worked my fingers up to the next hold and lifted myself up. The rest of the party followed suit. The climbing that followed was very enjoyable, vaulting over large boulders, like a giant set of stairs.

Big steps to the top.



A view showing the steep face we were climbing.

The Peak

This last section was fairly straightforward, although we took our time as we had made good progress. One of my climbing pals had gotten up too high on a route which needed ropes, I was on the ledge below guiding him down an exposed crack. Fortunately, he was able to get a good hold in the crack and shimmy his way back down to our ledge. It’s very strange to be coaching someone down from a potentially hazardous ledge, helpless to do anything if they fell.

After that we probably had around 50 feet of elevation to the top. We had finally made it. We met up with other hikers at the top, signed the guest book, took some photos and got a bit of rest.

Me at the top of Mt. Whitney

I was awash with emotions, standing on the tallest mountain in the lower 48. I honestly couldn’t believe that my own hands and feet had propelled my body up the steep faces and scrambles on the route. One thing stuck out in my mind, no anxiety. Just pure control and focus over my mind and body while dealing with dangerous situations.

The descent

After collecting myself, we headed off down the regular Mt. Whitney route. we had another couple of hours of hiking down ahead of us. Unfortunately, the ridge line hovers around 13K ft of elevation, we were exhausted and we expected the atmosphere to get thicker faster.

I honestly don’t remember much from the downclimb, we hiked through a couple of nice campsites, stopped briefly to drink from a mountain spring, and hauled ass to get back to the bus. Once we boarded, I repacked my bag and immediately fell asleep.



I’ll be honest, once I got back to the Bay Area, I didn’t hike for a while. Nothing around here could top the experience, and I don’t have another big hike to train for. I did get back into bouldering, which I found much easier to control my breathing and fear response while on the wall.

Since I started climbing and hiking, I’ve gained some significant upper body mass which I didn’t have before (now I’m 147 lbs), I’m 100 times more flexible and most importantly, I have the tools to manage my anxiety. Oddly something about being in a truly life or death situation reset the scale on how my brain responds to stress.

It’s just the beginning of a lifelong passion, but it’s already paid dividends.