Mt. Whitney or bust!: Four leaders from Scout Troop 259 check Mt. Whitney off their bucket lists
Our planning was nothing if not long, slow and deliberate, yet with a certain edge of urgency that comes from aging—I mean maturing—with the passage of time. Like the Cubs, we wanted to get past “There’s always next year” to “Done!” So, we listened on the edge of our chairs to all the superlatives from other hikers—Amazing! Awesome! Unbelievable vistas! Unforgettable! We also acknowledged their cautions—to watch the weather, carry plenty of water and train at elevation (including conditioning hikes at or above 10,000 feet).
During the February 1 through April 15 Mt. Whitney permit lottery, we failed to be selected for an overnight permit which would allow us to hike to a mid-point, camp overnight and then summit the next day. Our only hope was to present ourselves before the “drawer of daily lots” (e.g., the Park Ranger) at the Lone Pine Ranger Station in hopes of getting a good draw for any available “No Show” permits. May through August are heavy use months. So, we opted to wait until September when the number of hikers (and overnighters) would drop off.
The summer drew on, after family vacations, Scout summer camp and before the press of school prep took over. In late July and early August, our personal and family schedules seemed to open up a bit. Would this be the year after all? Soon two training hikes fell into place. The first was a virtual walk in the park on August 22, up Donner Peak (8,019 feet) and nearby Mt. Judah (8,243 feet). The second on September 3 was an arduous hike/crawl up Pyramid Peak (9,984 feet), which was more challenging in terms of the number of hours on our feet, the higher elevation and the rock scramble to the top (and back down). I vaguely remember hearing someone utter, “What were we thinking?” Oh, wait. That was me.
After those conditional successes, all that was left was to pick a date for the six-hour drive south to Lone Pine—without a firm target date, we knew Whitney wouldn’t happen this year or ever. A three-to four day group itinerary quickly took shape. At the same time, each of us began our individual preparations to reduce our pack weight, making sure to account for all gear contingencies. Each of us has our rituals and when you are down to the final week before departure, things start to get serious as the objective actually feels within reach.
The day before departure, a last minute flurry of e-mails, texts and phone calls confirmed the meet up place and time. We left Sacramento at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, Sept. 10. The six-hour drive took us along highway 50 to the highway 89 turn toward Markleyville, then Highway 88 to U.S. Highway 395 south paralleling the Sierras. At 10:45 a.m., we pulled into the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center, 15 minutes before lotto time.
A small crowd had materialized inside, casually milling around the gift shop and Visitor Center (e.g., Lone Pine Ranger Station). Everyone killed time by studying the photo displays, maps and a large 3-D raised model of the high Sierras. All were hoping for a lucky number. The Ranger called one representative from each group forward. Nine numbers initially went into the bucket from which seven group leaders would randomly draw a number.
Rob Fong from our group pulled lot number FOUR. When all lots were drawn, each group was called forward sequentially to claim its permits. Unbelievably, numbers ONE and TWO were not drawn! That meant number FOUR gave us an excellent shot at a permit! Yes, I know. You are probably beginning to wonder about our mental capacity. After all, how could anyone be so excited by the prospect of hiking to the 14,508 feet summit?
Well, it’s all about the luck of the draw. During our planning, we expected our best hope to be one overnight with “Next Day” entry onto the Whitney Trail. That meant we would have to find a “no permit required” place to sleep the first night, such as the Horseshoe Meadows private campground or even roughing it in the Whitney Portal parking area. The next day, we would push as far as we could up the trail to an overnight trailside camp. The third day we would hike the rest of the way to the summit and all the way back down to Whitney Portal for our trip home. At least that was our plan.
So, with our best hopes in mind and a pretty good number, when our turn came to request our permits, we asked for one overnight each if possible out of the “No Show” pool. But as luck would have it, there had been 22 overnight “No Shows”. Because we were second in line, the Ranger offered us TWO nights on the trail! We could barely subdue our excitement as we accepted the unexpected gift of fate. The only condition was a “Same Day” entry, meaning we were burning daylight in the Ranger Station. We had to begin our hike up that same day rather than starting early the next morning. “OK. We’ll take it!”
As final checklist items, the Ranger gave us our WAG bags (with instructions on how to “deposit” and carry out all solid waste), reminding us to attach our permits to our packs. Then we were off, driving the 13 miles from Lone Pine to the Whitney Portal parking lot. After tweaking our pack weight down a few more pounds (given the excellent weather forecast), we hit the Trail at 1:45 p.m. and were above the tree line at 10,000 feet by 5:30 p.m.
Our optimistism about reaching Trail Camp before dark dimmed as we trudged on. The sun was already dipping below the surrounding ridges and peaks. An hour later we passed by Outpost Camp at 10,800 feet, 3.8 miles from Whitney Portal. When we finally reached Trail Camp 2.2 miles later at 12,000 feet elevation, there were only a few dim lights and quiet voices among the scattered tents as the last of the overnight hikers drifted into camp.
It had been a hard 3,700 feet ascent to that level from the Whitney Portal Trail Head at 8,300 feet. After quickly setting up camp in the dark, we did little more that get a quick bite of dinner and collapse in our tents. Due to the elevation change basically from sea level in Sacramento to 12,000 feet, sleep was fitful. There was a lot of breath catching going on all night in the thin air. We knew the next day we had another 2,500 feet of elevation gain. But somehow that didn’t sound too bad. We were glad to finally get our packs off and find a flat place to pitch our tents.
After a restless night, we were up at 5:30 a.m. to eat breakfast, filter water at a nearby tairn (small mountain lake) and load up our day packs with 3 to 4 liters of water, rain gear (precautionary) and trail snacks. Based on the Ranger’s advice, we left our tents open to any critters (marmots and chipmunks), knowing they would likely chew their way in otherwise. We stored the rest of our food and “smellables” in bear canisters placed 50 feet from our tents. By 8:00 a.m. we were on the trail toward the Whitney summit five miles ahead of us.
Our slow, steady climb brought us to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet by 10:40 a.m. Overall, the trail was very well designed with only two or three spots where caution was warranted. Had the weather not been as good, the footing might have been more of a concern. But it couldn’t have been much better. Just beyond Trail Crest, a sign post announcing 1.9 miles to the summit was a mixed blessing—that relatively short distance translated to nearly two hard hours of hiking the remaining nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
At 12:50 p.m. we reached the summit, took the obligatory photos and signed the record in a flat metal box outside the stone hut. For a brief moment, each of us was the highest human in the lower 48 states. As billed, the views from the top of the mountain didn’t disappoint. It had been a hard “up” but it was worth the effort. Yet there was a growing chill in the steady 20-25 knot wind and clouds were forming in the distance. Urged on by the visible reminders that weather could change quickly in the High Sierras, we started our measured retreat at 1:45 p.m., already looking forward to our second night on the trail.
We reached Trail Camp by 5:30 p.m. with daylight to spare, grateful there was no sign of furry visitors in our tents. As if on cue, the scattered clouds which had been swirling near the peaks earlier in the day had moved on. There was no rain that night and the stars were brilliant with the Milky Way stretched like a misty contrail across the night sky. The next morning we woke early, leisurely breaking camp as we contemplated the six mile descent before us. On the trail by 8:30 a.m., we arrived at the Whitney Portal parking lot by 12:45 p.m.
Our Whitney trek was a grand adventure but it was not easy, even with three full days on the trail. We had each put about 50,000 foot strikes in the 11 miles to the summit and back down. Even with our relatively light day packs above 12,000 feet, the higher we climbed, the shorter the time between brief stops to catch our breath. The training hikes in the weeks before definitely made the ascent more doable.
Summiting Mt. Whitney can be done in less time. In fact, many day hikers complete the 22-mile round trip in about 18-20 hours or more. Generally, they start at Whitney Portal at 2 a.m., reach the summit by noon and finish at Whitney Portal between 8 and 10 p.m. Almost half of their time on the trail is in the dark, which can be a bit dicey in spots and not nearly as scenic. Personally, I would recommend at least one overnight on the trail—two if you are lucky.
It was a long drive home but we were glad to have the time to decompress and reflect on what we and all the others on the Mt. Whitney Trail had accomplished. We had met hikers from all over the U.S. and around the world, some from as far away as eastern Canada, Mexico, Germany, France, Australia and Asia. The experience was definitely a high point. After a recovery week or two, we are already imagining what the next adventure will be.
Hike on! The trail beckons!