Five of us embarked upon the journey to the top of the lower 48 at about 2 AM 6/25/11. With headlamps we plodded up the trail. We came across the first patch of snow at the beginning of the "Whitney zone" sign. We put on our crampons and practiced going up the small patch of snow. We though we were on the trail, but we soon found we were not as we saw other headlamps pass us, taking a different route. We headed back down and found the route and continued on.
Trail finding became much better after the sun came up. Light increased, shedding a warm gold glow on everything as we passed by lakes and waterfalls. It was truly lovely.
Once we reached the base of the chute we stared at it for a very long time. It had taken about 5+ hours to reach the base of the chute. The grade of the chute was daunting. It was covered in snow, steep and really long. We rested for a bit and watched the marmots play in the rocks and decided our next step. We finally decided to give it a go and made our way up the chute. We had crampons and trekking poles (shortened for stability. The conditions made for very slow moving. It took our group of 5 between 1:45(first up) and 3:15 (last up) to get to the top of the chute. One member was feeling bad so they turned back. W sat around at the top for a while and lounged in the warm sun.
At about noon we started our final 2 mile trek to the summit from trail crest. Two members of our group decided to turn back after about a quarter mile due to severe headaches. My boyfriend and I decided to continue on. We felt ok, a bit tired but as long as we moved slowly we were ok. The last 2 miles to the summit felt like 100. It looked so far away. We just put our head down and slowly made our way to the top. The trail is very rugged and by no means easy going. You need to be very aware of each step and make it with care. We were getting annoyed at the people that said it was an easy path. They were liars! It was a lovely view down over the frozen lakes, but looking too long would make us nervous so we just moved forward.
The last 300-400 m before the summit area the trail is again covered with snow and you need to trek straight up the side hill. We chose to go up a boot pack that other people had used. Some people climbed along the rocks. I think either one is hard at that altitude. So choose the one you are most comfortable with. We finally made the summit at 230 pm. We signed the book took a few pictures and headed down.
Descending the summit is almost as hard as going up. The snow field made route finding tough. At one point I overshot the trail and post holed into water. My first thought was "I am going to be swept off the mountain by a stream and never seem again". It was really scary. I got a real boost of adrenaline from that and moved as fast as I could back to the trail.
Once on the trail, the 2 miles back to the top of the chute were tough. My boyfriend was feeling the effects of the altitude with headache and some dizziness. He carefully moved along the rocky trail. I felt like I was on the brink of getting a bad headache and tried to move safely along the trail to the chute. I was very worried about how we were going to get down the chute. We had never glissaded and really hoped we would figure it out.
We finally reached the top of the chute. The 2 miles from summit to top of chute took just over 2 hrs. It was not easy, several uphill sections made the trail endless.
We watched a couple glissade down and it looked a bit scary but they were not going too fast and stayed in control so we gave it a try. I sat down, dug my in heals and used my axe at a sharp angle in front to slow down. One I realized that I was not going to fly out of control it was kind of fun.
At the bottom of the chute we encountered the next problem, finding the trail. There are several tracks that go nowhere and trail finding was really hard. We finally remembered that we came in near the lake at the bottom. We headed in that direction and got on route. Much of the trail was ok coming down but there were several places that snow covered the trail and we got off route. We found the trail again, but really began to get worried...It was getting dark. We knew we needed to get past the meadow and mirror lake before it got dark or else we could really get stuck on the mountain if we lost the trail. In the dark it would have been almost impossible to stay on track as snow covered much of the route and tracks were going all over the place. We finally got below the snow line and into the final part of the trail at about 830 or so (right as it was getting dark). With relief we trekked down the trail with headlamps on happy to be almost done. The last few miles also felt like it was 100 miles but at least we knew we were in very little danger at that point. We just wanted to get back. We finally got to the portal at about 930 19.5 hours after we left. Our teammates were waiting for us (I think they were ready to send out the search party). We did it!
Some thoughts since...All of us were very fit. (Ironman triathletes, cyclists, mountaineer types) The snow added a factor that really intensified the difficulty. It we were any slower coming down we could have been in trouble. We also noted that we spent a lot of time waiting and resting, maybe too much. I wore my Garmin and it said we had over 4 hrs not moving. Granted that might be a little high as often I was moving so slow that it may not have thought I was moving but it still added time. I would suggest to others going to keep moving slowly and try to reduce to amount of time just sitting around. I think it worsened the altitude effects and made the lack of sleep more of a factor. It also became a bit stressful to think about the risk of not finding the trail to get down.
We drank and ate a ton! That is probably what even allowed us to get to the top and back with no major injury. I easily had 10-12 L of water plus 16 oz of soda about 26 oz of really concentrated electrolyte drink, 3 PB+J sandwiched, a slice of pizza tons of granola and power bars, gels, triscuits, animal cookies, fruit snacks and such...
Other thoughts...I am no expert but just based on what we did...
-Set a turnaround time and stick to it. (maybe even head back an hour before you think to should)
-Don't listen to the people that tell you the trail from the top of the chute to the summit is easy. They are crazy and must be sick in the head. (Maybe a sign of altitude sickness??)It is hard...
-The lower we got the better we felt, so if you feel bad descend.
- I was terrified of climbing up the chute and going down. It was really hard. Take your time and rest often. If you feel bad go back.
-Be careful of taking painkillers to ward off headaches. It could give a false sense of being ok and also make you prone to bleeding if you are injured, kidney problems, liver problems (depending on the type). I took some aspirin and even that made me have a little bit of nosebleed later in the night.
-No matter how far you go it is a beautiful hike. Make sure you get back to show your friends and family the photos.