I had my first attempt on Mount Whitney on 6/28. Hereís a long report. The short if you donít want to read it is be careful pushing it (especially near the top) and carry trekking poles.
Aim high goal: 4 hours ascent, 7 hour round trip. More realistic 5 hour ascent, 30 minutes at the top and 2.5-3 hour descent for 8-8.5 hours round trip. I tend to red-line it when taking on a physical challenge as I am interested in how my body will respond and have on many an instance had the engine blow.
We started out right at sunrise which was great as you get the beauty of the mountain right from the start. Iím in the Wim Hof camp so I was in running shorts, a thin dry-fit sleeveless shirt and trail running shoes. I packed a breathable runnerís windbreaker, gloves, hat, neck gaiter and trash bag if needed. I planned on 8 ounces of fluids per half hour with 200 calories. I carb backload so I held off on carbs the first two hours drinking only bone broth. I packed 150 ounces of fluid total and about 1,600 calories.
30 minutes into the climb we knew that 4 hours wasnít going to happen and that was confirmed at the Lone Pine Lake sign as we were 15 minutes behind our split time goal. I also learned not to eat or drink on the fly as my heart rate shot up 20 beats trying to do both. After that first time I stopped to eat/drink and didnít start back up until I had my breathing under control.
If we picked it up a little, 5 hours was still a possibility. By Mirror Lake I started to get my legs and lungs so I set out a little ahead of the pack. I was trying to keep my heart rate under 130 for as long as possible and under 140 (80% of my age predicted max) no matter what.
By Trail Camp I was on pace for about 30 minutes over 5 hours. I carried trekking poles for one and only reason, the last ice patch at the 99 switchback cables section. Up until that morning on the trail talking to people coming down, we thought it was still going to be an issue. It was not. I heard the cables were about halfway up the switchbacks. I didnít count but maybe yes in switches but no way in hell in time and distance as it seemed to take forever from the cables to Trail Crest. That was easily the worst part of the trail for me.
By Trail Crest I was about 10 minutes over a 5 hour pace and feeling really good. My heart rate was still in the low 130ís even though I was over 13,000 feet up and legs felt fresh. I also had a burst of mental joy getting off of those switchbacks. Even though Iím now on the shadier side of the mountain and the wind is whipping the only things a little cold were my hands but not enough of an issue to add any layers. Had I maintained my pace and everything I was doing to that point I think all would have been goodÖ
Coming up on 4.5 hours into the hike I start clock watching. Based on how I was feeling I thought 5 hours was doable and the peak was close (I think). I start asking those on the way down how far to the top and kept getting the standard ďyouíre close, keep it upĒ or ďgreat job, almost thereĒ. I wanted minutes and distance as Iím in a one-man race with a mountain that doesnít seem to care that we are racing. Finally I young guy coming down told me an actual distance: a quarter mile. Apparently they donít teach distance and measures in school any more as it was about quadruple that.
Now Iím really clock watching and start to gun it. As I am nearing the top I am super close. I am pushing it and my legs are getting a little wobbly but Iím still keeping my heart rate under 140 and everything else feels great. I had it, just a little fasterÖ
5:02:44 to the summit. I took a few pictures, checked out the structure on the top of the mountain, refueled and was feeling great until I started to realize my legs werenít wobbly from pushing it the last 1,000 feet, it was the first sign of ataxia that was coming on. Knowing that getting down is kind of important, and in theory it should get better as I descent, I only spent about 15 minutes on the top.
Everything, I mean everything, felt great if I was moving forward in the sagittal plane. No headache, nausea, heart rate was low, mind was sharp, legs felt great and energy was high. But, if I stopped or leaned or tilted left or right in the frontal plane I would lose all coordination. I must have lost my balance a dozen times from the summit back to Trail Crest. As you can imagine that made the windows section a little hairy, and would have been impossible without trekking poles to keep me as upright as possible. Pack poles even if you donít think you need them. They saved me on the way down big time!
It did not get better as I went down. I was sure by Trail Camp I would be 100% and able to run the rest of the way back to the Portal. Not so. Even worse. Now if I stopped I fell over even when trying to stabilize with the trekking poles. Again, everything else was fine and if I was going forward and downhill I felt great. It was by far the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me and was making me smile and laugh at myself the entire way down until my fall just before the entering Whitney zone sign.
I hadnít fallen in a couple of miles and two guys tucked in behind me because I was moving fast at this point. I asked a few times if they wanted to pass but they liked my pace until I lost my step, missed my pole placement and went down. The trail was opened up so there was no side hill to fall into like I had been doing, so I went down hard. I thought I was falling into a bush, which technically it was, except it was covering a rock. A rock that met my head and about knocked me out cold. I got up, lost my balance. Got up again, lost my balance. Got up one more time and about a dozen steps later finally got my senses back enough to slowly head down. My coordination was so bad I could not get across the logs. I must have fallen off it a half dozen times before I gave up and walked through the water.
Once back to the Portal I sat in the creek to cool down and within about 30 minutes the symptoms of ataxia were gone. The only thing that hurt was my head from smashing it on the rock. Still does.
Conclusion for my trip:
1. Glad I had trekking poles (that I have never used before but saved me).
2. I was about 16 ounces short in my fluid needs which was due to me taking 1:35 longer to finish than planned for.
3. I could handle one thing going wrong, most usually can. If anything else went wrong like muscle cramping, headache, nausea, or any other signs or symptoms of altitude sickness it would have been much worse. If I had hit my head higher up on the trail it would have been much, much worse getting down.
4. Donít change whatís working. Iím convinced that if I had maintained my pace instead of pushing it at the summit I would have avoided ataxia.
5. Don't bring a watch.