Thank you again to everyone who posted about their experiences, and this wonderful forum. It truly helped my planning and preparation for hiking Mount Whitney.
My trip began on Wednesday, July 18th. The night before I had stayed in a motel in Independence. I drove up to the trailhead early Wednesday morning and started hiking at 4:45 a.m. Reached Outpost Camp at about 7:45 a.m. The trail was sandy, clear, and very straightforward up to Outpost Camp. I stopped briefly at Lone Pine Lake to enjoy the view--it was clear and quiet, very pretty!
The next morning, Thursday, July 19, I set my alarm for 1:15 a.m. and began hiking at 1:45 a.m. for the Whitney summit. My timing was based on advice from rangers to be off the crest by noon, and a great book I read called One Best Hike: Mount Whitney by Elizabeth Wenk. She had suggested it would take roughly 6.5 hours to reach the summit from Outpost Camp, and based on what I had read about altitude sickness and ascending too quickly, I had already decided to go slowly and deliberately to the summit--roughly 1.0 - 1.5 miles per hour.
When I left Outpost Camp, it wasn't too cold--maybe upper 40s, low 50s--and the sky was brilliantly clear overhead with starts and the milky way. It was so beautiful! I just hiked in a long-sleeve shirt and pants, light gloves, and a buff, and found myself more than warm.
I was also very glad I had walked to the edge of Outpost Camp the day before and spotted the trail--it was confusing for me where the trail continued once arriving at Outpost Camp (it's in the righthand--northwest--corner).
Beyond Outpost Camp, the trail climbed above Mirror Lake then entered very bouldery terrain that was challenging to navigate in the dark. I was very, very glad I had pre-loaded a gpx track of the route on my Garmin device. I kept checking it every 15-20 minutes or so to make sure I was on the correct route. It's honestly not that bad to follow in the daylight, as I found out on the way back down, but in pitch black with just a headlamp (and solo), I was glad for the navigational confirmation.
At 3:45 a.m. I arrived at trail camp, relieved to see other hikers. It was amazing to see the tiny firefly-like headlamps of others climbing the 99 switchbacks. I filtered water, filled up my bottles, and kept up my steady 1.0-1.5 mph pace. At this point, I still wasn't feeling the effects of altitude that much. Maybe it was adrenaline, or drinking lots of water (a few sips every 15-20 minutes), but aside from the slow, plodding progress, I actually felt okay.
Reached trail crest at 5:15 a.m. and was astounded at the beautiful view west into Sequoia National Park. Pictures don't do it justice! Just gorgeous being able to see the sunrise over Hitchcock Lakes.
The next two miles were literally a one-mile-per-hour affair for me. After the John Muir Trail junction, where several packs were already gathered, it got chillier, and I put on my windbreaker and gloves. This part was quite rocky, and progress was slow and measured to avoid tweaking an ankle. I noticed that my breathing changed--I was now taking short inhale breaths and longer exhales. Not sure why, just how my body responded to the altitude. I also started feeling slightly more fatigued in my legs, and began taking short, 30-60 second rest breaks, even nearing the summit.
I reached the summit at 7:15 a.m. and it was something surreal. Folks had their phones out and were texting and facetiming and calling folks. I couldn't blame them, I sent a picture to my husband
It was like a little summit party, with people relaxing and enjoying the view and taking pictures. There's a little Mount Whitney sign that you can grab and take a photo with. I stayed for about 20 minutes and then headed back down.
Coming back down after ascending in the dark was a real treat. I saw Consultation Lake for the first time, the panorama of peaks and pinnacles surrounding Mount Whitney, and a closer look at trail camp and the trail itself. I can see the appeal of staying in trail camp; I sure was envious of the folks who ended their Mount Whitney summit hike there while I still had a couple miles to go back to Outpost Camp. At the same time, trail camp seemed very exposed to me--no tree cover and no privacy. I was glad for that at Outpost Camp. I was also glad that my hike out the next day was pretty short--about 3.9 miles back to the Whitney Portal trailhead.
I got back to my campsite from the Mount Whitney summit at noon on Thursday. So in total, the roughly 13.5 mile roundtrip from Outpost Camp took me a little over 10 hours. I napped, spent the night at Outpost Camp, and hiked out early Friday morning the 20th. This was truly a fantastic experience, and so very beautiful.