This may read like a novel, but I feel like this is a vastly simplified account of our glorious week in the Sierras. It was sensory overload for sure. Cliff notes:
A group of 8 spends 2 days acclimating and 4 days on the main Whitney trail with a successful summit and descent beween August 7-10, 2018.Background and plan:
As a Whitney first-timer, I applied for the Whitney lottery as soon as I could this year for a group of 11 entering the main trail on 8/7. What happened next is, according to many, unheard of; As a first-time applicant, we not only won our permits, but we got our first choice of date! I would plan for us to spend 4 days on the trail.
We are from Texas, Kansas, and have 1 native Californian… so for most of us, this was a rare opportunity. Most of us are in our mid 30’s, but the group ranged in age from early 20’s to early 60’s (my parents). We are generally fit, though most definitely not of the “Whitney is a day trip” caliber. Most of us had done Wheeler peak (13,065’) in New Mexico once or twice. None of us had done a 14-er before.
Of the original 11 of us, 8 were able to actually make the trip after life inevitably happened to a few. In fact, a few weeks prior to the trip, my brother was doing a 9 mile training hike and broke his foot that evening in a very anti-climactic flip-flop vs. curb accident, so he was out. He’d join us for the car camping portions, but spend his time sight-seeing nearby attractions via car and very short walks while we were on the Whitney trail.
I built our itinerary based my own experiences and an exhaustive amount of research (which I never really felt was complete). Our goal was to spend nearly a full week in the Sierra, and take our time enjoying a summit of Whitney. On to the trip…Day 1:
Arrive in CA, set up camp in Onion Valley
Our group all resides at low elevation (under 1,000 ft), so we decided to spend at least a few days acclimating. I reserved sites at the Onion Valley campground for Saturday and Sunday. We’d arrive on Saturday and do an acclimating hike on Sunday. It was incredibly smoky/hazy when we arrived so we were a bit anxious about whether this would improve.Haze approaching Onion ValleyDay 2:
Onion Valley – Day hike to/from Golden Trout Lake
The haze and smoke moved to the valley for the most part and we did a day hike up to Golden Trout Lake on Sunday. Most of us went all the way to the lake, though my parents decided to call it good at the 10,000 ft line (just above the waterfall) and descended back to camp from there. The rest of us continued on to the lake and went for a refreshingly chilly swim. The trail was quite a bit more technical than we anticipated, but it turned out to be a fantastic day with many, many smiles. Boulder field on the trail to Golden Trout lake Day 3:
Lone Pine and Whitney Portal
On the 3rd day, we packed up camp from Onion Valley and drove down to Lone Pine to stock up on last-minute stuff, had some BBQ at the Lone Pine Smokehouse (BBQ approved by native Texans) and got our permits. We then drove up to Whitney Portal and set up camp in the Ravine Campground. There was only 1 other tent there when we arrived early in the afternoon. We walked up to the Portal Store to scope it out and returned to camp to get ready for hitting the main Whitney trail in the morning. While we prepped, a small group from France and Switzerland arrived and camped next to us. They’d just finished 14 days on the JMT, unsupported!Day 4:
Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake
This was day 1 on the main Whitney trail. We left just before noon and took our time. We’d only need to put in about 3 miles this day, stopping at gorgeous Lone Pine Lake. Lesson of the day:
In hindsight, I would’ve had us on the trail earlier in the day. The temperature was fine if you were sedentary in the shade, but hiking in the sunlight was warmer than ideal in early August. Lone Pine Lake at sunset Day 5:
Lone Pine Lake to Consultation Lake
It became obvious before leaving camp that my parents were hauling more weight than was ideal. One of the ultra-lighters in our group switched packs with my mom and a few others of us took some things off my dad’s pack later in the day. I set up my parent’s tent as soon as I got to the lake. Anything I could do to ease their minds and save their energy was, without question, worth expending my own energy. This was a team effort. Summit plan:
After everyone was settled at Consultation lake, we convened a meeting to determine timelines, targets, and abort plans for summit day. We’d intentionally not made these plans prior to now because everything was subject to change to this point. By this time, we’d naturally formed 2 sub-groups based on our paces. The suggestion was made to have a group of 3 (faster pace, group 1) attempt a sunrise summit and a group of 5 (slower pace, group 2) start behind them by about 2 hours. On their way down, group 1 would be able to escort anyone from group 2 that was having trouble off the mountain. Of course, this contingency would only be an option until our groups passed each other, and only if no one in group 1 had issues, etc. etc. We decided to stop about 3 contingency plans deep and commit to making common-sense “the mountain will be here next year” decisions beyond that.
We would plan to leave Consultation lake, summit, and descend back to Lone Pine lake to camp that night.
If everyone made their targets, group 1 would pack up some things from Consultation lake on their way down to lighten the load of group 2, and we would all meet back down at Lone Pine Lake that night.
We also had radios. Group 1 would radio me at 5am to brief us on water locations and trail conditions and we’d maintain intermittent contact as long as we could. Overkill? Maybe. Helpful? Absolutely.
I had a fair bit of anxiety this night, a personal issue. A slight headache was coming on and I was worried it would escalate (even though that’s happened before on other trips without any further symptoms). I took a couple Advil and a Benadryl, prayed it wouldn’t get worse, and played some tunes on my iPhone to help ease my mind and get out of the funk so I could sleep. It worked.Lesson of the day:
As the leader, I should’ve been more aware of the weight situation of those new to backpacking. I felt quite guilty not picking up on this sooner. I’d reviewed my own packing strategies with my parents a few weeks prior, but I should’ve more closely inspected their packs before beginning the trail. It worked out in the end, but I could’ve saved some anxiety and trouble. Camp at Consultation lake Day 6:
Consultation Lake to Summit to Lone Pine Lake
Group 1 left camp at about 2am as I recall. I woke up at about 2:30am to make sure I had my thoughts together to provide everyone in group 2 all the guidance and wisdom I could muster. Also, the headache was gone, awesome!
Fairly soon after I got out of the tent, I heard a rockslide across the lake (southwest corner). I couldn’t see much, but I did see a fair number of sparks from the rocks colliding. That was wild. Having spent most of my “mountain” time in the Rockies before this trip, I wasn’t expecting the frequency of rockfalls in the Sierras, but I suppose they are in a much more geologically active region than the Rockies.
Group 2 began to wake, and I led us out for a 4am departure. I wasn’t certain, but it looked like Group 1’s headlamps were at the top of the switchbacks when we left Consultation lake… quite a majestic sight, along with the light from numerous other headlamps.
Our plan from here to summit wasn’t very complicated. We’d fill up with water on the switchbacks (about 4L each) and pass Group 1 on their way down at some point. The 5am radio call never came, but I attributed it to line-of-sight limitations. Sure enough, when group 1 summited, they radio’d us while we were on the switchbacks. We chatted for a few, and while we all felt fine, this still gave us a significant morale boost. We met Group 1 on their way down at Trail Crest, so we took a group photo. Group photo at Trail Crest
Both groups were still feeling good, so after a quick break, I led us onward. Mom and dad were slightly slower than the other 3 of us, so I maintained eyesight and frequently checked in to make sure they were feeling ok.
Myself and a friend were the first to summit and I estimate the other 3 were about 15 minutes behind. After a few moments alone at the summit to reflect, I decided we needed to go back down and do anything we could to reduce the load of the others. They deserved to experience the summit.
As it turned out, they were only about 100 yards back, but we walked with them anyway and all enjoyed a photo op together at the top.Summit photo, group 2
We were off the summit by 11:30am. I noticed some tiny clouds building to the west and I knew they would likely grow. I radio’d group 1 near the summit to let them know everyone was doing good, and the plan remained for us to all meet down at Lone Pine Lake.
However, on the way down and before trail crest before I would get radio contact again, I could tell my parents were lagging significantly, so I stayed back with them. Some of the slower pace was due to fatigue, some due to “bio breaks”. We spent nearly the same time descending from summit to trail crest as we had ascending from trail crest to summit. More fluffy clouds were growing. This was not good. We HAD to pick up our pace.
I made sure everyone had enough water and food and we prepared for the descent below trail crest. Mom, with ominous clouds looming
I radio’d group 1 to let them know of our progress. They had already been at Lone Pine Lake for about 45 minutes. Upon hearing our location, I believe the reply was something along the lines of “Holy crap, you’re only at Trail Crest?!” Nothing else to do here except put one foot in front of the other, pay attention to the weather, and look for shelter if any needed to be taken.
Fortunately, the descent from Trail Crest to Lone Pine Lake was mostly uneventful. We were tired, so took some time at Consultation lake on the way down. Group 1 had packed up the tents, so we packed the rest and continued our descent to Lone Pine lake. Headlamps were necessary beginning at about Outpost Camp and we were relieved to finally reach our camp at about 9pm, tents already set up by Group 1.
Lesson of the day: Stopping at Consulation lake that night, or even Outpost camp would’ve been fine and allowed us more rest. However, it paid off the next day being able to take our time and having a short hike back to the portal.Day 7:
Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal
I woke up this morning and noticed Andy with a camera creeping suspiciously towards our tent. Naturally, I wondered what the heck was behind us that he was trying not to scare off. Turns out there was a deer scoping our tent in the morning, maybe wondering who was sawing logs? Deer on a ledge above our tent
This was an easy day by comparison, with not much to report. I got in contact with my brother as soon as I could on our way down. He’d be meeting us down at the portal and we'd end up back at the Lone Pine Smokehouse soon enough, with eyes MUCH bigger than our stomachs.
A sincere thanks to all on this site who have made the information on this trail plentiful and provide a forum to share our collective wisdom and experiences. I am very much looking forward to returning someday soon.