Finally made it to Whitney with my two best buds after half a year of training and research! Two of us planned to summit and successfully did so on Sunday Sept 15, taking about 15 hours on the trail and got off the mountain just as the crazy wind storm was picking up. We figured it'd be getting ugly up there but didn't hear the stories until later; hope everyone eventually made it off the mountain safely.
I'm just a normal dude in my early 30's who is fairly active and loves being outdoors. I run about 20 miles a week and bike occasionally as well. Finished a HM in 1:40 last month on a flat course, and ran my local hill (Mission Peak in Fremont CA, ~3mi up with 2,000ft gain) in about 40 minutes the weekend before summit attempt. My best friend who has a similar background planted the seed in my head a few years ago about Whitney, and for some reason earlier this year I decided that this would be the year I'd ask him to put his money where his mouth is and plan a trip to tackle the mountain this year. Another good friend who couldn't commit to the appropriate level of training but wanted to join in on the fun made plans to hike to Outpost Camp with us (~3.5mi one way), and then descend solo after sunrise.
As most of you know, there was newly revised online permit system this year. The first round of spots that get claimed happens via a lottery system, and you can select up to 20 dates in order of preference. We ended up getting our 8th choice for our group of 3, but due to a stupid mix-up I had with the deadlines to claim the spot, I unintentionally released these back into the system. So I was back in the queue with everyone else trying to score permits via cancellations. I watched the recreation.gov site like a hawk for a couple weeks in June to get a feel for the system and to see if I could spot any patterns, but it honestly seemed truly random. Typically 1-2 spots would come available at a time starting about 10 days prior to the permit date. These are cancellations going back into the system. Then there are also the no-shows that get put back into the system, but this doesn't happen until around noon the day before. So while there are more permits that get released this way, its a significantly tighter window since you'd want to get there that same day before 4:30pm, which would enable you to get an alpine start the following morning.
As our target date approached, I again watched the site like a hawk and scored 3 spots on two separate permit reservations about a week before our trip. Each person is $15, plus a $6 fee for each permit reservation. It is frustrating to open the site and see nothing available, but if you keep checking regularly as your date approaches there will be opportunities. Be ready to react quickly, as they tend to disappear within about 10-15 minutes of popping up. If you are going with a group, coordinate ahead of time about acceptable date windows, and get the email address of anyone you'd like to list as an alternate approved group leader. Only approved leaders can pick up the permit from the office in Lone Pine, and they check your ID.
Mostly road running during the week with the occasional tempo run and interval runs as workouts. Tried to find time to get out on some longer hilly trail runs on the weekends. Mission Peak is nearby so I did that about once a month. Me and my buddy also went up Black Mtn (2.5k ft gain), Mt Diablo (3k ft), did the Double Dipsea (4k ft). I focused on finding trails that gave me the longest continuous climb possible in order to simulate the relentless climb on Whitney, which is 11 miles of 11% climb.We also decided to try White Mtn Peak (14.2k ft, 3k ft gain) the month before our summit attempt to see how we would react to altitude. We were both really glad we did that, as we both got AMS - me pretty badly, with all the textbook symptoms: headache, nausea, lightheaded, extreme fatigue. I emailed my doctor the next day to ask for a prescription for Diamox and he kindly obliged with a 125mg twice daily prescription. I did some reading on the subject and found that there is a growing body of recent (this year) research which is providing evidence that a prophylactic dosage of 62.5mg twice daily is just as effective, so that's what I ended up taking. And yes, it does make you pee.
The day after White Mtn I flew out to Denver for an unrelated work trip, and picked up my Diamox while out there. 5 days after summitting White Mtn, I summitted Grays and Torreys peaks as a two-fer, both sitting at ~14.2k ft with only a 0.5 mi saddle separating the two. The starting and ending elevations are about the same as White, both gaining a little over 3k ft, but the total mileage is only about 8 miles instead of 15. I had zero AMS symptoms, and I powered through the whole thing in about 3.5 hrs! I figured some combination of the acclimatizing in Denver plus the Diamox did the trick, and was now much more confident about being able to tackle Whitney.
We felt good about our training but AMS was still the remaining question mark. We decided based on our recent experience as well as a substantial amount of browsing forums and reading white papers that we should camp at high altitude for two nights prior to Whitney to give ourselves the best shot at avoiding AMS and getting to the summit.
On the drive out to the area from the Bay Area, we cut through Yosemite on Hwy 120 and stopped at Tioga Pass to do a short hike up to Gaylor Lakes. I haven't seen this hike mentioned at all in any of the Whitney boards, but this was a fantastic way to acclimatize IMO. Started at about 10k and goes up to about 10.8k, and only about a 4 mile round trip. It was beautiful up there, and there are some cool abandoned mines up on the ridge to check out as well. Only saw about half a dozen people over the course of those two hours.
We camped the first night at Horseshoe Meadows in the Cottonwood Pass (10k ft). The walk-in sites were inexpensive at $6/night, were well-maintained, and spaced sufficiently far away from each other. We took a quick peak at the Cottonwood Lakes sites on the north side and they were packed in much closer together. That night ended up being fairly cold, with temps dipping into the mid 30's just before sunrise.
The next day we met up with another buddy who was planning on doing a partial Whitney hike. We grabbed our permits and some lunch down in Lone Pine, and then went back up Horseshoe Meadows Rd to do another short but fun hike. We opted for Wonoga Peak, which is only about 2 miles RT but gains 1000 ft over some interesting Class 2 and Class 3 terrain. The first 3/4 required some route finding, and the last quarter was solid Class 3 scrambling on big rocks to get to the summit. It was like a playground for us and we loved every second of it. If you aren't comfortable with route finding or exposure, then I'd probably skip this one. Took us about 2 leisurely hours.
That night we decided to break camp at Horseshoe Meadows and moved over to one of the walk-in sites at Whitney Portal (8.5k ft) to save us some time in the morning and allow us to sleep a bit more. This ended up being a great call because the Whitney Ravine walk-in campgrounds had literally only 2 other people there, and was only about 1/4mi from the trailhead. $14/night, and no reservations required. It was also substantially warmer there, with temps only dipping into the mid-50's by dawn.
We started at 4:20am, which I know is a bit later than most people in this group prefer, and substantially later than the average start time of the FB group. I conducted a poll a couple weeks back and was surprised to find that the median start time is around 1:30am for the FB group. We assessed the possible reasoning behind this, and decided that based on our experience with AMS, Diamox, and our expected pace, that we could afford to start later in order to maximize the amount of time hiking in daylight. We were expecting to be on the trail for 13-14 hours conservatively, assuming we wouldn't have any severe AMS symptoms. Spoiler alert - we were wrong! Afternoon thunderstorms were not a concern based on the steady forecast. It was in the high 50's at the start - perfect hiking weather.
We started the hike in the dark with a nearly full moon, an awesome and unique experience for us. Headlamps for the first ~3mi on the ascent, and last ~1mi on the descent. Pack weighed about 8 lbs at the start with 2L of water, food, layers, and essentials. We filtered twice at Trail Camp Pond inlet: once on the ascent (+2L) and once on the descent (+1L). Consumed about 4.5L total.
The bottom 5.5 miles or so up to Trailside Meadow were my favorite. The mix of trees, lakes, streams, water crossing, vegetation, granite, and views of the valley to our east and the eastern Sierras to our west was nothing short of spectacular. Probably one of my top 3 favorite hikes of all time up to that point. The water crossings about a mile into the hike are easily navigable without getting your shoes wet. Poles will help with balance. The other crossings with more established rock steps or log bridges are easy and a total non-issue.
The meadow surrounding Outpost Camp (miles 3-3.5) which would normally be a bug haven is mostly bug-free this time of year. Our other friend was feeling spry and stayed with us until about 6 miles into the hike, at which point he decided it was a good point to turn around while still feeling fresh. We wished each other safe journeys and continued on.
From Trail Camp (about 6.5 miles in) and one, however, was above treeline and the surroundings became less varied and a lot more rocky. If this is unique to you, then it could still be quite enjoyable. I know this will be an unpopular opinion here, but I am starting to get the sense that a lot of 14ers look very similar above ~12k feet. There's no vegetation, no semblance of any soil to support it, little to no water, and mostly just becomes a large field of rocks of varying sizes for you to navigate over/around/through. I still enjoyed the hike and the surrounding views, but I will say that I personally enjoy the terrain below 12k far more. In any case, the inlet to Trail Camp pond is the last reliable water source so we stopped to take on more water there. The little grassy islands were so lush and spongy, and were a lot of fun to hop around on while we searched for a good spot to sit down and filter.
The 99 switchbacks (miles 6.5-9) were largely uneventful, and only took us about 1 hour and 10 minutes to get from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. There were a couple patches of ice here and there, but the only significant portion was at the cables section. There is about 30 ft long patch of ice, but it is easily avoidable by using the stone steps on the downhill side of the trail. Traction devices are not needed, but poles will certainly help.
It wasn't until I was on that long slog up the back side of the ridge (miles 9-11) that AMS started to hit me. It started as mild fatigue, and then quickly progressed to substantial fatigue and GI distress before I fully realized what was happening. Luckily, no headache or lightheadedness this time. The last two miles from Trail Crest to summit took me about 2 hours and 20 minutes. That included MANY breaks to gather myself, a long WAG bag diversion in a semi-obscured pile of rocks, and countless pep talks I gave myself to just put one foot in front of the other to make some progress, any progress. My buddy had the patience of a saint.
We finally reached the summit right around noon. I'm sure the summit was beautiful, but I was unfortunately in no shape to enjoy it or even look around. I picked a low-lying rock surface to sit down on to try to gather some strength and attempt to warm myself in the sun. Temps were in the high 30's with winds at about 20mph. My appetite was gone, but I forced myself to take a couple nibbles and sip a little water. I didn't know it at the time, but the granola bar I had just opened about a mile from the summit would be the only food item I'd be able to consume until back in Lone Pine that night, some 10 hours later. I eventually mustered some energy to stand up and smile for a couple pictures with my buddy and surprised him with a shirt that I had made for our group, with the help of my wife and her vinyl-cutting skills. Despite my state, I even managed to spread some laughter around me with a different shirt I had bought for myself (I'll have to figure out how to attach photos here).
The way down was fairly uneventful with the exception of me needing to use the WAG bag a SECOND time on the way back up to Trail Crest. Needless to say it was not a pleasant experience and not my proudest moment. At that point my buddy offered to carry my daypack for me. It didn't weigh a whole lot but we figured any little bit may help so I took him up on the offer. We joked that he was "literally carrying my shit" for me, something that no other person has done for me since I was in diapers. Safe to say this probably elevated our already fraternal relationship to another level.vThe AMS would slowly subside to manageable levels as we quickly dropped, only rearing it's head briefly on even the short 10-20ft climbs near Outpost Camp. We eventually reached the Portal trailhead at 7:45pm, about half an hour after sunset, where we were greeted by our other friend. We unfortunately missed our opportunity to get burgers at the Portal Store, but enjoyed our pizza and pasta dinner back down in Lone Pine after packing up the remainder of our camp.
Mt Whitney and the surrounding Sierras are absolutely beautiful, and I am thankful for the opportunity and good health to have experienced it first hand. Nearly everyone on the trail was very friendly, and many gave me much appreciated words of encouragement when I was feeling (and probably looking) like crap near the top. I'm extremely grateful for my buddy for watching my back (literally and figuratively), to make sure we both got down safely. I was humbled by the mountain, and have a renewed respect for high altitudes. It was an epic experience and a weekend full of memories that I'll cherish for a lifetime.