Hi all - long time lurker, first time poster.
On Tuesday, August 24, 2021, I hiked up to Mount Whitney with my cousin, with no training whatsoever. That past weekend, my cousin had come over to my house and the topic of permits (and how difficult it was to get one to many of the attractions like 'The Wave' and Mt Whitney) came up. While discussing, we decided to just check the calendar for day hiking permits to Mt. Whitney - and saw there were between 2 to 4 available for 3 of the days the following week. On the spur of the moment, we reserved our permits. I regularly do 12 to 15 mile hikes, but nothing with this elevation and altitude. I had done Half Dome 10 years ago, when I was 40. Now that we had reserved our permits, the true gravity of the hike dawned on us. Realizing that it would be brutal - especially since we really had not acclimatized or done any training whatsoever, we decided that we would just do the hike (the weather was supposed to be gorgeous) and enjoy the journey. Our intent was that we would turn back at any time either of us felt uncomfortable.
Given that we were heading up to Mt. Whitney, we went to the REI in Burbank, CA to get some supplies (Gu etc.) The REI CSR was pretty shocked to hear that we were attempting to hike up to Whitney with no training. She told us not to do it as it would be very hard - it turns out that her friends and she, were heading to do this same hike in early September (which probably got cancelled due to the fires) and had been training for a couple of months (including multiple hikes to Mt. Baldy). I have to be honest - she really scared me about the hike. We left REI a little bummed - but then decided, that as planned, we would just start hiking a little after midnight and then turn around any time we felt we had had enough. On the advice of another friend who had done the hike the prior year, we decided to get Diamox - the doctor gave us two pills each - one to be taken on Monday (day before the hike) and the second one on Tuesday (the day of the hike).
On Monday morning, my cousin and I drove the 3+ hours to Lone Pine to collect our permit. The ranger was super nice and agreed with us that we should definitely go up as the weather was beautiful - and then have a turnaround time (or just turnaround any time we felt we couldn't proceed further). We collected our permits, grabbed lunch and headed to our AirBnB. The goal was to wake up around 11:30 PM and drive to Whitney Portal - we could then start the hike around 12:30 AM or so. Needless to say, the excitement and nervousness kept me awake all evening and I got around an hour of sleep (not recommended). At 11:30 PM my phone alarm went off and after a shower and a snack, we headed to Whitney Portal around midnight.
We arrived at Whitney Portal a little before 12:30 AM (was funny - thought it would take much longer to drive up that elevation, but the road is excellent) and found a parking spot close to the trailhead. After donning our jackets and slipping on the hiking bag, we set forth on our little adventure. August 24th was just 2 days after the full moon on August 22nd and the trail was lit up with the moonlight. We did not even need the headlamp in certain places - it was magical. My day pack weight was 25 lbs (13 lbs of those were just water - I know, I know - I realized later I could have just taken 2 liters of water and used my filter to filter water when needed) and that slowed my pace a little. I also found I had to rest ever few hundred feet for the initial mile - but once I got my pace and breathing under control, it was much better. At 3 AM we reached Outpost camp - it still took us around 2.5 hours to reach Outpost camp due to the breaks I was taking. We saw several tents in the moonlight and could also faintly see the waterfall. Then started the more torturous climb up past Mirror Lake. Not sure what it was - the altitude, the fact I had not slept for more than an hour, but I felt as if my legs were struggling to climb up. My cousin reminded me about the Gu gels and I had one of those along with some electrolytes. I have to be honest - that section from Outpost camp to Trail Camp was hard for me. At 5:15 AM we reached Trail Camp. The waning gibbous moon over the mountains, lighting up the landscape with the moonlight, was just stunning.
As we rested at Trail camp, we could see the headlamps of hikers on the switchbacks. My cousin wanted to head up before sunrise, but I told him to hang on as we might witness a pretty amazing sunrise with great colors. We thus waited until sunrise and were rewarded with some of the most saturated colors I have seen in a long time - absolutely stunning... and cold! I have always wondered why folks like to go up to the summit for sunrise - isn't one looking into the sun and thus can't see the gorgeous colors being cast by the early morning sunlight? I guess it is horses for courses, isn't it?
After sunrise, my cousin and I decided to split up. He wanted to start hiking up and I wanted to soak in the colors a little more. I also wasn't sure if I wanted to go up all the way - I was feeling tired from lack of sleep and it was windy already. I had forgotten to get my face covering and could only imagine how bad the wind would be once I crossed Trail Crest. Around an hour after sunrise, I decided to head up - I had already come all this way and it would be a shame to not at least try. The first few switchbacks seemed to be easy - but then it started to get hard. I was again feeling I had no energy and so gulped a gel pack and kept sipping on electrolytes. My stomach had been feeling really bloated - not sure what the cause was - maybe the combo of the gel, electrolyte, bananas etc, was leading to the bloating? It was very uncomfortable. Slowly, but surely, I climbed one switchback after another. At 10 AM I was at Trail Crest - I could not believe that I actually had managed to reach all the way here.
I was tired, it was really windy (and cold) and I was not having a good time anymore. I felt like giving up and turning around - I was happy with what I had achieved so far and thought I would just head down and chillax until my cousin came down after his summit. But this is where the community of hikers really came through. Hikers coming down from the summit (the early morning ones) saw me sitting and contemplating going down - they encouraged me to go up. They told me that I was so close and couldn't give up now - especially, since it was only past 10 AM. I really had to struggle with the decision to keep going - it wasn't just the tiredness, but the crazy cold winds slapping against my uncovered face, were scoffing at my attempt to make it up to the summit. Around 11 AM, I decided to try and attempt the summit - I had set 2 PM as my turn around time. There were no clouds or thunderstorms in the forecast and the sky was clear. As I crossed the JMT junction, I saw my cousin (who is 20 years younger and 6'4") coming back after summiting. He also encouraged me to keep going - I told him to head down and just chill at Trail Camp or head to Consultation Lake. Those last 2 miles were killer. I really felt the impact of altitude here (not AMS, but just breathing in the thin air). I was moving so slowly, but the awesome hikers coming down, kept encouraging me, pointing the summit to me - telling me not to quit.
Once I could see the summit hut from the trail, I felt both encouraged and discouraged - encouraged, because the summit was so close and discouraged, because it was so high up. I couldn't imagine I still had so much more to climb - my pace had really dropped and my breaks were every 10 feet or so for a few seconds. The howling wind was no help either. Still, step by step, with the summit in sight, I kept moving forward. One of the hikers told me that once I would round a bend, I would see the summit hut a couple of hundred feet away. Sure enough, after a few minutes, there it was in the distance. I have never felt more elated.
I trudged up towards the summit hut and at 1:35 PM, signed the guest register. It took me way longer than I expected to do the last 2 miles - very tiring for sure. I spent a half hour at the summit and met some really cool JMT backpackers - we exchanged stories over a snack. A little after 2 PM, after resting and take the obligatory summit shots, I decided to head back.
I was told that going down would be easier. I did not find the trail from the summit to Trail Crest any easier - I think I was so tired and sleep deprived, that it took me a good 1.5 hours to get back to Trail Crest. I reached Trail Crest around 3:30 PM and after taking a break, started to head down to Trail Camp on the switchbacks - I found that my pace increased as I descended. A few switchbacks before I reached the cables, I started to feel a stinging pain in both my toenails. The pain was bearable, so I did not want to stop - I wanted to get to the Lone Pine Lake area before sunset (as the trail from there is well marked and one can't get lost). I reached Trail Camp around 5PM and met my cousin who was relaxing there. We decided that he should continue at his own pace so that he could enjoy the hike in the evening light and I would meet him up later - either at Outpost camp or at Whitney Portal. I reached Outpost camp around 6:30 PM and the sun was close to setting. I decided to take a break at Outpost camp, fill up water and then head down to Whitney Portal around 7 PM. The pain in my toes was getting pretty bad, but still bearable. I left Outpost camp around 7 PM and finally reached Whitney Portal around 8:30 PM. En route, my headlamp broke and I had to use my phone's light to illuminate the path - quite the adventure. We drove to our AirBnB feeling supremely tired, but highly accomplished. We had gone with the intention that we would not summit, but ended up doing just that. Once at the AirBnB, I removed my shoes and socks to find that - both my toenails had broken off and were dangling. I think I had not cut my toenails and while coming downhill, must have rubbed the toenail against the front of the shoe, which caused them to get injured. A week later, both the toenails fell off (new ones on the way).
My take thus is that one can definitely do this hike, even if untrained - as long as you eat well and keep hydrated - to me it was mind over matter. I would have given up at so many points, but the encouragement of other folks (and my own desire to summit) kept me going. Of course, I did so within limits - if I had felt that I would not have been able to hike back, I would have turned around. I can't say that the Diamox helped or not - given that I had no AMS symptoms and had not acclimatized to the altitude, I feel it definitely played a very important role in my successful summit. My advice would be to try and do this as an overnight - it would be much more enjoyable. Even if you camp at Outpost and hike from there the following morning, you would be shaving off 8 miles from your 21 mile roundtrip. A big deal. Trail camp is also very exposed and windy - the backpackers I spoke to who had stayed there overnight, said they did not get any sleep. It was windy and cold and the day hikers were too noisy (the ones who started really early).
On the return journey, I saw how beautiful Outpost camp and the surrounding areas like Mirror Lake were - my cousin and I are thus headed back tomorrow for 3 nights, but camping at Outpost. We will do Trail camp on one morning (no further) for the gorgeous sunrise and then just hike around the Outpost camp area. Several permits (day and overnight) are available on the website and the weather seems to be gorgeous. Hopefully, it will be a fun trip.
Thanks for reading.