Some people are sensitive to high altitude and are more prone to getting Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)/altitude sickness than other people. Unless you have been on comparable elevation peaks before, you have no way of knowing in advance your vulnerability to AMS on a hike to the summit of Mount Whitney. Your best strategy is to err on the side of caution and acclimate for several days above 9,000 feet elevation (at places like Horseshoe Meadows) before starting your hike. Some people have used Diamox to reduce their risk of AMS (though there are risks associated with using this drug - see several threads posted on the message board).
As noted in Nausea at 12,000 feet, you can be in great physical condition and still get altitude sickness. Initial symptoms may include nausea, dizziness, or a headache and may be confused with the symptoms of Dehydration. The only solution for AMS is to immediately turn around and go back to a lower altitude. If left unchecked, AMS can lead to life-threatening problems such as high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). See the reports Why did I get altitude sickness?, Summited Whitney, and an AMS story..., 2006 Altitude Research Study, Managing AMS on Whitney, Hydration and AMS, and Altitude Tutorial.
Note that HAPE has caused hikers to be hospitalized after they successfully summitted and hiked down on their own. Two reports: 8/15/11 Trip Report & HAPE and A case of HAPE
Lesson: Be prepared for AMS and look for the warning signs on your hike. Make plans to acclimate before your trip, and leave enough time in your hike schedule to get to the summit without rushing up the trail. Also, try to do some high altitude hikes before the big one.
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As noted in Altitude Sickness/AMS, the initial symptoms of dehydration can be nausea, dizziness, or a headache and may be confused with AMS. That it is why it is so important to stay hydrated throughout your hike. See Hydration, AMS, and Water Poisoning for some tips on staying hydrated. At higher altitudes your body needs more water (see Stayed overnight on the summit, Friday the 13th). Overhydration is unlikely on a normal mountain hike. There are plenty of water sources (map of locations) along the main trail up to Trail Camp, but be sure to take about 3 liters of water with you above Trail Camp. Also check out the reports Airlifted hiker, Vomiting hiker, Hydration and AMS.
Lesson: While it is unclear if dehydration can lead to AMS, it is clear that the initial symptoms can be the same. Minimize the chances of dehydration by smartly drinking water while acclimating. Hydrate regularly on your hike, since your body does not let you know right away when you are thirsty. Use drink mixes (with electrolytes) as needed to keep your water intake up to the point where your urine is clear. (At the same time, be careful not to overdo it).
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Although darkness is an easy hazard to plan for, it still can take hikers by surprise if they happen to take more time hiking down than they originally budgeted for (or get summit fever when they reach their turnaround time). On my first hike up the main trail, I was part of a large group of day hikers (14), and members of our group took small flashlights with us to save weight. We left before 5 am and took turns using our flashlights on the trail until the sun came up. Little did we know that one of the people in our group ended up with muscle cramps in her legs on the way down from Trail Crest.
Plan your hike/climb keeping daylight in mind. Bring a headlamp, not a flashlight, and be sure it has fresh batteries and you have a spare set. Headlamps using AAA batteries will not work well in cold weather. In your training hikes, figure out the pace you can comfortably hike and add in a buffer for the higher elevations (where you'll slow down). To calculate your start time, first figure out when you want to get back, then subtract off your expected hike time along with your buffer time:
Start time = Return time - Time of hike - Buffer time.
Lesson: Be prepared to take longer coming down than expected and even spend the night somewhere in an emergency. Set a turnaround time and stick to it. Carry along a long-lasting LED headlamp instead of an incandescent flashlight to give you extra time at night. See the reports 3 ladies survive the night outside, Summited anyhow, Getting lost without extra batteries.
Many summer storms are accompanied by wind and hail, with hail particularly at the higher elevations. It is a good idea to wear a hat with a chin strap no matter what the weather is like, since it can protect you from sunshine, rain, and hail and not blow away with a gust of wind. Although hail is usually not a severe hazard on the trail, a hailstorm can be an unpleasant experience. See the reports Hail on July 9, Hail on July 28, Hail on July 29, and Hail on San Gorgonio in August.
Ice can be a unexpected problem on the 97 switchbacks of the main trail, particularly in the cables area. As noted in Fall Conditions on the Main Whitney Trail, the switchbacks are mostly north facing and can hold on to ice longer than other sections of the trail. The switchbacks are dangerous to hike in icy conditions without the proper mountaineering experience and equipment. In the spring months, some people are tempted to glissade down the chute below Trail Crest. That is a very dangerous area and people have died sliding into the rocks below. See the reports 2003 Glissade Fatality and 2005 Glissade Fatality. Only people with the proper mountaineering training should attempt that route and then only in favorable snow conditions. See Bob R's reports Glissading from Trail Crest and Bob R. glissade video, Mt. Whitney June 22, 2006 for more information. Also check out the report on the 2005 MR fatality.
Snow can also be a hazard in the non-summer months. Only people with winter mountaineering experience should attempt to hike in snow. See the reports Accident on Whitney, Slipped in the cables area, and Whiteout Incident on Whitney.
As a general rule, people should not hike above Trail Crest if there there are any signs of rain, since thunderstorms can develop quickly in the mountains and the upper trail is extremely exposed to lightning. Even small clouds in the distance can become large in the time it takes to hike from Trail Crest to the Summit and back (see Fear on the Top for an account of a quick brewing storm). The article Reading local Weather has some tips on interpreting cloud formations.
Nonetheless, as noted in Hikers Walking Into Lightning Storm. SomeoneTell Me Why!, people often ignore the warning signs of lightning and wait too long to turn back. It is too easy to rationalize that the probability of getting "hit" by lightning is low and ignore the fact that different conditions have different risk levels and that lightning has collateral effects. (Lightning contains a lot of electromagnetic energy that can be received by AM radios many miles away from the source, in addition to the near field effects). A year or two ago there was a report on the message board of a traumatic experience where a couple was knocked off their feet twice by lightning on their way back to Trail Crest on their first (and last) hike up the trail. In the right conditions, lightning can and will strike the same location twice. Remember, probability is only a model, and, "A model is just an imitation of the real thing."
Lesson: Develop a contingency plan ahead of time, and be prepared to turn back at the first sign of a storm. Know what to do to minimize the risk of lightning strikes in case you all of a sudden get caught in a flash thunderstorm. See the reports Thunderstorm Possibility- when to turn around?, Lightning Lesson, Lightning Tips, and Lightning Strikes.
At higher elevations, people can be more susceptible to the rays of the sun, since there is less atmosphere above to filter out the harmful rays. The effects can also be intensified by reflections off of snow. As noted in Hiked in shorts without sunscreen, sunburn can be very painful. As noted in Wear sunblock, cumulative exposure to sunshine without protection can lead to a number of skin problems, especially in the face area.
Lesson: Wear a wide-brimmed hat and cover up as much of your body as possible while hiking in daylight. Apply sunscreen to the remaining parts of your body, including your ears and around your nose. See Sunscreen Recommendations for more information.
Wind can be a problem on the upper section of the main trail. Be prepared for High wind dangers. Also look at Watch out for the Wind.
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Although the main trail is pretty easy to follow in the summer months, it still is possible for people to get separated from the rest of their groups. The risk of separation increases as the group size increases, but even a group of two people got separated when one of them hiked west down the John Muir Trail instead of the main trail on her way back. (The JMT junction is deceptive to people who have not hiked the main trail before since you have to hike uphill to get back to Trail Crest). All it takes is one slow person or one injured person to mess things up.
As noted earlier, I got separated from the rest of my group when somebody had leg cramps on my first day hike up the main trail. Things were worse on my second day hike when somebody in our group developed a heart problem and wandered off the trail on the final traverse before the needles. To make a long story short, another hiker going downhill was able to jump in and help, but it was a slow walk back down to Trail Camp (where some trail maintenance people had set up camp). Somebody else in the group needed to get some medicine, so the two of us left Trail Camp around 9:30 pm while the rest of the group stayed at Trail Camp overnight with other people. We did not find out about the airlift until the remaining people came down the following afternoon. Then, to make matters worse, we had some transportation issues to work out.
Lesson: Develop a contingency plan ahead of time, and distribute spare vehicle keys to other people within the group. Be prepared to spend an extra night on the trail in case of an emergency. See the reports Family of eight gets separated, Poorly Planned Hikes, and Disoriented hiker.
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Injury/Search and Rescue
Every year people find themselves in situations on the mountain that they did not plan for. If they cannot get back down the trail by themselves, they will need the assistance of a search and rescue (SAR) team. Some rescues are the result of health conditions or injury while others are the result of getting lost or using poor judgment. As noted in Perspective of Rescues, SAR can be a thankless task at times, particularly if an adverse situation could have prevented. As noted in Climbing Rules, accidents can happen when people make mistakes in judgment because they are not being honest with themselves about their abilities or when they take shortcuts. Also see the reports Mountain Rescue and Three Errors and an Air evacuation July 14th.
Lesson: Treat every hike as if your life depends on it - it does. Be honest with yourself - don't take any unnecessary risks. Don't assume that people can rescue you if you make a mistake - you may be in a hard to access location. Don't assume that SAR is easy - it is often risky. Carry along emergency supplies in case you need them. Err on the side of caution.
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