I’ve really appreciated this forum over the years and the information so freely given by others, so I want to share a detailed trip report from my recent summit on July 19th. It was an amazing, wonderful experience and a lot went right due to lessons learned from previous hikes. This may be long, so apologies in advance.
TLDR Version : Great hike to summit on July 19th. Highly recommended.
First some background.
I am a relatively experienced, 57-year-old hiker from North Carolina. I do most of my hiking on the East Coast, but I summited Mt. Whitney in 2013 on my first attempt. On that trip, however, I know I made a lot of mistakes and parts of the experience were miserable, especially the trip back down once the adrenaline from reaching the summit wore off. I’m sure there was a measure of AMS, dehydration issues, not enough calories consumed, bad boots, etc. You name it, I could have done it better despite making it to the summit. Turns out, if you are a stubborn bastard, you can accomplish a lot despite making many mistakes.
Anyway, on that 2013 trip I fell in love with the area and I’ve been back to the Sierra every summer since. Not always to hike Whitney, though I’ve tried at least three other times (all without success for different reasons.) So, when I hit the lottery this year, I decided I wanted to learn from my 9 years of Sierra hiking experience and have the best outing possible on the way to, hopefully, my second summit of Mt. Whitney.
After acclimating at Mammoth Mountain Inn for three nights, I traveled to a hotel in Lone Pine for Sunday night, July 17th in anticipation of starting the hike on Monday morning.
I was on the trail by around 8am (overnight permit) with flexible plans to make it to either Outpost Camp or Trail Camp depending on how I felt and the conditions that day. Having now hiked quite a bit in the Eastern Sierra, I was concerned from the beginning at the look of the sky. There were already clouds building at 6am and they continued to thicken once I was on the trail. I felt good and was at Outpost Camp before 10am. This is when I had to make an early executive decision.
I felt strong, but it was clear the sky was starting to get pretty dark and I heard a first rumble of thunder. Even though I had a lot more gas in the tank, I decided to go ahead and setup my tent. This turned out to be the right decision, as it rained heavily for the next several hours. I used this time in the tent to get settled in and get some rest while the opportunity afforded itself. By early evening, the rain was reduced to off and on showers and I was able to make dinner and do some prep for the summit attempt on Tuesday.
Quite a few other folks camped at Outpost Camp Monday night as well, for similar reasons, I’m sure. I met a group of six that included Jeff, Dave, Katie, Susan, and two more friends. I will always remember them because of their matching, purple Whitney shirts sporting an iconic image of Whitney Houston on the front. They were having a great time and hopeful for a Tuesday summit as well.
I called it a night early and was awake by 4am to make my attempt. I had a quick breakfast and grabbed my already prepared day pack and was on the trail before 4:30am. I purposefully took a deliberate pace to ensure I didn’t burn out early, but made steady progress. As I rolled into Trail Camp, it was almost sunrise, so I sat down for a decent break, ate some food, and watched as the sun came up in the east. After that nice early break, I was back on the trail and starting the switchbacks by around 6:30am.
I know the switchbacks took at least 90 minutes, maybe a little longer, but they really were a breeze this time. I decided to try to count the switchbacks on the way up and that seemed to provide some focus and encouragement. Back in 2013, this section was a real grind and I stopped for a break about every other switchback. This time, the only stop I made was at the spring around switchback 20 to top off my water.
I stopped for another major snack break at Trail Crest and took in the beauty of the sun now starting to hit Hitchcock Lakes and Guitar Lake and that entire valley back down toward Crabtree Meadows. The weather was perfect…no wind and mild temperatures. After this 20 minute interlude, I got going again for the final push.
That downhill stretch to the JMT junction is both welcomed and a terrible reminder that you will have to climb that again on the way back, but I breezed through and was climbing again in no time. Just like the switchbacks, I was feeling much stronger than my first summit trip and made steady progress without breaks. I love the section after the initial climb up from the JMT junction. It is a beautiful part of the trail, remarkably interesting terrain, views forever, and the windows provide evidence of progress toward the summit. Before long, I was working my way through that last half mile or so climb up to the summit plateau until the hut was in view at about 9:30am.
Conditions couldn’t have been better and I felt great, so I actually got to linger on the summit for more than an hour before I started back around 10:45pm. I have better knees at this age than cardiovascular fitness, so I made much better time down. During the first mile back down, I met most of the purple-shirt Whitney crew from Outpost Camp. Was nice high-fiving and wishing them well on their final push to the summit.
I made it back to Outpost Camp at 1:42pm. I was torn on whether to just kick back and stay another night or pack everything up and make my way back to Lone Pine. In the end, I decided to have a nice lunch and then break camp and get back to the car. The thoughts of a shower and a steak at Seasons were too much for me. So, I was back to Whitney Portal shortly after 4pm and safely back in town not long after that. It was a long, but wonderful Tuesday with about 17.5 miles of hiking, 4,000+ feet of ascent and 6,000 ft descent, but other than being a little sore for a couple of days, it was a perfect trip. It went so well due to many things I now do differently than back in 2013, so I want to share some of those lessons in case they might help anyone visiting Mt. Whitney for the first time.
Jammer’s Lessons Learned
Hydration – it is incredibly easy to underestimate how much fluid you need to consume for an undertaking like Mt. Whitney. Not only is it physically demanding, but the altitude and low humidity just sap the body. So, this year, I very intentionally drank lots of fluids leading up to hike day. I also drank a quart of Gatorade the night before and another quart the morning before I started hiking. Finally, I had Nuun tabs with electrolytes/caffeine that I used for my main drinking bottle. I am certain many of my problems before were related to dehydration and losing electrolytes. I made sure that was not a problem this time and felt great.
Altitude – Even though I made it to the summit in 2013, I know I suffered from at least mild AMS on that trip. I also had at two other subsequent attempts aborted due to AMS. So, I knew I needed a better approach this year. To that end, I scheduled a full three nights at 9,000 ft in Mammoth (with a warm up hike to the summit at 11,053) in the days before. I know not many will have that luxury, but it made a huge difference. To be doubly sure I took every precaution, I also used Diamox according to my doctor’s instructions. I’m sure both helped a lot and I didn’t have any issues at all with altitude sickness.
Camp Location – In some ways, the weather forced my hand a bit on this decision, but I was already leaning heavily towards camping at Outpost Camp. This was 100% the right decision for me. As a person who can struggle sleeping at altitude, I got much better rest at Outpost Camp. Also, it meant only carrying the heavy pack for a much shorter overall distance. That 13 miles up and back from Outpost seemed almost like cheating with a light day pack. Also, Outpost is just a much nicer location. Trail camp can be neat in certain ways, but everything from water to natural beauty is simply better at OC in my opinion.
Food – To skip to the point, I didn’t eat enough in 2013 and ran out of gas. This is easy for anyone to do because one naturally loses appetite due to both altitude and exertion. I made sure I packed food I really would want to eat and plenty of snacks that were appealing. I also took the effort to do some serious carb loading the night before the hike started at Pizza Factory in Lone Pine. So, my advice here is ignore all the dry, unappealing bars and gels and bring what you like. I had plenty of candy bars, Welch’s fruit snacks, pop tarts, and my favorite trail mix. I also made a killer tuna pasta ramen salad for dinner on Monday night that helped fuel the Tuesday effort.
Footwear – In 2013, I had a pair of leather Zamberlan boots. They were highly regarded by all the hiking sites/forums at the time and I’m sure are great boots. I still have them and use them when it snows around here. However, in 2013, I’m sure their weight caused me all kinds of problems and my feet were killing me by the time I made it back to Trail Camp from the summit. That last six miles of that hike was a death march with those boots and each step felt like a sledge hammer to the bottom of my feet. Fast forward to now and I have made the enthusiastic switch to the Hoka Speedgoat 4 trail runners. They are extremely lightweight with amazing cushion. Footwear for hiking is a very personal decision, but the difference for me is like night and day from wearing old-school boots.
Rest – I can’t advocate strongly enough for getting good rest before and during your adventure. For me, that meant doing my acclimatization early and then allowing myself the luxury of sleeping at lower elevation the night before I started. Getting a full, normal night of sleep really made a huge difference. That coupled with better sleep at Outpost Camp meant none of that zombie feeling when you try to start in the middle of the night or go 20+ hours without decent sleep. That might be tricky for those trying a day trip, but even with a day pass, I think I would sleep in Lone Pine the night before and then just leave at the latest time that would give me the window to make the miles.
There is a lot more I could share, but this is already turning into a novel. I will try to add some pictures if I can figure that out and am happy to answer any questions. Bottom line, this was a wonderful hike and I plan to continue to use these lessons learned on all my upcoming adventures, regardless of location.