Every once in awhile, scrolling through outdoor forums online can lead to more than photography critique and camping conversation. Late one night I came across a post on a hiking forum asking if anyone was free to hike Mount Whitney, the highest peak in California and the contiguous United States. The user, Jason, just so happened to live a short drive away in Flagstaff. He had gotten a couple of permits and none of his friends could join him. I messaged him my interest and following a full night of work I drove up to Flagstaff. We loaded our bags and promptly headed out for California.
The long straight drive to Lone Pine was unsurprisingly pleasant and uneventful. We claimed our permits from the forest service and drove up to the Whitney Portal. It was about midday when we arrived. The trailhead area was bustling with life; a stark contrast to the lower desertscape below. A stream runs through the parking lots and past the store. There are a few trailheads, every amenity and plenty of beauty to take in. Enormous pine trees encompassed the area. Towering far beyond the treeline, the colossal sheer granite faces we would be summiting captivated attention. I passed the time talking and jogging to help get my body acclimated to the 7,800ft elevation. I needed to acclimate if I was to keep up with Jason the following day, he lives at 7,000ft. As the afternoon progressed, we enjoyed cyclical precipitation all the way to sundown. Once it had stopped raining, I laid my sleeping bag on the ground, satisfied I could finally catch some sleep until 1am.
Awoken abruptly by alarm, I quickly got on my feet to finish prepping my bag for the day. Once my pack was ready, I located a hanging pack scale near the trailhead. Everything I needed, including water and camera gear weighed in at 18 pounds. I would be drinking most of that water weight throughout the hike. Exhilarated by the cool air I was ready to begin one of my favorite activities. While camping and night hiking, I always take time to enjoy staring into the stars. The view on this particular night was the best I have ever seen. When not stargazing, I’m extraordinarily determined hiking in the dark, as camera work can’t interfere with my forward drive. From the beginning of the hike all the way through Trail Camp at 12,000ft, we death marched into thinner air. Trail camp is an interesting patch of rock outcroppings surrounded by a few alpine pools. The faint yet ominous outline of Mt. Whitney 2,500ft above us commanded my attention more than ever. Now feeling the effects of altitude, I fought to keep from slowing my pace. Leaving camp for the main switchbacks I was amazed at how many headlamps I could see pocketing the mountain ahead of us. Passing multiple parties, Jason and I trudged up the mountainside with speed. Eventually we began to get our first view of the day. The horizon radiated a soft gradient of orange and blue above jagged peaks below us.
We had started our hike at 1:27AM, four hours later I took my camera out of my bag, ready for the orange hues to intensify. Heading up the final push of switchbacks towards the Trail Crest at 13,700ft, I stopped to photograph a fellow hiker watching the sunrise a few switchbacks below. Warm light quickly covered the top of the mountain, breaking through fog washing over the upper trail. Finally after 8.2 miles of hiking, most all in the dark, we reached the Trail Crest and took a short break.
From the Trail Crest which is an intersection with the John Muir Trail, all that was left was a short 2.8 mile jaunt to the summit at 14,505ft. Here the altitude drained my energy very quickly and I had trouble keeping a consistent pace. Making the most of my slower steps, I had more time to photograph the spectacular view. A few times I mentally had to fight to keep hiking instead of marveling my surroundings. The trail itself consisted of large ice covered slab rocks protruding from snow covered ground. Even though my feet and legs felt great, I was slowed by a raging headache. Splitting my concentration from slippery hiking and camera work was becoming a strain. Jason summited much quicker than I, a full 25 minutes earlier. Once standing on the summit, I took a few brief photos and a 360 view on my phone. I felt accomplished and relieved that we had reached the highest point in the lower 48 states! Only half way through our 22 mile hike, we eagerly set off for lower altitude.
At no point had my feet or legs ached during the 11 miles and 6000ft vertical gain to the summit. However, the second half of the hike proved to be much more taxing. Constant drops and step downs onto barren rock pummeled my feet at the high rate of speed we descended. At this speed the 97 switchbacks down the mountain flew by much faster than ascending. Hiking in late morning cool weather, the endless switchbacks didn’t get too old mentally. Exhausted and accomplished upon stepping off the trailhead, I once again weighed my pack. Upon finishing, my Osprey weighed in at 8 pounds. In total we hiked 7 hours to the summit and only 4 hours to return to the trailhead. Besides the excruciatingly long drive home, it was an amazing experience. I’m ecstatic I took the opportunity to conquer the mighty Mount Whitney.