For being touted as one of the most popular hiking destinations in the country, I was a bit surprised to commonly hear this response when I told people I was climbing Mt. Whitney (elev. 14,494’): “Where is that . . . is that in California?” It seems that many of my metropolitan neighbors have yet to experience the world-class moutain range that is the Eastern Sierras, despite its distance of only five hours from Los Angeles. This February, some friends and I decided to check out the highest point in the continental U.S. for ourselves, and we tossed in our bid for a permit in the USFS’s annual lottery.
Having planned this as a multi-day trip, our goal wasn’t to get to the top as fast as possible without ample time for scenery or relaxation. It turned out that of the nine possible dates we submitted for entry into the Inyo National Forest, we were alloted our last pick, a late spring-early summer weekend from May 30th through June 1st. After discussing concerns over the high variability of mountain climate at that time of the year, we continued training for higher altitude activity while monitoring the weather. Fortunately, a combination of below-average winter precipitation and a sunny forecast enabled us to set off on a Wednesday evening to pitch camp near trailhead. All of us drifted to sleep that night excited for the climb ahead.
The initial way up the main Mt. Whitney trail proved to be a great example of a well-maintained footpath, with log bridges over Lone Pine Creek and hardly a rocky footing. We acclimatized more at Outpost Camp during our first night on-trail next to a velvety purple meadow. A rushing waterfall nearby provided a flowing soundtrack to the immediacy of the outdoors around us. Above our campsite a short hike away, a friend and I watched as hundreds of trout jumped for their evening meal of insects hovering over Mirror Lake. We contemplated this choreography for a while before returning to camp for our own dinners, which were crammed into individual 9” by 12” bear cannisters we each carried with several days of food.
Later, a very real reminder of our roles as passersby in the wilderness came when my tentmate and I got up to answer nature’s call at 2:00 a.m., only to realize that we were being spotted though the bushes by a curious bear.
On Friday, we breached the timberline and continued upwards along the trail, which now held remnants of snowfields and crossed vast expanses of exposed granite. Mild altitude sickness had set in for some members of the group, and we took a long lunch break at frozen Consultation Lake before scrambling to reach Trail Camp ahead of the darkening clouds. That night, chilling north winds from the valley beyond Wotan’s Throne howled over our tents, with little cover afforded by the small ridges behind which we hid. For half the night, I wondered if we would awaken to inches of snow blanketing the landscape, which would have effectively halted our advance.
Everyone awoke pre-dawn on Saturday, however, to be greeted by clear blue skies beckoning us onward. For a few hours, we chugged up the famous 100 switchbacks on a steep talus slope, our heads light from the decreased oxygen. At Trail Crest, the pass where the route joins with the John Muir Trail, we stood in awe of a breathtaking, ultra-panoramic view of the entire Great Western Divide, along with a large portion of Sequoia National Park far below to the west. The enormity of the the solitude, the space before me and the layers of mountains filling in like waves held our gazes for quite some time. I believe we all made a promise to come back again to explore the trails less traveled as we wound our way up behind The Pinnacles to the summit.
On the way back, the lone daredevil in our group took a very direct and wet glissade descent down the snowy cirque below Trail Crest, while the rest of us hurried down the dizzying array of switchbacks on foot. Our timing could not have been better, for as we tore down camp the first snowstorm of the weekend descended with freezing temperatures and strong winds, sending us scampering for the trailhead miles away. It was all the more reason for celebration the next day as we headed north along Hwy. 395 to soak our aching bodies in the region’s hot springs.