This is the conclusion of a 2 part series on backpacking up Mount Whitney. You can read part 1 here if you missed it.
After a windy and somewhat restless night, we wake to a beautiful morning and after breakfast, the four of us -- my wife and I and our friends Ray and Carol -- begin the upward journey with the intent of reaching the summit of Mount Whitney that day and then returning to Trail Camp. It's a 10 mile round trip with a lot of altitude to be gained and that in thin air. Fortunately we can leave the bulk of our gear (tents, sleeping bags, stoves, most of our clothes, etc) at Trail Camp, so we're hiking with fairly light packs -- rain jacket, sunblock, snacks and water, and camera. A word of caution: make sure you don't completely seal your tent as marmots and mice are curious and they'll chew a hole in your tent if then want to get in -- better to leave your tent partially opened and let them explore. And be sure all of your food and anything scented is inside a bear-proof canister.
Our ascent up the switchback trail is slowed by trail repairs. Sections of the trail are closed for an hour at a time, and there are major repairs going on -- large work crew, dynamiting, and so on. But ultimately we get through the area of activity and reach the saddle beyond which lies Sequoia National Park.
From this point the trail heads north towards Mount Whitney, a fairly straight path but with an uphill grade. It's mostly a good trail, but there are places where it's narrow and there's a sheer drop-off on both sides of you (several thousand food drop), so it's not for the faint of heart. There are spots where it's not unreasonable to crawl across these narrow sections. I didn't have the presence of mind to photograph these spots -- I was too focused on getting across alive!
The air gets progressively thinner as we ascend and we're all suffering mild altitude sickness (headache, loss of appetite, low energy). But we press on. If the symptoms were bad enough we'd have to descend but fortunately that's not the case. We stop for frequent rests and make sure we stay hydrated. We arrive at the summit just after noon and spend a good hour up here.
The summit of Mount Whitney is surprisingly flat and there's room for a lot of people up here. Many of the folks were just resting and taking in the view. Remember, this is the tallest point in the lower 48 states, and you can see for dozens of miles in any direction. The weather was nice with not a storm cloud in sight.
The marker on the summit incorrectly states the peak’s measurement as 14,496 -- it's actually 14,505 feet -- as the shape of the earth has been measured more accurately since it was installed.
Of course we still need to head back five miles to Trail Camp, so we retraced our journey. It was a little easier as we were going down hill, but we were getting tired.
By the time we made it back to camp we were plenty pooped and ready for a quick supper and some rest.
We break our campsite and head downhill the six miles to Whitney Portal, retracing the route we ascended on. It's easier going down hill, but hard on the toes as the weight of your backpack pushes them into your hiking boots.
We get to our car and head to Lone Pine for a shower, a change into clean clothes, a cheeseburger, fries and milkshake (tasting so terrific after 3 days of trail food!), and then head back to the Los Angeles.
It is a nice sense of accomplishment to have completed the trek and was memorable because we did it with two of our dearest friends. Sadly Ray died just a few years after we made this journey. He was a remarkable man and is still greatly missed. A reminder of how tenuous life can be and how we need to take advantages of special opportunities when they present themselves.
Not everyone who does the 22 mile trail to and from Mt. Whitney bothers to backpack and camp. Most of the permits are single-day permits. It’s possible for the very fit to reach the summit and return to the trailhead in one day. But you need to be superb physical condition and you need to start very early, in the dark with a headlamp to guide you, and will likely end your trip with your flashlight as you head back to your car. Because of the altitude and physical effort involved most people who attempt to this day hike fail. Most people who backpack succeed.
I'd really recommend the backpacking option. Part of the experience of being there is having time to enjoy the mountain and the company of your friends.