California Highpoint – Mount Whitney

Where the Journey Started

highpointing, n., the sport of ascending to the point with the highest elevation within some area (the “highpoint”), for example the highest points in each state.

I started highpointing in 2011, but I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. I was simply interested in summitting the highest peak in the continental U.S., Mount Whitney. Little did I know that it would evolve into a much longer journey across all 50 states.

The seeds of inspiration to climb Whitney were first planted within me when I was a teenager. My family was passing through Lone Pine, CA, on a trip from Death Valley. As this town is the gateway to Mt. Whitney, we went on a short family hike from that same trailhead. And even though we turned around far before getting anywhere close to the mountain, my interest was piqued in the trail beyond when my dad told me his Whitney story.

He his first summit attempt in the late 1950’s actually landed him in the hospital. He had failed to wear any sunscreen and received such severe sunburn that he needed medical attention. But the following year he tried again with his stepfather and made it. He gushed about the magnificent views from the top: how on a clear day you can see all the way to the lowest point in the U.S., Death Valley.

And, like so many times before, I was inspired to follow in my father’s footsteps. Except for the sunburn, of course.

Preparing for My Climb

At the start of 2011 I knew it would be a great year to attempt the climb. Mount Whitney is a popular one, and requires applying for permits months in advance. I decided to do it as a monster day hike (22 miles with 6,200 ft of elevation gain) rather than an overnight trip, as the backpacking permits are much more difficult to get. I applied by the February cut-off and by the late spring I had my permit confirmation in hand for an early August mid-week climb.

I knew the biggest challenge for me about Whitney would be the elevation, as I’d previously experienced altitude sickness above 10,000 ft. So over the early summer months I trained on tall mountains I could find near my home in San Diego: Mount San Jacinto (10,834 ft) and San Gorgonio (11,499 ft) in particular. I did each of these as long day hikes to simulate what I’d face on Whitney.

Lone Pine Logistics

I arrived in Lone Pine a few days in advance to get acclimatized as much as possible prior to climbing day. I stayed at the Lone Pine Campground (6,000 ft) rather than town so I could sleep under some oxygen deprivation. Two days prior to the climb I also did a short hike up to Lone Pine Lake (10,050′) to get my lungs ready.

One neat aspect of climbing Mount Whitney is that you can easily see it from the town of Lone Pine. But, to be honest, as a mountain profile it’s not that impressive. It’s merely the Northernmost and slightly tallest of a series of rocky spires towering above the town.

That being said, it’s still the tallest peak in the contiguous United States and it needed to be conquered.

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Mt. Whitney at sunset as seen from Lone Pine Campground 

Climbing Day

The day hike climbing permit was good for the full 24 hours of my assigned climbing day. Given the afternoon heat in the summer, I wanted to get an early start on that day. I woke up at 2:00am, drove up to Whitney Portal, and was on the trail by 3:00am.

The first memorable part of the hike was how it was dark for so long. This was the first time I had hiked that far by headlamp, and I was above 11,000 ft elevation by the time the sun rose. It was such an incredible sight to see nearby rocky peaks colored rose by the rising sun.

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Sunrise among the rocky spires

A second memory was watching furry marmots frolic on rocks when I stopped for a break at Trail Camp, 12,000 ft. This was my first time seeing them in the wild.

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Marmot playing in a meadow near High Camp

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Lake at High Camp

The ridge walk between Trail Crest (13,777′) and the summit was stunning. To the West I looked down into crystalline High Sierra lakes, and to the East I saw glimpses of Lone Pine as I traveled amongst those granite spires. The precipitous drops on both sides triggered my fear of heights.

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View of lakes to the West from Trail Crest

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Precipitous trail section near Trail Crest

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The back side of rocky spires near the summit; the only snow field I had to cross

I reached the summit at 10:30am and was impressed by how massive it was. From the distant town below it seemed like a spindly peak, but there is actually a lot of space. Enough to build a cabin and have a summit party.

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Summit placard

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Me on the summit with Lone Pine in the distance

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View of lakes and peaks from the Mt. Whitney summit

The trip back down was a slog as I was suffering from sugar crash (too many energy gels) and lack of real food. As I descended below Trail Crest I counted every single one of the famed 99 switchbacks to track my progress and maintain focus.

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Looking up at Trail Crest from the 99 switchbacks section

I passed beautiful Mirror Lake with barely a nod, even though it had been dark when I ascended past it hours earlier. I was monomaniacal in my quest to return to the trailhead, which I completed at 3:45pm (total hiking time of 12.75 hours).

After driving back to town, checking into an actual motel, and taking a quick shower, I rewarded myself with dinner at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant. Walking in town after dinner, I watched the sun set on Whitney and felt simultaneously proud and amazed that just a few hours prior I had stood atop that nondescript rocky spike.

Epilogue

As I look back on my Mt. Whitney trip, I see how it introduced me to a couple realizations that have continued to resonate over the intervening six years.

For one, it showed me how rewarding an endeavor can be if it requires extreme mental fortitude. There was a moment on the way down at High Camp where I just wanted to curl up and sleep, but I pushed on. This has been vital as I’ve moved into other endurance and mountaineering adventures.

The second is my capability for epic adventure. Mt. Whitney continues to inspire in me the desire to travel somewhere for the sole purpose of doing an extreme physical adventure outdoors. Since that day in 2011 I’ve done multiple marathons, an ultra-marathon, and 12+hour mountaineering summit attempts. For each of those I can trace the thread back to an August day in Lone Pine, CA, where I learned that I have the strength within to do what I set my mind to.

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