View from the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center
Whitney Portal Overflow Parking
Waterfall at the Whitney Portal
Lone Pine Lake
When I arrived at Outpost Camp, it was time for a break. I plopped down on a rock adjacent to the trail and met several folks heading down, including a 67-year-old and two 71-year-olds, who had all summited. For me, just days away from turning 47, that was encouraging. Inspiring as their story was, they did give me fair warning that the trail between here and Trail Camp was not quite as friendly as it had been up to this point. "But it's doable," the 67-year-old told me. That wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear. Still 2.2 miles away from Trail Camp, I was beginning to feel fatigued and had failed to take into consideration how the level of difficulty would likely increase as the trail approached the tree line. I knew my only alternative to making Trail Camp was to remain where I was now, at Outpost Camp, nearly 7 miles away from the summit. Time wasn't an issue, as it wasn't quite noon, so I put aside my doubts, got back under my pack and resumed hiking to Trail Camp.
Icy waterfall at Outpost Camp
The section of trail above Outpost Camp was a bit of a struggle for me. I'd walk a bit and pause, walk a bit and pause. After a couple hours of this, hikers heading down would confirm I was getting close to camp, yet camp never appeared on the horizon. So the walking and pausing continued. Through it all, the magnificent scenery remained. In particular, Mirror Lake and a little meadow known as Trailside Meadow above the tree line are two points along this part of the trail worth mentioning. When a body of water I recognized as Consultation Lake came into view, I knew my destination lay just ahead. Back at the Visitor Center, the Ranger had suggested I find an existing site outside of Trail Camp in order to avoid the large population of marmots living there and known for being a nuisance. I also did not want to be disturbed in the middle of the night by noisy campers prepping for their pre-dawn hikes to the summit. With this in mind, when I spied a small, level piece of ground tucked between a pair of rock walls just below Trail Camp, I realized I had found my home for the night. Now eight minutes past two o'clock, it had taken almost six hours to travel nearly six miles on the trail.
My tent was close to a small tarn, perhaps a tad too small to be considered a good source for drinking water. Because I had read remaining active at camp was a recommended strategy to avoid the effects of altitude sickness, I walked down a bit to the edge of Consultation Lake to filter water. This is another noteworthy feature of the Mt. Whitney Trail. I understand there are trout in this lake, and at least one fish was actively splashing about while I was there. The water here is clear, cold, and refreshing.
Campsite - small tarn is barely visible in the distance
Back at camp I visited for a while with a gentleman who was taking a breather by the trail before his final, short push to Trail Camp. He was carrying 70 pounds of gear and equipment on his back to complete what sounded like a fairly complicated musical compilation project on the summit the following day. My heavy pack was light in comparison, though there was room for improvement. What I learned from this experience is that next time I do not need to carry so much food with me. I didn't eat half of what I brought due to the effect high altitude has on appetite. There is little doubt I entered into a caloric deficit on this trip, but I just wasn't hungry enough to consume the amount of food I should have.
The weather at 12,000 feet on the morning of my summit was beautiful. The sun was out, the winds were calm, and the water in my backpack wasn't even frozen. I was on the trail at 8:30 a.m. with a day pack and trekking poles, which served no purpose on the ascent other than to lean against during my time outs from walking. Straight out of Trail Camp, hikers are ushered up the mountain via the 99 grueling switchbacks. As I zig-zagged up the mountain, I wasn't too concerned about my pace. The name of the game here is to just keep moving. I feel like it would be counterproductive to try to calculate your speed or estimate how many more vertical feet remain. On the 99s, it's simply a matter of left right, left right until you reach Trail Crest.
The views from Trail Crest are stunning
Peeping through one of the "windows" along Trail Crest
At sea level, hiking Trail Crest would be a piece of cake. Approaching 14,000 feet, however, I found the going was slow and laborious. I spotted the roof of the shelter on Whitney's summit, but I was unenthused, as it was still far off in the distance. While resting trailside a little later, a passing hiker asked if the altitude was getting to me. Maybe it appeared obvious to him, but I was quick to answer, "No." I didn't consider that a lie, as I was experiencing no symptoms of altitude sickness. I was just maxing myself out physically, though I do believe the thin air was the primary contributing factor to my feeling spent.
About the time I thought I would never get there, I glanced up from the path to see the shelter and several hikers milling about the summit in full view. The feeling was indescribable. Still minutes away from actually summiting, it was this particular moment which I felt was the highlight of the whole summit experience. I relate it to the feeling you get when you leave work on a Friday afternoon. The anticipation of the weekend is in many cases better than the weekend itself.
Looking back at Trail Crest from the summit
Hiker signing the register at the summit of Mt. Whitney
After 30 minutes or so on the summit, it was time to begin the descent. My permit was good for one more day, but I had been toying with the notion of packing up my belongings and continuing to the portal so I could sleep more comfortably before my nearly 8-hour drive home the next day. Doing so would also give me an earlier jump in the morning and hopefully have me in my driveway ahead of the Friday afternoon Phoenix traffic. So I hurried down the mountain, now using my trekking poles with nearly every step to unburden my aching knees and calves as much as possible.
I know rushing back down the trail to the parking lot detracted from my overall experience, and I wouldn't recommend doing this. The takeaway for me is that if I am fortunate enough to get back to Whitney next year, I will leverage the third day by slowing my pace and have a look around at some of the sights I breezed past, such as Lone Pine Lake. The Mount Whitney Trail, I learned, is not just a one-trick pony. It offers so much more than a summit, and it's a real shame to deny yourself any of what this glorious trail has to offer.
The beauty of the Mt. Whitney Trail is a faithful companion