Climbing Mount Whitney is an extraordinary experience, full of sights that are out of this world and struggles that feel almost unendurable. In the end, it is the most rewarding thing that I’ve done so far. In this essay, I share my tale of what it was like to ascend this magnificent mountain via backpacking the John Muir Trail.
Last year we embarked on an adventure, backpacking the infamous John Muir Trail (JMT). The journey promised sensational views and magnificent mountains; however, even with an arsenal information gathered about the hike, I honestly had no idea what to expect when we started our trek to ascend Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. By the end of the expedition, I would equate the experience to Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom and would swear that I would never do that again.
The tale starts the previous night when we found a campsite just outside of the land dubbed the ‘no-poop zone.’ Mount Whitney receives over 20,000 visitors per year, approximately 7,000 to 8,000 pounds of waste is generated per year. As a result, the Forest Service has instituted the no-poop rule. We were assigned a WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) bag when we picked up our JMT wilderness permit and were told to use it within the area from Guitar Lake to the Summit of Mount Whitney. (the no-poop zone includes the area east into the Whitney Zone and out Whitney Portal, although we would not be exiting there) This instruction meant that if you camped anywhere near Guitar Lake and Mount Whitney, you were expected to use the WAG bag to contain your feces or you would have to hold it until you exited the area. The reason behind this is that it is so rocky in this area that you cannot dig a cathole to the required depth to adhere to LNT principles, and eventually your $h!t ends up surfacing. Well, I certainly wasn’t going to hold my poo for the couple of days that we anticipated to get up Mount Whitney and return, so we chose a campsite wisely. We would hunker down the night before the ascent, utilize the entire next day to summit, and then return to base camp to rest before continuing northbound on the JMT. (Note: it’s up for debate whether or not northbound JMT thru-hikers are bound to pooping in a bag; however, it isn’t logical to think that NOBO thru-hiker’s poo has magical properties that other hiker poo doesn’t)
The location of our basecamp seemed perfect. It was just outside the no-poop zone, so there wasn’t an issue with doing the deed. However, we would very quickly find out that the site was a breeding ground for mosquitos as it was situated between a wet area and Timberline Lake (where camping was not allowed). The little vampires beasts were relentless, and if it were not for our head nets, we would have gone mad. Although, we did suffer assaults on areas of the body, where if they were performed by a species that was not of the insect kind, jail time would ensue.
Once our site was set up and all business was conducted, we settled in for a good night’s rest before we pushed for the 13-mile round trip up Whitney and back. I slept relatively well, considering we were still adjusting to the altitude and the campsite rested at 11,035 ft (3363m). After all, this was only the 3rd day since we started backpacking from Cottonwood Pass.
We were supposed to arise at some ungodly hour to start our trek; however, I wasn’t feeling very well, so we slept in and got a late start. I can’t recall what time it was, but I believe it was around 5:00 am because I had taken a picture of the moon and the dawn sky when we were not too far from the campsite.
With our minimally-loaded backpacks, we started hiking. We left the majority of our gear at the site, taking only essentials, which consisted of down jackets, raincoats, base layers, water, the day’s food ration, first-aid kits, trekking poles, GPS, and our SPOT device. It wasn’t very long before my not-so-well feeling turned to panic. We had entered the no-poo zone when my stomach started doing somersaults, and my intestines tightened their grip on my innards, my bowels screamed to be liberated.
Having a weak sphincter as it was, I had no choice but to deploy the WAG bag. Here we were, in the great open-wide area of Guitar Lake, and my body chooses this moment to revolt. I suppose it could have been worse, we could have been halfway up the trail to Mount Whitney already. Selecting the most appropriate spot I could find, behind a small boulder, I laid the bag out as per the instructions, squatted and did my best to aim directly. I won’t go too much into the details, but a little bit did escape the chemical cocktail inside the bag. Doing my best to collect the bag without touching said indiscretion, I wrapped it up, again per instructions, and proceeded to put it into an OpSak inside my backpack. I would continue to carry my little bundle of joy until we exited out days later at Shepherds Pass and was able to discard it where it belonged. I can literally say that I carried too much sh!t with me on the John Muir Trail! How many people can say that and really mean it?
One inconvenience down, we continued on our sojourn. We meandered through snowfields that obscured the trail. We did our best to chart a path through them, not yet being able to discern the trail from the landscape of the jagged mountain ahead. From time to time we referenced our GPS and iPhone app to ensure we would eventually meet the route that zig-zagged up the craggy west face. From far away, the mountain didn’t look quite as imposing as it did when you reached the base, but then it suddenly lurched up, towering, seemingly vertical, as if it were a wave that would soon come crashing down.
The long haul up the switchbacks had begun, inching forward with a slow not-so-monotonous pace. We stopped so frequently either to take pictures or because we couldn’t catch our breaths. The trail wasn’t necessarily steep itself, considering that the mountain, at points, dropped off dramatically, inducing nervous vertigo. I am not usually afraid of heights, but the first snow chute we encountered had me apprehensively contemplating my purpose on that mountain.
I looked across that white channel that sharply discharged to the valley below. One wrong step would send us careening undoubtedly to our deaths (or some painfully agonizing demise of some other sort that I’d prefer not to envision). We bravely donned our never-before-used crampons and made our way across, trying to recall what we learned from YouTube videos, but mostly common sense. We successfully negotiated our first steep snow with a sigh of relief, only to find that we would have to do it again once the trail cut back across that very same snow chute higher up. The act of stopping, removing the pack, strapping on the crampons, and gingerly treading across, removing said crampons, and packing them up again was tedious, to say the least. It severely hindered our already sluggish pace.
Eventually, we made it to the intersection where the Mount Whitney Trail ascends the mountain from the east. Yes! We were almost there! Only 1.9 miles left to go until we finally reach the top! Our excitement was slightly sullied by the sign that read: “EXTREME DANGER FROM LIGHTNING. TO AVOID BEING STRUCK BY LIGHTNING, IMMEDIATELY LEAVE THE AREA IF THE FOLLOWING CONDITIONS EXIST…”. Yes, the sign was in all CAPS, and I wondered how many people actually got struck by lightning while visiting the summit, especially considering whatever sun had made an appearance earlier had since made a quick departure and resigned to an overcast, dreary sky.
We proceeded ahead and were surprised to find ourselves shifting into mountain goat mode. The relatively smooth scree-covered path made way to chunkier terrain that was outwardly devoid of anything that resembled life except for the sky pilot (Polemonium eximium) that dotted the topography, bringing the only color to the world that wasn’t human-based. The scent of those flowers is something that I’ll never forget either, it wafted with the wind, and was aphrodisiac-like, luring you further up to the pinnacles. The aroma intoxicated, almost as if to lessen the fact that there were precipices in which you had to cross that dropped off on either side, offering no comfort for those who were acrophobic.
Not too far from the summit stands an otherworldly view of the tops of jagged peaks that make up the distinctive ‘needles’ seen from the east face. As I pondered about their origins, staring dumbly, my concentration was thwarted by a guy in bike shorts. Singing to the music he was playing aloud, this man practically ran up the trail. It seemed to me he was running, he moved past me as if I were standing still..although, perhaps I was. What struck me first was the size of this guy’s legs; they were thick with muscles, making Thor look as if he missed a few squat days too many. The next thing that made an impression on me was his tight little blue bike shorts (that’s all I’ll say about that). The third thing that resonates in my mind was his singing to the music. I’m disappointed that I can’t remember the song, but I do remember it was one of those repetitive albeit uplifting pop songs like those that they play at your local Planet Fitness for motivation. The fact that he was singing it while running would usually annoy me because I can’t do anything but huff and puff while running, but this time I found it amusing.
We scrambled up an amassment of assorted sized rubble and boulders before reaching the top. I crept over the horizon to gaze upon the hallmark Whitney Shelter and burst into tears. Perhaps it was delirium from hypoxia or a result of sudden onset fatigue, but I was emotional. This was my first time ‘climbing’ any mountain worth mentioning, never mind the highest one in the contiguous states. I’ve never done anything so fantastic, so I think it was appropriate to have such a sudden release of sentiment.
We stayed on top of the world (our little world) for about an hour. We snacked on our lunch and shooed away the opportunistic birds that appeared and tried to steal our eats. I supposed they were only trying to make a living, so I let them have a couple nibbles. We took our selfies and look-at-me pictures deserving of a few cliché-ridden Instagram posts. If you don’t have pictures then it really didn’t happen, did it? We spent the rest of the time up there soaking it all in, reflecting on the insignificance of our physical bodies compared to the vastness of the Sierra Nevada.
Then it was time to descend. What I thought would be the most troublesome part being over, I was soon to be proven wrong. After all, there’s a saying that you are only successful at summiting a mountain when you make the other half of the trek safely down. I begrudgingly left the safety of the mostly flat summit plateau to go back down the way we came.
With the exception of the sky pilot, the mountain seemed lifeless; however, it abruptly came to life. Commanding crags erupted out of the ground, almost as if warning passersby that at any moment they would overtake anyone who attempted to cross. I was diligent in making a conscious effort of foot placement; however, the thinning air was starting to play tricks with my mind. I couldn’t breathe, my heart beat laboriously, pumping oxygen-deprived blood to my exploding lungs. I was dizzy, I started hallucinating and hearing ‘echoes.’ When I spoke, it was as if I was trapped in a hull that was my body, uttering a voice that I barely recognized as my own, emanating from a conveyance that was not my own mouth. My lips felt parched, drawn across my teeth like the binding of an old book; they were inflamed and tender. My head felt crowded, about to erupt as if my brain was trying to break out of its shell. My eyes twitched, in defiance of the heights I’ve subjected them to, squinching to guard themselves against the glaring of the subdued light of the overcast sky. My legs felt tight as if they were being restricted, compelled to paralyzation, unwilling to take another step. I met the monsters in the mountain that day, and they were as alive as any creature that crawls the earth, as real as any corporeal being.
Whitney tested the limits of my body physically and mentally, but there was no way to go, but down, there was no other option. Given the circumstances, the 1.9-mile segment from the summit to the Whitney Trail Junction was by far the most brutal and challenging hiking that I’ve ever done, it seemed perpetual.
Traversing Mt. Whitney is an unearthly experience. The thin air stifles every breath, my heart hammers to deliver vital oxygen, my legs feel heavy from what seems like strangulation. My head feels dilated, making thoughts confused. My eyes begin to twitch, and even the diffused light of the murky sky becomes glaringly distracting. The mountains take on a life of their own. I start to encounter monsters in the mountain; their faces looking down at me, their clawing fingers grasp at my feet, their twisted spines inducing a sense of perpetual climbing. – Go. Own It, The Monster in the Mountain
As we continued to descend, the cruel torments subsided, and I began to feel like myself again. We worked our way down the switchbacks as quickly as we could, with me taking an unusual position in the front. I am the slower hiker, and my husband gets annoyed at me when I make abrupt stops because I have trouble breathing. Going downhill isn’t usually an issue, because I’m not straining myself, but when we are going uphill, I breach a threshold of exertion that triggers my asthma and requires me to stop frequently to catch my breath. However, even going downhill, I prefer to be in the back because the hulking footsteps of my husband barreling down behind me make me nervous. This time, he was behind me. I quickened my gait, and in my haste, I slipped on some scree. My left foot slipped out far ahead of my body, and I fell onto my right knee with a solid thud, my trekking poles extended out in front of me. My immediate reaction was to scream out in agony. I had ripped my pants, and my knee immediately started to throb, and all I could think about was the pain. However, my husband made it abruptly clear that I nearly fell off the mountain, and if it were not for my trekking poles, I would have. I would have tumbled off the ridge, down the precipice, and if the fall hundreds of feet didn’t kill me the raking across sharp jutting talus would have, cutting me open like a gutted game.
After a few moments rest and a number of jokes about what my husband would have done if I had died, we pressed on. We had slowed our pace and were gingerly plodding along and were close to the snowfields near the base of the mountain when a familiar sound filled our ears. Mr. Blue Bike Shorts came flying by us at a breakneck speed. I stopped for a moment to stare, in awe of the pep in his step. He looked as fresh and nimble as if he hadn’t climbed that whole darned mountain while we looked like zombies from Night of the Living Dead. He dashed across the snowfields and soon became a speck in our sights. It had been almost 14 hours by the time we reached the bottom of the mountain and crossed the snowfields ourselves, putting an end to our ordeal.
The sun started to peek out from the moody clouds, and we made a stop at Guitar Lake. We sat on some rocks by the shore admiring the sun creating a display of shimmering diamonds on the lake’s surface. I pondered a moment and made two statements. The first was, “You know that ‘ding’ on the airplane when you reach 10,000 ft? Well, I will never hear that ‘ding’ the same way again when going up in an airplane, and when they say you can now turn on your devices”. The second statement was, “I’m never doing that again. That was awful”.
Climbing Mount Whitney was the scariest but most fulfilling experience of my life. It’s been 10 months since we climbed it and we are now preparing for another romp through the Sierra Nevadas on the same John Muir Trail. Our itinerary starts us off where we exited last year due to snow, and we will continue northbound until we reach the end.
Contrary to the vow I made after descending Mount Whitney last year, I’ve since changed my mind and am hoping to subject myself to the same gripping experience again this year. I’ve already warned my husband that if we finish early and our schedule allows, I want to return to Horseshoe Meadows and re-hike the same section from Cottonwood Pass, including Mount Whitney.
My husband’s response…”You’re crazy!”.
- Inyo National Forest – Mt. Whitney: Human Waste – Information for waste management on Mt. Whitney