Climbing 14,500′ Mt. Whitney, July 12-14, 2005
I have enjoyed climbing mountains since I moved to New England in 1973. I have been up 6,312′ Mt. Washington four times, 7,825′ Emory Peak in Texas, several 8,000′ peaks in Arizona and the 12,600′ Sphinx in Montana (going from 6-9,000′ on horseback). In early July of 2007, two months short of my 68th birthday, I made two hikes up to as high as 11,800′ with each of my two daughters in the Rockies. On July 12-14, my 6’3″ son and I climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48, in a three day hike.
In late afternoon of July 12, we left our wives in a motel in Lone Pine (elevation 3,500′) and drove up to the 8,400′ trailhead. We left the trailhead at 5 p.m. in order to cross two overflowing streams in daylight, completing the 2.5 mile climb to Lone Pine Lake (9,600′) as darkness fell. On the way up we met three hikers who had tried to summit in one day but got so sick they had to turn back. Two were poorly equipped, badly sunburned and literally on their last legs, but a third was young, fit and well equipped.
Since this is Active Bear Country, we intended to wait until our Wilderness Pass became effective at midnight and then use LCD headlamps to climb another mile to a camp where there would be many campers for the bears to choose from. But it got cold and we got in our sleeping bags and awoke at 12:40 a.m. Not wanting to get out, we spent the night under the stars, both wondering if we would wake up to see a bear nose six inches from our own.
At 5:30 a.m. we began the 3.5 mile climb to the Trail Camp at 12,000′. At times the trail took us through deep snow, but on a trail others had broken. In Trail Camp, we pitched our tent by a frozen lake and rested up for our summit attempt the next day. Only about one third of those who get passes to summit, sign in at the top. Weather is often the problem, but the physical demands and altitude sickness stop many more.
I took this picture from our campsite in the 12,000′ Trail Camp. The famous 97 switchbacks begin in the center of the photo and work their way up the mostly bare rock slope to the ridge at the top center of the photo. The trail then follows the other side of that ridge to the summit, which is well out of sight, 3 miles to the right of the center of the photo. At times on our way to the top we had to go around boulders the size of electric ranges that had fallen during the winter and now blocked the trail. In one place there are steel rails to hold onto, but we had to walk on the outside of the rails because the path was buried in 4 feet of snow and ice. On the way down, I glissaded down the large snowfield on left center. More on this in the last slide.
When we got up the next morning it was so windy that our tent would have been blown away if we had not grabbed it as we got out. Our first view of the summit occurred as we ascended the 97 switchbacks to the 13,900′ Trail Crest. My son took this photo of the summit–about 2.5 miles away as the crow flies — with a telephoto lens. The summit — the sharply pointed peak — is the size of a slanted football field, but looks very small from here. After crossing over the windy Trail Crest, we descended about 500’ and then followed the trail behind the “needles” and through several snow fields to the 14,500′ summit. It was 117 degrees in Death Valley that day, but in the 50’s on the top, on a gorgeous crystal clear day. We could see the mountains that ring Los Angeles about 180 miles away.
My 6’3″ son and I on the summit, which we reached about 10:30 a.m. It took me several minutes to find “mighty” 12,700′ Wotan’s Throne, which we had skirted for 2.5 miles on the way up to 12,000′ Trail Camp. The Throne is not visible in the photo as it is 1,800′ below the summit. So much for Wotan. Thor’s Peak (12,200′), whose base we had skirted not long after leaving Lone Pine Lake, was even harder to identify. On the horizon on the left side, two ridges of green forest can be seen. Lone Pine (elevation 3,500′) is in a valley between those ridges about 13 miles as the crow flies from the summit.
Wotan’s Throne (12,700′) is 1,800′ below, in the center of this photo from the Whitney summit. We had skirted its southern flank for 2.5 miles on the way up, hiking at times on a path through waist deep snow. The 12,000′ Trail Camp is out of sight on the other side of Wotan’s Throne.
After an hour on the summit, we began our descent. On the previous afternoon, from our campsite in Trail Camp I had watched hikers glissading down snowfields. When we got to them my son, knowing enough about me to guess that I wanted to try glissading, said to me, “Dad, you know that altitude affects judgment,” and then began his way down the rest of the switchbacks. I tried a short glissade in a sitting position to get the hang of it, and then pushed off down the snowfield in a track others had made. My bottom got wet, then cold, then very, very cold on the 100 yard slide that took only about twenty seconds. Other hikers cheered and one sought me out in Trail Camp to congratulate me. It took my long-legged son five minutes to catch up with me. I would do it again in a minute. What fun!
We picked up the gear we had left at Trail Camp and then hiked the six miles to the Trailhead without a break. So on that day we hiked five miles up and eleven out, plus a few more on the summit and in the Trail camp, for a total of about 18 miles in one day. This hike was the first hike with my son that he planned rather than I, and one of the most memorial things I have ever done.