Mt. Whitney - 14,494 feet
Summited on 9/9/02 - Highpoint #6 of 50
|Mark on the summit of Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park on 9/9/02. A 6,000 foot elevation gain from the trailhead. This is the highest point in the continental United States.||Mark on the "summit" of Death Valley (-280 ft) in Death Valley National Park on 9/8/02. This is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.|
Monday morning (Summit Day) 3AM. The alarm goes off and I am ready to go. We climb out of our tents into the moonless night (of course it was the New Moon that night). The headlamps go on and we pack up our gear into our bags so we don't have to do it after the climb. The stars were shinning brightly and it looked for all the world like we were going to have clear skies at the very least. After the car was loaded we hopped in and drove up to the trailhead and parked. We were not the only ones to start this early, in fact a number of cars were already there. We wouldn't have been there so early either except for the fact that we had to drive all the way back to LA that night after the climb. It was 4AM and we took pictures at the trailhead and set off into the crisp cool night. Climbing in the dark wasn't terribly difficult as the trail is pretty easy to follow. Still I had to stop a couple of times to make sure that I didn't miss a turn or something. We didn't encounter very many other people but every now and then we would catch a glimpse of a headlamp either far up ahead or behind us. The small pinpoints of light looked strange against the utter blackness of the trail. A few miles into the climb we were passed from behind, don't worry though cause I smoked those same guys further up the trail. Finally after 2 hours of fairly monotonous climbing the sun started to come up and we were rewarded with some good alpen glow on the eastern edge of the mountains. The sky was blue as can be and the sun was warming things up very nicely as we continued on up the trail. We strolled into the high camp at 12,000 feet and took a well deserved break. There was a fair amount of people there on a Monday morning, I can only imagine the zoo it must be on an August weekend. The weather at the high camp must be pretty lousy at times as all of the campsites had rock piles built up to shelter each tent spot from the wind. From talking with several people the weather there just the other night was beyond crummy. In fact we might two guys that spent the night in the Smithsonian Hut on top of Whitney when they got stuck in the bad weather up top. Having rested a bit, we set out again. The infamous 96 switchbacks start shortly after 12,000 feet so I woofed down a Clif Bar in anticipation. I don't know if it was the bar or the excitement of the switchbacks but I had a huge burst of energy and flat just started to fly up the switchbacks. I said "see you at the top" to Tom and took off. Full of energy the switchbacks weren't bad at all, of course a week of backpacking prior to tackling them didn't hurt one bit either. I passed a number of people on the switchbacks and finally got some clear sailing. The section with the cables was mostly ice free the 2nd week in September. I got up to Trail Crest and stopped for a break. Wow is the view amazing as you come over the crest! I looked behind for Tom but he was no where in sight. I talked with a guy coming the other way for a little bit, still no Tom, so I got up and kept going. The trail makes a hard right turn at this point and actually loses several hundred feet of precious altitude. You meander along the western side of the ridge ultimately heading towards Whitney. This is a neat section of the trail as you get to see the other side of the spines and can look through cracks in the rocks that drop down a couple thousand feet. There is a short section in this part of the trail that is advertised to be 'narrow' but it was 10 feet wide and no problem whatsoever. I really thought I was flying up the mountain until a couple of JMT through hikers blew past me without their packs on, just like "Bill said"! Finally I could see the Smithsonian hut off in the distance. It was about here at about 14,000 feet that I felt a little wobbly, not too bad but noticeable as I had to concentrate more on balance. And then, 5 hours and 50 minutes from the trailhead I was standing on the summit of Mt. Whitney at 14,496 feet. The views were great and the weather was absolutely perfect. Evidently the reward for suffering through the hurricane. The big entertainment at the top was the marmot and the birds begging for food. About 30 minutes later Tom showed up and we shared our success together at the top. At the time this was the highest point I had climbed, but has since been surpassed. The climb back down can be summarized in one word, long. We ran out of water and filled up in a stream about halfway. My feet and knees were complaining and even though I knew how much longer it would be to get back to the parking lot, it seemed like we would never get there. Thankfully at 4PM we hit the trailhead, 12 hours round trip for 22 miles and 6,000 feet. We had a celebratory beer at the general store, bought our "I climbed Mt Whitney" t-shirts and got ready to drive back to LA. Having done it, I think that the day hike is definitely the way to go. I don't see any advantage to humping all of your gear up the mountain to save a little time on summit day. There is no way I would have wanted to shoulder a heavy load after coming down from the top. In any event, the 4 hour drive back to LA was uneventful and I had enough adrenaline still going to not be sleepy until we hit the hotel.
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