Backpacking: Mount Whitney (14,505ft)

This August (2018) was probably my busiest month for adventure travel ever. I had plans to be out of town every single weekend and backpacking on every trip, and backpacking up Mount Whitney was the first trip to kick off the wild month.

The plan, fly in Vegas, meet my dad and brother at the airport, explore the Eastern Sierras for a couple days, backpack up Mount Whitney, catch sunrise from atop the highest mountain in the lower 48, and then explore Death Valley National Park on our way back to Vegas.

After a late 11:30p arrival in Vegas, I found my dad and brother at baggage claim and we started the long four hour drive to Big Pine, California to meet up with my uncle and cousin who should have already found a campsite in the Alabama Hills area. I almost booked a campsite for this first night, but knowing we wouldn’t arrive in Big Pine till about 4am, it hardly seemed worth it, considering all the dispersed camping options I found available in the Alabama Hills.

We made a quick stop at the Zabriskie Point parking lot in Death Valley in the middle of the night to relieve ourselves and attempt a few quick night shots. It was still about 95-degrees at 2:30a which was just completely absurd. Not since Key West had I experienced such a miserable nighttime temperature, but at least it was bearable without the humidity.

I had previously sent my cousin and uncle a potential camping location and just told them to pick a spot nearby if it was already occupied. We arrived in the Alabama Hills around 4:00a and found them at the second spot we went to. It hardly seemed worth the trouble to set up our tents, so we opted to just sleep in the car as best we could. I was only out for about an hour before my alarm sounded so I could get up to take some sunrise photos. I was totally blown away by the rocky Alabama Hills landscape that wasn’t immediately visible to us on the drive in.

After soaking in the sunrise and making a batch of coffee, we took off heading north. We would have the next two days to explore the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, so our first destination would be Devil’s Postpile National Monument. We knew there were plenty of fires in the Sierras at the moment, but I guess we weren’t aware of just how close we would end up being to a burn area. So close so that we were passing all the roads blocked off by the firefighters and visibility probably only a quarter mile or so.

After arriving at Devils Postpile National Monument, we were advised that we needed to drive back down to Mammoth Mountain (ski resort) and hop on a shuttle to the trailhead. I guess this is typical on busier days. We completed this quick hike the Devils Postpile and continued on to Rainbow Falls. This was only about five miles roundtrip and pretty much completely flat. The entire process of driving up and taking the shuttles and then hiking ended up consuming pretty much the entire day. We decided to enjoy our first post-hike dinner at The Yodeler right at the base of Mammoth Mountain and then headed to Big Pine Campground to set up camp for the night.

I originally planned to get up around 3am or so to make a solo hike out the the Big Pine Lakes. The lakes and the giants granite mountains towering over the turquoise water of the lakes looks unreal, but in the end I decided I didn’t want to leave the group waiting for me to get back and pack up before we could go explore more of the Eastern Sierras. In hindsight though, I really should have prioritized this hike more. I’m already looking to make a return trip just to go hike (and hopefully backpack) out to these lakes. But, oh well. As in most of my trips, now I know exactly where to spend more time the next time I’m in the area.

We all awoke around at sunrise, had a quick bite, packed up and hit the road. The first stop was Hot Creek Geological Site. I had seen some amazing captures of the site and wanted to try and get a few of my own.

The smoke was even more thick on the drive back up north this day. We parked and hit the trail making a loop to the far end. I found the exact spot I wanted a photo from and set up only to realize that the mountains were completely blanketed by wildfire smoke. I captured what I could while my dad flew his drone around for a bit and then we completed the loop back to the car.

On the walk back to the road though, the winds must have shifted and all of a sudden I was beginning to see mountains in the distance. I rushed back to the car, picked up the guys, and quickly went back to the spot I was just shooting at. Luckily, I was able to the the shot I was hoping for and felt satisfied to continue to the next destination.

Next stop was Mono Lake, a shallow salt-water lake, one of just eight in the country, distinguishable by the limestone towers that protrude above the surface. This unique lake provided a unique setting for my cousin Ed to just in and cool down. We walked the short loop trail around the limestone features while Ed swam a lap. Afterward, it was time to head back south so we could get up to Whitney Portal to set up camp and prepare our backpacking gear.

On the way to Whitney Portal, we made the short detour to the Mobius Arch trailhead which was no more than a quarter-mile from where we had camped the first night in the Alabama Hills area. The short loop leads through orange potato-shaped volcanic rock towers. These weathered sandstones are quite the site to see and the arch itself is only about six feet tall, but you can get same amazing photos looking through the arch at Mount Whitney.

The short arch hike was the perfect way to end the day of sightseeing before gearing up for Mount Whitney. We continued up the long gradual and occasionally winding road up to Whitney Portal. The views looking up toward Mount Whitney and back down toward the Alabama Hills were ever changing but always impressive.

I was able to secure a group campsite at Whitney Portal (it was the only site available) so we had more than enough room for our group’s four tents and my hammock. The group sites were significantly more open and offered great views up toward Whitney while also being right on the water. We gathered all our gear and did our own individual inventories while packing up for the early hike up, enjoyed our freeze-dried dinners and hit the hay.

We set out the next morning just after 5:00a. Even though we were only going six miles up to Trail Camp, we had ambitions to summit in time for sunrise the following morning. This meant we would likely be setting out for the summit around 2 or 3am, so we wanted to make sure we had more than enough time to reach Trail Camp and get as much rest as we could before making our late night/early morning summit push.

The hike up to Trail Camp was a fairly gradual incline much of the way up. We all watched in awe as the sun rose and was filtered out by the wildfire smoke. We were unable to see down into the Alabama Hills and kept peering back, anxiously waiting for the sun to peak above the film of smoke covering the valley below. It was a pretty straightforward hike through forests, over streams, and past a couple small alpine lakes. The trail was wide and pretty clear of rocks below the tree line. Above the tree line is where things really start getting interesting though.

As soon as you climb out of the last few trees and onto the rocks, you’ve rewarded with some wide open valley back down into the valley as well as a clear look up at Mount Whitney. You also start seeing a multitude of waterfalls and other flows of water trickling down from seemingly every direction. One waterfall was particular jaw-dropping as it funneled down impressively into a streams that continued down through the rocks and toward the valley below. At this point the trail was pretty much all rock all the way up to camp. At one point, you’re basically walking up a steps of rock with water flowing down the entirety of it—a waterfall staircase, if you will.

Reach Consultation Lake is the last make checkpoint before reaching Trail Camp. It’s a gorgeous vibrant high alpine lake just below Mount Whitney that many people mistake for being Trail Camp. I not sure if camping is technically permitted there, but it would certainly be a hell of a place to camp.

After six miles and 3,700ft of vert, we arrived at Trail Camp, located right at 12,000ft above sea level, at about 1:30pm. All the guys promptly took a nice flat plot right alongside the trail. But I, never content with the first campsite until I explore all the potential campsites, opted for the great spot up in the rocks that had handmade rock walls to block the wind and sprawling views of the lake and Mount Whitney. We had plenty of time to enjoy the long day and rest.

We had lunch and mulled over what time to start hiking the next morning. After about four hours, most the guys retreated to their sleeping quarters to nap or crash for the rest of the evening. After looking at our pace that day, I determined that the other guys would have to start at midnight if they wanted to have any shot at making summit in time for sunrise. I decided I would start with them, and then take off ahead for the summit after a couple hours to make sure I had time to summit and set up and take pictures.

We all went to bed in the daylight, but after the sun retreated and the skies darkened, that’s when things got really interesting.

Here’s an excerpt from my father’s write-up of the trip explaining what happened next.

Our alarms were set for 11:30pm. The primary goal was to make the summit, and secondary was the plan to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise over the neighboring mountains.

At 11:15pm, we were awakened by a man yelling out side our tents. “Is anyone in these tents?”, he yelled. “We need help. We are lost. We have someone with us who is sick. PLEASE HELP US!”

From inside my tent, I responded “YA”, but I needed to get dressed before exiting my tent to see what was going on. Eddie was also awakened and was partially dressed, so he exited his tent quickly and I could hear Eddie talking to the man, although with my terrible hearing, I couldn’t hear everything that was said. 

At this time, the temperature was about 45 degrees. I finished getting dressed and exited the tent to find Eddie talking with the man. There were three men and two woman total. The man who was doing all the talking explained that the three men were hiking and came across the two women who were dressed for the desert heat, and trembling in the cold darkness. 

The women attempted to do a hike to the summit and back in a day. They left the portal at 3:30AM and reached the summit, but stayed too long. As they descended, the sun went down, and they weren’t prepared for the cold, thin air at that altitude. One was freezing and sick while the other was freezing. 

The three men had problems of their own. They too, were also dressed for the desert heat, and had no idea how to navigate back to the portal in darkness. They were cold but were making due. They wanted to help the women so they told them to follow and they would find help.

We explored the idea of them going down to the next camp, where there was a ranger station and they could even life-flight the woman who was sick if necessary. That camp was 3 miles down, but the men were simply not able to navigate the trail in darkness.

By then, our 11:30 alarms were ringing, and I realized that we would be leaving, so I offered up my tent and sleeping bag to the 2 women. Eddie offered up his sleeping bag as well so they could get some warmth and sleep and in the morning, they could decide what they wanted to do. They graciously accepted and entered the tent after I emptied my belonging into Gary’s tent. Problem solved.

The men decided to attempt to get back to the portal. Within minutes after departing, we heard a voice from the darkness, “Can we sit outside your tent until morning?”, said the man who was doing all the talking in a sheepish voice. CJ responded, “You can stay in my tent”. CJ emptied the tent of his belongings into Eddie’s tent and the three men eagerly entered. Another problem solved.

We finished getting ready for our summit, making coffee and eating breakfast. We had barely enough rations for ourselves. I offered hot water or coffee to the men and women, but they declined. I noticed that I still had a ham sandwich that I planned on eating when returning from the summit, so I offered it to the women to split, and they accepted.

We finally got underway at 12:30AM.

Keep in mind that my tent was separated from the other guys, so I had no clue what was going on until I was packed up ready to go and went down to see if they were ready, only to find them boiling water and talking to a small group of guys wearing shorts who were clearly in trouble.

Thank goodness that my family members were camped out right on the trail and were basically already awake and willing to help this group of ill-prepared hikers. Who knows if anyone else would have woken up to provide them with the warmth and shelter they needed to survive the night. It’s really easy to look at the situation and quickly chastise both groups of hikers for not knowing the route, not having the proper clothing or supplies, not starting nearly as early as they needed to—the list goes on. But it was a teachable moment for everyone involved. I think everyone involved learn valuable lessons about how unforgiving the backcountry can be and just how important it is to be prepared for every situation when you’re so far from civilization and have no way to call for help when you need it.

Someone could have easily died on that mountain that night.

So yeah, it was a pretty wild way to start the day (at midnight, mind you). We finally departed and headed straight up the infamous ‘99 Switchbacks’ toward the summit. The [half] moon rose about halfway up the switchbacks to provide some much welcomed natural light. I was eagerly awaiting this and made a couple stops to set up a tripod and get some incredible night photos. I will say that hiking the switchbacks in the dark was way more enjoyable and way less monotonous than hiking down them in the daytime. It was a nice wide trail though with the exception of just one narrow crossing.

The views of the granite spires above us continued to get even more impressive the further we hiked as the moon and sun slowly brightened the landscape for us. We reached the top of the switchbacks, passed a sign notifying us that we had entered Sequoia National Park (which was a complete surprise to me), and traversed through the rocky cliffs dubbed “The Windows” en route to the summit.

At about 3:15a, I decided it was time to pull away from the group and speed up to “Randy Pace” to make my summit push in time for sunrise. Ed decided to endure some early morning suffering and joined me. I let him lead most the way up so I could see what his pace would be. If I felt like he wasn’t going fast enough, I could always step on his heels and pass him like any loving family member would do!

We easily made it to the summit about an hour before sunrise, which is exactly what I had planned on, but I wasn’t quite ready for how windy and cold it would be up there. I had my down jacket and hat and gloves, so it’s not like I was exactly prepared. But I quickly learned that I should have brought my heavy duty ski mittens up there. My light fleece gloves were no match for the cold wind, and my inability to stop taking pictures and adjusting camera settings left my gloved hands exposed and they froze to a point I don’t think I had ever experienced.

There is a small shelter atop Mount Whitney, and we found that a handful of people had bunkered down in there to sleep for the night. It got to a point where my hands were clearly on the brink of partial frostbite and I quickly retreated to the shelter and found a man with his camp stove running and he offered to keep it running for me so I could regain feeling in my hands. I really don’t think my hands have ever gotten that cold before. Lesson learned (I bring my mittens everywhere now).

At 7:05am, Ed and I enjoyed an amazing sunrise from 14,505 feet above sea level, the absolute highest point on land in the lower 48 states.

We found shelter from the wind in some lower hanging rocks and soaked in the heat from the sun. About 30 minutes after sunrise, I was certain I heard my name being hollered and popped my head up to find that my dad and brother had also made it to the summit. I was so relieved and proud to see they had made it to the summit. I knew they would. Two months prior they had both come to Colorado so I could prepare them for what to expect backpacking and hiking up a 14er. We backpacked up Mount Elbert, but on summit day we made it above 14,000 feet and the combination of fatigue and a poor weather forecast forced us to turn back just 400 feet from the summit. With a clear forecast and clear minds, I knew they wouldn’t let anything get in the way of them reaching the summit of Mount Whitney on this day.

Randy Johnson

Randy is a Cleveland native who has made Colorado his home for over 5 years. He eats scrambled eggs and bacon for every breakfast, has been to every MLB ballpark, and has no sense of smell.