I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt so euphoric standing on the summit of Mt Whitney–maybe it was the fact that at that altitude I was getting around 57% of the normal oxygen as at sea level and my brain function wasn’t quite right, or it could have been that until that moment I wasn’t entirely sure I would even reach the summit. Either way, once there, it was an exciting feeling of being on top of the world with a bird's eye view in every direction.
As the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, reaching Mt Whitney’s 14,505-foot summit is a popular endeavor since once the majority of the snow has melted, typically by late June, it’s a manageable hike. There’s no need for any special climbing equipment other than a good pair of shoes and the desire for a big day on the mountain.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a hiker. I ride a bike somewhat well, but that’s about the extent of my physical prowess. So when my wife informed me in March that I would be hiking Mt Whitney later that summer with she, her sister, and brother-in-law I knew I would have to train for such a feat. While a lot of people turn the hike into a two-day affair and camp just past the mid-way point, we would be covering the 22-mile round trip hike in a single day, making it even more of a challenge.
My grand plans to train never quite materialized and before I knew it we were on the eve of the hike and I had yet to do anything more than a weekly, hour-long nature walk with my two young daughters. So, plan B–use as much PR Lotion as I possibly could in a 24-hour period and hope it could work some magic!
There are few times in my life I’ve looked forward to a 3:15 am wake-up, but when the alarm signaled that it was finally go-time on the morning of the hike, adrenalin overpowered the longing for a few more hours of sleep and helped get me to the hotel breakfast for a cup of needed, albeit, very average coffee. By 4:30 we were unloading at Whitney Portal, the point where the road ends and the trail begins. After weighing in our packs at the start of the trailhead and making bets on how much of the 17 pounds of water and food I’d be carrying on my back would gone by the time we returned, it was time to start chipping away at the 6,100 feet of vertical gain it was going to take to get from the Portal to the summit.
As we made our way up, the headlamps illuminated just enough of the trail for us to navigate the rock steps and switchbacks, while the massive granite walls of the mountains around us wouldn’t show themselves until first light. About the time a golden glow reached the mountain tops, we were already making good time and well within our goal of reaching the top before noon. Mile after mile, we plodded along through changing terrain, first climbing past the treeline, then all vegetation being erased after the 13,000-foot point as massive granite boulders and the odd marmot hoping for a handout were all that were within sight.
Just before the final two-mile approach to the top we reached Trail Crest, one of the most beautiful sections of the day. As the trail continued along a narrow spine you could look to the West into Sequoia National Park and what seemed to be an endless expanse with no signs of human existence. To the East, the White Mountains, and below that was Owens Valley where we had begun our journey many hours before.
The final two miles were the slowest and most draining of the day, not only because the trail was now replaced with boulders, but also because any effort beyond that of a steady pace left me feeling light-headed and quickly out of breath due to the altitude. All four of us were feeling the same at that point, so slow and steady to the top was all we could ask for. Finally, the iconic summit shelter stone building that has stood since 1909 came into view, with the edge of Mt Whitney just a number of feet beyond that.
After a few minutes of enjoying ourselves, a PR Lotion reapplication, and signing our names in the book at summit shelter, it was time to head back down. For whatever reason I was thinking that it would be much easier going down than up; maybe it was the cyclist in me knowing that thanks to gravity, downhill equals resting. I sure got a hiking education that day.
My legs felt shockingly good on the way up, but on the 11-mile return trip it was my knees and feet that rebelled and made me wish I had taken my preparation a little more seriously. Thirteen hours after starting we made it back to the trailhead and gave a round of high-fives, proud of our accomplishment. At the pack weigh-in, I realized that a full 10 pounds of water and food weight had been lost over the course of the hike through the consumption of 3.5 liters of water and approximately 4,000 calories.
After another application of PR Lotion, a whole pizza and a couple of beers, I was dead to the world by 9:00 pm that evening. The memories from that day will stay with me for many years to come.