In fact, I am still in shock that I actually climbed it all the way to the top and survived, (20 hours climbing in one day, over 6000 feet in elevation and I was the only female our group!)
I thought it was best for me to write down my experience so when life decides to throw me a challenge I can always think of climbing and surviving “that” mountain- a once in a lifetime bucket list that I never have to do again!!
CONFESSIONS OF A TRAVEL ADDICT - CLIMBING (AND SURVIVING) MOUNT WHITNEY
This crazy adventure took place exactly Sunday 12th July at 2:45am and finished around 11:05pm that night. Just to be clear here: most internet sites say the average time it takes to summit Mount Whitney is about 12 hours- what they FAIL to mention is that they are talking about doing the hike in TWO days and hiking about 12 hours per day (so prepare to camp), and that the top of the mountain ledges are generally covered in snow even in the middle of summer (more about that part later!).
Our humble group thought we were prepared, after all I was with my boyfriend Stefan (a mega fit adventure seeker), an Australian hardcore adrenalin junkie who had just climbed Mount Everest Base Camp last year, a super fit English guy who trains two hours EVERY DAY and an older male American who resides half the year in Mammoth and is well adapted to climbing and high altitudes.
We all thought to ourselves “How hard can it be”? Ignorance my friends is bliss until you stare it right in the face 14 494 feet up a blooming mountain!
Our day started around 1:30am in the morning at base camp (You don’t really sleep the night before, I went to bed at 7pm that night and basically stayed awake in a frazzled state of anxiety and anticipation until the alarm went off).
We packed up and started walking around 2:45am (you take all your food and supplies with you, besides a stream towards the top there is no water and you guessed it no toilets, the park actually gives you bags to take with you, its illegal to poop in nature up there!).
The night was really cold, silent and dark. We all looked like hobbits from Lord of The Rings climbing up the side of a winding mountain with our backpacks and belongings.
The only light we had was a sliver from an almost moonless moon and our headlamps, which showed about two feet in front of us at any given time.
The first part of the trail consists of dense forest, river crossings, small waterfalls, climbing on logs and feeling pretty alert (adrenalin). We stopped a few hours later for a 5-minute break (breakfast) while watching the sunrise , which was truly beautiful.
We saw many other groups which had started around the same time as us, but this hike does not really lend time to chitchatting, especially in the morning as you are trying to get as many miles behind you as possible before the sun rises.
The first few hours are really a blur as you are waking up, adjusting to the cold, the dark and then the sun as you are making a slow but steady incline.
By mid morning around 11am the sun is well and truly up and you start to feel the effects on your body. Lets just say that up until midday things were pretty calm, like your usual hike in the wilderness but after lunch things started to get a bit crazy.
After lunch our American friend decided to depart and keep going as he was use to the altitude and wanted to pick up the pace, and our British friend got his “second wind” and left us at the start of the 99 switchbacks (Its more like 100 plus switchbacks and freaking hard!)
So that left the Australian Everest guy, my German boyfriend and me ; the only female in the group to tackle the next strenuous part.
By the start of the switchbacks you start to see a lot of people who are turning back (in fact some internet sites say that 3 out of every 5 people do not make it to the top).
The main and obvious reason for this is of course altitude sickness. By this stage you are at around 11 or 12 000 feet and the effects can be quite severe.
I was actually feeling OK, exhausted but still with some kick and determination in me (thank the Gods for “GU” one of the best inventions of pure energy when doing extreme sports EVER, and my trusty friend Advil which I kept popping like an addict once I got over 12 000 feet to help combat the headaches and lightheadedness).
I must also give credit to my Aussie friend and German boyfriend who offered to carry my backpack at this stage or I would have not made it up in one piece!
About halfway up the switchbacks though my boyfriend started to go a bit loopy. Having never seen or experienced altitude sickness before it can be quite sudden and extreme and that’s exactly what happened to Stefan.
One minute he was fine and the next minute he kept tripping over and loosing his balance, laughing uncontrollably, answering questions in “Germanish” (English and German mixed together), slurring his words like he was severely drunk and then began complaining of a massive migraine. We stopped and he abruptly fell asleep half way up the switchbacks on the side of a mountain for about twenty minutes.
There is really no way to combat altitude sickness other than to slow down, take a break every fifteen minutes, drink a ton of water or in worst cases ascend down and head back.
We took the switchbacks slowly, and made sure we drank every ten to fifteen minutes. Altitude sickness had not kicked in for me yet but I kept feeling my heart rate which was almost beating out of my chest, and my breathing was becoming labored (imagine sucking in air and expanding your chest but not getting enough air to fill your lungs) and my legs were really starting to BURN like crazy. The only thought going through my mind was “don’t let me have a heart attack on this mountain”!
Finally the switchbacks were over and we came to the top and the start of what I thought was going to be a walk in the park-the final stretch and last 500 feet (494 feet to be exact) of our ascent to the top-how WRONG I was.
After all that effort we had now encountered the HARDEST part of the ascent – the rocky and narrow ridge (more like a ledge, half a foot wide) on the side of the mountain to the very top AND it was covered in snow-no scratch that; SLIPPERY ICE that had not yet melted!
This must have been the point where altitude (or frayed nerves) kicked in for me, because I took one look at the ledge and began crying hysterically (those of you who know me I am NOT the crying type so this was pretty extreme behavior for me!).
All I saw was slippery ice and me falling 14 000 feet to my imminent death. I can climb anything, but being from inland Australia I am not use to climbing over snow with no harness, snow shoes or mountaineering gear on the side of the frigging highest mountain in Contiguous USA! I was so close to the top (well another 2.5 hours) and ready to throw in the towel.
Thank goodness for Stefan and the Aussie, they gave me my moment (well about five minutes) to gather myself, meditate and give myself a serious talking to (it was not very nice!), and then we proceeded VERY SLOWLY inch by inch holding hands (me in the middle of course) across the ridges and up the side of the mountain.
It was not the height that scared me (although its mind blowing when you look down and its literally inches between you and 14 000 feet), but the slippery ice and how easy it would be for all three of us to slip and fall (especially with no gear).
Once again the Internet had provided us with false information stating that we did not need any rope or ice shoes or gear during the summer months.
By the end of the narrow path we came to the final half hour of intense climbing up to the top. By this stage with the altitude well above 14 000 feet we were stopping every 5 minutes for a rest, then a little more climbing, then resting again.
We met up with our British friend who looked literally green in the face coming down the mountain. He had summited about an hour ago and was coming down at a fast pace-he did not want to summit again and said he would meet us at the bottom of the switchbacks where we had met for lunch (he had bad altitude sickness).
Now the cardinal rule for hiking in EVERY book is to stay together (more about that later), but by the look on his face he needed to get to lower ground. We were all a bit loopy by this stage and not thinking right so we agreed to see each other at the meeting point near the switchbacks in a few hours.
How can I describe the last part of the hike? I was feeling very emotional by this stage, I felt like laughing, crying, screaming, and singing at the same time for absolutely no reason (lack of oxygen and exhaustion truly does crazy things to ones psyche).
Finally after around 13 hours we made it to the top at 4:00pm- exhaustion was an understatement of how I was feeling at this point, but I could not stop, remember we still had to turn around and walk all the way back (22 miles in total -11 miles up and 11 miles down) that SAME DAY!
We met a guy up the top who summited about ten minutes after us, he had started the day in a group of 12 and was the only one who made it to the top. This put things into perspective for me of how crazy we were in doing this in one day as we still had to summon the strength to hike all the way back.
After about 20 minutes of taking pictures and gathering our last bit of remaining strength we began our decent.
You would think it would be easy to come down after all that climbing but the snow and ice had started to melt so it was extra slippery coming back and the jagged edge meant that we were going up and down for another two hours.
We made it back down the switchbacks and to the meeting point for our British friend who was NOWHERE in sight. We figured he had gotten tired of waiting for us and wanted to head back to the base camp as we had a reservation in Lone Pine that night.
We were now racing against the clock-it was 6:30pm and would be pitch black by 8:30pm, so we had two hours left of sunlight and around another 5 hours of walking ahead of us. We needed to rethink our original plan.
Our Australian friend decided to go ahead as he was faster by himself to meet up with our British friend back at base camp, and call the hotel to tell them we would be later than we anticipated. He headed off , and we continued down that darn mountain.
We made it down to the second camp around 9pm, which was good because we had to get down a very steep part of the mountain while we still had sunlight. We were in great need of a break.
We met a guy setting up camp and politely asked him how much further to the starting base camp. He looked back at us like we had four heads and started laughing hysterically. He informed us it was another TWO AND A HALF HOURS at least and another 2000 feet in elevation we would have to climb down to reach base camp.
This meant we would be walking “In the dark”. (Did I mention it was a moonless night!)?
I cant tell you the emotions I felt because I was numb, I remembered at one point starting to cry and Stefan looked at me and said “Save your energy for the hike down you´ll need it”, so I stopped.
What is it like hiking down a mountain in the dark with no moon after hiking all day for 18 hours? HARD. Soul destroying. You can’t see the end of the trail, or any lights, or anything in front of you for that matter. Delirium takes over, hysteria, irrational thoughts about yourself, your life and why you agreed to do this in the first place.
Stefan had the patience of a saint; I swear I asked him every five minutes “How much further” like I was a five-year-old child.
I kept playing the Destiny´s Child song “I’m a survivor” in my head over and over, and gave myself stern “self help” talks (“You are not a quitter”, “You will not be eaten by a bear”, “You will survive this”, “Whitney will not get the better of you”).
We FINALLY reached the bottom after around two hours and were greeted by our Aussie friend who then informed us that he had to RESCUE our British friend who was lost (not once but twice). He was waiting in the car and still in shock (and I thought I had it tough!!)
We met our British friend who was indeed still shivering and in shock and told us his adventure coming down Whitney.
After he saw us on his way down he went to the high camp to wait for us, but followed a group to what he thought was the camp. Turns out it wasn’t, and then he was lost.
He found his way back to the trail after climbing up the side of a mountain.
By this stage the sun was starting to set, he had run out of food, water and batteries (he did not pack a spare for his headlamp), became disorientated, and ended up off the track really lost this time in a ravine on the side of another mountain.
Night fell and he could not hear anyone and thought he was going to die, went into shock, heard footsteps in the distance and could see a faint light (our Aussie friend).
He then called for help, our Aussie friend said he heard a British voice in the distance and managed to find him and get him back to base camp! (FYI-Days later our British friend had to go to emergency room as he had severe dehydration, pins in needles in one leg, could not feel the other and the doctors thought he had Thrombosis!)
So there you have it- after approx. 20 hours I made it to the top of Whitney and back again in one piece and I survived (barely).
Will I ever climb Mount Whitney again? HELL NO (At least not in a day!)
Will I continue to do extreme hikes and crazy challenges? DEFINITELY.
There is more than just a sense of accomplishment when you finish something challenging like this- there is a sense of invincibility-you feel so incredibly strong physically, mentally and emotionally, like no problem that you face in life is as big as it seems, there are no limits in life, only the ones you place on yourself.
As clichéd as it sounds, anytime now when I come across any sort of challenge there is this little subconscious voice in my head that eggs me on saying, “You climbed Whitney, this is nothing”.
The only challenge I face now is finding a “challenge” big enough to top Mount Whitney!
Until next time
Mount Whitney Links