A First Timer's Guide to Hiking America's Tallest Mountain*
35mm film photography and lessons learned from summiting California's 14,505 foot Mt. Whitney, top of the contiguous U.S.
My long time friend Zack won the lottery. Not the kind where you buy all your friends yachts and disappear over the horizon, but the one where you get to bring them to the highest point in the contingent U.S. At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney sits among and above California’s Sierra Nevada Range, a place Iʼve driven through countless times in winter, but was always too focused on snowboarding to stop.
The trail up Mount Whitney itself may not be the most technical hike, but it is definitely intimidating from the sheer size and stories of debilitating altitude sickness. Even still, summiting Whitney has been something Iʼve wanted to give a go for a long time.
When I got the call I had recently moved to Washington, which by no surprise was the ideal training ground. Between the dog runs, evening skates, and hikes to find the last remains of snow my new home had whipped me into shape. Even with all the preparation I still struggled with self-doubt, but by time I was in California and we started the familiar drive up Highway 395 I was more excited than anything.
We caught the last glimpses of light on the Sierras as we rolled into the Whitney Portal Campground. After a quick meal we went to bed to ponder our 2 A.M. wake up call.
"In the dark all perception of time and distance was lost."
In the dark all perception of time and distance was lost. Once up and on the trail the lack of light simplified everything, limiting focus to just a small patch of lighted trail guiding my way, instead of the constant and intimidating gaze up to the peak. For me, this was huge, as more than once I thought to myself I wasnʼt going to make it.
Although the sun brought with it a second wind, and the hike got easier even as the route veered up the chute, the altitude still smacked me in the face. It was the final ridge with the gentlest slope that caused the most suffering—I basically shuffled my feet to the top without taking an actual step.
Eventually, at high noon, I reached the summit and couldnʼt help but throw my hands in the air. I donʼt know if I was more happy to reach the top or to stop the shuffle.
"The gentlest slope caused the most suffering—I basically shuffled my feet to the top without taking an actual step."
Time at the top was extremely short lived though. Less than 15 minutes. My partner had mentioned he wasnʼt really feeling it and said something about taking a nap, which made all sorts of alarm bells go off. We drank some water and put our much hated backpacks on to start the hellish six hour journey down.
Moving the opposite direction as before it wasnʼt so much a shuffle as it was gravity shoving us down the ridge. Iʼve always hated hiking down mountains and this experience was no exception—I found myself daydreaming about snowboarding down.
The altitude loosened its grip as I glissaded down, but the relief was short lived as I realized then that I had lost my partner. At the bottom of the main incline there are not many places to go so I figured he must have continued descending without finding the altitude relief that I had. So I took off running down the trail hoping to catch up to him. But the hours and miles went by with no sign.
Nearing the trailhead I stopped at Lone Pine Lake as I didnʼt get a chance to see it in the dark on the way up, and that’s were a final stroke of luck found me. I got back up to the trail to see my partner come around the corner. It turned out he just needed to use his WAG bag.
We finished the marathon in the parking lot by 6 P.M. with beer in hand, shoes off, and a massive smile and sense of relief on our faces.
Top 5 Gear For Hiking Mount Whitney:
- 1. Black Diamond Crampons because they made me feel a hell of a lot more confident going up the chute than micro-spikes ever could have, especially with the sun baking on it.
- 2. Black Diamond ice axe because it provided me with a safety net should the before mentioned crampons slip, as well as a brake and rudder on the glissade down.
- 3. Snickers candy bars because I struggle to eat on long hikes and I get grumpy.
- 4. F-Stop Navin chest camera bag because it held my M6 an extra lens and handfuls of Kodak film.
- 5. WAG bag because there could have been a major mess otherwise.
Do’s & Don’ts for Hiking Mount Whitney:
- Do read the trail report that comes as close to the date you are going to hike to get updated trail conditions. It will seriously impact your route and gear decisions.
- Do bring a water filter to refill on the way, up you'll need it.
- Do get to the chute (if it's early summer) before it gets to mid-morning, as the sun bakes it from the moment it rises.
- Don't forget plenty of food and snacks it's what kept me going.
- Don't get separated from your friend or group—it's terrifying even in a patrolled national forest.
- Don't forget your favorite beer and slippers for the parking lot-I've never been happier.