***I wanted to document some past hikes/trips that I’ve taken. I actually wrote the following shortly after the hike (way back in 2001). I made some minor edits to the text but overall they are my words from 16 years ago. ***
It all started while I was still at school. During spring quarter of my freshman year at Northwestern University, my dad sent me an e-mail asking if I would like to participate in a hiking trip. He informed me that the trip would be to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Other aspects of the trip comprised of the group being made up of five individuals. I was the only one under the age of fifty. The other group members included my father, my uncle, Mr. I-fu Shih, and Mr. Hsu.
To prepare for this hiking expedition, our group held practice hikes at a nearby mountain. Mount San Antonio, a.k.a. Mount Baldy, is the third highest peak in the southern California area. With a peak elevation of 10,064 feet, our group traversed this peak once as an entire group. However, each member individually climbed the peak at least twice, sometimes three times, in his own separate groups. These climbs were to help ensure that we would be in shape and ready for hiking the many miles of Mount Whitney. There are four different trails one can take to reach the top of Mount Baldy. I have taken two of the four routes. The first route requires taking a chair lift to the start of the trailhead. From the trailhead, the peak can be reached in 3.7 miles with an elevation gain of around 2,000 feet. The other trail is considerably more difficult. With an elevation gain close to 3,500 feet, the trail continuously climbs upwards, pushing my body’s limit. That trail has a length of 4.3 miles. A separate hiking experience I had to further my training occurred while on vacation in Alaska. One of the expeditions offered at Juneau was a hiking trip. I decided to take this expedition to help keep myself ready for hiking in the wilderness. One other preparation tool I had been taking advantage of was that of running. I would jog at least a mile everyday for a few weeks prior to our trip to Mount Whitney.
A few days before the trip, which was from August 31, 2001 to September 3, 2001, I bought a hiker’s backpack. We also purchased a shirt that helps alleviate the dampness that perspiration causes. Packing started on Thursday, the day before our departure. Items that were brought included: a knife, a small flashlight, a pair of gloves, a baseball cap, a rag (to block the sun from the back of my neck), ziploc bags, a thin mat, a rain coat, clothes, and approximately four liters of water. Also attached to my pack was a sleeping bag and also the fabric of the tent. My approximate estimate is that the pack weighed approximately twenty-five to thirty pounds.
That night I became quite pensive. I began thinking about the dangers of what we were about to undertake. I realized that there existed many hazards on the mountain. I had read a report of previous accidents and rescues that took place on Mount Whitney. I began to get quite worried about our safety. My father assured me that in case of such dangers as lightning, we would immediately turn around to safety. Still, I felt as if there was some danger involved and had to deal with it in my own way.
The following morning I woke up around 10:00 a.m. and headed to Target to purchase a battery for my camera. I was not about to let this opportunity pass up and not have any pictures of the wonderful scenery. Around 11:30 a.m., Mr. Shih and Mr. Hsu showed up and we loaded the Tahoe. Then I drove us to pick my father up and then we went to pick my uncle up. We took the 210 freeway to the 14. Then we took the 395 freeway and finally ended up in the city of Lone Pine, where the population is approximately 2,000 people. We stopped by the visitor center and looked through some material about the mountain. We also inquired about the weather and were told that the past few days had been clear and pleasant. Our group then checked into the Best Western and settled in. Mr. Shih and Mr. Hsu went to the Ranger station for Inyo National Forest and picked up our permits. Permits are required on the mountain because the National Forest Service has limited the number of hikers per day on Mount Whitney.
Since it was around dinnertime, we went and ate at a local diner and talked about the hike. From the city of Lonepine, Mount Whitney is quite visible and I took a picture of our formidable task. After dinner we returned to our motel rooms and double-checked our supplies. A slight problem was found because we had many items that had a scent. Any objects with a scent must be placed in a bear proof canister, of which we only had one. Therefore, the items that had a scent, we asked the motel to store for us, for we were to return to that hotel on Sunday night, September 2. After checking our gear one final time, our group turned in for the night. That night was filled with restless sleep. My mind wandered from the hike to the camping. I envisioned such calamities as falling off of the side of the cliff. Eventually I did end up sleeping for a good six or seven hours.
Everybody woke up around six the next day. We prepared everything we had and placed it into the car. We had a light breakfast of cereal and muffins, provided by the motel. The fourteen-mile drive up to the trailhead proved to be a nice relaxing trip. We drove through the Alabama Hills, famous for being the set of old western movies. Upon reaching the trailhead, we parked the car and unloaded our packs. Each of the five members carried a hiking pack. We all stopped at the sign at the head of the entrance and took a group picture.
The time was approximately eight o’clock when we started from the trailhead. The trail started off relatively easy, with a nice well-beaten path. There existed a few switchbacks and we crossed two creeks. Finally we made our way to Lone Pine Creek which required walking along logs that had been placed for hikers to cross the wide creek. When we reached the first creek, we stopped to take a breather. I had not realized how much harder it was to hike with a heavy load on my back. My shoulders had already begun to hurt and we had only traveled about 0.8 miles. We ended up taking some rests on the switchbacks. This gave me the opportunity to look back and see a spectacular view. I could see straight down the valley (that had long ago been carved by a glacier because of its “U” shape). My vision was unimpeded and I could see the winding road that had taken us to the trailhead. The day was gorgeous with not a cloud in the blue sky.
I knew the only way to get past the pain was to continue on and hopefully get acclimated to the pack. We next stopped at Lone Pine Lake (well, where the turnout to Lone Pine Lake was). We decided to eat out lunch there. Lunch consisted of an apple and a Nutrigrain bar. I trekked the 0.1 miles to the lake to see what view I could get. Once I reached it, I first noticed the clarity of the lake. The reflection off of the lake was stunning. I could clearly make out the trees and the outline of the mountain just by looking at the water. I pulled out my camera and took some shots.
After a good half-hour rest, our group continued up some more switchbacks. Soon, my father and I came to a clearing and we found ourselves in a small valley walking next to a beautiful meadow. I noticed how there were many small tributaries of a creek traversing its way through the meadow. I became entranced by watching the water move its way over rocks and through the green vegetation.
On the other side of the meadow, we made another stop at Outpost camp. Outpost camp is situated 3.6 miles from the trailhead and is 10,360 feet above sea level. From Outpost camp, we hiked another 0.7 miles until we were at Mirror Lake (at an elevation of 10,640 feet).
Just above Mirror Lake was the last place that provided tree shelter and shade. The last tree on the Whitney Trail is not far above the lake. After passing Mirror Lake, we hiked among boulders and rocks until finally reaching a breathtaking sight: Trailside Meadow. Right next to the path, I saw a waterfall that trickled down into lush green shrubs and flowers, with a creek running straight through. Located 5.3 miles from the start of the trail, our group felt it was best to rest here. It seems as if our group took many rest breaks, but I feel that we pushed ourselves and followed a strict timetable for making it to Trail camp. Upon leaving Trailside Meadow, a steeper incline followed with a few switchbacks and then finally, after much agonizing, we made it Trail Camp at 4:30 p.m.
Trail Camp is located 6.3 miles into the trail. It is also at an elevation of 12,039 feet above sea level. Up until this point, the highest point I had ever climbed was Mount Baldy, at an elevation of 10,064 feet. Therefore, upon reaching this area, I was amazed that I had handled the hike so well thus far. However, my body definitely felt the effects of the arduous hike. Finally, we set up our tent and started to put our sleeping bags into the tent. I felt very lethargic. Another dilemma came up when we realized that not all of our food and trash would fit into the canister. Eventually, some of the members in our group decided to bury it and hope that a bear would not come. Luckily, no bears showed up. That night’s sleep was not very good. We squished five adult males into the single tent. The ground was hard and uncomfortable. I had to constantly move the dirt beneath me so as to get better cushioning.
Because there is not much to do once the sun sets at that altitude, everyone was in their tents and trying to sleep by seven or so at night. This created a slight problem because I had not been accustomed to sleeping at such an early hour. However, my body told me that I was ready to rest. We all had to put on our long johns because the temperature had dipped quite a bit. My estimate is that the temperature hung around the lower 30s for the night. I tossed and turned the entire night. Once I had to get up and upon exiting the tent, I realized the brightness of the moon. The moon lit up most of the camp with its glow. Throughout the night I continued taking sips of water because the high altitude causes your mouth to get dry. Eventually I did get about two hours of continuous sleep and then we had to get up. The time was about 5:30 a.m. Luckily, no bears came and we dug up our food and trash and put them in our packs.
At 6:10 a.m. or so, four of us began our hike. Mr. Hsu had become quite sick during the night and did not feel he could continue on our hike. Therefore, the four of the remaining started our trek. We started out traversing 97 switchbacks. I was still half-asleep at this point. These switchbacks took us 1,738 feet in elevation in just 2.2 miles. Probably the hardest part of the hike, I contemplated whether we would be able to reach the summit at the rate we were hiking. However, I knew that this was a trip that had taken much planning and I did not want to fail.
At the beginning of the switchbacks, I found a nice steady pace to hike. However, I soon found that I had set my pace too quickly and became tired. Therefore, the rest of the way up the switchbacks took an agonizingly slow and painful process. After only two or three switchbacks, I would have to take a break to catch my breath. By this time, Mr. Shih had continued ahead of us because he was the one in the best shape. My uncle had stopped to take a break and have something to eat. Therefore, my father and I made our slow but steady way up to the Trail Crest. After two hours (8:15), we reached the Trail Crest (13,777 feet in elevation). Two other men were at the crest as well, one of them coming up from behind me. One of them let us use his sunscreen and told us how we had just traversed the most difficult part. I asked him how many times he had summited Whitney and he said he had already done it twice. We thanked him and continued on our way, now hiking on the opposite side of the mountain. Thankfully, since it was still early in the day, the sun had not risen high enough in the sky for there to be sunlight shining on the trail. The trail started to descend at first until it met the John Muir Trail (9.0 miles).
From that point, the summit is another 1,015 feet in elevation covering two miles. While walking along this trail, mostly over rocks and boulders, I kept thinking about when we would turn around. I realized that if we were caught still trying to make it to the summit at too late of a time, then our hike to get back to the trailhead could fall into the night and darkness. However, I also had to deal with the gorgeous view that I had from the trail. We were now overlooking Sequoia National Park. There were many lakes that were far below us and they were beautiful. I also had a chance to see the Western Divide.
Finally we came to a point where we were directly behind the peak. I was wondering if we were going to attempt to climb up the boulders directly to the summit or follow an easier path that wound around to the other side and slowly went to the top from there. It turned out we followed the path and after another long hike (or what seemed like a long hike) I saw the hut. From that moment, I knew that we would make it. Upon reaching the hut, the time was 10:10, exactly four hours after we had left Trail Camp. I went and signed my name in the register that is next to the Hut. Then I went and sat on a boulder and looked 360 degrees. The weather was clear and I could see in all directions.
So this is what it feels like to be on top of the lower 48 states. However, it didn’t really sink in that I was on top. Mr. Shih, my father, and I took a picture next to the sign indicating the peak and the elevation. Mount Whitney sits 14,496.811 feet above sea level. I felt proud that I had made it. I have to admit that throughout the trip, up until this point, I had felt as if I would not reach the top. When we left camp that morning, I had said in my mind and out loud that I would stop at the Trail Crest because I was not feeling good enough to make it to the top. However, I happily proved myself wrong. I was especially happy that I had done this with my father. He showed me a lot by his will to succeed.
We made our way down at 10:30 a.m. and reached Trail Camp by 1:30 p.m. We then packed up our tent and everything and set off for the trailhead at 2:30 p.m. I did not expect to make it to the bottom as quickly as we did. We reached the trailhead at 6:00 p.m. Going down the trail is quite challenging as well. It is not as easy as some would think. The pack that we carried still weighed a great deal and parts of the trail were quite treacherous. We had to watch our steps so as not to fall and injure ourselves. Luckily, I hiked with two ski poles and they help tremendously when you have to walk downhill with a heavy pack pushing you forward. We then drove to the motel and stayed another night, driving home on September 3, 2001.
The trip took us two days. Our hike eventually covered 21.4 miles (10.7 miles each way) and an elevation gain of over 6,000 feet. The hours spent on that mountain will be something I will remember. However, I take a lot more away from the mountain than just pictures and stories. Mount Whitney showed me that I have a lot more inside of me than I presumed I did. I never expected to be able to accomplish what I did.
It’s amazing how far technology has come in terms of digital cameras and such. I didn’t use a digital camera for this trip and ended up scanning in pictures. Some photo credits also belong to Mr. Shih.