Yesterday, with my two sons, ages 18 and 21, I hiked Mount Whitney, elev. 14,497 feet (4419 meters). It was my third time to the summit, each time on the Mount Whitney Trail (as opposed to one of the more technical routes) and I never felt better doing it. This is not to say that the experience was not a pulverizing, potentially soul-destroying event, but, overall, I felt pretty good, and the aches and pains of today are pretty minimal considering the effort we put in and the sleep deprivation that the whole start-to-finish endeavor imposed upon us.
However, before you think it all was, so to speak, a walk in the park, I also have a trip to the supermarket at the very very top of my list entitled Most Difficult Things I Will Do Today. Yeah, today we are, likely for the only day of our trip, except the airplane days, in a hiking-free zone.
But I began to think (look out when that happens) and summit #3 on the big MtW taught me some pretty important things about how to really do this hike right, so I figured I would pass them on. Probably there is a book or seven on the same subject, but I can't say I have ever seen *all* of these recommendations gathered together in one place. So let's go....
This hike is, endurance-wise, a pretty formidable undertaking -- about 22 miles round trip, beginning at 8300 feet (2530 m) above sea level. 6200 feet of elevation gain in one day is difficult. The trail is not terribly steep -- following a generally Western-US-style "let's use switchbacks instead of just going whammo up the incline" approach -- but it is long. It is really long. Your feet (and legs and hips and back and everythings) will take a beating. Make sure you really want to do this. Also, make sure you are a hiker. You know, make certain that this is not your first hike. That may sound like obvious advice, but I have read more than one account of a Whitney adventure that discussed the fact that some members of the party were on their very first hike ever. Dumb. Double dumb. Understand, on a smaller scale, what it means to go stomping through the woods and up and over and back down rocky things before you try to do a hike this big.
Be in shape. The more you are in shape, the better. Duh, huh? Specifically, the *stronger* you are, and, for that matter, the more flexible you are, the better. Even more specifically, figure out at what weight you get the most bang for your buck strengthwise, and then get really strong at that weight. Aerobic endurance is a good thing as well. But the sheer pounding that your body takes on the uphills, and, especially, on the downhills is formidable. I was 25-30 pounds heavier and much weaker the first two times I did this hike (nine years ago and three years ago). Yet my aerobic endurance was at least as good back then because I was running a *lot*. I felt much better yesterday than on those first two Whitney hikes. The strength and positive body-composition changes I have gotten through CrossFit and paleo/primal eating made an enormous difference in how my body responded to the beating of the hike. I am sore today, but I do not feel -- in contrast to the first two times -- like I was put through a wringer. Heavy squats and deadlifts -- do them. Paleo/primal -- do that too.
Altitude acclimatization -- take it *really* seriously, and do it. And that does *not* just mean showing up a day early and staying in the campground at the trailhead one extra night, which is what some of the books mention. I am not a scientist, but I will brag that our method of altitude acclimatization works as well as any I have heard of. None of the groups I have hiked with has ever been huffing and puffing up Whitney. And every one of us has been from sea level or close to it. Here is what you do:
First of all, most acclimatization takes place by sleeping at a high altitude -- but not too high, or you won't sleep at all.
Stay in Mammoth Lakes, CA, about 100 miles north of Mount Whitney. It sits at about 8000 feet -- just high enough to acclimatize you well without completely freaking your body out. No other area town offers that altitude.
Stay there for five nights. Really. Drink a ton of water. Drink so much water that it makes you get up to pee a lot in the middle of the night. Do not consume even a drop of alcohol during that time. You will still wake up dry and dehydrated each morning, but a little less every day until, on day five, you have that "holy shit" moment. Why? Because you feel good. Really good. But it takes five nights.
During those days, go on the easiest high-altitude hikes that you can each day, a little higher each day. You are not trying to work hard. You are trying to get up to a high altitude *without* working terribly hard, so your body can start making lots of extra red blood cells, while simultaneously not having the crap kicked out of it. In Mammoth Lakes, or right outside it, a wonderful first-day hike is available on the San Joaquin Ridge at Minaret Summit. Hike in 2.2 miles to a spot at about 10,000 or so feet, and hang out for a couple hours as you gaze at the beauty of the Minarets. It's easy, right there outside of town, and very little work to get to.
Two other wonderful acclimatization hikes are available in Rock Creek Canyon, at the exit for Tom's Place off US route 395, a little south of Mammoth Lakes. The beauty of this place is that the trailhead (which is extremely popular, so get there early to get a parking spot) at Mosquito Flat is at 10,300 feet. Your first day there, walk on the fairly flat Gem Lakes trail that will get you up to 11,000 or so feet by the time you walk past lots of beautiful lakes to Morgan Pass. The whole hike is a simple 7 miles or so, and gets you maximum acclimatization for very little effort -- and some of the best scenery anywhere. The other perfect acclimatization hike, leaving from the same trailhead, but ascending on a path to the right after half a mile, is to Mono Pass -- elevation 12,600 feet, and *not* the same Mono Pass that is on the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park. 7.4 miles round trip, up into a beautiful, often-snow-covered moonscape. Like all these other hikes, stay there a while and make some more red blood cells.
Those are just three suggestions for warmup hikes. But they are three of the best in terms of maximum benefit/minimum effort. But you can pick others. Just, whatever you do, sleep for five nights in Mammoth Lakes. Get up to a little higher altitude each day on relatively easy walks. Drink a ton of water and eat a lot of good paleo food. Inflammation is not your friend. Acclimatization is.
By the way, this time around I also added to my normal vitamin/supplementation routine, 1000 mg of vitamin C, 600 mg of N-acetyl cysteine and 250 mg of alpha lipoid acid. You may recall that these are the same things I take for detox/rejuvenation if I drink alcohol. I have no idea whether it is a nutritionally sound theory, but I did it because I figured that the negative effects of altitude are a lot like a bad hangover. So I took the same stuff I use to ward off a hangover. That supplementation routine is not a suggestion for you, just a recitation of what I did. Do what seems right for you.
Be happy with yourself, by yourself, for long periods of time. Wait, what? Yeah.... This hike is long, done under stressful conditions, sometimes -- if your friends get ahead or behind you, or if you are flying solo -- on your own. Whether it is meditation or some other mindfulness/happiness practice/routine that you have, do it. Do it a lot. This hike is mentally taxing. And when it gets more physically taxing, it is also even more mentally taxing. So be ready for that shit. Because it is really hard to handle otherwise. And your mind can crush you even faster than your body.
The second part of mental preparation is to read everything you can about the hike. Know how many miles to each notable spot on the trail (I will make it easy for you: 2.8 to Lone Pine Lake, 3.8 to Outpost Camp, 6.3 to Trail Camp, 8.5 to Trail Crest at the top of the legendary 96 switchbacks, and about 11 to the summit). Know the steepness of the section that you are on. Everything you learn, and remember, about the details of the trail will help your mental attitude on hike day. Know exactly where you are and what is still ahead of you.
Hike day, the preparation part:
So.... you have your permit to do this baby in one day. You are acclimatized. You are a Zen beast with a sparkling, well-informed attitude. If I asked you, "What is the steepest section of the trail and how long is that section?" you would rattle off the correct answer and be able to tell me as much detail about the sections before and after that section. So, like, what's the plan?
First thing... Timing. You need to start the hike in time to get off the summit no later than noon, because of the risk of thunderstorms. Some days, the storms start sooner and risk the lives of everyone that is not off the summit by 10 am. You need to start early. You need to figure out how early. We started at 2:30 am, with headlamps on, and summitted in a respectable, but not by any means blazing, 8 hours or so.
This means that it would be helpful if you slept that last "night" near the trailhead -- like in the campground, or in Lone Pine, or in Independence, or even in Big Pine. Those places, except the trailhead campground, are all much lower in elevation than Mammoth Lakes, so don't count it as one of your five acclimatization nights if you stay in one of those. But they are close by, which is a big deal when it comes to getting enough sleep. You probably don't want to do what we did, which is stay that last "night" in Mammoth Lakes, about two hours (maybe a hair more) from the trailhead, requiring us to leave the condo we rented at 11:45 pm. Ouch. Then the drive home to Mammoth, post-hike, was a horrific drama entitled Way Too Fucking Tired to Properly Drive This Damn Car If There Were Ever A Need For Quick Evasive Action. Stay locally. If there is ever a Next Time for us, we will too.
Use hiking poles. They are wonderful for stability.
Bring sunglasses. It is bright as hell above treeline.
Your footwear should be either hiking boots or, if you think something less can take the pounding, whatever that is. My kids both used trail runners. I would be dead or in the hospital if I did that. I use heavy Asolo waffle stompers every time.
Pack enough clothes (hat, gloves, waterproof stuff, etc.) that you could comfortably walk many miles in 30-degree (F) weather with howling winds. Yes, in the summer. We got lucky yesterday. The most I ever wore, in addition to a T-shirt and shorts, was a longsleeved tech shirt. But last time, in August, we were subjected to winter conditions, temperature-wise, from Trail Camp to the summit. Be ready, but don't overpack -- it is a balancing act, but err in favor of being prepared. Unprepared could equal hypothermic.
Bring a water filter and "enough" bottles, whatever that means. Up until Trail Camp at 12,300 feet, there are lots of spots to refill water bottles with a filter. After that -- other than *possibly* some water gushing down one or more of the 96 switchbacks -- there are none. That means you need enough water to last the 9+ miles from Trail Camp to the summit and back to Trail Camp. For me, that was four one-liter bottles.
Use an electrolyte-replacement powder in most, if not all, of your water bottles. You need it. Plain water gets me through CrossFit just fine. This is not CrossFit. This is endurance wacko stuff. Do it.
Somewhere, I read that the caloric demands of this undertaking are something like 8000 to 11000 calories. I am not surprised. Both of the first two times I did this hike, after summitting I bonked pretty badly. The descent was miserable, and, while some of that was caused by a lack of strength and an excess of body weight, some of it was a lack of sufficient nutrition as well. Back then, I would pack water and a bunch of sandwiches. And I rarely would finish the sandwiches. Why? Because at high altitude, real food tastes a little gross. The more you have to digest it, the worse it makes you feel.
So, what's the nutrition solution. Well, I stretched the concept of paleo/primal yesterday to one simple rule: no gluten. I figured the only non-paleo item that could really cause me significant distress would be gluten. That may or may not be true for you. So the rule as a generality is something like: straying away from paleo/primal is OK on hike day if it helps your performances and doesn't risk digestive distress.
Translated for me, that meant that I brought the following on the hike for food:
-- 30 100-calorie/25-g-carbs packets of Gu gel. My flavors of choice were a few Jet Blackberry that I had left over from a previous hike, eight packs of Chocolate Outrage -- the greatest-named Gu ever -- and 16 packs of 40-mg-caffeine-in-each Espresso Love.
-- about three pounds total of various lunchmeats and Dubliner cheese in baggies.
-- a jar of Skippy Natural With Honey peanut butter with a spoon.
Here's what I actually ate of all that:
--all but two Espresso Loves and one each of the other two Gu flavors, which means I steadily and methodically ate 26 packs of Gu. It is easily digested, and tastes like delicious pudding. It was perfect. 26. Yes. really. 2600 calories, 650 g of carbs and over 500 mg of caffeine all from Gu.
-- about half the jar of peanut butter. It was very good, and full of fat and some protein and even some carbs from the normally gross honey and sugar, but it sat in my stomach weirder than the Gu.
-- about two of the three pounds of meat and cheese. Honestly, I am surprised I ate that much, and it was a little gross. It is utterly essential to consume protein on a hike like this, but it was harder to swallow the higher we went.
I don't think I would change any of that next time. You know, if there ever is a next time.
Hike day, the doing part:
Everyone's one-day experience on Whitney is a little different, but after three successful attempts at the summit, and especially after feeling great, relatively speaking, yesterday, here is how I see the actual hike:
Trailhead to Lone Pine Lake (0.0 to 2.8 miles, 1595 feet elevation gain, 570 ft/mile). Easy. Really easy. Unless you are injured. I said that I did this with my two sons. But our buddy Will was with us at the start. He has an injured knee and even those first few miles were too much for him. He is a good dude, and realized the problem, and bailed. Thereafter, he spent his day solo-hiking some of the lower-elevation portions of the trail. So, this section is simple, but it is also a reality check if you are sporting an injury.
Lone Pine Lake to Outpost Camp (2.8 to 3.8 miles, 400 feet of elevation gain). The easiest section of the trail.
Outpost Camp to Trail Camp (3.8 to 6.3 miles, 1680 feet elevation gain, 672 ft/mile). It starts getting harder here, but this -- and to a slightly lesser extent, the sections that preceded it -- is the part where the headlamp hiking is wonderful. Your focus, because it is otherwise pitch black in the woods, except for star/moonlight, is just on the few feet in front of you when you have a headlamp on. It is forced Zenlike concentration on the task at hand.
If you proceed at our time, at our pace, you will see first light behind you over Death Valley during this section. It is spectacular.
When you get to Trail Camp, fill your water bottles, using your filter, as high up on the lake as you can. That is because higher up equals fewer people tainting it with their camping waste. Ew. Admire the sunrise over the lake.
Trail Camp to Trail Crest (6.3 to 8.5 miles, 1620 feet elevation gain, 736 ft/mile). One word: switchbacks. Some are long; some are very short. There are, by our count, 96 of them over the 2.2 miles of this section. (Some people tell you 97. Whatever, dude). If you are acclimatized to altitude, they are, very simply, not all that hard. It is the steepest section of the trail, but really, just put your head down and do it. Trudge, trudge, trudge. One simple, almost ridiculous, tip: count them as you go. This serves two purposes: it passes the time and, most importantly, it gives you a measure of how far along you are. Another hint: the last ten, particularly the last three or so, switchbacks are much longer than the others.
Get to Trail Crest and realize that this is one of the truly most beautiful places on earth. You can look behind you and see everything you have done, but, better, you can see what has been hiding behind the flip side of this mountain -- Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks. Whoa. The pics do not do it justice. It is, no lie, even better than the summit, viewwise, and, at 13,600 feet, your first taste of effing high up.
Trail Crest to the entrance, from the valley below on your left, of the John Muir Trail (JMT)(8.5 to 9.0 miles, 180 feet elevation *loss*). "Oh shit," you just said. "Downhill?" yup. Not for very long, but you go downhill for a bit. Not particularly hard, but you begin to realize how you must keep your wits about you up here. It is a very long fall to your left. It isn't hard to stay on the trail, but, I suspect -- having once averted disaster myself here with a well-stabbed-into-a-rock pole just as I began to trip and fall off a cliff -- it isn't all that hard to kill yourself here either. And that applies to the rest of the way to the summit as well. Be careful.
Oh, and when the JMT joins in from the left, keep going forward toward the summit. Don't be a dumbass like I once was, three years ago, and go *down* the JMT for 100 yards or so before realizing the mistake.
Entrance of John Muir Trail to summit (9.0 to 11.0 miles, 1011 feet of elevation gain, 506 ft/mile). Plain and simple: this sucks. I cannot adequately tell you how much this part sucks. Most, if not all, of the guidebooks tell you that the 96/97 switchbacks are the worst, as if it is just a little hop over to the summit on the back of a winged frog. Fuck them. They are so wrong. First of all, you are at very high altitude. Yes, you have acclimatized as best as possible, but very few people are ready for this part. The air from JMT on up is very thin. It messes with your resolve, your strength and your stamina. Secondly, the trail is rocky, and difficult, full of all those precarious parts that I just described in the preceding section. You don't want to fall here, and you probably won't. But it isn't all that hard to do. Thirdly, the summit is probably not what you think it is.
See, every time I see a "photo of Mount Whitney," it looks kind of like that pic at the top of this post. That is not the summit of Mount Whitney. The summit is off to the right, even higher. Really. It isn't all that spectacular looking from the valley floor. Those spire-looking things are much prettier. But the fact of the matter is that you walk from Trail Crest behind all those spires and then past a couple so-called "needles" and then up the really big slope full of rock that you now see before you.
Now, despite having been distracted by all those beautiful touristy pics of "Mount Whitney," and despite your likely previously-held belief that one of those pretty spires was the summit, you realize a simple thought, "I am walking up the tallest thing in the Lower 48. The only way that monstrous freaking pile of rock way over there is not the summit is if trigonometry is much more complicated than I thought." It's not. That enormous pile of rock over there way way way past all the pretty spires really *is* the summit. See? You can begin to make out the summit "house" structure from here.
God, I cannot overemphasize just how thoroughly awful these last two miles, particularly the last mile, are. I actually warned a father/son combo at Trail Crest about this fact. I will repeat the warning as best I can to you:
"All the guidebooks say that the switchbacks are the hardest part. And so people get to Trail Crest and feel all victorious, like the hard part is over and it is just a little jump over there to the summit. Get rid of that thought now. This next section is the hardest part, and it will suck the soul right out of you." I saw them again at Trail Crest, on the way downhill. They had made it to the summit, but the dad turned to me and said, "You were *so* right."
Gaze at this.
Sign the register. Get the hell off before the thunderstorms. You have a long way to go.
The top bit, you know... the awful part? Not so awful.
The uphill bit (JMT to Trail Crest) that was the annoying downhill bit before? Totally annoying, but, thankfully, short.
Trail Crest to Trail Camp down the switchbacks? Fine, but rocky. Keep your head. Don't misstep. Whatever you thought it would take to get down this part, it probably takes a little longer. you begin to realize how far it is to the trailhead. Refill your water bottles at Trail Camp.
Trail Camp to Outpost Camp? I find this to be preposterously annoying. If you are very surefooted when tired, you will likely leap and bound down it, but I am kinda stumbly when tired -- although much less so yesterday than previously -- and I find this part of the descent to be unduly irritating.
Outpost Camp to end? Trudge trudge trudge. It is terrible, only because you want to be done. But it really is easy, and, *if* you warmed up with the Mono Pass hike, and *if* you want a good positive Zen mental attitude, just tell yourself at Outpost Camp that you have nearly exactly the descent from Mono Pass to do in order to finish the hike. when you cross the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, you have exactly half a mile to the trailhead/end.
You are done. Congrats. I truly hope this all helps you out. It is a monster of a hike, and good planning and execution, in all aspects, is the way to make it simpler and better and, most importantly, more enjoyable. Now get on it.
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