The ranger who helped us at the station when we picked upour passes foreshadowed the trip. She warned us about the thunderstorms and bears over and over. We got to experience both…
The peak was covered in clouds and a light rain started aswe drove the steep road from town to the portal campground. We set up camp and then had a short walk up to the portal store to stretch the legs and buy some ice. I could feel the altitude at this point and the butterflies started. We had a few beers with dinner and got our gear and packs ready for the morning. I packed my JakPak incase we hit bad weather. I turned in early because we were going to be up at 2:00 am the next morning.
The alarm went off and I was feeling groggy and nervous. I was very happy to drink my coffee and forced down some oatmeal. We passed a bear on the side of the road as we drove to the trailhead. The seven of us weighed our packs (mine weighed more than everyone else’s, this did not help the nerves) and took apicture to document the start of our day. It was a very tough mentally to start in the dark with a heavy pack and a nervous stomach. I took it very slow and steady making many small steps rather than a single big step up the switchbacks. This left me 20 to 30 yards behind the rest of the group. I did not mind too much as they were a very gassy bunch from their meal of hot dogs, beans and chili the night before.
I kept my head down and plugged away. As the first bit of sunlight started to break through the dark, I started to feel better both mentally andphysically. We stopped at Outpost Camp for a bite to eat and shed some layers. At this point we could see without a headlamp. The views are incredible! We set out up the switchbacks of the spine. The experienced guys saidthe next bit might be the steepest and hardest which concerned me because I though the first part was tough. The views of rock faces and lakes made it enjoyable. Everything was slowly changing colors as the sun came up. We stopped briefly at trail side meadow and were off again to Trail Camp. There we a couple snow patches we had to cross. Some were in places where I would not want to slip…
We had a nice rest at Trail Camp. Everyone sat down and ate. I took some time to explore and take some photos.
From there we could see the 97 switchbacks or the alternative option, the snow slope. Everyone ahead of us seemed to be taking the snow slope option, we decided to take the switchbacks. There was still a lot of snow inplaces, especially the cables, causing us to move slower and be creative with route finding. As we ground up to the top of the switchbacks, a very large and steep snow patch covered the trail. We ended up backtracking a bit to a rocky patch. We found a way to scramble up the rocks and snow and regained the trail. This lasted only a short bit as the last traverse to Trail Crest was also covered in snow. We put on our crampons and traversed the snow slope over to trail crest. This was very thrilling. I had never done anything like this; the slope was very steep, easing in pitch 1000 feet below.
We stopped for a quick rest to repack the snow gear and grab something to eat as we walked. We could see a storm gathering and felt it best to keep moving. We were all getting a bit tired but the views of the snow covered peaks and frozen lakes to the west was beautiful. Thoughts of making the peak and wondering what view was around the next corner outweighed those of beingtired and hungry. I really liked the ‘windows’. This is where therocks form a big V, the trail is only a few feet wide with hundreds of feet of cliff on either side. The view and exposure almost took my breath away. The hike through the talus after the windows is mentally tough. The peak seemed to move away as we got closer. We pushed through one last snow crossing and finally made the summit at 11:30 and 14495 ft!!! 8.5 hours,10.1 miles and 5,806 feet of climbing.
The feeling of accomplishment and excitement was tempered by the brewing thunderstorm. We quickly took photos, congratulated each other and ate. Once everyone was all packed we signed the summit registry and started down. It seemed like the first thunderclap happened when we closed the registry cover.
I was glad I had my JakPak in case we had to wait out the lightning and rain. We moved quickly down to the first snow slope. It started raining and hailing and we stopped so the rest of the crew could put on ponchos. I was warmand dry in the JakPak jacket. Lightning was striking so close, even below us. We were right in the middle of the thunderstorm. We were almost running down the trail with the storm chasing us away from the peak. Those were some extremely scary moments. The endorphin rush of being in the storm wore off just in time to make the small climb at the end up to Trail Crest. This was the hardestpart of the whole day. The effects of altitude, being scared, tiered and hungry all seemed to collide at that moment.
At Trail Crest we decided to walk down the snow slope. I was happy about this. I did not want to walk down the switchbacks and wanted to use the crampons and ice axe I carried all day again. We strapped up and started down. The first steps are very scary because of the steep angle. I zigzagged down for a bit and gained a path the people before us broke in. Standing in the middle of the snowslope and taking in the view is something I will never forget. It very much felt like I was on a high mountain adventure. A couple ofpeople in front of me were going very slow so I decided to glissade the bottom1/3 of the snow. This was a lot offun and I wished I had started higher.
I moved ahead of the group so I could change out of my wet socks and eat at Trail Camp. We gathered up and started the long walk down in the rain. We spoke with a few hikers who did not make the top. Time and weather had turned them away. The temperature slowly got warmer and the rain stopped as we descended. This was a welcome change because we were all starting to get very tired. We had a short break at Outpost Camp and started down again. We were hiking very quickly but the road and store seemed to never get closer. The only nice thing was seeing the views we missed when we were walking up in the dark that morning. My whole body was exhausted and my feet were killing me. With 13.5 hours, 20.2 miles and 11,612 feet of up and down, the trailhead appeared around the last corner. We dropped our packs and drank a beer as we waited for the rest of the group. The veggie burger from the store was the best I have ever had!
That night at camp, as we were enjoying a beer and discussing our hike, we were visited by a very persistent black bear. It wasn’t big, but tried to get into our camp 5 different time and all angles. The ranger was right. We had thunderstorms, bears and the full Mt. Whitney experience…