Story (Mount Whitney )

Click here to return Articles Index Page


Mt. Whitney (14,494 ft)
A gentle beast

By Chi S. Chan

I found myself wondering at times, especially
at night, about a wild land, and strange visions of
mountains that I had never seen, came into my dreams….

It seemed that my backpack was 10 times heavier than the one that I carried for practice in Harriman Park. Both my hips and knees felt the pressure and each step upward required more the strength I could afford. Above me, the desert sun burned like a fire ball.  The thin air in the Sierra Valley sucked out the last oxygen left in my lungs. The winding path that led four of us (Roland, John and Ben) to Trail Camp continued to elevate up to 12,040 feet……

Permits to climb Mt. Whitney

About six months ago, John mentioned to us his wish to climb Mt. Whitney.  At that time, I did not take it so seriously. When the permits to climb Mt. Whitney finally arrived, it forced me to reconsider the trip seriously.   Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, stands 14,494 feet above sea level. The hike is recommended for either 2 or 3 days.  Total elevation gain 6,129 feet within 11 miles. (one-way).   The mileage was not my concern but the high attitude compelled me to revisit the nightmares that I had on Mt. Dana and Mauna Lao (both a 13,000+ ft mountain).   I never performed well in high altitude.  The severe headache often showed up during my ascent. Besides, the 2 days hike would mean carrying heavy backpack, sleeping on a rough granite floor, drinking from the snow melting ice water, and also without hot shower and flush toilet.  Can I overcome all these obstacles?   “You guys are not going to make it.” George told us few weeks before the trip. Is he right about this?

The articles that John sent us about the trip got me even more scared. Accordingly to statistic, only 50% of the people attempt the hike could make it to the top. The notorious long and relentless 99 switchbacks, the lingering ice and sidling snow on the upper portion of the trail, the steep sheer drops along the Trail Crest were warning signs that we could not afford to ignore.   On the other hand, the fantastic 360 degrees panoramic view at the top of Mt. Whitney was also very tempting. Knowing myself well, climbing Mt. Whitney is not a question whether I should or should not go, but rather how soon should I go.

Acclimatization - White Mountain (14,246 ft)

We did not want to repeat the same mistake we made in Mauna Lao. John scheduled the Mt. Whitney hike to be the last hiking event in our trip. First, we did a few 8,000 to 10,000 feet hikes around Yosemite and a final test was the White Mountain climb in Bishop.   The high point of White Mountain is 14,246 feet, which is only 250 feet shorter than Mt. Whitney. Although it was a rather short hike (15 miles) compared to the 22 miles hike of Mt. Whitney, the elevation at the trailhead of White Mountain (11,635 ft) is much higher than that of Mt. Whitney (8,365 ft).  That means, we would have less time to acclimatize. The other fact is: none of us had an experience on a 14,000 feet mountain. This climb should be a fairly good indication as how each of us performing in such a high altitude.

Before the hike, I took some Tylenol.  Although I had already adjusted to high altitude, I still felt light-headed once I reached 13,000 feet. The final push to the top was the most difficult one, but surprisingly, none of us showed any serious sign of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).   John, Roland and I once again celebrated our triumph on top of White Mountain.  “Big Ben”, on the other hand, “did not want to make it to the top” excused his attempt to the summit.

1st day hike to Trail Camp (12,040 ft)

In order to lessen the weight on my backpack, I sorted, checked and repacked at least 4-5 times until I was sure I had everything that I absolutely needed for the trip. The day we headed to the trailhead, my backpack was much heavier than before. Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, personal items, cooking pot, can foods, water, shoes, emergency foods, day hike backpack, camera, films, shoe, headlight, extra batteries, suntan lotion, emergency kits, emergency blanket, lunches and breakfast.  Those were all essential items in order to survive in the mountain. I had to leave my changing pants and clothing behind, not to mention giving up the night cream, nightgown and other beauty products.   I told myself, so long as I kept my hat and sunglasses on, no one would notice how I look. Beside, I smelt better than the other three gentlemen… I think

That morning, our spirits were very high and the determination to reach the top of Mt. Whitney was evident among us.  Shortly after the hike, we all separated from each other.  We went solo during the whole day hike.  Roland disregarded Ben’s lecture and ascended faster than all of us.  John, enjoying his pictures taking of Mirror lakes, Consultation lake and Trail Side Meadow, was about 15 minutes behind me.  “Big Ben” perhaps was an hour behind John.

After passing Outpost Camp (3.8 miles, 10,360 feet), my shoulders and legs were already sore.  I had never carried such a heavy load in my life.  The backpack weighted ¼ of my body weight, I could not even stand straight when I walked.  I did not remember how many times I had to stop and lean against the granite wall in order to catch my breath. I was suffering, hurting, irritating, and at one point, even hallucinating, and dangerously drifting into asleep.  But the mountain never gave up on me. I often woke up by a gentle breeze when I closed to collapse.  The sound of a running water from nearby creek played music to my ears, the turquoise color of Mirror lake lightened my spirit, and the deep blue sky meditatively sat at the bottom of the Consultation lake inspirited me to move forward. Perhaps, these are the reasons that I love mountain climbing.

The first day’s hike was 6.3 miles with 3,675 feet elevation gain. On a normal hike around Harriman, it should take us no more than 3 hours to finish the hike, but with the heavy load on our backs, the thin air, the unbearable hot temperature, our progress was far much slower than usual. We reached Trail Camp right before sunset.

The weary night

The Campsite locates at the bottom of Mt. Muir and it is completely surrounded by rugged mountains.  The entire campsite is nothing more than some narrow flat surface here and there among a pile of rocks. The floor was solid granite and it was almost impossible to pitch a tent on the ground.  We had to gather rocks to stable the tent.  The wind started to blow and the temperature dropped drastically within half-hour.   I wore all the cloths I had with me and still felt the chill.   My stomach began to hurt and I had to rush to the “solar toilet” two times to ease the pain.  Maybe it was the water that I drank from the creek or perhaps it was the reaction of high altitude, the diarrheas sucked out the last energy that left in my body. After dinner, I lied in my tent feeling miserable, woke up three times by the cold and fever during the night. I did not think I could make it the next day.  To tell the truth, I did not want to make it. It was too much for my body.  I convinced myself, even acted as a support for the group, I had no regret for the hike if I could not make it to the top. At least, I got the chance to see Mt. Whitney.

Just before dawn, I woke up by some singing birds. The wind had died down, and I touched my forehead, the fever was gone. I had fully recovered after nearly 10 hours’ rest (we all went to bed by 8:00pm).  5:30am, the sun just came out. The orange sun hit the sheer walls of Mt. Muir, Third Needle, Day and Keeler Needles; the scenery was just spectacular.  The serenity around me made me feel I was the only lucky person on this mountain. Before waking up the “boys”, I shared a moment with the mountain and made peace with it.  Perhaps, I would be lucky to get to the summit today, I sincerely asked for her permission….

The Final Ascent

After a simple breakfast (muffins and teas), we were all eager to start the hike. To take precaution, I took some Tylenol before I left Campsite.  7:45am, Roland and I headed to the infamous 99 switchbacks.   This winding path eventually would led us to Trail Crest (13,660 feet) in 2.2 miles.  Around the time I was on the 4th switchbacks, I wished I could hire a Sherpa to carry me up to the mountain.   Only one foot in front of the other became a difficult task.   John caught up with me and asked if I was OK. I let him passed me and went on my own pace. So far, no sign of AMS, not even a light-headache. Once again, I considered myself very lucky. Perhaps, Goddess of Mt. Whitney DID watch over me….

At the end of the 99 switchbacks (I actually counted 110 switchbacks) is Trail Crest which is the divide between the West and East Sierra’s.  On the West, the view of Sequoia National Park literally takes your breath away. Miles and miles of rugged mountains still covered with snow lied up under the deep blue sky. Down below the valley, Timberline, Guitar and Hitchcock Lakes captured all the melting snow from the nearby mountains.  They were reflecting the turquoise blue color under the morning sky. 

From Trail Crest, a steep brown bank threaded by a winding path; and behind that the tall mountains climbed, shoulder above shoulder, and peak beyond peak, into the fading sky. Along the trail, some areas have steep drop-offs.  The “Windows” which are huge holes in the mountain side, allow you to see down the mountain and along the area we just hiked. I felt drizzle just by looking down. At this point on, only 2 miles left to the summit but it seems like 4 and 5 miles long.   The final assault of the climb came approximately 500 feet from the summit.  The trial was covered with deep snow. Two snow walls were formed as a narrow and final passage to the summit.

The Summit

Along the trail, we met so many interesting hikers coming around the world.  Some in an excellent condition some not so good, some passed us and later fell behind us. But at the end, we were all smiling, cheering, congratulating each other and sharing the triumph on the top of the continental United States. John, Roland and I reunited at the peak. None of us had any altitude problems.  Satisfaction was written all over our faces.  For me, it is another proof of “hard work and commitments are the keys for success."

Here at the top of Mt. Whitney, no place in the lower 48 states is higher. Approximately 85 miles to the East is Death Valley, the lowest spot in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level. All we could see was miles and miles of rugged mountains, valleys and blue sky. Pictures do not show the actual beauty of the land.  We stayed at the top nearly an hour to wait for Ben, but no sight of him.  Since we had another 11 miles to go, we decided to leave. We still had to return to our campsite and pack up our gears.  If we could manage to leave the campsite by 3:00pm, we could avoid hiking in the dark.  On our way down, just before the snow path, Ben showed up, seemed exhausted, but not willing to give up.  We urged him to continue and wished him the best.

Back to the campsite, 3:30pm still no sight of Ben.  John stayed behind to wait for Ben. Roland and I, with the heavy backpack, headed down to the path we once crawled. Going down was much easier, even with the heavy load; we managed to hike with a normal pace (2 miles per hour).  On my way down, my mind was planning how to repeat this hike in one day.   Am I crazy? How could I forget the pain and suffer so fast.  I had not even take a hot shower yet and I already thought about another hike. What is wrong with me?

We reached the parking lot before 7:00pm.  John and Ben showed up only 20 minutes later. That night, we did not go out to celebrate. Only a quick dinner and went to bed. That night, I had another dream, I saw the mountains again……

An important lesson that I learned from this trip: High Altitude Sickness is only a symptom, and not a disease, it can definitely be overcome! 

[CMCNY Home] [About CMCNY] [Activity Schedule] [Photo Gallery] [Articles] [Hiking] [Biking] [Events] [Links] [Outdoor Safety] [Copyright] [Document Archive]

Copyright © CMCNY 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001   Last Update: 01/09/06 09:39 PM
Please send your comments to webmaster at