I came back from Lone Pine last week after summiting Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48.
More than probably any other hike I’ve done over the years, this one seems to be sticking with me much longer. Days after returning to the traffic and smog of Los Angeles, when I close my eyes I can still find myself instantly transported back to that cold alpine scenery. Based on conversations with others, I am not the only one.
My summit-mates and I had been training for Whitney for several months, and in that time we’d done our fair share of research on the trail. We searched out what the conditions were like. We went to informational seminars. We read up on altitude sickness. We religiously checked the Whitney Portal Store message board and read dozens of others’ on-the-trail experiences.
Through it all, we gathered a picture of Whitney that wasn’t necessarily very appealing. The trail was long and crowded. Camps were filled with noisy hikers and had the faint scent of sewage. Our knees would hurt, our feet would blister, our brains might try to explode out of our skulls, and we’d be mercilessly stalked by things that wanted to eat both us and our food. So imagine our surprise when we first stepped into Whitney Portal to find pristine campgrounds, friendly hikers, and one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous trails I’ve ever set foot on.
I don’t know why, but somewhere along the way it seems like the Mount Whitney Trail has become less of an outdoors experience and more of a physical feat – an accomplishment akin to maxing our your bench press or slicing a few seconds off your best 5k time. You’ll find dozens of posts from hikers who boast about their personal record-breaking times, starting the trail at 12:01AM and blasting their way to the summit and back in a matter of hours. Others brag about how ultralight their packs were, or how many marmots they had to chase off at Trail Camp to keep their tents from getting devoured. Very rarely would you find anyone who put into words the indescribable feeling you get when your eyes first glance across the smooth surface of Lone Pine Lake, or the Yosemite-like awe that fills your body when you climb out of a rocky section of switchbacks into the lush green carpet of Bighorn Park.
This is world-class wilderness you’re hiking through, and you’re focusing on complaining about having to use a WAG bag or bellyaching about the 99 Switchbacks before Trail Crest not being steep enough? I just don’t get it.
I know a lot of people like to do the Mount Whitney Trail as a mega dayhike, but now that I’ve done the mountain as a two-day backpack (with two additional days of acclimatization beforehand), it is my humble opinion that these people are missing the point. I don’t know about you, but I go to the backcountry to recharge my batteries after the inevitable soul-suck of living in the city. I’m not sure the wilderness does you any good if all you can see of it is the small circle illuminated by your headlamp and the vistas you see on the way back down are clouded with worries of getting back to your car before the Portal Store stops serving burgers.
Almost as soon as I got back into town, people started asking for advice on planning their own Whitney hikes. I can now say this – skip the dayhike. Don’t treat Whitney like Runyon. Give this mountain the time and respect it deserves and you will be greatly rewarded.