When I was in Jr. High, 15 years ago, my sister and father hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT) and ended at Mt. Whitney. They made a really great video of their 220 mile trip, and I forever remember them reaching the top and hearing the song “Elevation” by U2 as the camera circles my sister and you see the 360 degrees view around her. I deep down knew my father was proud of my sister for making it and I wanted him to be proud of me, too. That was the first little seed of desire to someday summit that monster of a mountain.
Monday, October 16, 2017, on Instagram, @tailsonthetrail posted a picture of Mt. Whitney with the caption, “Anyone interested in joining me?”
I’d never met this person. I only knew of him because he was part of the Orange County off-roading group, OC Overland, that I’d recently begun to follow on Instagram (@oc_overland) since moving back to CA. I immediately wrote him asking for details. We decided to meet up and discuss the particulars to see if I might join him on his Mt. Whitney hike.
On Wednesday, October 18, Kunaal, aka @tailsonthetrail and I met up. Here’s what I learned. Kunaal would leave from Orange County before sunrise Saturday, October 28. He’d stay the night at Whitney Portal Campground. The next morning, he would park at the Whitney Portal Trailhead and hike to Trail Camp where he’d decide if he felt good to summit that same day or rest and summit the next day. Either way, he would sleep for the night at Trail Camp. The next morning, depending on the previous days decision, he’d take a day-pack up the mountain, summit the 14,505 foot peak, return to Trail Camp, pick up his gear, and return to Whitney Portal. It would be a 22 mile round trip with a 6,100 elevation gain start to finish.
I was in! I felt pretty good about it even though I hadn’t trained for a back packing trip for over a year. Thus, I knew that the physical strain would be a challenge. Nevertheless, I felt like I could do this because it was only 2 days, averaging 11 miles a day, and even if I wasn’t physically set to do it great, the least I could do was try to endure the short term pain when I felt like quitting. I remembered how I had not trained to hike San Gorgonio, 20 miles with a backpack, and I was still able to accomplish it. I was confident enough in my mental strength to get me as far as I could go, but still gave myself grace in case I did not make it. I figured I had nothing to lose.
Backstory – You ought to know that this is not the first time that I’ve tried to hike Mt. Whitney. Twice I’d trained for this hike, and twice my plans fell through. I first made plans to hike Mt. Whitney five years ago in 2013. During that time I trained by hiking frequently and accomplishing the Six-Pack-of-Peaks. These are the 6 tallest mountains in Southern California that are known for getting a person physically and mentally prepared for hiking Mt. Whitney. I set a date and started to get the last details into place; permit preparation, mapping out the trail, and packing my backpack. (Note date at bottom of picture below).
When the date came, my work last minute wasn’t able to give me the time off, and the trip was cancelled.
I felt so disappointed. I wouldn’t be conquering Whitney at that time.
In December 2015, my father and I decided to do the entire 220 miles of the John Muir Trail (JMT) in summer 2016, ending with a Mt. Whitney Summit. I was so excited to finally have my turn! We planned for months and months. I was living in Colorado at the time, so I was able to train intensely for this hike in the Colorado Rockies (hence all the training you can find in this blog from last year). Hiking the JMT takes so much planning: the meal preparation, the daily route planning, the acquiring of permits, the scheduling of resupplies, the pick-up vehicle, the weather planning, the back-pack weight factor etc. My father did most of the mentioned list above, while my job was to get myself into shape. I’m extremely grateful for the time and effort my father put into it preparing for that trip!
On September 2, 2016, I flew into Reno right after work on a Friday, and my father and I started the trail at Tuolumne Meadows that Sunday.
After 3 nights and 4 days, the trip was cancelled, due to irreconcilable differences. If you want to know more details, you can ask me in person.
I was devastated. Yet again, I wouldn’t conquer Whitney.
After leaving the JMT, I went through a very tough 6 months. I only went on one solo hike/backpacking trip the week after leaving the trail, Eaglesmere Lake, in Colorado. It was good to get back out on the trail and allow myself to sit in natures healing silence. I knew I was not a failure but I was having a hard time believing it. My Colorado friends were extremely understanding and supportive of me during this time. Also, many members of the Ladies of the JMT Facebook group had been through similar heartbreaking situations and they also helped me walk through this time.
After a year of processing and slow mental and physical healing, I was able to get back on the JMT trail in August 2017. I went alone and only hiked 3.7 miles of the JMT itself, but it was a really good healing trip, as it ended in Red’s Meadows, the same place that my father and I ended the year before. It gave me hope that I could someday finish this special trail even if it was in short sections. I didn’t have to do the entire thing at one time to complete it.
That’s why this mountain had become so important to me.
So let me continue…
1.5 Weeks to Train
I knew that no matter what, I wasn’t going to be able to get in tip-top shape for this hike. But I had to do something. I work in a 12-story building so I started walking the stairs multiple times a day. One day I did 1,000 steps. I cut out all candy, sweets, and treats in my diet. No caffeine. No alcohol. I drank large amounts of water everyday. I took longer walks with Foxy (my dog). Ate foods that were easy to digest. Nothing spicy. I was going to do everything I control to not let altitude sickness, digestion, or lack of exercise stop me from making it to Whitney.
Week Before Trip – Oct 22-27, 2017
Kunaal and I met once more to discuss what we were bringing and who was carrying what. I got my SPOT (Satellite Personal Tracker) all set to go. This is a satellite device that I hike with to show my family and friends where I am. I set it to track where I was every 5 minutes. I set up 2 personalized messages as well that I control when they are sent on the trail:
- Check In/Ok Message button – We are doing great! This is where we are staying the night. Turning SPOT off to save battery. Day 1 Done!
- Custom Message button – Great news! We made it to the top of Mt Whitney!
REI was having a Garage Sale so what better time to go and see if there were any last items I needed. I had been on the market for a one person tent to lighten my pack on solo trips. I found and set up an REI Passage 1 Tent and loved it. With my budget being so tight right now, I took an hour walking around deciding if it was a good deal. Finally I decided to get it. I walked out of REI with a brand new tent for $62. Score! Kunaal printed out the permit papers and sent me a picture. My heart jumped with a little spark of excitement.I headed to my parents to drop off Foxy and grab some food. My father still had all the food from our last JMT trip and encouraged me to use it.
I admit, it was hard for me to pull out all the bags and boxes and look through them. Instead of just grabbing what I needed, I took my time, allowing myself to grieve last year’s failed attempt on the JMT. I’m still in the healing process. While looking through the bags, I came across this Ziploc, which had a half eaten Larabar and the food I would have eaten if I had made it to the 12th day on the JMT. I decided to take this bag and paper with me as a kind-of keepsake.
I headed home and packed my backpack. Everything was ready to go.
Go Time – Saturday Oct 28, 2017
At 5:15am, Kunaal picked me up from my home, and we headed up to Lone Pine. At the Visitor Center, we stopped to pick up the permit. The rangers informed us that we’d have clear, beautiful, warm weather until Tuesday when we had already planned to be off the trail. We couldn’t believe how snow-free the mountain was for this late in the year. It seemed a miracle to have such perfect hiking weather at the end of October!
We headed into Alabama Hills to do some off-road exploring and hiked to the famous Mobius Arch. I enjoyed snapping some pictures of Whitney through it.
With the down time we walked through the shops in Lone Pine. I found the art-work of these t-shirts gorgeous made by The Meridian Line. I only saw unisex shirts and not a cut that I prefer. I’d love to one day get one that fits nicely. For lunch we ate at Alabama Hills Cafe, where I enjoyed the “Mount Whitney” sandwich. Carb-ing up felt like the right thing to do, so I ate like a champion.
Then it was time to head to the Whitney Portals Campground. Last time I’d driven this road was when my father and I dropped off our car for the end of the JMT hike. I felt a little anxious as we got closer, but I reminded myself it was time to make new memories. And I felt a spark of hope flicker in my heart. Maybe this time I’d make it.
We set up camp in the Whitney Portal Campground right next to the Lone Pine Creek. The sound of the water was so relaxing and calming on my nerves.
We enjoyed walking around the campground. I did some quiet reading, and we listened to the podcast “Katahdin Woods and Waters“, which is a fascinating story of how the Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine came to be a National Monument. This calm before the hike was exactly what I needed to get my head and heart straight.
When the sun disappeared behind the mountains at 2pm, it got chilly quickly. We had AlpineAire Chicken Gumbo and sandwiches for dinner. The campground was rather empty, which surprised me. Some neighbor campers from Wyoming pulled up at dusk and joined us at our cozy fire for about an hour chatting about their current adventuring trip around California visiting family and friends, and we shared about our hiking and off-roading trips. It helped the time pass, and soon enough, it was time to go to sleep. Kunaal and I felt good and ready to conquer the mountain the next day!