Summitting Mt Whitney – my first 14′er

The day after Badwater, the men of the crew decided to make a last minute stop at the Park’s Visitor’s Center to see if there were any unused passes to summit Mount Whitney for the day. They had all been reserved way in advance, but usually there are some leftovers from runners and crewmembers who decided they are too tired to summit after the race. Lucky for us, they happened to have 3 passes left.

Route from my GPS

The trail head up to the summit is located at 8,400 feet, right at the Badwater finishline. The trail is approximately 11 miles long (my GPS read 10.21) and goes up to 14,505 feet – the tallest point in the continguous United States. Not too shabby of a mountain for my first 14′er if I do say so myself! Having just paced 30′ish miles the day before, a 22 mile hike up a mountain was obviously a great training opportunity so I jumped on it.

David, me and Will at the trail head / finishline

Since we only had 1 vehicle available, Alisa dropped us off at the trail right at noon and off we went. The plan was to be done around 9pm and she would pick us up there. A park ranger had told us that the trip takes between 10 and 16 hours depending on the person. Being athletic, we decided 9 hours would be more than enough.

Onwards we went, with none of knowing what we were really doing. We had a bunch of Clif Bars, Gu’s, full hydration bladders, headlamps, running gear and our wag bags (you know, for when nature calls… when you’re in nature). Speaking of, we passed a great sign not too far into the hike:

Will makes note of serious business. The #2 business to be exact.

I was constantly amazed at how beautiful everything was as we made our way up the mountain. I guess because I’m used to dinky little East Coast “mountains”, I didn’t really know what I was missing. For example:

Dear Mother Nature, I love you.

We started off fast (3.5 mph) and slowed down a bit after the first hour, making more frequent stops for food, oxygen, or just resting the ol’ legs.

Life is good.

As we got higher up in elevation and above the treeline, we came across our first sighting of snow. This was in stark contrast to the 120 degree temperatures we toiled in the day before.

Badwater. Death Valley. July. Snow?

About 6.5 miles into the hike, Will and David decided that pacing at Badwater and the hike up until that point were plenty of miles for their legs and that they would rather not go any further. Also, the question of how fatigued they would feel at higher altitudes and possibly hiking/running down at night did not sound all too appealing. This became tough news for me to take and I was now left with a dilemma. Do I go back down with my fellow Badwater crewmembers whom I had done everything with over the past few days, or do I go on solo and reach the summit like I originally set out to do? After a few minutes of mulling it over, the guys assured me that there would be no hard feelings if I went on without them, and with the possibility that I might race Badwater next year (and almost definitely not have the energy/will to summit then), this might be my only chance to conquer Mount Whitney. The decision was made to push on solo, and after some quick number crunching I assured them that I would be back to the trail head at 9pm.

Just before parting ways with the guys

I grabbed some water purification pills from the guys, refilled my hydration bladder from a stream and went on my way. I picked up the pace a good amount for the first mile or two, but then the altitude hit me and I was forced to slow back down to a more realistic pace for an unacclimated runner at 12,000 feet. At times, if I took a couple of really strong steps and push myself too hard, I would start to feel light-headed from the lack of oxygen. When I reached 13,500 feet, my normal skydiving altitude, I took the picture below of my Garmin since it was the first time I had been at that altitude with my feet still on terra firma. Quite an interesting experience to say the least!

4 hours to get to altitude? It’s usually only 15 minutes…

Eventually I reached what seemed to be A peak, just not THE peak, and I crossed over onto the western side of the mountain which was technically considered the Sequoia National Park.

Entering Sequoia National Park

From this point I was getting pretty close. The footing along the west side of the mountain was noticeably more rocky than before, and the altitude was causing much more lightheadedness than before. And then I ran into this guy:

Danny Westergaard, almost halfway through his DOUBLE BADWATER w/ summit

That’s right, it’s Dan Westergaard, one of the racers who just finished Badwater a few hours earlier. But don’t get confused, Dan isn’t done racing, he’s going all the way to the Mount Whitney summit… and then BACK to the Badwater Basin where the race began. That’s 292 miles total. Mad respect for Dan on that one. Wow.

Getting closer, and more beautiful

Almost there…

Summit snow

Up near the top I came across the most amount of snow on the mountain. It was probably 2 feet deep but luckily there was already a path worn into it. Still, I was able to find the one hole in the path and my leg fell another 2 feet deep into the snow. It was actually kind of refreshing. The snow-covered portion of the trail was only 100 yards or so, and once I passed that the summit was only another couple hundred yards away.

I reached the summit after 5:30 of hiking. The views from the top were magnificent (it’s the highest point in the continguous US after all), and surprisingly it wasn’t cold enough for me to don the windbreaker or fleece I had stashed in my bag.

14,505 feet. Success!

I hung around the summit for about a half hour. I was all alone up there, on top of the world US, and absolutely loving life. Of course, I had to rep my sponsors while I was up there: Brooks Running and Drymax Socks, both of whom took very good care of my feet for the previous couple of days with no discomfort or blister problems.

Brooks shoes and Drymax socks. Only the best for me.

And of course, I signed the obligatory summit sheet which was located at the lightning shelter on the summit (another hiker finally showed up so I was able to get him to take the picture of me signing it).

Making it official

After I had enough lollygagging, I headed back down the mountain, but this time I had gravity to my advantage. Hellloooo downhill technical switchbacked oxygen-deprived running! Talk about fun!

About 1.5 miles into my descent, I ran into three other ultrarunners who I instantly recognized by their Moeben Badwater sleeves. It was Jenn Shelton, Connie Gardner and Jimmy Dean Freeman, all of whom are respective badasses in the ultra world. I’m not too sure if it was the altitude, the sleep deprivation from crewing, or maybe they just found some “special” water source, but these guys were straight loopy. They were laughing hysterically when I bumped into them, and within a minute I was too. Jenn proceeded to crawl across a narrow stretch of trail on her stomach, Connie asked to switch shoes with me (pink Nike road shoes? no thanks) and then they tried to convince me to come back to the summit with them since they were still on their ascent. Despite their begging and pleading (and perhaps some name-calling as well), I politely declined since I had to meet Dave and Will at 9pm, and re-summitting would put me way off schedule. Didn’t want anyone thinking I was eaten by a bear! I took a few shots of the gang and then we headed in our separate directions.

Jenn Shelton, ultrarunner extraordinaire?
Connie, Jimmy and Jenn
Pretending they’re at the summit. Pic taken from below.

The rest of the run down was rather uneventuful. Lots of running, lots of passing hikers who just hours before questioned my ability to make it to the summit in time, lots of switchbacks, the occassional somersault down the trail from tripping (oops) and lots of pounding on the legs. All in all, it felt great!

One last picture on the mountain

My descent ended up taking 2:45, exactly half the time it took me to summit. Not too shabby! I even managed to finish right as it was getting dark, so I never had to turn my headlamp on.

When I finished, it was 8:45pm so I had a few minutes to spare before the guys were supposed to pick me up. I stretched, had a Clif bar and then put my backpack up against a rock and kicked my feet up on another. Then, right as I was starting to doze off a baby black bear runs across the parking lot, about 20 feet in front of me! Where there are baby bears, there are mama bears. No bueno! Also, keep in mind I have never seen a bear before in my life and I was all alone in a dark parking lot in the forrest, halfway up a mountain where there was no phone reception. Knowing that bears have an impecable sense of smell, I quickly went over to the trashcan and dumped out any remnants of food or food wrappers that I had in my bag. That should do the trick, right?

Well, about 20 minutes later guess who comes running through the parking lot again? Yup, the baby black bear (well, he was maybe teenage bear size). This time, instead of darting off into the forrest, he stopped in the middle of the parking lot and stared me down. I shined my headlamp in his face and spoke loudly and confidently for him to go away, as I had remembered hearing somewhere before. I should have gotten big and opened my jacket, but I forgot due to the fact that I was nearly crapping my pants. The bear would take a few steps onto the trail, then stop and look at me. Then walk a few more steps, then stop and look at me. He continued this guessing game of “am I going to eat you or not?” for another few minutes. Yeah, fun stuff. He finally disappeared into the darkness, so I stood there in the middle of the parking lot constantly scanning back and forth with my light in case I saw his glowing green eyes come back. Luckily, he didn’t, and after about an hour and a half my ride finally came (something about a long wait at dinner, whatever, I was just glad to be warm, safe and out of harm’s way).

I had never been so happy to see a minivan…

For all of my Mount Whitney pictures, see my Flickr album HERE.

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