Adventures in Colorado and around the World

The Grand Finale: Day 7 on the High Sierra Trail

Beep. Beep. BEEP. Some groaning and burying deeper into the sleeping bag. Before my brain turned on I was cursing the decision to set our alarms for 3:00 am, but then I remembered we were summiting Mount Whitney. The deep desire inside me to be high on a mountain peak for sunrise took over and motivated me to take the brave step to unzip my sleeping bag.

Pre-sunrise light on the Whitney windows

We all stumbled through the motions of packing up camp and eating a cold snack for “breakfast”. Twenty minutes after the first blaring of my alarm we were on the trail. We quickly warmed up and I stripped down to my tank top, even though the temperature was only slightly above freezing.

The higher we climbed the more the altitude was affecting me. I had mistakenly calculated that we had 1000 feet to climb to Trail Crest. As we passed the 1000 feet of climbing mark, Trail Crest was nowhere in sight. The combination of demoralization and altitude was making me move slower and slower, and I quickly found myself bundling back up.

We started beyond the mountains in the distance. Camp 6 is in the lower right side.

As if out of nowhere, Trail Crest finally appeared and we switched our heavy backpacks for our light summit packs. From this point onwards the trail was mostly familiar thanks to our 2014 summit-in-a-day adventure as part of our Great Western Road Trip, but thankfully completely devoid of snow and ice.

Sunrise came as we approached the final window down to the eastern face of Mount Whitney. Jason and I were so happy that we made it there for sunrise and we braved the frigid wind blowing through the window to enjoy the sun gracing the mountain with her glowing warmth.

After a break to watch sunrise, we continued up to the summit. By this point the altitude sickness was in full force, complete with a pounding headache, light nausea, disorientation, and an inability to get myself warm. I’ve only experienced full altitude sickness once before, during my first attempt at the Leadville Silver Rush. We finally made it to the summit around 7 am. I signed the summit register, put on every single layer I had, took a summit photo, and headed back down the mountain. The only remedy for altitude sickness, without access to oxygen, was to get to a lower altitude.

We took a brief rest at Trail Crest to put our summit packs into our backpacks and then started down the infamous 99 switchbacks. During our first summit, many of the 99 switchbacks were covered in ice and snow, so we were able to skip about a third of them. This time we had to complete every single one. They are tedious, and the holiday weekend crowds heading up the mountain didn’t help since we had to stop frequently to let the uphill hikers pass.

After what seemed like an interminably long time, we finally finished the 99 switchbacks and found a nice rest spot above Trail Camp Lake. We pulled out our stoves to cook up a warm breakfast and some much needed coffee. The difference of 2500 feet did wonders for my altitude sickness and I started to feel better.

In all we spent 1.5 hours relaxing, refueling, and rehydrating before continuing down the mountain. We took a brief break at Consolation Lake, admiring it’s stunning blue colors and the jagged peaks surrounding it. It’s an appropriately named lake, since I imagine it’s where people who have failed in their summit attempt go to console themselves.

On the rocky downhill section between Consolation Lake and Outpost Camp my foot slid off a rock unexpectedly and I felt myself falling. Both Jason and Brendan later told me they had flashbacks to when I fell off a 15 foot cliff on the hike out of the Subway Canyoneering route in Zion National Park in 2014. If I had fallen inches to either side I would have crashed awkwardly into a jagged rock or fallen off the edge of the trail down approximately 50 feet into even more jagged rocks. Luck was on my side that day because I landed on a relatively safe spot on the trail and slid to a stop before tumbling off the edge. My only injuries were more bruises to the leg I had burned and ripped tights.

I took the next section of trail slowly, willing my leg muscles to function normally and relying on my trekking poles more than normal. When we took a break at Mirror Lake, I stripped down to shorts and was able to assess the damage. My knee and palm was bloody, but the blood had dried so I was able to wash it off in the lake. The bruises hadn’t formed yet, but my thigh was sore. Luckily nothing was broken and the pain was way more manageable than the back pain that I had finally hiked through.

The remaining miles continued downhill. I once again reached that beloved state of flow, but this time Jason and Brendan reached it with me. The miles clicked by relatively easily as we breezed down the mountain. I tried to imagine I was a river flowing down the mountain, which helped keep my gait even, my body relaxed, and my brain finding the path of least resistance.

Finally, 11 hours after waking up above Guitar Lake and 7 days after leaving Crescent Meadows, we reached Whitney Portals. We all weighed our backpacks at the trailhead. After eating my way through my food and drinking most of my water, my pack was the lightest, down to only 34 pounds. Wade’s was still the heaviest at about 50 pounds!

We celebrated an amazing week in the backcountry with burgers and beers at the Whitney Portals General Store. I’ve had a lot of great “post-hike” or “post-race” meals, but that burger topped them all. All the pain, uncertainty, and frustration with myself and my broken body were worth it and I reveled in the glow of accomplishment.

To view the route, click here (you will need to create a free Suunto Movescount account to download the route or email me and I’ll send you the files).