Friday, November 14, 2008

Climbing Mt Whitney

Alpenglow, September 20th 7:00 am,
four hours into the climb

Rock formation as seen from the
infamous 99 switchbacks

Looking down from the summit

Me and my brother, on the summit

One last look back at the ridge

All rise! This is the one. The highest peak in the continental United States, that is, excluding Alaska with its mighty Denali. Situated in the dry and rocky Sierra Nevada, California, it stands at an elevation of 14,497 ft. While this is not a difficult technical climb, the trail leading to the summit is 11 miles (17 km) long, elevation gain being a whopping 6,500 ft, making for a good 2-days hike.

Obtaining an overnight trip permit depends on literally winning a lottery, so we opted for a one day permit, meaning that we only had one shot, one single day to bag it. The lucky day was set to be September 20th 2008.

Long story short, we started at 3:15 am, using headlamps and walking continuously for 4 hours into the dark in order to stay warm, as the temperatures were in the mid 30's (coming from daily highs of 90's and even three digits in Vegas and Death Valley the previous day).

After a glorious sunrise and a quick snack, we started to climb the strenuous switchbacks, about 99 of them in total. I didn't bother to count them... but I can tell that was really the most difficult part of the trip. When we managed to get past the junction to Muir Trail, we knew we were going to make it.

Easier said than done, because the altitude starts to take its toll: breathing gets more difficult and your head starts to feel a little light. But we made it, after hiking for 7 1/2- 8 hours. We spent about 45 minutes on the top, calling our parents in Romania (friggin' technology!) and then we started the downhill part of the trip. Oh Boy! It seemed that it would never end, it felt like the distance just doubled, especially the in lower part which we didn't get to see early in the morning.

A total of 15 hours, 22 miles round trip that ended with a cold beer and the best hamburger I ever had in my life at the foot of the mountain, at Whitney Portal.

As a side note, I've learned my lesson on Mount Rainier: don't bring the 5d at high altitudes! I shot the pics with a low quality Fuji digicam and I couldn't be more happy with the decision I made. The 5d with my 24-70 mm zoom feels like a brick in my backpack, there was no way I would carry it during this 22 miles marathon.

More pics here:

This climb set my new personal altitude record. In order to beat it, I will have to travel to Alaska or South America. I was invited to join a romanian expedition to Aconcagua, in the Andes, in 2010-2011. I couldn't pass, and therefore, this is my new goal: Mt Aconcagua.

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