Well, I did it. I conquered the Mount Whitney trail in a single day. Nine months after I had to back out of the summit quest with four other friends, I solo hiked the tallest mountain in the continental United States. It took me just under 16 hours from start to finish summiting Mount Whitney. Thankfully, I was about to find a Mount Whitney permit on short notice, and the rest is history!
The beauty of the Sierras astounded me. The sunrise, from over 12,000 feet above sea level, was spectacular. The snow chute was exhausting. As I stepped onto the summit and the emotions of the last ten months washed over me, the feelings were a mixture of elation, fatigue, and relief.
Below is my written documentary of how the days and months led up to my summit. Enjoy!
My story on the Mount Whitney Trail
‘You can’t go’
I remember it like yesterday. October 9th, 8:30 am.
I walked into my cardiologist’s office one day after completing a three-day trip into Yosemite’s high country, where the gang got above 11,000 feet, and he told me I had right valve stenosis. My right heart valve was constricted, and I wasn’t letting blood flow through it either. (We obviously know it wasn’t technically my heart that was the issue.)
My mom was with me, and she said, “He’s supposed to hike Mt. Whitney this weekend.”
The doc asked, “How high is that?”
“Over 14,000 feet,” I responded. The doc shook his head and said, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
We knew something was up with my heart – that was obvious. Someone doesn’t just lose the ability to run a mile in the span of two months. But then, even with this “diagnosis,” I still felt I could hike. I wanted to be on the Mount Whitney trail so badly. I had been training as hard as possible, even with a tumor growing inside my chest. My mom smartly talked me down off that ledge as we sat outside the doctor’s office and called my dad to tell him the news.
As I would do a lot over the next month, I pulled out my phone and told my friends the bad news. “I have a heart condition, and the doctor doesn’t think I should hike Whitney,” I typed and then hit send.
And that was it. I was devastated.
I was bummed because I was giving up a Mount Whitney permit, which isn’t exactly easy to come across, and because I had no idea of what was happening inside my body. Would this be an easy fix? Will I ever get back to my former self? Will this get worse?
The following Saturday, I sat on my couch, watching the clock in anticipation of my friend’s forthcoming texts once they completed the 22-mile hike.
I received them late in the afternoon and felt a fantastic sense of pride for my buddies, who toughened out one of the most challenging day hikes America offers.
Once my chemo treatments had begun, I had forgotten about Whitney.
I wouldn’t say I was ‘fighting for my life,’ but a 14er doesn’t have the allure it usually does when cancer’s involved. But once I got better, especially after completing Rim2Rim of the Grand Canyon in late May 2019, the urge to stand on top of the mountain was reborn.
Some articles say that R2R is like hiking Whitney – when factoring in elevation changes and mileage. Well, as someone who has done both – in less than two months – R2R shouldn’t even be in the same sentence. Whitney is SO MUCH more challenging. The altitude destroys your pace and is like walking in molasses.
But when I saw that my body and mind could handle the challenges R2R posed, I knew I could stand on top of the Sierra.
Redemption on the Mount Whitney Trail
On July 2nd, 2019, after spending the last week or so monitoring the Whitney permit website, one appeared for July 4th.
Initially, I was going to leave late Wednesday night, drive into California, and shoot some milky way along the way before ending up in Yosemite. Now, with Mount Whitney on the table, this wouldn’t just shake up the trip. This would define the trip.
I jumped at it and secured my Mount Whitney permit. Two days before I would summit, I punched my ticket at redemption.
After snagging the permit, I walked into my boss’s office, told her I had just landed the golden ticket, and that I’d need to leave one day earlier. She, knowing me all too well, was completely okay with it.
That was it. I was headed to Mount Whitney that evening!
Summiting Mount Whitney on my mind
I had been mulling over the idea of summiting Mount Whitney for the last couple of weeks and brought it up with my parents one evening.
My mom wasn’t too keen on me summiting alone and in the snow. My dad, casual as ever, said he didn’t think it was much of a risk (outside of the general risk of going alone) and that I should go for it.
Raised in the desert heat, I’m not a pro at snow hiking or anything in the snow that doesn’t involve a snowboard. So, I too was a little nervous about the idea of hiking alone in the snow. I monitored the Mt. Whitney All Trails reviews for updated hiking conditions and, honestly, to see if some people who were also snow novices would post a positive summary of their hike. One lady did.
Not to be chauvinistic or “macho,” but even after everything I’ve been through, I’m still a better athlete than most of the population. If this one lady said she cruised through the hike, then I can do it. Maybe that makes me cocky or arrogant, but I think you need to have a little bit of that if you’re going to hike 22 miles and cover 12,000 feet of elevation change in a single day. With that review in mind, I was ready for an opening slot if it appeared.
My mom still wasn’t convinced when I told her this, but I think she felt a little better. She knew I needed to check this off the bucket list.
Phoenix in the rearview
It was 3:30 am when I left Phoenix on Wednesday, June 3rd.
I beat the rush hour traffic and was closing in on the California state line as the sun began to rise out of its slumber. I love my podcasts, so I caught up on a few I was behind on before transitioning to the tunes. Before long, I was bored, so I called my Aunt and chatted with her for an hour or so. Then I bugged another buddy on his way to work. Anything to make the 9-hour drive slightly less tedious.
Once I finally arrived in Lone Pine, I headed to the visitor center to pick up my permit. It was a little surreal to think I should have been grabbing this many months earlier. The ranger didn’t bat an eye at the fact I was doing this alone, which was surprising. (I figure if they worried about everyone going up, they’d get never get sleep.)
I then skedaddled up to Whitney Portal Campground and found a beautiful spot by the creek which runs through the campground. By now, it was approaching 1 pm after I set up camp. After enjoying quiet in my hammock, I headed to the Mount Whitney trail. I wanted to get a sense of the trail at the early stages and see if any parts might be concerning in the dark.
Good thing I did.
About three-quarters of a mile up, you have to play frogger, where the snowmelt currently washes out the trail. Most people were taking off their shoes to walk through it. I proudly could scamper across without getting wet, thanks to some well-positioned rocks! The way back was more challenging due to exhaustion and the fact the water level was higher than the morning before.
Afterward, I returned, settled into my campsite, and began to prepare for a Fourth of July I’ll never forget.
It’s Mount Whiney time!
Two minutes before my alarm was scheduled to go off, I woke up, afraid I had slept too long. “Nope,” I thought as I checked my watch, showing it was only 12:28 am. A nice three hours of sleep. Swell!
I had packed my bag the night before, so I was 95% ready to go. All I had to do was put on my clothes, make some food, and not get hurt.
I did the first two. Not the last one.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I said as I grabbed my lower back it did a mini spasm thanks to moving my cooler too lackadaisically. After popping some ibuprofen and laying on the ground to stretch it out, I continued with my breakfast plans – oatmeal and a breakfast burrito.
At 1:45 am, I hopped into my car, still not feeling too great, and drove the mile uphill to the Mt. Whitney trailhead. As I got out of the car, darkness engulfed me. I was the only one there. I expected to see some other day hikers, but I was alone.
After weighing my pack (they have a scale…my pack weighed in at 29 pounds), I began the 11-mile climb to the top of the Lower 48.
Just before the sun peaked over the mountains to the east, the Mount Whitney spires towering above us began to get a beautiful orange alpenglow. This was a sight for sore eyes. For the last three and a half hours and five-plus miles, I had been hiking alone and in the dark.
It was about as peaceful as you can imagine, but now that I was entering the snowy part, it was nice to be able to see my surroundings. I had also finally caught up to the other hikers, and the company was enjoyed.
As the sun began to break over the horizon, I stopped, soaked it all in, and began taking photos. This is where I met Garrett and Kyle, two brothers who were on their own quest to summit Mount Whitney.
This brief break was just below Trail Camp, where most hikers stay overnight before their summit push. Once we got to Trail Camp, we all unloaded our gear, fueled up, and took in the beauty of an early morning in the Sierras. For over 12,000 feet, it was a beautiful morning with perfect weather for our final 2,000+ foot ascent.
Traversing the Chute
We were doing the Mount Whitney trail chute.
Due to an icy trail, the 99 switchbacks were thrown out, and we were going directly up the 1,200-foot, half-mile vertical ‘chute’ as they call it.
This was utterly exhausting. Going from about 12,200 to 13,400, you only take a few steps before needing a break. This section took us about two hours. I’ve never felt more and less accomplished in my life.
A little after 9 am, seven hours on the trail later, we stepped onto Trail Crest and into Sequoia National Park. This is where the group took a long and much-needed break. The thing about hiking in altitude, at least for me, is it’s physically exhausting in the moment, but when you stop going uphill, I feel terrific.
From this point, it’s another two miles and about 1,000+ feet to the top in order to summit Mount Whitney. “Oh, that’ll be easy,” I thought to myself. Future Alec would laugh at this naive outlook.
The top is near. The end is not.
Those last two miles were brutal.
But the view, looking West into Sequoia National Park, made up for it.
The mostly frozen lakes below us garnered most of our attention, but the snowcapped peaks, nearly at eye level, also drew our gaze as we peered across the valley below.
The way up the Mount Whitney trail hugs the eastern edge of Sequoia and goes up a rock-filled slope. The grade is pretty casual, with long switchbacks helping our lungs and tired legs. By this time, it was just Garrett and me trekking together. We took a little longer break at Trail Crest, so we were the stragglers.
To combat the fatigue, we took plenty of photo breaks which were totally worth it.
The final push of summiting Mount Whitney consisted of a small snowfield which took maybe 10 minutes to get through.
Summiting Mount Whitney – 14,508 feet above sea level
I was there. Higher than any American outside of Alaska.
A huge smile broke out over my face, and I probably did some fist pumps or high five. Looking back on it, it’s definitely a blur as to what exactly I did.
As I walked to the summit of the Mount Whitney trail, the culmination of everything I had been through boiled up and was extinguished. That was now all in the past.
I can’t say I never doubted if I’d be able to do this sort of achievement as I was lying in bed post-chemo. I can say, though, that I never once doubted that I’d make it to the top of Whitney when I stepped foot on the trail at 2 am that morning.
Standing on top gave me the clarity that my cancer was truly gone, and only memories remained.
The previous nine months were tough – the last four months even worse – but I somehow survived. I have no idea if I’m a better person than I would have been otherwise, but I made it.
And now we continue looking forward. To greener pastures. New adventures. New summits. And new challenges.
Away we go!
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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