Ascent of Mount Whitney on 2011-08-16

Climber: Jason Reed

Date:Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Whitney
    Elevation:14498 ft / 4418 m

Ascent Trip Report

The Group:
A group of 10 of us went to hike Mt. Whitney. Names and ages are me (32), Ky Faubion (26), Jerry Flanagan (45), Chikara Omine (28), Kenley Gaffke (33), Erika Kikuchi(33), Ian MacNider (26), Noe Castanon (40), Ben Beeler (19), and Barry Smith (52). It was a very fit group as 8 of us are sub-40 minute 10k runners, most of us several minutes or more under 40. 8 of us are members of San Francisco’s Dolphins South End Club ( Four of us are experienced ultra-marathoners (me, Erika, Noe, and USA 100k Team Member Chikara).

Ky purchased the permits months before for this date which we decided last winter. We had a commitment from about 13 people so Ky purchased that many permits but had a few last minute cancellations. Jerry was the only one who had climbed the mountain before and he mentioned that in his previous trip only 2 of the 4 had made it. He also said one of the two that made it (the other guy) got sick, so we had an unofficial “pool” going about who, if anyone, would either have to turn around, or throw up due to elevation. The consensus was that 4 of us would be fine – Jerry (had climbed Mt. Whitney and Mt. Shasta before), me (raced up Pikes Peak 3 times), Erika (raced up Pikes Peak twice), and Barry (raced up Pikes Peak once, and I assured the group that other than Chikara, Barry could out-climb any of us). I didn’t know at the time that Kenley had spent significant time at Mount Everest’s Base Camp before or he would have been considered a “safe” one. Speculation as to who would give in first ranged from Ben (age/inexperience), to Ian (no significant elevation experience), to Noe (had some difficulty at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler due to elevation?), to Chikara (too fast, most races go up and down and he’d be down too fast to have it hit him whereas this would be a hike not a race).

Getting There:
Barry drove himself as he was continuing on to Colorado where Erika and I would see him at the Pikes Peak Marathon Sunday, 5 days after the Whitney hike. The other 9 of us took 3 cars from the SF Bay Area and arrived Monday afternoon/evening. We stayed in 2 hotels in the small town of Lone Pine Monday night. The common going-to-bed time was 8-9PM.

Getting Started:
The plan was to start at 3AM. We met in the town and drove 30 minutes in 3 cars to the trailhead. We could have started at 3AM but we took our time to make sure everyone had everything. My backpack contained several clothing options as well as some fruit, a snickers bar, backup batteries for my headlamp, and most importantly, fluids. I had 3-32oz G2 Gatorade bottles, 2-12 oz. Gatorade bottles, and 3-4oz. G1 Gatorade pouches. G2 is what you’d normally expect out of Gatorade, G1 is their new “pre-race” drink which is basically the same except super concentrated. We all wore headlamps. Ky brought a water pump/filter. Jerry and Noe used hiking poles. I brought my poles but opted against using them despite Jerry’s recommendation. Ben wore his Vibram 5-fingers which he got wouldn’t hear the end of for the entire hike. We finally got started at 3:37AM.

Early Trail:
The trail started pretty steep and windy. We saw headlamps in front of us and we occasionally passed other groups on the trail. We left it to Jerry to plan the strategy and he thought it would be best if we took a 10 minute break every hour to help ease in the altitude for those people not acclimated. I personally would have preferred to get as much elevation as we could while we were fresh but everyone agreed Jerry’s plan would be best in order to make sure everyone gets to the top. So after an hour and again after 2 hours we took 10 minute breaks. As the sun came up Ian and I took some pictures. It was quite bright before we saw the sun because the sky lit up while the mountains to the east blocked the sun, but the scenery once the sun came up was excellent. It also allowed us to see how rocky the area was that we were hiking.

Middle Trail:
We kept up a solid pace and it was relatively uneventful until we got to Mirror(?) Lake. That is the last point to get fresh water so we stopped and Ky used his water filter to refill water for anyone who needed it. He offered some water to other hikers as well, and as he was doing so one of them pointed out that a marmot had just stolen Noe’s mango which Noe had left on a rock. Marmots are 4 legged mammals that look like beavers but without the big tails. They are the size of a loaf of bread. The mango was a bit big for the marmot to carry, so Noe ran over and got his mango back from under a rock. The mango had a large bite mark in it.

Very shortly after the water stop were the infamous 99 switchbacks. These got us from an elevation of 12,100 feet to 13,600 feet (Trail Crest). The switchbacks are where we first ran into difficulty. We began taking breaks much more frequently than every hour. Noe was making it to our rest areas a bit after the rest of us although he was able to keep up his own pace consistently without fatigue or altitude getting to him. I began to look forward to rest being more than just a luxury. Ben became less chatty and had stopped bouncing around all the rocks in his Vibrams. Erika started leaving the rests early – I got the feeling that she, like me, would have been more comfortable putting as much distance behind us as possible.

Trail Crest:
We finally hit Trail Crest although instead of getting there as a group we came in one at a time. The scenery was amazing as the entire landscape to the west finally opened up. We took our last long break as a group there. We got some great pictures, including ones where Ky led us out to a rock outcropping that was a little scary although I made it onto the rock long enough for Kenley to take a picture of me on it. Ben was noticeably out of it and I gave him one of my 4 oz G1 pouches. Chikara and I were feeling the altitude a bit and had a fun time sitting. From here the trail follows the mountain ridge north and was wide and clear enough not to put us in danger of falling the long way down to the west (and sometimes east).

Struggles along the ridge:
After we left Trail Crest the group started breaking up almost immediately. Noe and Erika were in back and the rest of us were strung out. Some of the guys pushed a good pace at the front. Then a few of us realized that we ought to make sure the back of the group was OK. Jerry, Chikara, Barry, and I all seemed to be doing (relatively) fine so we waited for Erika and Noe. We started to worry when Erika finally appeared. She had her head down and was staring at the trail below her which fortunately was easy to follow and not too technical. She looked awful and we discussed whether we should have her turn around although we didn’t say anything about this to her. She passed and was long out of sight – I couldn’t even find her in my binoculars – and still Noe hadn’t shown up. We discussed what the options were, with the main ones being a. he turned around b. he had to stop c. he was just moving very slowly. Barry offered to turn around and go back for him. Out of all of us Barry was the most able to add/reclimb any distance. So Barry was gone for a while and then Chikara all of a sudden remembered that just a ways after our last break there is a junction with the John Muir trail. We continued straight/right on the John Muir trail toward the summit, but at the junction the Muir trail also goes left – roughly 200 miles North to Yosemite National Park. If Noe had accidentally gone left, Barry could be out there forever looking for him. Fortunately, after only a few minutes of thinking of that Barry and Noe appeared. Noe looked a lot better and appeared to be moving faster than Erika, but was obviously quite a bit behind. Noe assured us he was fine so Chikara went ahead and I moved ahead to catch up to Erika to make sure she was OK. Erika revealed that whoever picked her in the “pool” wins but I don’t think anyone picked her. She wanted to be left alone so I shadowed her all the way to the top, and Barry shadowed me as I was starting not to look/feel so good. Near the top there we hit some waist deep snow into which a trail was nicely carved. Navigating it was not a problem, even without poles. Noe, Erika, Jerry, Barry, and I made it up around 1:15PM and some of our group had already been there an hour. We took some quick group pictures and Erika and Ben immediately started down as they were really starting to feel the altitude. A bunch of us stayed at the top until a little past 2PM, and a few people (not me) actually took a nap.

Trip Down:
About half way to the Trail Crest intersection we caught up to Erika. We didn’t stay as a group but we all stayed close. I tried to stay near Erika but I was getting a headache (other than that I was feeling fine) so I had to move on down faster. I made it to the front of our group and then took a half rest/half nap on the side of a rock and everyone passed me again. When I restarted everyone had gone by me and I struggled from there to Trail Crest staying just in front of Erika, who Ian had begun to stay with. From Trail Crest we went down the switchbacks. I began to feel better and stayed with Erika who was feeling sick. Everyone else stayed just in front of us (except Ben who seemed long gone down the mountain). Finally, after 2/3 the switchbacks Erika started to feel normal again and we regrouped at the bottom of the switchbacks where we found Ben. From there we split into 2 groups – me, Ian, and Erika in the back and everyone else in the front. The front group really motored down the mountain – I had a hard time moving fast enough to keep them in sight. I began to get very fatigued, not altitude related. Being out there 15+ hours started getting to me. My previous longest race (or run, or anything) was a 100k in 12:30 so this was uncharted territory for me. Nightfall came again and we pressed on – catching up to a couple other groups which we could see in advance due to their headlamps. We finally got to the bottom just before 9PM and met up with the others from the lead group. I weighed my backpack from which I had only used about half of the fluids I brought and it weighed 14 pounds. I wished I had seen the scale before we started. We were all happy because we were an unexpected 10 for 10 in making it!
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:6730 ft / 2050 m
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:6730 ft / 2050 m
    Extra Loss:582 ft / 177 m
    Route:Mt Whitney trail to John Muir trail
    Trailhead:Whitney Portal  8350 ft / 2545 m
    Time Up:9 Hours 38 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Route:Mt Whitney trail to John Muir trail
    Trailhead:Whitney Portal  
    Time Down:7 Hours 30 Minutes

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