The interstate was not very crowded at 6am on a Sunday. We traveled a couple hundred miles until we really saw any traffic and even then the long open road ahead had plenty of room for everyone going west. This was going to be the longest drive we have had to experience on our father/son quest to summit America’s top 12 peaks.
My son Jon-Michael is now 17, I am 56 and I feel the need to get this done. Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 at 14,505 ft. This is our fifth peak. Over the last 5 years, we have taken on one peak each summer. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Each peak is a “do hard things” experience in its own right. Each high point has been beautiful and powerful, hard and deeply satisfying to our male souls.
Today as a dad, especially the dad of a teen, there are so many distractions. The world today seems to be spinning faster than ever before. For the parent, there are interferences and obligations at work that don’t seem to conclude after punching the time clock at 5pm. Social media may be a plague on our youth, but if we are honest, lots of adults are sucked into it as well. Kids spend on average 40 minutes a week outside and 70 hours a week looking at a screen.
Boys begin to separate from their mom in their mid to late teens and struggle for independence and personal identity. They want to be a man, they want to test their wings and try to find out if they have what it takes. This is where dad has to be vigilant. The boy wants to hear he has what it takes from the man and for Jon-Michael and I, we have chosen the mountain to help answer these questions.
Preparation to scale a peak can be daunting in many ways. If you dig in on the popular websites and Youtube, you will get all kinds of mixed information. There were lots of posts by folks who seem to be allowing their ego to write their review rating this peak. Looking back now, I am beginning to understand how to distinguish these naysayers and find better information.
The locals are the best source of information. so taking time to “hang out” is really good. We found the absolutely best book for information was “Mount Whitney, Mountain Lore From The Whitney Store” by Doug Thompson and Elisabeth Newbold. Doug and his family own the hostel in Lone Pine, California and the Whitney Store at the trailhead. I would suggest staying at the hostel and having a conversation with Doug. I have met a lot of folks who know about their area; Doug, his wife and son are the ones for Whitney. www.whitneyportalstore.com
You do have to be in good shape as any good hike or summit can take you out if you are not. Jon-Michael is a thin, strong 17-year-old who does not need much preparation. His biggest struggle is to eat well and drink lots and lots of water. He knows the struggles of altitude and has learned to combat it up front. Even with his good health and preparation, the altitude on this one was noticeable. It was harder on me than any of the other peaks. Lightheaded, fatigue, aches and pains. Overall, water was the biggest asset and I drank a lot.
I am an over packer and that is because I am relatively new; it seems most folks are early on. We were a lot lighter this year and we will be even lighter on the next one. A good water purifier is essential. The new straws are good, but I like the Katadyn Backcountry Series products for all-around use. A good two-person tent with full rainfly is essential and a good sleeping bag. Lightweight but no more than 40-degree rating is best. For a cook, there is a lot to choose from, but I like the Jetboil gear. A Camelback water system is great for inside your backpack as well as large plastic bottles of water straight off the store shelf.
The Dodge folks sent us the most incredible vehicle to drive this year, a Grand Caravan. So you’re thinking, “Ha, those guys took a mini van.” Well I guess that is what most folks would call it. We found it to be the Premium Adventure Travel Vehicle, or as us extreme adventurers call it, a PATV. All the seats folded down into the floor to give us great space for gear and resting while on the road. The ride was like silk. The PATV had lots of power and could get onto the freeway and down the road with the best of them. It had all the luxuries you could ask for including flip down video, satellite radio and massive a/c system. But what just kept amazing us was the miles-per-gallon. At an average of 23 MPG, easy the Eco-Boost just blew us away.
Our first length was Austin, Texas to Phoenix, Arizona. One day, one long day, but we felt good. The second day took us through Las Vegas. We stopped on Freemont Street for a few hours but the town had little to offer us.
We moved on into Death Valley in the late afternoon. It was quiet and few cars followed the road we used as the sun began to set. It was warm but bearable, beautiful and barren. We stopped in the middle and read the plaques and cautionary posters at the rest area. We were at the bottom of America and the information explained the power of nature in that place. We sat quietly for a bit in awe of where we were.
We left there and made it to just outside Lone Pine, California and the footprint of Mount Whitney early that night. We found an open camping area for $15, parked and bedded out in the back of the PATV.
Mount Whitney requires a permit to hike and camp. Most recommendations tell you to get into the lottery well in advance, say in the spring. I heard the chance for a walk up was good during the week and I was praying for that. I knew we could cross over into Nevada and hit the tallest peak there, Boundry Peak (on our list), but we wanted to do this one and were willing to wait it out a day or two.
I was up early and over to the ranger station before 8am. Problem was, I went to the wrong one. I was five minutes late when I got to the correct one, (check this in advance). I took a number and by the time I was called, all leftover permits were gone. It would be 11am before the next drawing, if any were available, and so I went back to camp. We packed up and found a local diner where we devoured some high-carb pancakes in anticipation of getting our permits or taking a long nap. We were back at the station at 10:45 and at exactly 11 they handed out numbers again. Crud, I got number nine. It didn’t matter, we got the permits, the last two for that day. Yes.
Everyone is required to use bear-proof food canisters. Seems best to just rent one from the ranger station for five or 10 bucks. They are a hassle; get the smallest one you can to hold all your food items.
We headed up to the beginning of the trailhead and packed our final gear into our backpacks. Mine weighed in at 37 lbs. JM’s was about 25. Heavy, but not too heavy. We arrived after the four hour hike to our base camp at just about 10,000 ft. It was late afternoon but plenty of light and time to set up and relax. It was magnificent. Waterfalls, clear streams, cool temperatures. We ate potato soup and granola for dinner. Neither of us was too hungry. The altitude was messing with us a bit. We bunked out just after dark. In hindsight, I would bring a small book or a deck of cards. I had a small western paperback, random mindless reading, but left it in the truck. That night the hours crept by and rest was fleeting.
It was 5:30am when we saw lights outside the tent. Hikers start from the base at 4 or 4:30 for single day hikes. It is brutal and I do not recommend it. It can be done and is a lot, but you can miss a whole lot of beauty. Again, it can be done. We were up quick, strapped on our lighter packs for the summit hike and took off. The sun was already breaking away the darkness when we left camp.
We met a lot of great people along the trail. There were the guys from Australia who were just cruising around America and figured it was a cool idea to climb Mount Whitney. Several father and son teams were working on the adventure together. We saw lots of young 20-something women hiking together and alone. There was even a pair of young girls, one nine and one 11 who were headed up.
It was 12:30 when we peaked out. The trail at the very top was icy and worn through a layer of snow covered scree and rock. There in front of us was the stone summit hut, built in the early 1900’s, we had seen in so many pictures. It was an emotional moment for us. Jon-Michael kept repeating, “We are here.” We took pictures. Stood in awe of the cloud lines that circled the edge of the peak. We ate a bit and enjoyed a few minutes contemplating where we were.
When we were ready, we filled in the register; most peaks have some type of log for you to write your name. We of course added a few witty comments, the date and we headed back down. Going down should never be trivialized. It can be brutal. When I hit the wall on the way down, we stopped along a crystal clear creek in a small patch of soft, green grass and filled our water containers. Water was the key to life, again.
We hit camp, packed quickly and began the never-ending final stage of the hike back to the trailhead. It always seems hardest when you can see the road, you know the end is near, but it takes forever, switchback after switchback.
When we finally rolled out into the parking lot, it was still light. We tossed our gear into the back of the PATV, not real concerned about the organization of it all. On the way down from the top we had one big motivator: a giant pizza and a hotel room with good beds. Our day ended well and sleep came easy.
The drive back home included additional elements of adventure, but for the most part the task had been completed; our hearts were full, our bodies sore and thoughts of home were comforting. We always like to get a trinket of our adventures and one for Jon-Michael this time was a t-shirt that exclaimed, “I climbed Mount Whitney, Everything else is downhill.” I like it. I like that we did the biggest one in the lower 48. I loved the conversations about what was ahead for him in his life and hearing his thoughts. I loved the still, quiet moments when Jesus was there with us. I love when he allows me to mentor him and share from my heart. Time is moving fast. Last year, some of the boys told me they thought we needed to do the tallest ones first because I wasn’t getting and younger. I have to agree.
It wasn’t this year I was going to stay at base camp; I don’t know when that will be. So far the trail to the top with JM has been one of the highlights of my life. I never considered climbing all these peaks, but I am loving it. We need to have things in our lives that challenge us, stretch us and confirm us. Jon-Michael has done some powerful things in his young life and hopefully one day down the road he will be faced with something hard, remember climbing those peaks with his old man and smile as he pushes through hearing my voice in his head, “Hydrate son, hydrate.”
Permits for this trailhead must be obtained through the Inyo National Forest. Please read the reservation information provided by the Forest Service if you are interested in going to Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal. Contact the Mt. Whitney Ranger District, PO Box 8, Lone Pine, CA 93545, 760-876-6200, for additional information about this trailhead.