Christy Hartsell, National Park Foundation Vice President of Corporate Partnerships, recently hiked Mt. Whitney with her husband, Mark. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states and the last few miles of the 11 mile hike up straddle Sequoia National Park.
I wasn’t sure we’d make it at first – facing a 22 mile roundtrip is daunting enough! We were in good enough shape but doubts both mental and physical kept creeping in...Would the altitude get to us? Would the weather cooperate?
We arrived in Lone Pine, CA a couple days early in an attempt to acclimate to the altitude. A nice forest ranger at the visitors center gave us a couple good suggestions on places to go to acclimate. The first day, we drove to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest near Big Pine, CA – home to some of the world’s oldest trees and where the altitude ranges from 9,843 to 11,188 feet. We mostly explored via automobile but did complete a short loop trail to see Patriarch Tree, home to the world's largest Bristlecone Pine.
The next day, we hiked part of the trail to Cottonwood Lakes (via Horseshoe Meadow, not far from Lone Pine) up to around 10,000 feet. It’s supposedly a 10 mile hike round trip but we didn’t want to use up too much time or energy the day before we summitted Mt. Whitney so we turned back after 2-3 miles to start getting ready for the big hike the next day.
Then on Tuesday, August 21, we hit the Mt. Whitney trailhead at 3:15am with our headlamps guiding the way after a 25 minute drive from Lone Pine. We arrived at Trail Camp where many hikers choose to stay overnight. After Trail Camp, we began the famous 99 switchbacks. The altitude definitely slowed us down but we didn’t get sick, which I had been afraid of! We then hit Trail Crest where you cross over to the other side of the ridge with beautiful views of Sequoia National Park. Then finally, after a 6,000 foot elevation gain to 14,496 feet, we saw the little shack on the summit – we celebrated by taking a few photos!
Oddly enough, a National Park Service ranger was on top painting the shack – we could only imagine the commute he must have!
The next day, we went to Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level and about 130 miles from the base of Mt. Whitney. Talk about contrast!
My husband and I have hiked the rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite’s Half Dome and debated which hike was hardest. I think we agree that Half Dome comes in third but there was much debate about which of the other two hikes is hardest. At the end of the rim-to-rim, I could hardly walk and was very sore the next day but not so much with Whitney, probably because we couldn’t hike very fast on the way up due to the altitude and were hiking down at the end. But, Whitney just seemed harder, longer and more grueling but worth every step!