Last week I traveled to the West Coast to meet up with Jason Klass and Ben Tang (Ben2World) for a multi-day hike up Mt. Whitney with the ultimate goal of reaching the summit. However, due to increasingly severe symptoms of altitude sickness I had to turn back at around 13,500ft and wasn't able to top out this time round. As the old saying goes: The mountain will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too!
Right from the start you can imagine how the conversations went with three die-hard gear junkies getting together to compare packing lists, gear selection and preparing our backpacks for a multi-day ultralight hike - nirvana! I could make a pound cake joke here at Ben's expense, but I won't. This won't be a day-by-day trail report simply becasue I don't have much time to write it up in detail at the moment, instead I'd like to cover my overall experience and what part of my gear worked and even more importantly, what didn't work!
Before this trip I hadn't hiked or climbed much over 6,000ft, in fact my highest was Mt. Mitchell in Pisgah National Forest, NC (6,684ft), so I've never really had to deal with the symptoms of altitude sickness, but was well aware of what they were. I live just east of Charlotte where the average elevation is a mere 600ft above sea level, unlike Jason who lives in Denver at almost 6,000ft - as it turned out, that can make a huge difference in becoming acclimatized to high altitude.
Hanging up at the start of the Whitney Trail is an old spring-loaded weighing scale that anyone can use to weigh their pack before and after the hike. Being the total gear geeks that we all are are we took turns weighing our packs and posing for the obligatory photo. As the newbie of the group I'd like to point out that my pack was the lightest at 21 lbs which included my pack, gear, consumables, water, Tenkara fishing gear AND a hulking big black plastic bear canister that we rented from the Ranger station - not too shabby. Jason and Ben both weighed in at 23 lbs.
Like most mountain trails the Whitney Trail consists of hundreds of switchbacks with the occasional area of open flatness where you can rest your weary legs from the constant onslaught of the uphill climb. At the lower elevations there were still lots of opportunities to get some shade from all of the trees, but as we continued up above the treeline we were exposed to the burning sun. I burn easily and very quickly in the sun, thanks to my mom's Irish genes, so I was grateful for giving into Ben's urging to slick up with sunblock before we all got started. Even though I know that I burn easily, I hate the sticky, greasy feel of being covered in sunscreen - but hate sunburn even worse.
We took occasional breaks to rehydrate, munch on some snacks and admire the beautiful scenery. I have to say that despite taking dozens of photos along the trail, none of them do the landscape justice, you have to be there to experience how remarkable it really is.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS), or altitude sickness as it's more commonly known, is an illness that can affect mountain climbers and hikers at high altitude (typically above 8,000 feet or 2,400 meters). It shows up as a collection of nonspecific symptoms resembling a case of flu or a hangover. In my case the first symptom was a headache that started at the Whitney Trail Camp which is around 10,000ft elevation. I was also fatigued from the hike up to camp and so it was hard to determine whether or not my headache was a symptom of AMS or just a result of all of the exertion.
In the weeks leading up to the trip I had chatted with Jason and Ben about the gear I was planning to take. I really wanted to use my GG SpinnTwinn to save on pack weight, but had concerns about using a tarp and bivy combo on a mountainous terrain. As it turned out the tarp itself was not the problem, the ground being impossibly hard to drive a tent stake into was the problem. This was made even worse by my decision to carry only titanium shepard hook tent stakes which are notoriously weak for hammering on. The thicker tent nails or spikes would have been a better choice, but even then there were places where the ground was almost entirely solid rock. I ended up using my guy-lines and rocks to tie out the tarp.
Jason and Ben both brought freestanding dome tents, which turned out to be a much more sensible option given the terrain. Ben took his hybrid one-piece Big Sky Mirage 2P (above) and Jason was using a Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2. Jason and I were both really impressed with Ben's Mirage 2P for ease of setup and quality of construction. It also has no fly-sheet, it's just one layer, so setting up is simplicity itself and according to Ben he's never had any bad condensation issues. This might be going on my future gear list :-)
I didn't sleep well that night at trail camp (10,000ft) and woke up light-headed and hungry at 3am to the sound of early hikers making their way up the summit trial using headlamps. Despite being awake so ridiculously early and feeling like crap, it was mesmerizing watching the caravan of little headlamps zigzagging back and forth up the trail in almost total darkness. I had plenty of time before the sun came up so I fished around in my pack for my camera to take some photos of the sunrise over the mountains - what an amazing sight!
After making my Starbucks Via coffee and eating some hot granola I began thinning out my pack in preparation for the summit hike. I felt a little better after eating some breakfast and with a lot of encouragement agreed to push on and make an attempt at the final climb to the summit. We all agreed that we would go up together and if necessary come back down together, we weren't going to split up. This decision was made a little easier by the fact that both Jason and Ben had previously topped out on Whitney.
It's funny but the whole time we were getting our breakfast ready I had the strangest feeling that I was being watched very carefully by dozens of eager little pairs of eyes. Later when we returned to Trail Camp we would see at first hand the havoc and carnage caused by the elusive little curious critters - aka the Whitney Marmots.
Using Jason's new Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter, we filled up all of our water containers ready for the long hike up to the summit and back down to trail camp. There would be no other opportunities for filtering water from this point up, so we each wanted to make sure we had plenty of water - more is always better. We wouldn't be needing much gear for the summit, so we thinned our packs down to some cold weather clothing, food, first aid and water.
One of the great things about the Gossamer Gear Gorilla pack that I took with me was that I could use the compression straps to significantly reduce the size (bulk) of the pack for day hikes like this one.
The temperature was really mild once the sun had come up and started warming up quickly. I was surprised by how much snow was still present on the top of the mountain despite the warm temperature and relentless sun. The landscape this high above the treeline is very different and a little surreal. I was also amazed by the gorgeous dark blue color of the sky, which I was sure wouldn't come out in my photo using a point and shoot camera, but this photo shows it really well.
We started up the trail to the summit just before 9am in order to have plenty of time to get to the top, take some photos and get back down to trail camp again before dark. I still had a headache and was slightly lightheaded even after spending the night at trail camp. To be safe we agreed to take it slowly and watch each other for any more symptoms of AMS. With a much slower pace and lighter backpack I felt pretty good despite the headache. The switchbacks were pretty steep at this point and consisted mostly of rocky steps which made it hard to keep a steady pace and took a lot more effort, thankfully I was able to use my trekking poles and my arms to take some of the effort of the large steps.
After about an hour into the trail we experienced the first casualty. Ben's spare Platypus that was in his side mesh pocket, popped out of the pocket and over the edge of the trail. Luckily we had more than enough water between us to share round so it wasn't a complete disaster, but Ben was annoyed that the Platypus had slipped out of his side pocket so easily. It landed about ten feet below the edge of the trail but was way too precariously perched for us to try and retrieve it - so it just sat there staring at us and almost mocking us.
We continued up the trail slowly and deliberately and gained elevation quickly because of the steep angle of the switchbacks. After another hour of climbing and increasingly more frequent rest stops I started to feel the onset of other symptoms of AMS. My head was becoming more and more light headed and I noticed that my footing had started to get clumsy. We took several more long breaks to rest and rehydrate, but even after one or two more switchbacks I became progressively more dizzy, short of breath and light headed.
It's hard to admit that you have a problem and can't go any further, especially when others in your party are able to keep going. Despite my mind telling me to push on slowly, my body was wiped out and I could barely make it up a single step without having to rest and recover - it was time to call it a day. Ben had noticed that I was struggling more and more so we all agreed that it was not worth pushing it and creating a potentially dangerous situation, we had to start back down.
I was disappointed and bummed that we had come so far and I was the cause of all three of us not being able to reach the summit. Thankfully Ben and Jason didn't want to talk about it in terms of a disappointment, we'd all had a great time on the trail together and that was what was really important. We all adjusted our trekking poles for going downhill and after another short rest started back down the trail carefully.
As anyone who has suffered the symptoms of AMS will know, your symptoms can disappear as quickly as they came on giving you the sensation that you are feeling better and could potentially turn around and take another crack at it. We all knew better and had decided that if we were going back down then we were done and would enjoy our trip down the mountain as much as we did coming up.
Jason and I had packed our Tenkara fly fishing gear for this trip knowing that there were several well stocked lakes along the trail. We had expected to fish on the way up the trail but had changed our minds the day before we started the hike while we were purchasing our California state fishing licenses. We now had some extra time on our hands because of the failed summit attempt so we could afford to spend a little extra time fishing and relaxing.
The last time Jason and Ben came to Mt Whitney, Jason came across Lone Pine Lake and was amazed to see so many trout in the lake. He kicked himself for not having packed his fishing gear and missing such a great opportunity. It was one of the first things he had spoken to me about as we were planing fr this trip, so we both came prepared this time.
Unfortunately Lone Pine Lake was murky and nowhere near as good as Jason had remembered it from last time. There were also about half a dozen backpackers floating around the lake on inflatable loungers and swimming to cool off. Lone Pine Lake wasn't going to be a good fishing location this time. Further back down the trail not far past the Outpost camping area we remembered a smaller and much clearer lake called Mirror Lake, so we decided to make that our fishing destination and continued back down the trail.
When we reached Mirror Lake the wind had picked up and you could see strong ripples across the entire surface of the small lake. We had the whole lake to ourselves. Before setting off on our trip, Jason and I had planned to take lots of Tenkara photos and video to use later on, but the excitement of the moment made us throw all of our plans out the window, we just wanted to fish and relax.
I had taken very little Tenkara gear with me. I had my 12ft Iwana rod, my Trico ultralight flyfishing pack, three flies, and two mini spools wrapped with furled lines that already had the 5x tippet attached - that's it. I attached a furled line to my Tenkara rod, tied on a fly, in this case it was an Epoxy Sakasa Kebari wet fly that Jason had tied. Little did I know that Jason had not tied them for actual use, they were just presentation flies and he had given me several.
We could see signs of fishing rising all over the place, so I cast my line and watched to see what the fish would do. To my surprise I had several hits on the fly almost immediately. I adjusted my position and cast again, this time a little bit further out. I twitched the line slightly to get the attention of the fish and was rewarded with an quick hit. I had caught the first small brook trout of the day.
Jason asked me what type of fly I was using and when I told him it was one of his epoxy kebari flies he was amazed. He had been using a Griffith’s Gnat with no success - but he quickly changed to the same fly as I was using. No sooner had he done so than he was bringing in his first brook trout.
Tenkara fishing thousands of feet up a mountain in perfect weather seemed like a fitting end to a tough couple of days. I'm pretty sure that Jason and I could have spent all day at Mirror Lake quite happily fishing for trout, but we didn't have that luxury and packed up after catching several nice examples of brook trout.
We packed up our gear and continued the hike back down the trail. My symptoms had all but subsided now with the exception of a persistent headache, but that was okay. From this point on we were motivated by only two things: eating a nice big hot meal at the Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine and getting rid of the stinky WAG bags that we were carrying back down with us. I deliberately didn't go into too much detail about the WAG bag system on this post, I'm saving that for a separate post that I will share shortly.
The next time I come back to summit Mt Whitney, and I will be back, I'll do a couple of things differently. Firstly I won't be taking a tarp with me. I love sleeping under my tarp and for just about all of my trips on the East coast it's perfect. However, the rocky terrain on Mt Whitney made setting up the guy lines extremely hard and a loose tarp is not what you want to have at high altitude and under windy conditions. At the very least I will switch to titanium nail stakes instead of shepard hooks.
I'll probably look at investing in a quality self-standing dome tent like the Big Sky Mirage 2P that Ben was using. I was really impressed by his tent and at how small it packed up. A dome tent would definitely be the way to go.
Next time I'll pack more savory foods. While I usually enjoy my GORP mix and other trail snacks, this trip I quickly became sick of the taste and found myself wishing I had something different to eat. Now that could have been a side effect of the nausea symptoms I was experiencing or I may have just reached the point where GORP is no longer appetizing - either way saltier foods will be the way to go.
Both Jason and I had taken some Wise Foods freeze dried meal packs with us to try as our hot meals in the evenings. They weren't very good and I don't think I'll be trying them again. I need to find some good really flavorful trail recipes and test them out ahead of time.
Thinner backpack shoulder straps. I love my GG Gorilla backpack, but after dozens of hikes with after putting many, many miles of use on it I've come to the conclusion that the upper shoulder straps are far too wide. I'd prefer not to change to a completely different pack so I might attempt to modify it myself to have narrower shoulder straps that rub me less. Even after adjusting the sternum strap I couldn't stop the straps from rubbing into me. On a pack weighing a mere 21 lbs that's not good. But I'm sorta looking forward to the hack :-)
Other than that just about everything I took with me worked really well. Overall it was a totally amazing trip and despite not making it all the way up to the summit I had an incredible time. It was a real pleasure to finally meet Jason and Ben in person and I have to give a huge thanks to Ben for putting up with me and all my gear at his home during the beginning and at the end of the trip.
Brian is a Charlotte based backpacker, gear junkie, runner, and CrossFit(er). Originally from Southampton, England, Brian has lived in the US for over 20 years, finally settling in North Carolina. He spends as much time backpacking as his busy work schedule and family life will allow.