By Gwen Dawkins
Hiking Mt. Whitney has been on my bucket list for a while — for 20 years to be exact — but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Either I couldn’t find people to commit to it, or didn’t win a permit in the lottery, or missed the narrow permit window entirely, blah, blah, blah. My friend Deb and I share the Mt. Whitney goal, and this year, we are determined to make it happen! In our quest to try new things, do big things and celebrate our girl power we decided to make it a girls’ trip. We put the opening day for the permit lottery on our calendars and asked a few friends whom we thought could and would want to do it. We applied and won permits for the first week of August. And now seven of us are committed and excited! And nervous. Be careful what you ask for.
Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain peak in the continental United States. At 14,505’, Mt. Whitney takes the top spot among close competitors Mt. Ranier, Washington (14,411’) and Pikes Peak, Colorado (14,115’). Of course, Alaska’s Denali takes the cake in the U.S. at 20,310’ — but, you know, that’s in Alaska.
I know several people who have either attempted or summited Mt. Whitney. And the stories are as varied as the people themselves — some very prepared, some not at all. So the results were a mixed bag. My impression is that the trail itself is not that hard; it’s just that the altitude will affect us.
We started training in April and just finished a fantastic hike along the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail from Brockway Summit to Mount Rose Summit. We completed 21.6 miles, with an elevation gain of 4800’, reaching 10,300’ at the highest point on Relay Peak. The trip took us 10 hours exactly, including a lunch break and various stops along the way.
We definitely want to avoid going underprepared and having an emergency on top of a mountain like Charlene Chavez’s first Half Dome experience. So, we turned to an expert and are loosely following the Hiking Guy, Cris Hazzard’s advice for our training. His recommended progression for Hiking Mt. Whitney includes:
- Hike 10 miles, 3000 feet of elevation gain
- Hike 12 miles, 4000 feet of elevation gain
- Hike 14 miles, 5000 feet of elevation gain
- Hike 16 miles, 5500 feet of elevation gain
- Hike 18 miles, 6000 feet of elevation gain
- Rest weekend
- Hike Whitney, 22 miles, 6600 feet of elevation gain
Preventing & Combatting Altitude Sickness
The main thing we’re concerned about for the hike is the risk of getting altitude sickness. Unfortunately, that is difficult to train for as we live only 300’ above sea level. So, we planned our trip to Lake Tahoe to get some hiking in at elevation. We started our hike at 7,000 and gained about 4800’ over the course of the hike. All of us experienced slight symptoms: headaches and lightheadedness.
Of course, the best way to combat altitude sickness is to prevent it. So, we’re focused on drinking plenty of water, eating lots of leafy greens and laying off the booze in the days before we get to Mt. Whitney.
We are currently trying to secure Diamox prescriptions, which supposedly can stave off sickness by 30% – 58%. Altitude sickness can affect anyone of any age, gender, or fitness level. So, we’re planning to bring supplies such as a Fingertip Pulse Oximeter to confirm that our bodies’ oxygen levels don’t dip below 92%. If they do, that’s a sign that it’s time to head down. Other suggestions include supplemental oxygen, Ginger tea, ginkgo biloba capsules, snacking on dark chocolate and aspirin, Aleve, or Excedrin for headaches.
This portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail was absolutely gorgeous, and we were fortunate to have fantastic weather on that day. On the whole, the hike boosted our confidence — hiking far and wide at a higher elevation than what we are used to. I did well. I wasn’t first; or last; but I did take the prize for the most obnoxious bear bell!