Trip Report: California's Mt. Whitney

Sunrise At Trail Camp

Cover image: Sunrise at Trail Camp in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. Ambassador Joyce Britton recently found herself climbing Mt. Whitney, an exciting, unplanned adventure. All images: Joyce Britton

It was Friday and the end of a busy week when I decided I needed some Sierra therapy. On a whim, I went home after work and packed my stuff to head up the 395 North. Without campsite reservations, I was taking a chance, but I figured that the worst that could happen would be that I’d end up forking over some money for a last minute hotel or sleeping in my car at a campground or trailhead.

I drove to one of my favorite campgrounds in the Sierra, the Cottonwood Lakes Campground at Horseshoe Meadow, and lucked into a walk-in campsite. 

The next morning, I woke up, unzipped the door of my tent and immediately recognized two of my friends sitting at a table enjoying breakfast. They were just as surprised to see me as I was them. They were hiking Mt. Whitney the next day and invited me to join them since they had an extra permit. 

Why not? 

We relocated to Whitney Portal Campground from Horseshoe Meadow (it was more convenient to start closer to the trailhead), and I went to bed before dark. But I didn't get much sleep because of all the noise and rambunctious kids running around.

At 1:30 the next morning, my boots and me hit the trail. It was a later start than I wanted. I usually prefer to start this trek at midnight to give myself ample time to complete it at a decent hour. The first time I conquered Whitney, it took me 22 hours to do the whole hike. The hike is 22 miles round trip with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain and I try to maintain a steady pace of at least one mile per hour. I knew I was going to be pushing it by getting started so late.

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Lots and lots of switchbacks.

As the trail wound away from the mountain I confidently followed it, guided by the warm glow of my headlamp. All around, I felt like I was being cloaked in a dark blanket pin-pricked by stars. I followed the numerous switchbacks up past Carillon and the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, where the Mountaineer’s Route branches off, and made my way past the log crossing with no problems.

I felt that I was making good time, but when I reached Trailside Meadow, I was done. I simply didn’t get enough rest.

I found a flat slab of rock and took a ten-minute power nap. When I awoke, I felt revived and refreshed. I made it to Trail Camp, the halfway point, by sunrise, took a few pictures and ate a snack before heading up the 97 switchbacks toward Trail Crest.

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The summit is in view!

The switchbacks were grueling, but the views became more impressive the higher I climbed. I made it to Trail Crest in my own personal record time and from there, it was another two rugged miles of talus to the summit. When the summit hut was in view, I almost ran the last hundred yards to that beautiful peak.

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Victory at the summit!

At the end of the day, I had completed the entire hike in 18 hours, four hours less than my previous time. It was a huge personal victory and I felt good about my accomplishment. I took a spur of the moment trip to my “Happy Place” and ended up returning home with far more than I ever could have imagined. As I always say, some of the best adventures are the ones that are unplanned.

Joyce Britton, who is often referred to as “Sierra Princess” by her friends, hikes and leads group adventures throughout Southern California and the Eastern Sierra. She believes in taking life one step at a time. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Tales of the Trails, and also on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.

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