Outdoors

Hiking and Amateur Mountain Climbing Mistakes for the Functional Fitness Athlete: Altitude Sickness and Route Selection.

 View looking back from the "99 Switchbacks" on the Mt Whitney Trail. Trail Camp sits somewhere below.

View looking back from the "99 Switchbacks" on the Mt Whitney Trail. Trail Camp sits somewhere below.

This past April I took a weekend trip to climb Mount Whitney. Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48 located half way in Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park. luckily it's only a 3 1/2 hour drive from my house. After researching the heck out of the climb, watching youtube videos, watching the weather, tracking the snow fall, and pouring over the map I came up with what I thought was a flawless plan. However, it turns out that I made two big mistakes. I want to share them with you so that you don't make the same mistakes I did on your next trip into the mountains.

Mt Whitney can be accessed from the west along the legendary John Muir trail, or the more popular route from the east along the Mt Whitney trail starting at the Mt Whitney portal just outside of Lone Pine, CA. I chose to take the Mt Whitney trail. The trail has two designated camp sites, but many choose to hike it as an extreme day hike. My plan was to climb up and down in one day; the first weekend of April before permits are needed in May and throughout the Summer to control the amount of people on the trail. This meant that there would be snow along roughly 1/3 of the entire route. I would step off at 3am, eat breakfast at the second camp, sumit some time after lunch, and be back to my truck before dark. I used an external frame Deuter day pack (not a full mountaineering pack or ruck sack), loaded with food, water, crampons, first aide, head lamp, extra batteries, and enough warm clothes  and socks for an emergency over night. I used high top Merrel boots with Army issue socks, Outdoor Research gaiters, hiking poles, Columbia pants, Under Armor base layer, and an Avalanche thermal pull over. I started off with a soft shell jacket as well, but it proved too warm even in the early morning. Once I hit the snow and ice, I attached the crampons to my boots. Over all I traveled pretty light. 

 Sleeping in the truck! #vanlifenotvanlife

Sleeping in the truck! #vanlifenotvanlife

Mistake number 1:  Acclimatization. 

Being the tallest peak in the lower 48 I knew altitude would be an issue. Since I live at around 3000 feet and Mt Whitney is at 14,505 feet I new I would have to acclimatize myself before hand, at least just a little. I drove there the night before and slept in my truck at Whitney portal which sits at around 8000 feet. I assumed this would be enough.  Even starting off at three in the morning I was doing great at first. The moon was full so I only used my headlamp sparringly with red light as not to ruin my night vision. I was making great time, and even had enough wits about me to use my map and compass successfully when the trail diapered in the snow. I didn't take a rest until I made it to the second camp known at the trail camp. It resides at 12,000 feet, is above the tree line, and sits in the bowel that begins the steep and technical portion of the trail. This is when it got hard.

At this point I had made a 4000ft elevation change in about 5 hours, and 9000ft in about 12 hours. That is not enough time for your body to adjust to the elevation. The majority of hikers up Whitney hike to the trail camp and stay there over night to rest and acclimatize to the drastic change in altitude. Instead I ate a quick breakfast of dry food and frozen water, then kept going. Two people passed me while I stopped to eat so I decided that I would follow them up the more technical route; they quickly lost me. At this point I began to stop and take quick rests. As far as muscle fatigue was concerned, I was fine, great even. However, I was now feeling out of breath. As I climbed and climbed I began to get headaches as well. Eventually it evolved into shortness of breath, severe headache, nausea, blurred vision, and Impared mental judgement. Around 12,500ft I had enough. If I made it to what's known as the trail crest that begins to run along the ridge line, I'm not sure that I would have been able to make it back. Altitude sickness had hit me hard. I turned back down the mountain and headed home. At this point it was the middle of the day, there were more people with more foot prints to follow, and It should have been easier to navigate. Unfortunately I was so out of it I constantly lost the trail. I followed draws, animal tracks In the snow, and scrambled down a few cliffs I walked myself into until finally finding the trail again. I wasn't my normal self until I was only a few miles from the trail head.

 The author at 12,500ft when he had to turn around

The author at 12,500ft when he had to turn around

Mistake number 2: Route Selection

During the summer the only route up Mt Whitmey trail takes you up what's known as the 99 switch backs that start just after the trail camp, and up the steepest part of the trail. However, during the winter months you have a second option; The chute. In the summer the chute is s steep loose gravel draw, but with winter snowfall it becomes accessible with crampons and ice picks.  This was my first time hiking in the snow, and my first time with crampons. Even though you feel like a bad ass when climbing up the side of a snowy mountain with crampons on your boots, you still have to know what you're doing. Being my first time I chose to take the 99 switch backs. I assumed it was the more amature route since it is what most casual summer hikers used. I was wrong. The snow pack for the Sierra Nevadas this year was horrible. This meant that the snow along 99 switch backs was patchy. Extremely deep in some parts, non existent in others. This made for slow going, constantly having to switch crampons on and off, and unpredictable conditions. On top of that, the route was long, very long. Climbing up the chute may have been steeper, but much shorter. I had the right equipment to scale it, but now on top of altitude sickness I had chosen a more technical route, and created much more work for myself.

So how was it?

Honestly, it was a great trip. Even though I didn't sumit, I learned a lot. I experimented with a few new hiking strategies, and learned my lesson on a few new skills. The take away I would like to share is that when climbing mountains, please take the time to acclimatize your self. The consequences of altitude sickness can be tragic. Not only can the fatigue be deadly, but secondary symptoms such as reduced mental ability can lead to danger as well (like getting lost). Also be sure to double check your plan with someone familiar to the area or hike you would like to take. This way they can dummy check you, and make sure you can achieve your goal safely; local gear shops and ranger stations are great for this. I Hope this was useful to any other armature hikers out there. Let me know what you think, or share your own experience. I'm always looking to improve myself  and help other improve. Thanks for reading. Some of the gear I used is available below, and please remember to subscribe!

Columbia Sportswear Men's Royce Peak Pant, Gravel, 34x32-Inch
$41.38
Columbia Sportswear (Sporting Goods)
Avalanche Men's Treeline Pullover, Morel, Small
$35.00
Avalanche (Outdoor Apparel)