The first was late in the climb the first day at above 11,000' when we both starting getting a cough and it was difficult to get a deep breath without coughing. At the time, the cough was both causing issues for our progress and was making us wonder if it was a sign of something more significant that was wrong. We both wondered if it was an early sign of HAPE and if we'd get to the point where we had to turn around and descend to keep it from getting worse. I remember one particular break we took on the trail where Kevin was having a real hard time with the cough and getting quite worried about it too. We rested and, as we rested, it seemed to get a little better (we probably should have rested even longer).Eventually, we started hiking again and before thinking we had to take another break, Trail Camp came into view. Fortunately for us, our bodies recovered after a few hours of rest in Trail Camp and the coughs disappeared. If it had not gotten better when it did, we would have probably descended to Outpost Camp that first day. Without a medical diagnosis, I can only assume that we just overdid it the first day. Our packs were too heavy and we ascended too fast and our lungs needed a slower pace to adapt to the altitude gain. An eight hour pace to Trail Camp with a lot more long breaks (instead of the six hours we took) probably would have made it easier on our lungs. We had the time in the day. Taking nice long breaks at Lone Pine Lake, Mirror Lake and Trailside Meadow and eating food each time could have really helped.
Above 11,000' - trouble getting deep breaths
I imagine that this is how a lot of climbers get into trouble, but we were so driven to achieve our first day goal that as long as our bodies let us push on, we pushed hard. We passed many other backpackers on the trail and were passed by none. Neither one of us had to push the other - we just both really wanted to achieve our goal so we were pushing ourselves. Even though we had plenty of time that day and could have taken it more conservatively, were were driven to push forward at the earliest point we could. Starting the hike an hour earlier might have also been wise because it would have been cooler and would have given us more confidence that we could take our time.
The second point where I really wondered if we were going to be able to continue was when we first arrived at Trail Camp. I've never been this exhausted in my whole life. We found a camp site and just sat down and rested. For over an hour, we couldn't do anything. From the camp site, we could look up at both Whitney Peak and at the chute that we would have to climb the next day. I remember staring at the slope thinking to myself that there was just no way we were going to be able to make it up that. I couldn't even get up and move around to get something out of my pack. How in the world was I going to climb the chute the next day? For more than an hour, I thought we were just going to rest and camp here tonight and, in the morning, we'd pack up and hike out - defeated by the altitude. Fortunately, after a few hours of rest our bodies started to adapt and recover and, by the time we'd eaten dinner, our optimism for the next day had returned.
Exhausted when arriving at Trail Camp
Looking up at the chute from Trail Camp
The third point was ascending the slope of the chute the second day. We started out with 50 steps and a rest, then 25 steps, then 10 steps. Progress was really slow. Other groups of people were passing us and it didn't seem like we were making steady progress. The slope was getting steeper and steeper and harder and harder. By the time we got half way up, I was ready for a long break on a boulder. I didn't contemplate giving up, but on the other hand, I wasn't confident that we were going to make it up either. We finished the break and started going again. Almost immediately, I felt like I needed another break. We set a goal of getting to the end of the boulder field in the middle of the chute and taking a break there on the last good resting spot. Again, I was in need of the break by the time we got there. If you looked up, the top just seemed no closer. But, if you looked down, you could clearly see that we had made a lot of progress. I remember after resting awhile, Kevin asked me if I was ready to go. I answered "no" and just needed to sit there awhile longer.
A break on the chute
Finally, I was ready to proceed. At the point we started going, a caravan of other hikers was going by and we just fell into their line - putting our feet into the same boot steps in the snow that the person in front of us had used. It was the best thing that ever happened on that climb. Because of the complexities of a line of people, they had a rhythm that consisted of about five steps and then a pause and that rhythm just worked for us. We made it to the top of Trail Crest without any further long breaks and really without any further doubt as to whether we were going to make it. There's probably a lesson here in the "slow and steady" pace wins the race.
I had one more difficult spot near the Whitney summit. The trail to the summit just seemed interminably long and though it wasn't steep in comparison to what we'd done the previous day or earlier that day, any uphill at 14,000' just saps the energy out of you. I remember getting to one point in that segment where I told Kevin that I was going to make it, but it might take awhile and I might need pretty frequent breaks. We sat down for awhile (10 minutes or so). Kevin was ready to push on because the summit wasn't far away, but I just needed to sit longer so he waited with me. I thought I was going to need to take a break like this every few minutes, but when we finally started going again, I suddenly felt much better. The slope to the top was flattening out some and the long rest had apparently helped. All of a sudden, we came over a rise and there was the top and it was easy to find the energy to go the last bit.
Overall, I think we prepared well and we weren't missing anything that really impacted the trip. There are, however, a number of things that we'd do differently if we ever did this again. Firstly, our packs were simply too heavy. We should have gone much lighter. We didn't weigh our packs fully packed before the trip (probably a mistake - though I wouldn't have known then what not to bring), but did weigh them when we got back. Accounting for the weight of two liters of water, but not as much food or fuel as we started with and not any of the contents of our WAG bags that we disposed of at the trail-head, my pack was 41 pounds and Kevin's was 39 pounds. In addition, I was carrying five more pounds of camera in a front pack (that gave me easy access to my camera without taking my pack off). So, accounting for some of the food we ate and fuel we burned, my total carrying weight may have been as much as 50 pounds on the way up. I've read that a good target is 20% of your body weight which for would be a pack of about 37 pounds for me and 32 pounds for Kevin and if you're really diligent, you may be able to go even lighter than that.
Here's all the things we would not bring next time:
- Bring way less food (we had more than double what we needed)
- Bring smaller bear container (for the smaller amount of food)
- Bring fewer warm clothes (we had jackets and fleeces we never used)
- No ice axe and crampons (we needed them this time, but later in the year one would not need them)
- No extra batteries for headlamps (we barely used them at all)
- One fuel canister was enough for the stove (we had two)
- Acquire extra WAG bags so we could take empty ones up to the summit
- I had way too much first aid stuff - pair it down to smaller quantities
- Go without some of the toiletries (wash cloth, comb, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, etc...)
- Lighter tent (rather than buy a new tent, we were using a two man tent we already had that isn't very light)
- Know the right portions for meals. In Whitney, if you cook too much quantity, you have to pack out the (now-hydrated and heavy) extra food you just prepared.
- Take everything out of it's native containers and into ziplocks. More compact and lighter weight. We did this with all things related to food, but not other things like Advil and some of the first aid stuff. Every ounce of packaging adds up.
And some things we did that worked out really well:
- We each carried a hydration bladder in our pack with a tube coming out the top of the pack so we could drink at any time while hiking. This was great. It really encouraged us to drink a lot more and was really convenient.
- We were plenty warm. We both had 15 degree sleeping bags and they were more than warm enough.
- All food was individually packaged into ziplocks and many meals could be eaten by just adding water to a ziplock and stirring. This meant no dirty dishes other than your own spoon. Very nice.
- We had no altitude sickness at all. We got a prescription for and took Diamox which helps your body acclimate to higher altitude. We also spent three days before the hike at 8000 feet or above doing mild exertion (light hiking). I can honestly say that I felt a lot better at altitude on the day of the hike than I did the previous days so acclimation seems to really work.
- Car camping in the forest service camp ground at the trailhead was really nice. It's a nice campground along a river. There is a backpacker's campground specifically for one night stays before your trip, but doing car camping from the forest service campground was much nicer.
- The small Wilderness First Aid book I had was great. It was very reassuring to be able to look up the symptoms of HAPE and confirm that we didn't have any of the serious symptoms.
- Cell phones do work from the top of Whitney (at least on Verizon). That was really fun to be able to talk to Steph from the top.
And, some things I'd change next time:
- Eat more calories between lunch and dinner. I'm convinced that one of the reasons I got so fatigued the first two days is that I simply didn't eat enough calories for the amount of exercise we were doing. While we ate a decent breakfast and dinner, the plan was to snack through the day whenever you were hungry on nuts, trail mix and dried fruit. I simply didn't eat enough. After fully hydrating on the way home and eating a couple big meals, I was still 5 pounds lighter than when we left. That means I was probably 7-8 pounds down during the trip. Next time, I'd bring more things like energy bars and maybe even GU energy gel for quick energy.
- Dinners were good. Breakfasts were not so good. Snacks didn't work out that well. We didn't starve, but could have done better. We brought a lot of dried fruit because it's relatively light, has lots of good things in it and we love it. But, we quickly discovered that dried fruit makes you go to the bathroom regularly and with the WAG system that isn't something we wanted to do. So, most of the dried fruit came back uneaten.
- Take more long breaks on the first day ascent where you conciously rest and eat. If our six hour ascent had been seven or eight hours and we'd rested and eaten more, we probably wouldn't have been as spent when we got to Trail Camp and maybe wouldn't have had the cough issues we had.
- Go when you know the trail will be clear (late July or August). This will also let you use lighter weight boots than the mountainerring boots that we rented.
- I don't know if it was worth it bringing my big dSLR and it's associated weight and bulk (nearly five lbs). This first trip, we were so focused on the objective of the trip and so exhausted doing it that I didn't spend much time on photography. Perhaps a subsequent trip in easier conditions could leave more time and energy for photography, but most of the pics I took on this trip could have been done with a small, lightweight camera.
If we did all these things, I think our packs could have been nearly 10 lbs lighter. If switched to a small compact camera, I might have carried 10-15 lbs less.