Hiking in winter has its own challenges, but hiking up a mountain and camping overnight is a whole other ball of wax. Mount Whitney is one of the tallest mountains in the Northern Hemisphere and can be dangerous to hikers in the summer, let along in the winter. A Mount Whitney Hike in Winter is not for the faint of heart, but I hope my story can be both comical and educational for you.
The Night I Thought Would Be My Last
My first backpacking trip was an exciting prospect, but little did I know what a disaster it would turn out to be. It was November, and I was turning 30 years old & I had decided I was going to do something unique for my birthday. My roommate, Lo, a camping/100K/rugby superstar invited me to not only backpack but snow-shoe in winter up the mountaineering route on the second highest peak in the United States……Mount Whitney.
For the record, I have never been backpacking prior to this, I have never been snow-shoeing, I have never carried so much weight for so long on my back in my life. I had just received 2 steroid injections in my feet for Plantar Fasciitis. I was afraid of not being invited again, so I said, “OH! Really!?! That would be so fun!”
As the trip got closer I became anxious about what exactly I was to pack. I knew Lo would know what to pack, but I was embarrassed to ask for details — so I did what I do best…. ignored my problems and made it up as I went. I did a little research online and became even more terrified as the information I found warned me of people having to be flown off the mountain for medical emergencies. Great……I was likely going to die on my birthday.
The day of the trip came, I didn’t weigh my pack, didn’t check to make sure the batteries were in the navigation device….but I set out on the trip anyway. We drove to California where we stayed with Lo’s family, picked up her cousin (a military man). Then we headed on over to Lone Pine where Mt Whitney awaited us, a 14,505-foot peak, with an elevation gain of 6,500 feet over 11 miles on the Mountaineers’ route.
I was tasked with carrying the climbing rope, and we had to park quite a ways down the road and hike in because of rock slides and snow. The road was still fairly steep and by the time we got to the trailhead, we were all sweating to the point you could see the salt in our sweat. I had brought some music with me but was told that it was a cardinal rule when hiking with them that you should not listen to music. At this point is when I realized I may not have the mental nerves of steel to do this without music. Not wanting to appear like a pansy princess I continued to trudge forward.
At the trailhead, we put our snow-shoes and I felt the real challenge start. I was hot, heavy, red as a beet from sweating with huge metal/plastic things on my feet that I didn’t even know if they would work or how to hold my poles. I said a little prayer that I wouldn’t look stupid and started down the trail after Lo and her Cousin. The snow was powdery and soft & three feet deep (at least). I was just so glad there weren’t many people on the trail because there would be fewer people to make a fool of myself in front of.
It started to get hard for me about 20 minutes past the trailhead and I was sure to bring Cliff bars and had the water in my pack to slurp on. I was still dripping sweat and my hands were really cold. All I could think of while I was walking was, ‘I’m not even to the hard part yet and I already want to turn around, come on Janiel you are stronger than this. You need to get a good song in your head and just keep singing’. The only song that really worked was a rap song, ‘one step, come on two step come on’ . I hate rap but somehow it kept me going up all those switchbacks. Lo and her Cousin were blazing the trail & would switch off with creating steps up and down the snowbanks. They were always ahead of me or waiting for me & think I said sorry about 7,000 times. I knew if I didn’t pace myself that there was no way I was going to make it up the mountain and more importantly back down it. I would be too afraid of getting lost if I turned around at this point, because like a greenie knucklehead I forgot batteries for the GPS. I had no choice but to keep going & fought through the mental blocks.
I could tell they were thinking something every time I would catch up to them — but maybe it was my own anxiety and insecurities telling me that. The sun started to set and all the moisture from sweating and falling into the snow had seeped into my clothes started to make me quite cold. My water was frozen so I couldn’t drink any more water, I turned to eating the snow to at least get some moisture in my mouth. The further up we went the dizzier I became. I knew this symptom was a touch of altitude sickness combined with my asthma, but I refused to be any more of a weak link than I already felt like I was.
At one point I caught up with them, and Lo’s cousin took one look at me and said, ‘come here a second’. I crossed the stream we were at and he pulled off my glove and panic set in a little bit when I realized the tips of my fingers were turning blue down to the first knuckle. I am a Physician Assistant and knew subconsciously what it was. I wasn’t thinking so clearly and all I could say in the panic was, ‘Why are my fingers turning blue?!?’ He immediately took both of my gloves off, shoved them in his pockets, took his warm gloves and put them on my hands. I think that is the point I started to develop a bit of a crush on this man. (I love a good Mountain Man, military trained tough nugget.)
We ate a little bit, refilled my water with non-frozen water and then kept walking and they stayed close to me after that, putting me in the middle of them. I knew I was slow, and could tell they were frustrated…..but what could I do? I knew I was trying as hard as I could, but this was my first trip doing any of this! Lo stayed quite and her cousin just told us stories and kept us laughing at least. We came to a really tough spot where we had to really try and get over this ‘hump’ in the snow — we all got over it and her cousin went ahead of me.
As soon as I got up he started talking and walking again, became a little off balance and stepped to the side & all I saw was his hiking poles going overhead and heard a large ‘THUNK’ sound. He had fallen into a hole where he was stepping on his snowshoes, had to take his pack off & was literally over his head in a snow bank. Lo and I were laughing so hard we couldn’t even help him out of the snow pit he had fallen into, which brought on more frustration from him. He was a great sport the whole time. I was glad he was there to offset my mood of feeling pitifully slow and weak.
We came to an area they thought would be good to put the tent down. I had never been snow camping and felt so out of sorts in what I was supposed to do to help. I admit that I stood there, soaking it all in and trying to put as much as I could in my memory for if I ever did this again. In doing that I feel like I looked bad, as in lazy…. they asked if I wanted to help get the tent set up and I came out of my mental processing phase and said ‘oh yeah, sure! Sorry about that – what can I do?’. We got the tent set up and then hurriedly got into the tent and made some dinner that we all shared like we were starving animals….it was our Thanksgiving dinner of freeze-dried spaghetti and meatballs, mixed with the water we boiled & a pumpkin pie Cliff bar.
We all changed out of our wet, sweaty clothing and snuggled into our sleeping bags. I didn’t realize that I had inadvertently grabbed the 15-degree sleeping bag instead of the negative 15-degree sleeping bag. Once I laid down, I started to shiver hoping that I would get warm from the shivering. The ground was cold, there was condensation from our breath in the tent, the warmth of making dinner in the tent started to dissipate…..and that’s when I really started to shiver.
I’m not talking about the kind of shivering you get when you go sledding at night. I’m talking about the kind of shivering that makes you wonder if you are actually shivering, or if you are having seizures. I couldn’t stop, my adrenalin & panic kicked in – I was afraid to go asleep. I think Lo became a little worried and asked if I wanted to use her emergency blanket, I really appreciated the gesture and took her up on the offer. It wasn’t enough though, my body just couldn’t recover from being so cold. I pulled out the coat I had been wearing, put every piece of clothing I had on, opened up a pair of hand warmers I luckily brought and put them on my feet, my femoral arteries and my armpits- then squished into my sleeping bag like I was slipping into a condom & began to pray for forgiveness for all my sins. I told God that if he let me live through this night that I would be better and do better. I think at one point I cried a little when the convulsions finally started to slow down a little and I could feel my chest start to become a little warmer. Over the next 2 hours, it spread to my shoulders and hips. I don’t think I ever truly became ‘warm’, as long as my core body was warm – I felt like I wasn’t going to die from Hypothermia.
I think I was able to sleep around 3-4 hours that night (if I’m being generous). We awoke early the next day and started to pack up camp again. I felt like the Tin man from Wizard of Oz that hadn’t been oiled in 500 years but refused to complain. After breakfast they had me use my ice ax for the first time. I snowshoed up the hill above us a little bit and trialed that out & ended up burying the tent with snow….just bloody perfect. Let’s just put my rookie mountaineering mistakes on my ‘idiot’ tab for this trip (insert frustrated groan). I seriously considered calling myself the Bridget Jones of Yosemite. We unburied the tent and headed up the hill again, it was so steep we ended up having to do about 20 switchbacks just to get up this one hill.
We made it to a juncture that required her cousin to blaze the trail on the edge of an icy cliff…ON HIS KNEES. I’m not kidding people, he was crawling on his knees with his ice ax. There was a sheer drop off into the huge pine trees and jagged ice below.
My heart just started racing even writing this…. I was the next one to go along this real-life video game from Hell. I tried to swallow my emotions down, but it came bubbling out as I turned around to Lo and said, ‘Lo……I’M SCARED!’ she looked at me dead on and said, ‘Well, GO!’ I remember thinking, ‘God, please don’t let me die! After making it through last night I feel like this should not be the way I should die’.
I fought the shifting snow with my snow-shoes and got onto my knees trying to figure out how to hold my ice-ax properly without stabbing myself in the heart should I fall. About 15 feet along this ridge, I hear her cousin say something loudly. I stopped and looked ahead and couldn’t see much, but heard him yell, ‘Hey Lo, I don’t think we can go this way’. You could feel the disappointment behind me when she said, ‘Really?’. He responded emphatically, ‘Yeah, this is making me nervous & it gets really shifty up here’. I found out later that he had to use his ice ax so that he wouldn’t go sliding down the sheer drop off and it scared him a little to have us get in the same situation. I poker-faced my relief at having to turn back and not use this terrifying path.
We headed back to our last fork in the planned route and after Lo and her cousin talked they realized that there was just no way up the mountain at this point in the year. They tried to go another route and her cousin just ended up getting stuck in the brush and she had to help him out of it.
The decision was then made to head back down the mountain as it had defeated us with the icy conditions and depth of the snow. I could see the disappointment in both of their faces, and truly felt bad because I felt like I had ruined their dream of mountaineering Mt Whitney in the Wintertime.
Heading back into town and had some good laughs along the way when Lo tried to ski down on her butt and her snowshoes ended up catching an edge, the momentum lifted her up whitewashing her face first in the snow. The weight of the backpack was so heavy it was pinning her down, which I didn’t realize, and she came up gasping.
Besides the negative self-talk that plagued me on this particular adventure. I have to say this was BY FAR, the most adventurous birthday I have ever had. I especially loved the surprise blueberry pie protein bar Lo had brought for me for my Birthday. I honestly think God saved me on this trip.
In the end, I still felt like I was the weak link on this Mount Whitney hike and was determined to prove myself again. It took a whole year to be invited somewhere again, but I still feel like I’m one tough broad and did a dang good job of persevering despite the complexity & difficulty of this particular venture.
So what is my message to all those out there that it is your first time backpacking? BE KIND TO YOURSELF! If it is hard, keep going, but know your limitations, ask questions, communicate and make sure you choose people to go with who are patient, kind and good-humored should you fail.
Make your first time backpacking an easy summer, spring, or fall so you can get used to the weight of your pack & train your leg muscles to work that hard (especially your calves). Remember to have fun, and take your time when backpacking – it doesn’t matter how quickly you go, or how fast you make it to the top. You are in nature, to enjoy nature and the peace that comes from being away from the rat race of life.
As Always…Happy Travels, Happy Tales and See You on the Flip Side.
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