Our first night after getting to Trail Camp was a little restless because the temperatures dropped below freezing. We woke up to a myriad of sounds around 4 am; a group of backpackers singing happy birthday, the tent next to us collapsing unexpectedly, and anxious excited day-hikers joining the line of people headed to the 99 switchbacks up to Trail Crest. Since we knew we were staying a second night there wasn’t as big of a rush to get on the trail before sunrise, so we took it easy and went back to sleep for a little. We ate breakfast while watching zombie day hikers wander past after hiking 6.3 miles and 4,000 feet of gain all before 8 AM. Rested and full of energy we headed up the 99 switchbacks!
Looking down at Trail Camp from Switchback #10 or #12, Our tent is hidden in the shadows of the rock wall on the right
Climbing the 99 switchbacks is long and arduous, and the refrozen snow melt also made the granite steps a little more challenging.
Most of the switchbacks are well maintained, but there were some scary washed out sections this year. There is only one section that had cables, this is not a hike for those who are afraid of heights.
Switchback Cables and a view of Consultation Lake, 1.4 miles from Trail Camp, 12,820 feet
Washed Out Section, About 12 Inches Wide at the Narrowest Section
The views are amazing, but it’s a steep climb and you really start to feel the effects of the altitude. The man in this photo later got altitude sickness toward the summit, delaying his group as they had to help him down the mountain. It was a reminder this isn’t just any summit, and without the proper training, you can put yourself at risk along with your fellow hikers.
Looking back at Trail Camp (Left) and Consultation Lake (Right)
The 99 switchbacks vary in length some seeming to never end and others only 15 feet or so. Counting them can be a good distraction, but odds are you’ll loose count along the way. The seemingly endless switchbacks do come to an end at Trail Crest, where the trail reaches the top of the ridge and continues on the backside. If you click to enlarge the picture below, you can see 3 backpackers on the left breaking the horizon at Trail Crest.
Trail Crest, 2.2 miles from Trail Camp, 13,777 feet
Around 9:00 we made it over Trail Crest and into the shade of the mountain. We were quickly met by a fierce cold wind that must have dropped the temperature back down to nearly freezing. The narrow shadowed trail makes its way along the rocky cliff and eventually meets up with the end of the John Muir Trail.
Looking back towards the John Muir Trail Junction, 2.7 miles from Trail Camp, 13,480 feet
Once we got out of the shadows we could shed some layers and enjoy the view of the valley on the west side of the ridge which is full of beautiful alpine lakes.
The trail is carved into the mountain wall
Every once in a while the trail reaches a “window” in the pinnacles where you can look back toward the side we came up.
Mirror Lake, small green section in the granite mountains, 5 trail miles away, 3,000 feet below
At this point we were pretty tired and ready for the summit even though the rock formations around us and the views of the valley below us were pretty impressive. Being surrounded by jagged granite peaks we scanned the horizon for the infamous summit hut. Sometimes you feel like your just hiking up a gravel mountain.
Looking Back Toward the Pinnacles
Eventually we made it to the final push and after 5.7 miles and 2,496 feet of elevation we reached the summit at 14,504 feet!
Mt. Whitney Summit, Tallest Peak in the lower 49 states, 14,504 feet
Signing The Book
We ate lunch and watched other hikers reach the top, take a photo, and share their story. Everyone had a unique story on why they wanted to summit and how they got there. The most unique story we heard was a retired couple traveling the country to summit the highest point in each state! They had just a handfull of states left including Alaska…definitely working their way up!
Reaching the top was surreal – in someways it was hard to comprehend the accomplishment after 6 months of preparation, and at the same time soak in the scenery. We we’re pretty impressed with ourselves, but like every trip there is always someone there to top us. Whether it’s a father passing us on a trail while carrying his son on his shoulders, or a couple backpacking in Zion with their 2 year child. This time it was the park rangers maintaining the summit hut. Not only do they spend weeks up at high altitudes, and spend most of it doing construction work, but they had to backpack their tools up the mountain! I wasn’t fast enough with the camera to capture him packing his framing hammer.
You can spot a small torpedo level in the side pocket and we later saw him carrying the can of paint down the trail.
It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky giving people more confidence to spend more time at the summit without the risk of lighting strikes, but for most people they had along way to go back to their car. For us it was just a short 4.7 miles back to our tent.
Looking back toward the pinnacles on a clear blue summit day
The return hike will be posted later in Part 3.