Hiking Mt. Whitney in One Day (and Losing My Pants)

Whitney, California, US

When my co-worker randomly blurted, ‘You and Jack should hike Mt. Whitney in one day with my husband!‘ – I had little idea what I was so enthusiastically agreeing to.

All I knew was at 14500 feet Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States (Denali would be the highest) and yes, hiking up and down it in a day would be a long day of hiking. As in 22 miles of hiking with over 6000 ft gain. That’s more than 1 mile in elevation gain.

Mt. Whitney
Mt. Whitney -- quarterdome

But it’s just hiking.

How bad can it be? <-- one of these days that is going to be my famous last words, I just know it

Fast forward to a month later

The day began at 2 am in the morning: 3 of us left our cozy and warm motel room for the trailhead.

2:45 am: With our headlights lighting the way we started walking. It started climbing right away. The soft sandy trail in the first mile made the going slow.

3 am: *yawn*…

4 am: Still walking.

4:30 am: Still walking. Hmm, this is getting ridiculous. Wonder if it’s too late to go back.

5 am: Ooh, dawn. 4 hours after we started, we can finally see the trail that we’re on and the surrounding view. Lots of granite. Beautiful granite.

5:30 am (6.3 miles in): Stopped to take a break at Trail Camp and watching the alpine glow on the mountain range. People on the campsite were waking up. This is where the smarter hikers would stay and camp when attempting Whitney as a 2-day hike.

Alpine glow on Trail Camp
Alpine glow on Trail Camp

6:15 am: Now comes the dreaded 99 switchbacks. The steps are hewn granite chunks that are uneven. There are little runoffs everywhere. I slipped and hit my shin on the edge of one of the steps. It hurt like hell.

7:30 am: Lost count of the switchbacks. Switchback #71?

8:00 am: The length of the switchbacks are only 2.2. miles, but it took us 1.5 hour to do it. But we finally made it to the ridge. It’s only 2.5 more miles to the summit now.

9 am, 10 am, 11 am: The worst hours of my life! Trail Crest was very loose with large blocks of granite. Each step was a wobbly one that threatened to hurl me over the cliff on one side. Many times I was practically crawling on hands and knees. Because of the altitude, we were both hurting for oxygen. Each slow step was painful and belaboring to take.

The grueling Trail Crest of Mt. Whitney
The grueling Trail Crest of Mt. Whitney

11:00 am: “Go ahead without me!“, I told Jack. We were only half a mile away from the summit but I’d had enough of the hike. “I think I’ll just rest (nap) right here“. Apparently, being overly dramatic is a side effect of not having enough oxygen. (– everybody knows this :p)

11:20: It was getting uncomfortably hot. The third person in our party (who lagged a bit behind us) finally caught up and woke me up. He and I decided to try to walk to meet up with Jack on his way down from the summit.

11:30: It was slow going but I finally met Jack on his way down from the summit. He was gracious enough to accompany me for the last stretch. This part of the hike was a blur. I was concentrating really hard on just… to… kee… going.

11:40: I made it! I’m the tallest thing on the whole continental US.

Another view from the highest point on the continental US
Another view from the highest point on the continental US
View from the highest point of continental US
View from the highest point of continental US

Took us 9 hours to reach to the summit. And then it dawned on me: we’re only half way. Oh my God! We’d have to retrace every single bloody step that we just took.

Climbing Mt. Whitney
Not terribly excited about the 11 mile hike back...

It didn’t occur to me to enjoy the view as proven by the meager 30 photos that we took in the whole trip. All I could think of was the 11 mile hike that was still ahead of us.

My feet were hurting and I started to get a headache. All I was hoping for was to be magically whisked away to a pizza parlor with a cold beer in hand, I’d even take a domestic.

Trail Crest on the way down
Trail Crest on the way down

2 pm: ‘Hey Jack, how much do you think it’d cost to have a chopper pick us up?’ ‘Hmm, I don’t know. $3500 – $5000?’

2:05: ‘Hey Jack. Do you want to do it? I think we can scrape by $3500. We can cash out our 401K.’

2:06: ‘I don’t think they’d come by if it’s not a a real emergency…

2:06: Oh….

3 pm: Just past the Trail Camp, I threw up. Altitude sickness finally caught up with me. Wonder if that would count as an emergency.

3:30 pm: I threw up. Again.

4:45 pm: I fell and tore off the seat of my pants. I really couldn’t care less at this point. I just wanted to get off this mountain fast.

Torn pants after climbing Mt. Whitney
What I was hiking in the last stretch of Mt. Whitney

In total took us 20 hours to complete Mt. Whiney one day hike challenge. We didn’t get to the parking lot until 10 pm. We started in the dark and ended in the dark.

You know what killed me though? I don’t think the view was worth it. It was pretty, but I’ve seen better for a lot less work.

Climbing Mt. Whitney isn’t all about the view. It’s supposed to be an accomplishment on its own. So I’m pretty happy to have the bragging rights to say that I have hiked Mt. Whitney in one day. Let me tell you something though, unlike rolling down a mountain, climbing Whitney in one day was truly once in a lifetime experience.

Honest, I’ll never do it again.

Mt. Whitney facts:

– Distance: 22 miles, round trip.
– Elevation Gain: 6,130 feet
Permit is required to hike Mt. Whitney in one day from May to November and they’re given through lottery system

Do you have a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience? Something you’re glad you did once but that’s pretty much it? Share it the comment section below.

Valuable Resources

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42 Replies to “Hiking Mt. Whitney in One Day (and Losing My Pants)”

  1. A few years back my mom and her friend wanted to do Mt. Whitney, but they ended up not. My mom wanted to do it in two days, her friend was insistent on doing it in one, like you guys. I'm glad to see that my mom was being the voice of reason!

  2. I'm doing this hike for the 2nd time next weekend and was wondering when you summitted Whitney. Was it this year? If so, did you need crampons and ice axe?

  3. Sounds like a great adventure 🙂 I'm have been planning for a while to hike the pacific crest trail, and I'm pretty sure it also passes over Mt Whitney. Hopefully I also get a nice sunny day like you had 🙂

  4. I'm actually scared of heights, so this one might be a challenge for me to do. I'm also scared of throwing up. I don't blame you for not wanting to complete the trip, but hey you did and that shows real character. Nice job!

  5. Ahaha, I love it! Your face at the peak and the photo of your pants are hilarious. You should hike with me. The last time I went hiking up Seoraksan's dramatic granite peaks, I used a cable car. (I vote that it still counts.) 😉

  6. I know what you mean about that shale underfoot – I encountered that kind of path on the Tour de Mont Blanc and it was murder to walk on. Shame it was so gruelling that you didn't have the time or energy to enjoy the landscape. There are plenty of mountain paths in Europe where you only have to walk for a couple of hours before you come to a nice mountain hut where you can get a cold beer

  7. Truly entertaining! I love your face in the one picture…And I can relate about being sick, we went on one of those gambling cruises that leaves Miami and comes back in a few hours and by hour 2 I was on the roof laid out trying to die (after throwing up a ceasar salad on a bunch of passengers on the deck below me-mortifying) and I really did ask the crew to call me a helicopter, stat.
    Congratulations on getting up there though-amazing. How on earth did you get such large holes in your pants? The rocks?

    1. I have no idea… all I remember is that I slipped and slid down the trail. I guess at first the hole must not have been that big, but it just got worse as we kept on walking.

  8. I was smiling while reading this! I did Mt. Whitney in a day and I do remember thinking after I was done that I wouldn't be on top of Mt. Whitney again…

    But then I ended up climbing it again. My second time was a backpack / technical climb trip though, I recommend taking more than one day to hike Whitney if you can (and the views were definitely worth it). I did have an "interesting" time though (it's a long story http://www.rockgrrl.com/blog/2009/06/east-face-mt…. I did the East Face route and came down the Mountaineer's route.

    A friend of mine may be going back to the area to climb Fishhook Arete, I was tempted.

    Moral of my story, never say never! 😉

    1. You're absolutely right. Never say never. Read your trip report on doing the East Face… very tempting. I don't think we're ready for it just now, but when we do, it definitely promises to be a lot more interesting than our 20 hour hike.

  9. I'm so glad you made it down! Sounds like quite the accomplishment. That feeling though of having to hike back down after getting to the top is always the worst.

  10. That's a lotta hiking! I went up to about 14,300 feet on a 4-day trek in norther India. The altitude affected my climbing buddy more than me, and on the way down, he tripped twice — the second time the guide jumped on him to arrest his fall as he was about to tumble over a cliff.

    As you found out, getting to the summit is only half the battle — getting back down, alive, in one piece is what's most important.

    1. 4 day trek in India? Wow… was it hot and humid? Probably not in that altitude, eh… The effect of altitude was something that I learned not to underestimate after this Whitney experience. It made a hard hike just that much harder.

  11. Oh my goodness!! I can't stop laughing! I am sorry to be laughing at the pain you went through but your sarcasm is spot on. I randomly found this website after researching different places to travel to and I am glad I did. It sounds like you experience some of the most amazing experiences! Hope to follow your lead (maybe not on this experience, after what you went through. ha!)

  12. I think I vomited for you a little just reading this. While I do like to go on adventures, I'm not sure I would have attempted it in a day. I'm already trying to mentally prepare myself for Patagonia and that is almost a year away!

    1. Yeah, that was the toughest thing I've ever done. Thanks for the empathy vomit 🙂 We're hoping to do some treks in Patagonia as well but considering we'll be there Spring-ish, timing wise is not ideal 🙁 We'll see.

  13. Umm.. this sounds tougher than my going down a canyon in Italy, which gave me a pretty great headache too, especially because I could never lower my guard as the path, from the first to the last minute, was bristled with small, rolling stones, and slipping there would have meant that very likely no emergency team would have ever found me..

    I, too, promised myself I'll never do it again, although probably, should I be with some friends, I'd take the challenge again 🙂

  14. tough break. We had a similar experience on the pinnacles hike (much easier) in New Zealand during a rain storm in the dark. Unfortunately for us, we decided to turn back after Ashley was paralyzed from a migraine, about a half hour from the summit.

    I guess we'll have to go back and do it again some day.

  15. Stumbled upon your post and I totally understand your agony!!! When I was in Ecuador this past summer I attempted to climb a 15,000 ft. mountain with two friends in one day… we made it up fine but ended up getting lost on the way down and were stuck on the mountain until midnight with no flashlights or food. After getting lost in the middle of dense forest in a thunderstorm and talking to the firefighters for a few hours, we finally found our way down a random path and made it to the bottom. And our view wasn't worth it because when we got to the top it was too foggy to see anything. Haven't quite made it to a mountain ever since.. haha

    1. Kindred spirit in attracting misadventure!! Gosh, getting lost in the woods is probably one of the scariest thing I can imagine — without food and flash-light is even worse! Glad you made it down ok though. Sucks about the view, but maybe next time? You think there will be a next time? With flash-light and extra food this time around? 🙂

  16. A friend of mine is currently planning on hiking Mt. Whitney this year – He's in intense training and climbing thousands of flights of stairs a day!

    I'd love to do it, and think the view from the top looks stunning, but I definitely couldn't do it in one day – I'd die!

    1. Ooooh, that's awesome! Well, with that kind of training I'm sure he would not have any problem. The kind of training that I did was creating an intense training plan… and never got around to actually do it. Hah 🙂

  17. I can't help but feel the sarcasm at the end of the post! But whatever, you nailed it! That's a feat to be proud of for a long long time!! Well done!

  18. Climbing a mountain is on my bucket list but I really hope it won't be an experience like yours! This sounds truly terrible but good on you for completing it (though I guess you didn't have much choice when you were already at the top?!)

  19. This is AWFUL! Okay, I'm sure hikers and backpackers and intrepid folks relish this type of adventure, but this is my idea of the most horrific day ever. Starting to hike at 2:45am (seriously?!), experiencing the lack of oxygen, throwing up multiple times…. wow. Major kudos to you for completing this and still having a positive attitude about it. I might have been tempted to curse that mountain for the rest of my life. 😛

    1. Yeah, we were both a tad masochistic back then — nowadays, if someone tells me I have to wake up that early to do a 20 hour hike, he's going to have a shoe thrown at him…

  20. Wow, I am impressed with your 20 hour hike! That is an amazing feat and after reading your account, is one I will enjoy from the valley floor.

    I love the eastern side of the Sierra's but this . . . wow!

    Thanks for the post – – it was very fun and informative.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 It took me 20 hour because I was slow… and it was a hard hike. Two of our friends (who were not only slightly mentioned in the post because I was jealous of their fitness :p ) only took a mere 14 hours to complete the hike — and had a much more enjoyable time.

  21. Wow! Congrats on doing it. I thought an 8 hour hike was brutal. 20 hours? Crazy. The pictures do look beautiful but I understand you not wanting to do it again. I probably would have tapped the retirement fund and ordered the helicopter 😉

    1. I was THIS close… like seriously… I had no idea how I fooled my body to keep moving. It was definitely one of the hardest things I've ever done.

  22. Oh how I loved reading this post. It's so entertaining! I can almost feel the agony of every step. Good thing I can't feel it for real hahahaha… Oh jill, I am a fan of your storytelling 😀

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