When I think about the day that we summitted Mt. Whitney, my mind floods with images of the sunrise over Consolation Lake, Sierra mountain ranges as far as the eye can see, and the light dusting of snow over the 99 switchbacks indicating the coming winter. All too often, I forget exactly how we made it up those 14,505 feet.
Sometime in early September, we were offered two Whitney permits with a group of Alex’s friends for the end of the next month. Without skipping a beat, we mapped out our next six weeks to get in a few quality long hikes – two peaks in the SoCal Six Pack of Peaks challenge and one popular trail in the Eastern Sierras. It’s nearly impossible to fully prepare yourself to walk over 20 miles and reach over 14,500 ft in a day, but having already experienced losing a toenail or two and realizing that life moves on just the same definitely helped.
Here are three hikes you should get under you belt before preparing to summit Mt. Whitney:
Training Hike One: Mt. San Jacinto via Deer Springs Trail Head
16.1 miles | 5,226ft elevation gain
This hike will always hold the most special memory in my heart. It was our first long hike together, and we planned it in true Alex & Katie fashion: leaving San Diego at midnight on a Friday so we could hit the trail by 3 am and make it back in time for a nap before Saturday evening festivities. After eating a Breakfast for Dinner (our meal of choice before a long sunrise summit), we set out for the Idyllwild side of the mountain to the Deer Springs Trail Head.
As we hiked through the night, the stars seemed to twinkle a bit brighter with each step we took further into the wilderness. The uphill miles simply melted away into conversations that ranged from stories of our time spent abroad in college to what would happen if we ran into a bear. We did not see a single soul on the way up (thank God Alex vetoed my ghost story suggestion), and as first light began to brighten the sky we turned off our headlamps and let the beauty of the mountain sink in. The sun started to peak above the skyline when we were just short of the summit. Realizing that we wouldn’t make it up for sunrise, we sprinted to the side of the mountain to catch those first Saturday morning rays from 10,000 feet up.
After an unforgettable (and our first together!) mountain sunrise and spending a bit of time at the summit, we made our way back down. As the temperature climbed with each mile we descended, our shared love for hiking deepened.
Try to get a good night’s sleep before attempting a sunrise summit…but if you need, San Jacinto’s a pretty good place to take a quick nap.
Training Hike Two: Mt. San Gorgonio via Vivian Creek Trailhead.
17.2 miles | 5,492ft elevation gain
For our second training hike, we decided we were ready for the highest peak in SoCal (thanks spin for somehow prepping our legs for this). After a failed (but somehow still delicious) attempt at gluten free and vegan pumpkin pancakes at midnight, we again set out to the Vivian Creek Trailhead. Even with an immediate steep elevation gain, those first miles in the dark flew by. As first light began to sneak in, we were able to see orange and pink clouds whizzing overhead. While this should have warned us about weather conditions up at the summit, we were simply unable to do anything but photograph and video the sky as it danced above us. Fighting against the 45mph winds, those last few miles to the summit made me wonder why the hell I was choosing to spend my Saturday morning doing this, but of course I now only look back on Gorgonio with the fondest of memories.
Even though we could only spend a couple of minutes at the summit because of the frigid winds, we still managed to get a few photos. We booked it back down to the mountain and made it back to the car and on the road back to San Diego.
Pro (or not so pro) Tip: Make sure to thoroughly check our weather report before every hike in the mountains. When you’re in elevation anything can happen!
Hike Three: Big Pine Lakes to Palisades Glacier
17.4 miles | 4,060ft elevation gain
Going to Lone Pine for Bobby’s interview was not the first time the two of us had made our way up the 395 to be in a place for less than 24 hours. Two weeks before our Whitney date, we trekked up to the Eastern Sierras to do the Big Pine Lakes to Palisades Glacier trail. Not only an excuse to visit the Eastern Sierras (arguably our favorite place on earth), this hike was a perfect opportunity to train our bodies in a very similar environment to Whitney.
There are no words that will ever be able to capture the utter beauty of turning the corner to Lake 2 and Temple Crag at first light. As we turned to each other, unable to speak, light snowflakes began to dust our hair. The hour we spent there felt like 5 minutes, and after some oatmeal and coffee from the kindest of strangers turned friends, we set out to reach Palisades Glacier. Following the trail up through the yellow leaves, it was nearly impossible to keep ourselves from stopping for a photo shoot every five minutes. As we trekked deeper into the Sierras, the view ahead towering, white capped peaks as we left the lakes behind. The final section up to the glacier was mostly a rock scramble with zero trail marking – but sitting above 12,000 feet surrounded by the mountains and the snow makes any previous stress fly away with the mountain air.
Thankfully making it back to our car before a snowstorm hit, I had never been to happy to see Trader Joe’s plantain chips waiting for us. The Eastern Sierras always seem to bring me exactly what I need – and was it not for our Whitney trip planned just two weeks from then, I would not have been at all ready to leave.
Pro Tip: Soak in the Keough Hot Springs after hiking Big Pine Lakes. Just 10 minutes down the road, this is the perfect way to thank your body and prevent sore muscles!
Even though we left Mt. Whitney blistered, fatigued, and down a couple toenails – I felt as prepared as I possibly could have been. These three hikes were the first time Alex and I had trained for something together – and the end result was the creation of Small Towns to Summits! I have never once felt as if a minute of us road tripping or a mile on the mountain has been wasted – in the thousands of miles to come we hope to bring you all something truly incredible.
Be sure to follow along with us for upcoming blog and vlogs including tips for training for Mt. Whitney!