This post is the first in a three-part series about hiking Mount Whitney with a few unexpected twists: a wildfire, an alternate trip, and eventually, a solo summit.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. We were supposed to be driving southeast to hike to the summit of Mount Whitney. But there we were, heading north on a bright, sunny day to the Trinity Alps instead.
I had been eyeing Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, since writing about moving to California. When I submitted my permit application to hike it, mine became one of thousands entered into the annual lottery. In 2017, there were over 15,000 applications for 100 day use permits and 60 overnight permits up for grabs per day between May 1st and November 1st.
So in March, when I got the email that I had "won" an overnight camping permit, I was elated, nearly bouncing out of my chair. I had even gotten one of my preferred entry dates: Wednesday, July 11th, 2018. I requested it because the snow was likely to melt out on the infamous 99 switchbacks by then, and because it coincided with a new moon—favorable conditions for shooting the Milky Way. Immediately, I emailed Grace to see if she wanted in. The answer was yes, and we began what would become months of planning for our first Mount Whitney summit attempt.
Aside from it being an epic adventure with my friend and good hiking buddy from Washington, who I missed so much, I saw Whitney as something I could work towards in an uncertain time in my life. Moving to California was, and still is, a strange and challenging process. I couldn't control nor predict what would or wouldn't happen to my fledgling outdoor writing career, but I felt I could create something meaningful for myself in the meantime. Picking goal hikes and building my fitness became a way for me to feel like I was making some kind of progress. It made me feel like I had a purpose, and it made me feel better about myself.
As the months passed, Grace and I became more and more excited. We read books like Elizabeth Wenk's One Best Hike: Mount Whitney. We studied weather patterns. We scoured Whitney Zone Forums. Our friends sent us articles about altitude sickness. We talked about what we'd pack for the temperatures and trail conditions. When I became concerned about seasonal thunderstorms, I called up our friend, Bert, who reassured me with his insights from his Sierra hiking exploits. Grace came to visit during Memorial Day weekend, and while she was here we came up with a hiking plan and decided where to camp.
And then, the unexpected happened.
On Sunday, July 8th, the night before Grace's flight to California, I saw a message saying the road to the Mount Whitney trailhead had been closed to uphill traffic. There was a fire—the Georges Fire—just north of Mount Whitney. It had been started by lightning. The Whitney Portal store and campground were being evacuated.
I texted the post to Grace. We had no idea when the road to the trailhead would re-open. Neither did the forest service. Feeling defeated and spent from our Whitney planning, we tentatively agreed that Grace would cancel her flight and the trip.
Early the next morning, on the day of Grace's flight, we began texting again, trying to make sense of the situation. What if there was a way to delay our Mount Whitney hike? Maybe the office that issued the Whitney permits could give us an extension or an alternate date in a few weeks. Grace could reschedule her flight, come back, and we could try for it again. We agreed I would call the permit office when it opened at 8:00 a.m. and Grace would wait to hear from me before contacting Alaska Airlines to change her flight. By now it was 7:25 a.m. and Grace's flight was at 1:55 p.m.
At 8:01 a.m., I called the permit office and they graciously took my name and phone number in case there were any updates. But the bottom line was that they couldn’t give us a definitive answer of when the road might re-open. Their policy for the Georges Fire was to give permit holders a seven day window, starting from the morning the road re-opened, to come back and hike it. Grace's flight was in hours. We didn't have time to wait: We had to make a decision whether to cancel the trip or find something new.
I suggested Grace still fly to San Jose and we could figure something out. Grace said she was in, and just like that, our trip took a huge U-turn. We both started looking into alternate backpacking trips, trying to find ones that would match or come close to the scenery and ruggedness we had hoped to see at Mount Whitney.
In those initial moments, when the reality of our Whitney trip fell apart, I nearly did too. It was unbearably sad and disappointing. We had looked forward to this trip for months, and it had been meaningful and symbolic to me as a way to move in and move on to California. To say it was hard to make the mental adjustment to the prospect of a new, non-Whitney backpacking trip would be an understatement.
But Grace had taken the week off work. Aspirations aside, this week was about getting outside with my friend and getting away from it all doing something we loved. When I hang out with Grace, there is a common language we speak, a hiker's language that is simultaneously comforting and calming, like a recognition. I was dangerously close to becoming blind to that. With Onur's encouragement, I began to let go of the idea of Whitney, and focus on the fact that my good friend was still coming. I cried, then I got to work.
Grace emailed her friends who were knowledgeable about the Sierras. While Grace was in the air, I scoured websites and drove to REI to pick up topo maps. Together, we came up with a few options: Four Lakes Loop in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, a 34.5-mile trail that started high in the redwoods and descended to the Pacific Ocean, or hiking out of Bishop, north of Lone Pine, to experience the Sierras, minus Mount Whitney.
Grace's flight landed just after 4:00 p.m., and we spent the next three hours hovering over our dining room table, combing through maps. Which one sounded the most exciting? Which was actually feasible? Which had a forecast for decent weather? We ended up going with the Four Lakes Loop, a 22-mile route with over 6000 feet cumulative elevation gain, similar to what we would have done for Mount Whitney. It passed by a series four picturesque lakes and the forecast looked mostly sunny. Since we'd be out in the wilderness and away from light pollution, I'd have a shot at taking my hoped-for Milky Way photos, maybe near one of the lakes. I had no idea.
It felt nuts trying to plan a 3-day backpacking trip in 3 hours, like I was being pushed over a cliff I wasn't ready to jump off. The good news was that the overnight camping permits for the Trinity Alps Wilderness were free, we were able to find a place to crash near the trailhead the night before, and the drive was shorter than the one to Whitney-about 6 hours one-way versus 7 hours one-way, respectively.
There were still many unknowns. We couldn't find much information about water sources along the trail. We weren't clear on where to camp. Different books and websites had varying stats for the mileage and elevation gain of the backpacking route we were taking. We weren't sure which was accurate and which to trust. But we were strong, we had enough information to just go for it, and I felt secure in Grace’s experienced company. We also had to stop at a ranger station to pick up our permits, so we knew we could ask the rangers questions and they could fill in some of the blanks.
That night, we re-packed our backpacks for the Four Lakes Loop. We no longer needed cold weather gear for 30-degree temperatures, or an extra day's worth of food. Lack of thunderstorms forecasted in the Trinity Alps meant we could skimp on rain gear too. We went to a local market, Lucky, and picked up salty treats for the car ride home: corn nuts for Grace, Gardetto rye chips for me.
The next morning, Tuesday, July 10, at 8:00 a.m., the day we were supposed to be heading to Mount Whitney, we drove north to the Trinity Alps Wilderness instead. Ready or not, we were going on an adventure.