18 miles and an ice axe: Summiting the highest peak in the lower 48

June 03, 2016                 2m read time
Lauren Gonzales


ZOZI Account Executive by day, mountaineer by weekend: Lauren Gonzalez takes us on a visual journey of her 18-mile, 15-hour trek to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. 

 

 

 
Hiking at night Jake Landon

Hiking at night

Jake Landon

 

The moon cast a glow on Whitney Portal, our starting point with an elevation of 8,360 feet. It felt like another planet—an alpine landscape washed in lunar luminescence. By the light of our headlamps, we crossed log bridges over rivers that dissected a wild and empty trail.

The air was a crisp 25 degrees Fahrenheit as me and three hiking pals (Sheila, Brian and Jake) set off for the summit at 2 a.m. The sky was pitch black, with hundreds of stars speckling the darkness like glitter. 

Crossing the river in the dark Jake Landon

Crossing the river in the dark

Jake Landon

 
Dawn on the mountain  Jake Landon

Dawn on the mountain 

Jake Landon

 

Dawn crept over the horizon at about 6 a.m., painting white slopes in pinks, yellows and oranges as we gained elevation. The light brought our surroundings to life, revealing glaciated cirques, steep granite pinnacles, hanging valleys, high passes and sharp ridges.

Sunrise Jake Landon
 
Walking in snow Jake Landon

Walking in snow

Jake Landon

 

As the sun climbed, so did we. Trees and dirt dwindled, giving way to ice and rock that took over the trail. A thick blanket of snow coated the ground en route to the base of the chute, making it a strenuous trek through deep powder. 

At the bottom of the chute from afar Jake Landon

At the bottom of the chute from afar

Jake Landon

 
Standing below the chute Jake Landon

Standing below the chute

Jake Landon

 

Proper gear was crucial: In addition to carrying our own backpacks with snacks and hand warmers, everyone wore three layers of shirts, thermal leggings, windbreaker jackets, beanies, gloves, sunglasses, wool socks and Lowa hiking boots. Prior to ascending the chute, we paused to pull on water-resistant parachute pants, attach crampons and get our axes handy. 

Crampons? Check. Ice axes? Check check. Ready for the cute.  Jake Landon

Crampons? Check. Ice axes? Check check. Ready for the cute. 

Jake Landon

 
Lauren has an ice axe, and she's not afraid to use it Jake Landon

Lauren has an ice axe, and she's not afraid to use it

Jake Landon

 

Layered up and adrenaline pumping, we hacked and axed our way up the chute. My first-ever ice climb, it was grueling—no sugar coating there—but not scary. I felt pretty in control because I had the right equipment, which is the most important thing.

Climbing the chute Jake Landon

Climbing the chute

Jake Landon

 
A well-deserved rest at the top of the chute Jake Landon

A well-deserved rest at the top of the chute

Jake Landon

 

 After a quick break to survey the distance we covered, our trek continued up the trail as it narrowed to nothing but a thin ledge on the edge of the mountain.

Starting to feel like mountain goats Jake Landon

Starting to feel like mountain goats

Jake Landon

 
Striking a Natarajasana pose for good measure Jake Landon

Striking a Natarajasana pose for good measure

Jake Landon

 

Snow and rocks dominated the terrain and the air thinned as we neared the summit. Throughout the trek, the ever-changing environment and challenges it presented was a big topic of conversation. Being out there really exposes the type of person you are—it brings out your strengths and weaknesses.

Walking along the edge in the snow Jake Landon

Walking along the edge in the snow

Jake Landon

 

When we reached the top of Mt. Whitney, the feeling of standing 14,494 feet above sea level was worth the final nine-mile ascent up 6,000 feet. Our crew spent 45 minutes exploring the summit, taking in 360-degree views, relaxing by the warming hut, and of course, posing for a few victory photos.   

Group of friends on the top Jake Landon

Group of friends on the top

Jake Landon

 
Snack of champions

Snack of champions

 
Standing by the warming hut at the top  Jake Landon

Standing by the warming hut at the top 

Jake Landon

 

One thing that really kept the group's spirits up for 18 taxing miles? Distracting ourselves with silly trail banter and goofy nicknames (like "Sherpa Sheils"). The camaraderie was also a meaningful part of the experience. One person remembered the sunscreen, another person had extra sunglasses, etc. We talked about why we were doing the climb in the first place, and the places we wanted to go next. Taking on challenges with friends gives you deeper realizations of the type of people you like to be around. 

Plaque at the top on the rocks Jake Landon

Plaque at the top on the rocks

Jake Landon

 
Friends sitting at the top Jake Landon

Friends sitting at the top

Jake Landon

 

A storm approaching in the distance signaled it was time to get going. Little did I know, the hardest part of the whole trek—glissading, or descending the ice chute—was still to come. This involves sliding down on your butt with no crampons on, digging in your axe to control speed and direction.  Let's just say it can be a bumpy ride.

Starting the trek down Jake Landon

Starting the trek down

Jake Landon

 
Starting the trek down  Jake Landon

Starting the trek down 

Jake Landon

 

The mood turned goofy and energized on the return trip down—we were all on a high. With the daylight and trajectory giving us an entirely new perspective, we marveled at scenery we hadn't noticed in the dark, like waterfalls and wildlife. 

I did this hike because I wanted a challenge. I wanted to test my endurance and ability to stay positive in tough situations—and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. 

When we reached Whitney Portal around 5 p.m. after 15 hours of trekking, we felt awesome and exhausted. The wild had called, and we had answered. Now it was time to answer another call: The call of a Double Western with cheese from Carl's Jr. 

 
 
Lauren Gonzales

Lauren Gonzalez is an Account Executive for ZOZI. An avid outdoorsman, she is continuously seeking more ambitious challenges, but also appreciates a BBQ in the valley. Since moving to California from Colorado, she has most enjoyed the landscape, the people, and the constant source of fresh food. 

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