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