Jeff Markell
Jeff Markell
Climb Mt Whitney - Bucket List ItemClimb Mt Whitney - Bucket List Item

mt. whitney summit
Chris Keith

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Climb Mt Whitney – Bucket List Item. Just saying those words brings beauty, challenge, excitement, and fear to mind. As some of you may know, I had planned for about 6 months to climb Mt Whitney. At 14,494 feet, it is the highest point in the continental (or contiguous) United States. On June 28, 2002, the Mt Whitney climb became a reality.

Since I had been walking for 10 months in Silverado Canyon, anywhere from 5 to 20 miles in a day, I pronounced myself fit enough to climb Mt Whitney. I am fortunate enough to have a friend in Chris Keith who was adventurous enough to climb Mt Whitney with me. Many people who have attempted this climb plan a 2 or 3-day hike. Chris and I are not wired that way, it was going to be a 1-day assault.

After a hot drive through the desert in Chris’ Mustang convertible and a nice pasta dinner, we arrived at the base camp parking lot at 9:00pm on Thursday, June 27. We were figuring we could catch a couple of hours of sleep in the car and start the journey. It was very hot and uncomfortable. So, at about 11:00pm, we decided to throw our sleeping bags out onto the ground.

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At 12:30am, I was awakened by a bear or a bear dream (I don’t know which). I do know that I probably woke everyone in the base camp up with my very loud screaming. Everyone went back to sleep and then at 1:30am, I was awakened by Chris who told me a bear was within a couple of feet of him. We concluded that sleeping outside was not the smartest thing to do, so we went back to the car and talked for a while. We were antsy to get started and began the hike up Mt Whitney at 3:00am.

By 4:00am, I had lost power to my flashlight (burned-out bulb) and also had lost Chris. He had been suffering from bad tendonitis on his achilles and I was overly “gung-ho,” so I had forged on ahead of him. Thank God for the moonlight that lights the trail for me. Although I thought about the bears and what had happened to Chris, I really was in a special place of solitude and serenity. The only sounds I could hear were my feet hitting the trail and my heart pounding in my chest. Silence in the wilderness is truly deafening.

I found Chris at about the 3-mile mark and we walked together for the next little while. He was very determined, yet Chris could only muster a pace that I was not comfortable with, so off ahead I went again to tackle Mt Whitney. This was a great workout up to the 6-mile mark and Trail Camp, my day pack weighed in about 15 lbs., I worked up a good sweat and felt that if the final 5 miles up were going to be like this, I would have no problems…

Climb Mt Whitney - Bucket List Itemmt whitney hikeClimb Mt Whitney - Bucket List Itemmt whitney hike

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Don’t always trust your feelings. After leaving Trail Camp and climbing up to Trail Crest there are 96 or 97 switchbacks (this is an often debated number). The tone of the hike up Mt Whitney was about to take a severe turn. I began up the switchbacks and was at about 12,200 feet. At that point, I was suffering from a serious lack of breathable oxygen. I stopped many times to catch my breath, eat trail mix, drink water and air out my socks. Not to mention, look back down the switchbacks in hopes of finding Chris again. He was nowhere in sight.

Upon finally reaching Trail Crest and 13,600 feet, I was treated to spectacular views of the High Sierras. Looking both east and west there were some of the most beautiful mountain scenes I have ever experienced. Stopping here and taking it all in was worth it but I knew that there was still work to do.

The trail took a slight downhill path (I wasn’t used to that) for the next couple of hundred yards. Then there was the sign I had been looking forward to…or so I thought…Mt Whitney 1.9 miles. This part of the trail was very rocky and stair-step-like. I had left Chris far behind and I knew that I was going to have a hard time getting to the top. With his bad wheels, he didn’t stand a chance. There were times on this part of the trail that I wondered if it was really worth it. I sometimes had to stop after only walking 20-30 feet to rest and get more oxygen.

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At 12:30pm and 9.5 hours on the trail, I had finally reached the summit of Mt Whitney! What spectacular views… what an accomplishment…what a relief…oh no, now I have to walk all the way down…and where was Chris? I rested and enjoyed the amazing views on top for about 30 minutes and then began the trip back down.

I had gone about one-third of a mile down and there he was! His pace was slowed by his pain and lack of oxygen, but he was going to make it. He wanted me to go back up with him, but I declined…All I wanted to do was go down. I sat on a group of rocks near the trail and waited. It was very warm at first and then clouds started to gather. I had been warned that you don’t want to be near the top if a thunderstorm hits, as there is no shelter. I waited for about an hour and a half for Chris to descend and then we started down at about 2:45pm.


We were going to stay together on the way down. I asked Chris to lead and try and keep a good pace as I felt we would be “pushing it” to get off this mountain by dark. Of course, hiking down was so much easier than going up, but there still was the fact that we had to go 11 miles. As we made it back to Trail Crest and began down the switchbacks, I had a feeling we weren’t going fast enough to get down by dark, but we were doing the best we could. We were fortunate enough to be able to refill our water packs on the switchbacks with the melting snow. We passed Trail Camp and then Mirror Lake and darkness was closing in.

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We waited to use Chris’s flashlight until we really could not see anymore. The moon that had lit the trail before was not going to come out until 3 or 4:00am. The flashlight lasted awhile and then the batteries died…we still had about a mile to go. He could flash it on for a few seconds, I would hustle up the trail and then talk him up to where I was at and what rocks to watch out for. Finally, we could see where the parking lot was. We were 100 yards from it and at that point had absolutely nothing left for light. Both of us were tired, hungry and off the trail. Chris and I saw a lady walking in the parking lot with a flashlight and I called out to her to help us. She was kind enough to walk up to us and get us out of there. It was 10:00pm…we had been going for 19 hours. Wow! It was a 19-hour hike (22 miles round trip) and not recommended for the timid. It was time to get the heck out of there and head home.

We had the experience of switchbacks, rock stairs, rocks, switchbacks, trees, high places to fall from, switchbacks, blisters (Chris only), a beautiful doe, more trails, did I mention switchbacks? Don’t forget the 96/97 switchbacks from hell, I never will. Some of the most beautiful views of California in Kings Canyon and Sequoia, Onion Valley, Whitney Portal, etc. There were also patches of snow, lakes, high mountains, and green valleys.


For me, this was truly a great life experience and one I would heartily recommend. Would I do it again? Not really sure…I think I would have to be talked into it. #IClimbedMtWhitney

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If you would like to find out what it was like, yet don’t want to leave the creature comforts of home, try this: Walk up and down a flight of stairs for 5 hours. You are allowed to take short breaks now and then, but only to drink water or eat a trail bar. After 5 hours, place a plastic bag over your head and keep walking. The bag is used to simulate the fact that you are a high altitude and don’t have a lot of breathable oxygen. Continue to walk until you have done so for 9.5 hours. Take the bag off your head and rest for 30 minutes. O.K., now walk up and down the stairs for 9 more hours. There you have done it! Is Climb Mt Whitney – Bucket List Item for you?

Jeff Markell – U.S. Air Force Veteran – NMLS 224196
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