Whitney in Winter

It’s February 2020. You’re excited. You enter the lottery to get permits to hike Mt Whitney. It’s the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. You’ve never been that high before! In March you find out you’ve got a permit for May. There’s some pandemic thing happening, but that’ll totally be resolved by May. You book campsites at Whitney Portal; you book a few nights before at Onion Valley. You’ve got a team ready to go. Time to kick up the training a notch.

Multiple trips to the San Gabriels, culminating in a summit of San Gorgonio two weeks before you’re due to hike Whitney. You hear rumours of permits getting cancelled. You’re nervous, but optimistic. It’s the week before your hike. Your campsites have been cancelled, but oddly not your permit. It’s 5 days before your planned summit. Your permit is revoked. All permits for the rest of the year are already booked. No dice.

Endure 6 months of pandemic…

It’s early November 2020, you’re planning on camping up the 395 for the Thanksgiving week. Permit season has ended, but fire season has devastated the Sierras. Whitney’s still closed.

This image has nothing to do with Whitney, I just needed something to intersperse all the words. It’s taken at the Hot Creek Geological Site, just outside Mammoth Lakes, CA

It’s two weeks before your trip; Whitney is open; permits are being offered for the following week. Ooh. You wait patiently for the week to finish and the following week’s worth of permits to be released. They aren’t…

It’s Wednesday, your trip is planned to start on Sunday. Still no permits for the following week. You phone, they acknowledge its odd, but claim permits will be up the next day most likely. Next day, no permits. You phone Friday, this time they open a reservation spot just for you. You claim the reservation! You phone back minutes later to get them to email you your permit. They do! You have a permit for Monday.

It’s the Thanksgiving week. By some fortune there hasn’t been a snowfall in the Sierras for two weeks, and reports claim the initial season’s snowfall hasn’t been too heavy. You got this.

Parking lot is down there somewhere

Ideally you would have trained for this. You would have planned camping at altitude the few days prior to the summit attempt. You and your wife wouldn’t have to work on the Saturday to ensure work is done for when you get back from your trip. This is not an ideal attempt. But this is probably the only attempt you’re going to get.

Sunday we get a camping spot at Tuttle Creek Campground, just outside Lone Pine. We drive up to the trailhead and take a leisurely stroll. This is all we can do to try acclimatize.

It’s 4am on Monday morning. Time to get up. We met people the day before who had started hiking Whitney at midnight. We met them around 3pm on their way down. Tired but triumphant. We couldn’t imagine starting at midnight. Our bags are pre-packed. Prepared hot water is in the thermos. We top up our oats and eat as we drive up to Whitney Portal. It’s winter, and understandably dark.

While this sign was up at the trailhead, it was clearly old, from when the trails had initially been closed for fires. We had just been given a permit two days prior. When we finished the hike, the sign had been taken down.

04:56 marks our start time. It’s chilly but comfortable. We pick up our WAG bags, gloss over the outdated and yet to be removed “TRAIL CLOSED” sign and start up the trail. Headlights leading the way. Half an hour in we see another vehicle in the parking lot and we have a tail. Half an hour later and we’ve lost them. Concerning :/

To track our pace, and make sure we’d get up and down the mountain safely, I marked down whenever we took a break and how far we’d gone. I was somewhat successful with this on the way up. And on the way down had other things on my mind. Summary at the end of this post.

06:21 we enter the Whitney Zone, 06:48 we hit Outpost Camp. and at 07:25 we’ve done 8.0km of our 18km ascent (then there’s another 18km down). We’re feeling pretty good. We’ve climbed 800m of the planned 2000m.

It’s cold, earlier thoughts of removing base layers disappeared quickly as we ventured deeper into the valleys, and gained altitude. Running streams with hints of cold temperatures are followed by completely frozen lakes, and rock hopping surrounded by ice. But we’re prepared. Gloves stay on. Bandanas and masks that had previously been intended to limit covid transmissibility now do double duty keeping our faces warm. Ice starts to form within our water bottles.

Ice crystals forming

08:48 the sun is well up, but not hitting us. Headlamps are long since forgotten. We just arrived at Trail Camp. It’s empty. We met a couple making their way down half an hour earlier. They’d spent the night at Trail Camp. I do not envy them. Having survived the frigid night, and inspected conditions, they had elected to not summit, and instead head back down to the warmth. What do they know that we don’t?

It starts to snow on us. It’s very weird. The sky is mostly blue with some puffs of cloud. But those puffs of clouds are blessing us with the lightest snow I’ve ever experienced. Weather forecasts predicted clear conditions, and besides these wisps of clouds, the sky is otherwise barren. We forge on. We have switchbacks awaiting us.

It’s an itty bitty snowflake! Look at it!

We break at 10:03 (12.3km). There are a lot of switchbacks. The gradient is extremely steady, and very manageable, but it’s a long way up. A few snowy sections demand caution, but nothing overly dangerous.

At 11:15 we crest the ridge that divides Inyo National Forest from Sequoia National Park. The views down into Sequoia are astonishing. The landscape is incredibly barren, spotted with trees and the most amazing looking frozen lakes. We’ve done 14.3km. We’re at roughly 4200m. Only 5km left, and another 250m of altitude to gain, unfortunately first we have to drop down 100m.

As we’re getting ready to go a guy comes down. He was our tail from 6 hours ago. He’d done the mountaineers route. Enjoyed his time at the top and was on his way down. We’re jealous he made it to the top so fast. It would be nice to be heading down now.

View from the Ridgeline, looking down into Sequoia National Park

We’re both feeling pretty good at this stage. It’s taken us a long time to get here. But we’re not terribly behind schedule. We catch some sunlight here. It’s glorious. Weather forecasts predicted -20 C at the summit. I’ve experienced those temperatures for brief times while skiing, usually followed by some good time in front of the fire. There is no fire here. Even were it to be allowed, there is nothing to burn.

The biggest issue we’ve faced thus far is a slightly upset stomach, a headache, and our camelback nozzles freezing. Not the end of the world. But what do you do when your water freezes. Fortunately the liquid in our packs themselves remained mostly unfrozen. Somehow. Besides our times in the sun, I don’t think we’ve experienced temperatures above freezing the entire day.

But we could keep ourselves warm. Unfortunately we couldn’t control the altitude (I mean we could, but we wanted to get to the top…), and this is when it started to take its toll. The last 2 hours of hiking was some of the least pleasant time I’ve ever experienced. Fatigue. It just killed me.

It doesn’t look cold, but it was

I’ve climbed all the SoCal peaks, but they top out at 3,500m. That’s higher than the highest point in South Africa. For most of my childhood I never spent any time above 2,000m. With only two occasions that I’m aware of to hit 2,900m at the top of the Sani Pass. The highest I’ve ever been outside of an airplane is in the Rocky Mountains, where we got to 3,650m, and we drove to 3,550m, and had a light walk to the top. Now we’re trying to get to 4,400m, and my body is not playing ball.

But we’ve come this far. The weather is good, we’ve got food, we push on. The last two hours are gruelling. And the final few hundred meters have you making your way up a convex crest, never quite sure where the top is. We walk a short way, stop, catch our breaths, continue. We see the hut on the top. I’m too tired to be happy. We sit down in the hut. Relieved more than anything else. We’ve made it.

The sign inside the hut says that the hut will not provide protection from lightning

We force down some food. Drink some water, try to recover. But we’re just so tired. I wish I had felt better. I wish I’d given myself more time to train. I wish we’d spent more nights at altitude before trying to go straight up in one day. I wish for many things. We take some photos. We don’t look happy. I didn’t enjoy the top. I have some photos. The views look amazing. But I was in no state to appreciate it. I want to go back.

We spend only a short time at the top. We still have a long day/night ahead of us. It’s 13:30. We should make it down the sketchiest sections to Trail Camp long before it gets dark. Things to be grateful for. We start the descent.

Happy or pained?

Altitude is one hell of a drug. Going downhill is so much easier. Why couldn’t it all be downhill. We still have a long way to go. But at least I’m not having to stop every few minutes. I’m actually slightly hungry. I’m happy to be enjoying food as opposed to force feeding myself.

We’re down the switchbacks. Tarryn counted them. She got 98. It’s easy to see how someone could count differently. I mean, what really is a switchback. Short breaks to eat and drink, but we’re feeling much better. Struggling to remember how terrible we felt just hours before.

It gets dark and the headlamps are back on. We feel good, but this seems to be taking forever. This path is surprisingly easy to follow in the dark. Like astoundingly. Have to stop once or twice to make sure where the path goes next, but for the most part, just walk and follow the path. I’ve been on countless routes that are harder to follow in the middle of the day.

Surrounded by ice

How is this taking so long? Oh that’s right, it’s just really far.

Ooh someone is following us again. Headlamps are great for being able to spot a tail. The stranger’s light disappears as we go through a wooded section. Stop for another break and zoom! A runner comes flying by. His bright headlamp shining everywhere. Where did he come from? We can’t figure this out. Maybe he did the mountaineers route? He didn’t look kitted out for it, but where else would he have come from? We should have seen him earlier in the day. He checks we’re okay, but doesn’t stop, so there’s no chance to ask.


Finally. Finally. Finally, we make the final turn dropping the last few meters to level up with the parking lot. We’re so close. It’s 20:15. It’s been over 15 hours since we left our car here. The “TRAIL CLOSED” sign is down. That’s reassuring. We hop in our car, eat a snack or two and make our way back to our campsite.

At the campsite, I walk to the restroom. I don’t remember this road being an uphill yesterday. Weird. We sleep well. Wake up the next morning and are relieved to be in relatively good condition.

Looking back on it, I’m very glad we took this opportunity to climb Mt. Whitney. Were conditions perfect? No, far from it. It was very cold, we didn’t have the time to prepare and acclimatize like I would have liked. Would I suggest other people do the same thing? Probably not. Often for hikes like these, you’re advised to just come back later. The mountain’s not going anyway. And it’s true. Whitney’s not going anywhere, but sadly we are. We’re most likely not going to have another opportunity to climb Whitney. So I’m glad we took it.

there’s just something about frozen lakes I’ll never get over

For everyone else though, you want to do it earlier in the year. It was at times unpleasantly cold. You want to take time to acclimatize. You don’t want to feel like I did on the summit. I was miserable, I didn’t appreciate it, I couldn’t. Camp at Whitney Portal a night or two before your hike. Hike to Trail Camp and spend a night there. Take your time and enjoy it.

I’ve added a table below with our average speed for different sections of the route. Besides the first section they’re all much slower than I feel I’ve ever hiked before. They obviously also include break times, so are slower than are actual moving averages, but still.

Bridge to Nowhere

A few weeks ago we got the opportunity to do some hiking in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. A group of about 8 of us hiked up there for 3 days passing by the Bridge to Nowhere.

img_4417It was our first opportunity hiking in the area and we were fortunate enough to have great weather. We drove up to the trail-head on Saturday morning, arriving around 9AM. The parking lot was packed. We had to park several hundred metres down the road and hike up. Parking requires a pass, and free permits were available a little way on by the camping area.img_4454Although the parking lot was full, the trail is long and wide enough that you rarely have any problems with other people on the track. Majority of the people we saw were situated at the Bridge to Nowhere itself, watching or taking part in the Bungee Jumping. We had no idea about this when we were hiking in, and none of our hiking mates mentioned it to us until we got there, assuming everyone knew about it :) Coming from SA it’s not the biggest bungee jump in the world, but more than enough to get a thrill, especially with the really close cliff faces. None of us tried it though.img_4504The hike itself is not too strenuous, a 10 mile round loop to the bridge and back, made up of meandering paths and some river crossings. When we hiked the area was extremely dry, so I managed to keep my shoes out of the water the whole time, but there is usually more water, requiring some wading. Although there are a few areas with a slight climb, over all the route is flat with only about 200m of altitude gain.img_4499We arrived at the bridge and had lunch there, but our plan was to continue past the bridge. We carried on and set up camp on the side of the river a few hours later. Once you get past the bridge you are walking in a canyon the whole time, criss-crossing the river. It’s really beautiful and was great to get out of the city.img_4474We saw a snake. It was super chilled, just doing it’s thing. Also many people panning for gold. Apparently there’s still some left, but the further upstream we got the less people we saw, but the more remnants of previous mining activities showed up.img_4477Also poison oak. Something we haven’t seen before, and we were fortunate enough not to have any bad experiences with.

Otter Trail Dec 2014

Last week I got the opportunity to hike the Otter Trail. One of the most well known and popular hikes in South Africa, I was checking the booking website daily several months before we hiked, waiting for a cancellation, and all I managed to get was 4 out of a maximum 12 slots, but I took these with pleasure. During the summer and school holidays the route tends to be fully booked months in advance. If you’re able to go out of season you can get a slot with relative ease.



The hike is about 40km over 5 days, averaging 4 hours of hiking a day. Not the most hectic of hikes, but the four hours a day you do hike are tough hours, with lots of up and down as you traverse the Cape coastline, some sections on the beach and rocks, but majority of the time spent up on the cliffs or in the forests lining the coast. Each night there are two comfortable wood cabins, each housing two triple bunk beds, a counter and two benches. Along with this is a communal lapa, and a flush toilet and cold water shower, both featuring stunning views. Drinking water and fire wood are usually available at all 4 night’s accommodation.

Day 1

Starting weather

The hike starts from the Storms River Mouth camp of the Tsitsikamma National Park, heading down the coast and ending at Nature’s Valley. A car can be left at the De Vasselot camp-site (Also a SANPark) in Nature’s valley where one anyway has to sign out on the last day. Note the start and end points of the hike are on opposite sides of the Tsitsikamma toll plaza, meaning you’re going to be paying that toll a silly amount of times. Map and tide table along with full explanation of everything you need to know are provided to you on booking in at Storms River. The cost for us was R1,010 per person for the hike, and an additional 4 days conservation fee at R42 per day, totalling R1,178 for the 5 days and 4 nights.

Waterfall on Day 1

Waterfall on Day 1

We started on a miserable day and hiked with a constant light drizzle. This was not enough to put off day visitors though and we crossed many in the first hour. Along the route is a cave which holds some interest, but a bit further on is a waterfall into a pool right on the rocks next to the sea. We opted for a short stop and swim here regardless of the weather. Although the hike can be tough, distances are short and there is plenty of time to stop and enjoy the features the hike has to offer. Day 1’s 4.8km (~2h) puts you at the Ngubu hut.

Exploring the Kleinbos River

Exploring the Kleinbos River

Day 2 was free of rain, but still overcast, a slightly longer 7.9km (~4h) takes you to hut Scott. Along the way you cross the Kleinbos River, for us this meant taking off shoes and socks to ensure our backpacks made it across the river dry. If you have the time (which you should) do a bit of exploring up the river, there are some great pools and rapids that you can work your way up for a few 100m.

Camp Scott

Camp Scott

For us, day 2 was also new years eve. The camp is situated at the mouth of a small river, and we celebrated the new year with a bottle of champagne (note: champagne bottles are heavy) as the sun went down and the clouds withdrew. We also managed to glimpse of the hike’s namesake as a family of three Cape Clawless Otters made their way into the bay from the other side of the river. Unfortunately already too dark to get any pictures.

Swimming Day 3

Swimming Day 3

Day 3 is another 7.7km (~4h) along. Jump some rocks to cross the river and you start a long ascent. About half an hour into the hike you’ll pass some rock pools to your left. The sun had finally come out, and we spent a good half hour there. The water was beautifully clear and some choice rocks offer a good platform to jump from. The first obstacle is the Elandsbos river. Although very low when we got there, a lack of rocks necessitates the removing of shoes once again.

Crossing the Lottering

Crossing the Lottering

The day ends with the crossing of the Lottering River. As you come over the hill you’ll see the Oakhurst huts, before dropping down inland a bit to cross the river. Low tide will help with this crossing, we got there spot on high-tide, but placed our bags on our shoulders still made for an easy crossing. There are some nice trees and good swimming places if you feel like taking a lunch break, otherwise the huts are another 20min along.



Day 4 is the big day, at 13.8km (~6h) it is the longest day and also has the infamous Bloukrans river crossing. The crossing is 4 hours from the start of the hike and it is always recommended to be there at low-tide. However previous day’s rain, general sea conditions and other factors can influence the crossing too. Low-tide for us was at 08h10 in the morning. That is early. We decided to go for it in any case, waking up at 04h30 and leaving camp at 05h10.

bo Bloukrans

bo Bloukrans

We were a group of 4, and kept a steady pace to get to Bloukrans after 03h30. A separate group who were hiking the same time as us left Oakhurst at 03h30, getting to the river shortly before us. So we arrived shortly after low-tide, evaluating the situation we were able to take our shoes off and walk across the river, I lifted my bag to my shoulder, but others left theirs on their backs without problem. One of our group had hike the Otter before and was amazed at the state of the river compared to when they had done it previously, and it seams everyone you speak to has a different experience. We were just very fortunate. If you run into problems there is an escape route just before the crossing.

Bloukrans River Mouth

Bloukrans River Mouth

A second breakfast other side of the river and a further two hoursish of hiking put us at the last camp of the hike, camp Andre, at 11h00 with a full day of rest ahead. Amongst other things Andre has the shower with the best view, but is also rather open to the surroundings. Many card games and some reading later put us to bed.

Camp Andre

Camp Andre

The last day is 6.8km (~3h) but besides the initial mean climb, is a rather fast and easy hike. Not much to see along the way, except some stunning views and an ending onto the pristine beach at Nature’s Valley. When you drop down on to the beach there is a route marked out to de Vasselot (I’m not sure how long this takes), but we opted to spend some time on the beach and took the main road back to the camp.

Nature's Valley

Nature’s Valley

We went to bed most nights before 22h00, waking up sometime after 07h00 the next day, usually leaving camp around 09h00. There is no rush in this hike. Relax, enjoy yourselves, stop and enjoy the area. Up-hills can be tough and tiring, but take your time, there’s plenty of it. We were a group of only four fairly fit people, so generally hiked in in a shorter time than the advised times, excluding stops. The other group that hiked had one or two slower people, meaning they took quite a bit longer. use the first day to gauge your speed.

Stormsriver Entrance

Stormsriver Entrance

If it’s a nice day you can spend a bit more time at Stormsriver, go down to the restaurant or the suspension bridge at the mouth. When we got to the camp it was packed with day visitors, but it was still nice to go have a look around.