Sunrise at Mt Whitney

August 11, 2002

I took one look at the crowds at Trail Camp and said, “There is no way we’re stopping here” so we climbed the 99 switchbacks, and pitched our tents at 14,000 feet in the dead of darkness. Because I hadn’t acclimated to the altitude, I woke up hours before sunrise and prepared my camera for an attempt to make the peak in time for the sunrise. Hearing me rustle in the tent, Tim woke up and said that he’d accompany me.

Since we only had flashlights for a guide, we got lost and ended up doing Keeler Needle instead. Even in the dark, I could tell we somehow ended up on the eastern slope—you suddenly feel the cool air coming from your left and know there is nothing there but a gaping void. Because of my acrophobia, I just lit the rocks in front of me with my headlamp, took one step in front of the other, and prayed.

When we righted ourselves, the light was starting to change and Tim ran ahead to make the peak by dawn. I slogged on, out of shape and out of breath.

Less than a quarter mile from the peak, I could see the sunlight peeking through the cracks in the slope. I wasn’t going to make it. So, I found a gap in the trail, set up my tripod and prepared to shoot the sunrise.

Sunrise at Mt. Whitney

Sunrise at Mt. Whitney
Mt Whitney, Inyo National Forest, California

Olympus C-2500L
7 exposures, exposure data missing

It took seven photographs and a stitch to encompass what I saw that day, and I still missed the cliff that I was peeking through.

The largest fire in Sequoia National Forest history was burning that time, but the cold air held down the smoke during the night. I managed to photograph the sun breaking through the smoke from the forest fire. It was a beautiful sight.


I made the peak shortly after sunrise.


360° at the peak of Mt. Whitney
Mt Whitney, Inyo National Forest, California

Olympus C-2500L
31 exposures, @ f/2.8, ISO 100, 9.2mm (28mm)

Since Tim had already had left to return to our camp, a remote, timer, and tripod allowed me to prove that, yes, I was there.

At the highest point in the continental U.S.

The smile is because I’m alive.

I met Dave on the way back. He told me that Tim and him had crossed paths a little earlier and they had chatted. Tim and Dave were looking down into Kings Canyon, when Tim pointed out two tents pitched at the highest ridge with a postage stamp for a flat area. “Now those guys, they have the best campsite in the valley, I wish we had found that spot.”

“Those are our tents, Tim. That’s our campsite,” Dave said. (Since we had pitched the tents in darkness, Tim had no idea what my tent looked like.)

When Dave got back from the peak, we packed and headed down with a bunch of hikers who had just finished the entire John Muir Trail just as the first hikers from Trail Camp completed the switchbacks and headed toward the summit. By then the smoke had rolled in, and you couldn’t see through the soup. It made Whitney look like a summit on the surface of Mars.


Mt. Whitney and Keeler Needle during a forest fire
Mt Whitney, Inyo National Forest, California

Olympus C-2500L
3 exposures, no data available

The default color correction in the manufacturer software (I don’t have the originals) ended up pushing the colors to weird extremes because the smoke from the forest fire had muted everything.

We found a great campsite in the dead of dark, made the peak before the smoke obscured the achievement, and had pizza and beer at the bottom with a bunch of serious hikers who pointed out the irony that a person who is deathly afraid of heights had bagged three 14k+ peaks simply because he had gotten lost in the dark. And, I had photos to prove it. This was also my last hike before I started my new job. I had been unemployed for almost a year.

That was a great day.

The camera I used was a 2.5 megapixel camera circa 1999. Your iPhone can do better nowadays.

2 thoughts on “Sunrise at Mt Whitney

  1. The altitude made us all a little confused. I had to tell Tim twice before he understood it was his tent. What else would make you climb 1000 feet of the wrong peak twice? I doubt it was just the dark. I returned a couple years latter to Whitney, this time spending several prior days over 7000 feet. It was a breeze.

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