Reaching for the Sky: Climbing Mount Whitney

Once upon a time, I lived in Southern California and took advantage of the state’s mild climate by vowing to hike as many miles as I could and summit as many non-technical peaks as possible. My ultimate goal: the 14,505-foot (4,421-meter) summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States.

Although there are several approaches to Whitney’s rocky summit, the most well-trod route is via the simply-named Mount Whitney Trail. Hundreds of hikers tackle the route each summer day, making the Whitney permit business a lucrative one.

It was more years ago this very month than I’d like to admit when I made the climb. How long ago? Put it this way: the pictures I took that accompany this article were on a non-digital camera! (This fact is no doubt reflected in their poor quality.)

But I did it! In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll share my story and give you the latest information on the permit process. If the hike itself interests you, think about some training hikes you’d like to pursue to get ready; it’s never too soon to start preparing for a Whitney hike or climb.

The Mountain Itself

When you think of prominent mountains in the U.S., Whitney may not be the first one to enter your mind. Pikes Peak, in Colorado, is just 300 feet shorter in altitude, but is far enough from the denser Rocky Mountain National Park cluster of peaks that it dominates its surroundings. Furthermore, you can take a train or even drive your car to the summit! Mount Rainier, in Washington, is one of several stand-alone peaks in the Cascade Range, and is visible from miles around (when the region’s notorious rain isn’t falling) as it is the highest point for several hundred miles in any direction. But it, too, is shorter than Whitney – by a full 95 feet.

Pikes Peak and Rainier are enormous, though.  The former includes a car park, train station, and visitor center, while the latter’s year-round snow cap covers a rock face big enough to settle a small town on. So how can they possibly be second fiddle to a Central California mountain so unrecognizable to anyone but mountaineers?

The answer, really, is simple. Whitney is a shy mountain. It nestles half in Sequoia National Park and half in the Inyo National Forest, hidden behind the Alabama Hills and dozens of miles of desert scruff to the east and a four-day hike from the only Sequoia NP through-road to the west. Whitney is like one of several hundred vertebrae in a spine that runs from Tehachapi in the south to Lake Tahoe in the north. A giant among other giants, just another crag in a dense range of crags.

From astride and atop, though, the perspective is different. Several class-5 routes offer hardened climbers an ascent to rival that of El Capitan, while four-and-five-day hikes connect the mountain to Crescent Meadow in Sequoia NP and Onion Valley, near Independence, CA. I almost tried the non-maintained Mountaineer’s Route, with its infamous Ebersbacher Ledges, but figured that the 22-mile, non-technical Mount Whitney Trail was my surest shot at a successful climb.

Permits and Lodging

Alas, it seems that enough other hikers and mountaineers share my thoughts about the Mount Whitney Trail, and permits are required for this particular trail. The permit lottery commences on February 1st of each year, and the slots fill quickly. I applied the first day the window opened, wrote down several dates, and lucked into my first requested date – the Sunday of Labor Day weekend!

Some two dozen campsites are scattered around the trailhead, and I requested my campsite for the same weekend. Strangely, I was allotted a space for the day after my hike, which didn’t work out at all. As such, I scrapped my camping reservation and did what many others do: reserved a bed at the Lone Pine Motel, 13 miles by road from the trailhead and the choicest accommodations in the area.

If you are wondering, hiking and camping permits can be obtained online at recreation.gov (read more about the process here.  The National Forest Service will mail you a paper document confirming your reservation, but you must still pick up the permit in person at the Lone Pine Ranger Station. Note that you do not need a permit to the first 2.5 miles of trail; many people wanting to get a taste of the wilderness life camp at Lone Pine Lake, beyond which point permits are strictly enforced. The permit cost is $15.00, and the money goes towards trail maintenance, waste disposal, and green initiatives.

Gear and Prep

REI hosts Whitney day hiking clinics several times a year, and websites like summitpost.org are crowded with posts from concerned wannabe hikers. To be sure, any fourteener demands respect and careful use of the 10 essentials, but, duration and altitude notwithstanding, the Mount Whitney Trail is surprisingly easy, as long as you put some thought into your gear and food selections.

The 10 essentials for any day hike vary depending on who you ask. Here are mine (plus one more):

  1. Water –three liters for a hike of Whitney’s caliber. I recommend a Camelbak.
  2. Windbreaker and gloves –it can be quite cold and windy.
  3. Hat and sunglasses –I forgot my shades, but man, that alpine sun is bright.
  4. Energy food –PowerBars, Gatorade, etc. Think “electrolytes.”
  5. Compass –‘nuff said.
  6. Headlamp –you’ll likely begin, and possibly finish, hiking while it is still dark.
  7. Lip balm –in my opinion, this is more important than sunscreen.
  8. Trekking poles –with the trail’s 18-inch rock steps, your knees take a beating on this hike.
  9. Appropriate footgear –wool socks, sturdy lugsoles (I wore Lowas), and moleskin.
  10. Your permit –seems a no-brainer, but you don’t want to be sent packing.
  11. A positive, can-do attitude!

I was more fortunate than many Whitney hikers in that I lived within a half-day drive of dozens of climb-able mountains. And with a September hike date, I knew that I had almost the entire summer leading up to that point to get in optimal shape. To prepare, I climbed Alta Peak (Sequoia National Park), Half Dome (Yosemite National Park), Mount San Jacinto (near Palm Springs), and Mount Dana (Yosemite again).

If you want to summit Whitney but have a dearth of high peaks upon which to train, you can also prepare by filling your day pack with heavy gear and wearing it on long distance walks. While it is true in such a scenario that you won’t have much opportunity to hike at altitude, you’ll improve your overall endurance. And as for how your body will react to the altitude, which is many people’s biggest worry, the truth is you never know until you are there. For example, I had no problems at all training on Alta Peak, which is over 11,000 feet, but Half Dome, more than 2,000 feet shorter, kicked my butt!

The Day Before

I arrived at the Mount Whitney Trail one day before my hike to scope out the trailhead (since I would be hitting it in the dark less than 24 hours later). I snapped a photo of the nearby waterfall, read all the ominous signs warning hikers about bear sightings, and grabbed lunch at the Whitney Portal Store. The store opens early and is famous for its tire-sized pancakes; I arrived after noon and they were only serving lunch, but made a mental note to return the next morning and try the flapjacks myself.

I hiked one-half mile up the trail, stopping just beyond the first creek crossing. A sign marked the trickle as being the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, and I knew from prior research that the faint, unmarked use trail that appeared to split off to the right was the Mountaineer’s Route, a shorter and steeper class-3 scramble to the summit. “Some other time,” I told myself, and returned to my car to check into the hotel. En route, I pulled off to the side of Whitney Portal Road, just outside of town, and crossed a sandy wash towards a wonderland of rocks, including the much-photographed Arch Rock.

The room was basic, so I asked the front desk clerk to store my lunch for the next day in the refrigerator, and I spent the afternoon at the pool. Dinner was across the street at the Pizza Factory; a medium pepperoni-and-cashew pizza with a side of garlic bread. Central California has several Pizza Factory locations, usually in towns like Three Rivers and Lone Pine that see a lot of tourists. I still remember the restaurant’s logo: “We toss ‘em, they’re awesome.”

(If this surplus of detail seems extraneous, know that I am simply establishing the mood going into the hike itself.)

The Hike

Three a.m., when my alarm went off, came way too early, and I was so excited and nervous that I doubt I slept a wink that night. I drove the 13 miles to the trailhead, and found that dozens of other hikers were already awake. I joined them in suiting up; donning a windbreaker over a t-shirt, gloves, knee straps, etc. I hit the trail at exactly 4 a.m., and passed a trio of hikers abuzz over a bear sighting moments earlier.

Looking up, a firefly-like beacon of headlamps was seen zig-zagging up the switchback trail. Aside from the shuffling of feet, it was eerily quiet. I noshed on a PowerBar and the first light of day appeared just as I had passed the turnoff to Lone Pine Lake, 2.5 miles into the hike. I was making good time, but there was a long way still to go.

The trail headed northwest and the grade steepened for the next 1.5 miles. As I stopped to remove my headlamp and sip some Gatorade, a female hiker stopped to rest alongside me. I don’t recall her name, but we kept pace together for the remainder of the hike to the summit (which means that yes, I made it to the top!). We acted as lookouts for each other when one would scramble off-trail for a bathroom break, and the conversation about hiking in general kept us plodding along without noticing how much/little progress we had made.

The trail leveled out momentarily at Mirror Lake, not far from Outpost Camp (10,360 feet/3,158 meters) and little more than a marsh surrounded by wildflower meadow. This was a beautiful area, and I wish I would have lingered longer.

A series of 18-inch rock steps marked the next stretch of trail, which climbed above treeline and passed a cascading stream to the left (fed by winter snowmelt, no doubt). The trail passed into shadow, and oft-frozen Consultation Lake, bigger than Mirror Lake and hidden from direct sunlight by the overhead rock wall, made another good photo spot. The less said about my turn-of-the-century goatee in the photo below,  the better. 🙂

After much climbing and seemingly little actual progress, the trail leveled out at 12,039-foot (3,669-meter) Trail Camp. Here, a high-altitude campsite sits below Mount Muir and an outcropping called Wotan’s Throne. I recently learned that Trail Camp’s much-photographed, self-composting solar toilet has been removed, but a small water source within stumbling distance of camp is your last place to filter water. Many Whitney Trail hikers camp here to better acclimate and be within five miles of the summit itself, although I personally can’t imagine how cold and windy it must be at night. My companion and I sat with our backs against a tall boulder to block the wind, and ate lunch. Think pretzels, jerky, grapes, and PowerGel.

For many hikers, the dreaded 99 switchbacks, comprising the next 2.5 miles of trail, are the worst. These switchbacks are not technically challenging, except for a small, icy patch early on, where fixed cables prevent falls. However, the grade is gentle enough that they don’t pose much of a challenge beyond the cables and the rapidly-thinning air. I found the switchbacks to be a cakewalk, though I did stop to catch my breath several times. I was no longer making the good time that I was at the beginning of the hike.

The switchbacks end at a rocky vista point called Trail Crest. It is here, at 13,360 feet (4,072 meters) that the trail officially enters Sequoia National Park. The views west, into the park’s back country, and east, over the Owens Valley, are to be savored. Many hikers make it to Trail Crest and then turn back, while just as many take extended rests before continuing onward to the summit. Do note, though, that the vista point is actually quite small, and can’t comfortably accommodate more than eight or so hikers. Also note that if thunderclouds are heading your way, it might be a good idea to turn back. Mountains the size of Mount Whitney make their own weather, and it can change quickly. As regards altitude sickness, use your best judgment. More info about AMS, which can be fatal, is available here.

From here, the summit is tantalizingly close, just 2.8 miles away. Damnably, though, the next section of trail actually descends to meet a fork, the famous John Muir Trail – which winds downhill to Sequoia National Park and eventually ends at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park – before climbing again. Many hikers consider the return climb, brief though it may be, to be the toughest part of the hike.

Afterwards, the trail, all rock hopping and easy to follow, has no more surprises to offer. You may stop to catch your breath, though, before passing the Windows, at which point the left side of the trail drops off at a deadly slope and the right side passes a series of exposed notches that look out onto the 99 switchbacks and beyond. The wooden Mount Whitney summit hut, a last resort option for riding out one of the summer season’s infamous, aforementioned afternoon thunderstorms, appears in the distance and slowly grows in size.

It was 2 p.m. when we reached the true summit. We posed for a picture together on the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States, a giant boulder with a USGS survey marker that denoted the height as being 14,496.811 feet. (Mountains are living things, and Whitney has since grown over eight feet in height.) We each signed the summit register, and chuckled over comments like “Woohoo! Made it to the top and only threw up once!”

The summit is an enormous, tilted slab, able to accommodate several hundred people. From the top, it is impossible to see where the Mountaineer’s Route ends, and I didn’t spot anyone in helmets, which led me to assume that most people who made it the top that day did so via the Mount Whitney Trail. Although many years have passed since I was last there, I would still like to tackle the Mountaineer’s Route for myself some day.

I packed a spare pair of Smartwool socks and some extra moleskin, so it felt wonderful to change my socks and dump the pebbles out of my boots. My companion headed back, and though we agreed to meet up at Trail Crest, she had mentioned earlier in the day that her roommate, who was driving south from Lake Tahoe, would be picking her up at the trailhead at 7 p.m., so I knew that I would never see her again.

The return hike was uneventful, except for the knee pain as I tackled those 18-inch rock steps between Trail Camp and Mirror Lake. By the time I reached Lone Pine Lake, the sun was low in the sky, and the last light of day bathed the lake’s surface in an ethereal, milky glow that I will never forget. I raced down the last 2.5 miles of trail as if something was chasing me, but after wiping out on a turn, I decided to slow down and turn on my head lamp. It was 8:30 when I reached the parking lot. I drove back to the hotel and went straight to bed, skipping dinner entirely. Suffice to say, I was knackered.

Looking Back

I made it! If you believe in fate, or astrology, you could say that my summit attempt was meant to be, or that the stars were in alignment. Everything went right that day, and while I’m not proud of my time, I am proud of the fact that I made it all the way. (Aside: I am less proud of the fact that I barely made a dent in my garbage can lid-sized pancake the following morning. But it was goooooood.)

I rarely talk about my Mount Whitney hike anymore. To this day, it never ceases to amaze me how many Americans, including Californians, haven’t heard of Mount Whitney. It is, like I said before, a shy mountain, taller than Rainier and Pikes Peak but somehow less distinguished. I am not trained on ropes or crampons, so for whatever it’s worth, I probably couldn’t climb Rainier, or Oregon’s Mount Hood, or other solitary, snow-capped peaks. But I logged 22 miles over 16.5 hours that day, and although my pace was just 1.33 miles/hour, it still seems a better use of my time than the same amount of hours spent working behind a desk, or playing video games, or running errands.

It is time to re-evaluate my life, and get back to basics. Now who’s up for a hike?

 

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food, history, and women, all while weathering the culture shock. Life's journey has since brought him to rural Tennessee, perhaps the biggest culture shock of them all. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, and travel in general.

4 thoughts on “Reaching for the Sky: Climbing Mount Whitney”

  1. Well, I have heard of Mt. Whitney, and I knew that it was the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states. But then again, I used to teach geography as well as Spanish. LOL
    Interesting account of your climb. Did you do any mountain climbing when you lived in Mexico?

    1. Did lots of walking at Viveros, Fuentes Brotantes, and places like that, but not much actual hiking or climbing. I always wanted to tackle Picacho Ajusco, but never got around to it. Heck, I never even made it to Pena de Bernal!

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