The mountains are calling, and I must go -John Muir
Mt. Whitney in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. At 14,505 feet it rises higher than Rainier, Shasta, and all of Colorado's fourteeners. What makes it even more special is that unlike many other tall mountains, it is possible to climb it without specialized gear or skills. Anyone who trains reasonably for the climb and gets a good weather window has an excellent chance to summit the mountain. We've climbed the mountain twice and think that we have a good process to ensure the best chance of an enjoyable and successful trip. The following is an account of one of our climbs along with tips, hints, and a sample itinerary.
It's just before dawn and I'm trying to hurry up and reach the summit in time for the sunrise. The Smithsonian hut at the top looks close enough to reach out and touch but at this altitude it's not like my lungs are going to allow me to kick it into another gear. I stop to rest for a few seconds and glance to the south where the jagged, angular summits of the Pinnacles jut out over the valley below like the gaping maw of some unimaginably immense beast. Behind me to the west and several thousand feet below are stunning views of Kings Canyon and Sequoia national park. I'm walking on the hallowed ground of the John Muir Trail which actually ends, or starts depending on which way you hike it at Whitney's summit. The other terminus is in Yosemite National Park over 200 miles to the north. I resume my upward grind attempting to get my breathing in rhythm with my stride and make my way closer to the top.
Rewind a few days and we're all sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Lone Pine, California at the eastern base of the mighty Sierra Nevada range. We're eating chips and salsa, drinking bohemias, and talking excitedly about our upcoming adventure. It's a good group of strong, experienced hikers some of which have done the climb before and others who have not. The banter is light, questions come up by the newbies, and no shortage of answers are fired back by those of us who've summitted previously. After a while people begin heading out to get their rest as it's been a long day of travel for most. Our little Oregon coast section of the group heads a few miles up Whitney Portal road to sleep at a slightly higher altitude and get a jump start on acclimatizing. Others go to their hotel rooms in town and we all agree to reconvene at Whitney Portal campground, our base camp several miles up into the mountains the next morning.
It's Sunday morning now and everyone has gotten together at basecamp in beautiful Whitney Portal. Now this is no rugged, remote outpost. Instead it is a large, lush campground full of ponderosa pine with a pretty stream running through it. It has cabins, tons of parking, and even a store where they have killer burgers and showers. The one downside to the portal is they have a serious bear problem, maybe the worst anywhere in the Sierras. It is absolutely vital to keep a very clean campsite here as a visit from yogi is almost assured if you don't. The next two days are spent doing acclimitazation hikes on the Meysan Lakes trail in the adjacent valley. This trail is worthy of a trip of its own as the highest of the lakes sits in a beautiful little bowl just below the Sierra crest with views of several peaks over 13,000 feet surrounding it. The rest of the days can be spent exploring the area, fishing for golden trout in the streams or at lone pine lake a few miles up the Whitney main trail, or just chilling at the campsite.
Tuesday morning just before dawn sees everyone packed up and in front of the portal store waiting to start up the trail. The destination for the day is trail camp 6.3 miles up the trail and 12,300 feet in elevation. We shoot straight uphill right out of the gate and head west then south into the John Muir Wilderness. At 2.6 miles we hit lone pine creek cascade which is a small but pretty waterfall. .2 miles further sees us at lone pine lake. This is a beautiful spot on the trail as the lake perches precariously on the edge of a cliff over top of the valley we just hiked out of. It looks like if you kicked a few boulders out of the back of the lake, it would just pour over a thousand feet right back into the portal campground.
Another mile or so of steady but not steep uphill takes us into outpost camp. At 10,800 feet, the camp is comparatively lush versus our destination for the day. There is still white bark pine and healthy meadows. It also has a 50 foot waterfall in the southwest corner of the campground. It's still over 7 miles from the top though and that makes for a very long summit day, so we rest a bit and push on. This is where the trail transitions from dirt to granite, and you quickly hike above tree line and enter the realm of the mountain gods. After switchbacking up several hundred feet from outpost camp to mirror lake, the trail levels out and follows a ridge to the south of the lake. The trail then begins switchbacking again as it heads towards the crest. This is a really challenging section as the altitude starts to become a factor, and the granite beats up our feet much worse than the dirt did the last several miles. At 5.3 miles and 11,600 feet we hit trailside meadows. On this particular year, there is some snow and ice still clinging to the shadows under all the big granite. There is a small stream where you can filter water or soak your feet before the 700 foot 1 mile push on to trail camp.
Entering trail camp can be quite an experience for those who have never been at a high altitude camp above tree line before. It is a relatively flat, boulder strewn moonscape with unbelievable views of the switchbacks up to trail crest and several "fourteeners" including Whitney. At 6.3 miles up the trail and not quite 5 miles to the summit, it is an ideal place to rest for the afternoon and evening and get ready for the summit push the next morning. There is a lake for filtering water and the lovely solar toilets where they say you can go number 2, but not number 1 please! Just the act of setting up camp here can be exhausting at 12,300 feet. Once set up, we just take in the views, try to eat and rehydrate, and get to bed early.
The next morning it's time to put on the boots and the daypack, and start up the switchbacks. For those who want to catch a summit sunrise, we leave at approximately 2:00 am. If that sounds insanely early, leaving at 5:00 am will get you to the summit and all the way down the mountain to the portal safely before dark. This for many is the most challenging section of the trail as you head straight up the 90 plus switchbacks and don't top out until about 13,600 feet and 8.5 miles. From trail crest the views are nothing short of awe inspiring. We get the first views to the west of Kings Canyon and Sequoia national park. Also, there are more layers of the Sierra across the valley and you can see back towards Lone Pine almost 2 vertical miles to the east. The next 2 plus miles are a relatively flat slog around the west side of the Whitney massif. The views east are lost except at the windows of the afformentioned pinnacles, the views to the west continue to wow though. Once we reach the backside of Whitney proper, the trail turns toward the east and, you guessed it, more switchbacks to the summit.
It's at this point that we can see the Smithsonian hut at the top and it looks so close, but seems to take an inordinate amount of time to get to. Once we reach the top, the views are among the best mountain scenery that can be experienced in the U.S. The entire high Sierras are laid out north to south before us as we stand at the very top of the great western divide. We can see east across the Owens valley to the Inyo mountains, a 13,000 foot range of their own. To the west is Kings and Sequoia along with more layers of the Sierra Nevada range. To the north is Forrester pass, the high point of the Pacific Crest Trail and several major peaks. To the south is Mt. Langley and the southern end of the high Sierras. At this point, we enjoy the accomplishment, take some pictures, and take in the fact that we are without question the highest people in the U.S at that very moment! It's generally cold, windy, and miserable at the summit so before long we begin to make our way down.
Now one would think that the tough part of the hike is over at this point. Here's the reality, our legs are toast, we've been hiking at altitude for hours, and we have 16 miles to the trailhead and a well deserved beer and burger at the portal store. The trip down for me is an exercise in mental toughness. Once we descend the switch backs and roll into trail camp, we pack up our tents and don the now heavier packs for the remaining 6 plus mile descent. This is where attention to foot placement and the training we've done prehike really pay off. When you're exhausted and hiking downhill, it's easy to roll an ankle or take a fall. Finally, after 12 plus hours of hiking we reach the trail head, and the well earned grub and beer at the bottom. From here it's a 15 minute ride back into Lone Pine and a hotel for the night, then back to reality. Or, as we did it, a week in Baja for rest and recovery.
Things to know
There is a permit lottery system for the trip from July 4th until Labor day. This is the time that the mountain can usually be climbed without specialized equipment and is done to minimize impact in the alpine zone. The lottery is held in February so you will know by March if you've gotten the dates you requested. Contact the Inyo Ranger office in Lone Pine for details.
Lightening is the biggest danger on the higher sections of the trails, and unfortunately, the summer season is prime time for afternoon thunderstorms. Try to get off of the high points of the ridges and the summit by mid day if at all possible. If you do find yourself in a storm on or near the summit, descend as quickly as possible and live to fight another day. Keep in mind this is a granite range so you're basically standing on top of a 14,000 foot lightening rod, just saying.
Bear cannisters are required by all groups travelling into the Whitney zone, one cannister per three climbers is probably a reasonable expectation.
Buy trekking poles and practice hiking with them and your backpack, trust me you'll thank me later. It takes a lot of the load off of the quads and glutes and that adds up over the course of 22 miles and 12,000 feet gained and lost.
Pay attention to how you feel above 10,000 feet. A little headache, some fatigue, and loss of appetite are one thing. High altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema are quite another. Though rare at these altitudes they do happen, and can be fatal. If you begin experiencing any of the effects of these conditions, descending immediately is the only thing that's going to make you feel better.
Most of all, prepare well, make sure you bring the essential things that you need, and have an awesome time experiencing some of the country's greatest alpine scenery.
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