Friday, July 26, 2013

Mount Whitney Day Hike

Hiked: 7/25/2013
Distance: 22.6 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 14505'
Prominence: 10075'
Elevation Gain: 6189'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 4.95
Recommended water: 336 oz. (water available on hike)
Parking/Fees: $15/person for day hike permit, parking free at Whitney Portal
Difficulty: Very Strenuous

Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48. For that reason alone, it is very popular and requires a complicated lottery process to get a summer hike date on the main trail. In addition to the red tape, Whitney is a tough physical endurance test at 22 miles and 6100' in elevation gain, and the stress of very high altitude climbing. There is nothing technical on the main trail, it is just a long hike up a very big mountain.

I set a goal for myself to climb Whitney in December, 2011, and that goal directed a lot of the hikes I chose over the previous year. My official training hikes leading up to Whitney focused on distance, elevation gain, and altitude exposure. In order, they were San Jacinto, Harwood, Pleasants Peak, Chicken Spring Lake, San Gorgonio, and Cucamonga/Bighorn/Ontario. Looking back, while doing training hikes at altitude helped, it was no substitute to being acclimated, which can only be done in the days immediately before the hike.

My lottery hike date was July 25, and I drove up to Lone Pine the day before to pick up the permit and wag bags at the visitor's center and get settled in the Dow Villa motel. I was lucky to be able to check in early. When I got to the room, neither door key would work. The manager verified the door was broken and sent a handy man over to repair it. I had checked my GPS batteries the day before and it read four bars. Now, it read one. Once the door was repaired, I found a hardware store to pick up more AA batteries. With those annoyances behind me, Rod and I headed up to Whitney Portal to look around. We checked out the store and walked a short way up the trail. We met up with Sandy and her brother at the Portal. We had all been concerned about lingering thunderstorms from early in the week. Bad weather could ruin any summit attempt.

I requested a wake up call at 1:30 AM and set my phone alarm as well. I had a breakfast of chunk white chicken and pop tarts, got armored up and met our group in the Dow Villa parking lot at 2:30 AM. We got on the trail at 3:30 AM in complete darkness. I used both a headlamp and flashlight for lighting. There were several stream crossings early, one over logs. All the streams and lakes were high due to heavy rain early in the week. The forecast for hike day was a 30% chance of thunderstorms, and ominous clouds hovered throughout the day. The clouds broke and returned several times, but it never rained and lightning was never a danger.

The beginning of the hike went quickly and we passed Lone Pine Lake, Outpost Camp and Mirror Lake. We saw a deer on the other side of Mirror Lake, but it was too far away for a photo. The forest smelled strongly of pines and everything was lush from the recent heavy rains. Sandy was having hard time keeping pace with the group, so she and her brother set their own pace and planned to meet us at Trail Camp.

Sunrise on Whitney Trail

Waterfall near Whitney Portal

Rod, Sandy, and Danny on one of many stream crossings

After sunrise, we passed the stream and waterfall of Trail Side Meadows, then climbed a granite section to Trail Camp at 12000'. We took a long break here to eat and refill our water supplies from the small adjacent lake. There were a dozen or so tents set up a lot of people milling around. As we were heading out, Sandy and her brother made it to Trail Camp and started their break. The other four of us began climbing the 99 (technically 97) switchbacks. Like the rest of the trail, the switchbacks are mildly graded and generally easy for a 1700' ascent when there is no snow present. The stream around switchback 23 was flowing strongly and crossed many lower switchbacks.

Trail Side Meadows

Rod and Rich at Trail Side Meadows

Consultation Lake

Mt. Whitney obscured by clouds from Trail Camp

At the top of the switchbacks is Trail Crest at 13600'. It allows spectacular views both east and west of the Whitney ridge. Many of the large Sierra lakes come into view from here. The trail continues north along the west side of the ridge behind Muir Peak, the needles, and finally Mt. Whitney. Although the gain is only about 900' from Trail Crest to the summit, I think this is the most difficult 2.5 miles of the trail, far more so than the switchbacks. The trail gets more rough, there are many dangerous drops on the left side, but mostly because it is all done above 13600'. For many people, altitude sickness bites here. The temperature changed quickly as the clouds broke and reformed, causing us to add and shed layers accordingly.

Trail Crest sign and random hiker

Spires at Trail Crest, the trail goes left

Guitar Lake and Hitchcock Lake from Trail Crest

Hikers on the Whitney Trail past Trail Crest (can you spot them?)

View down a window

Mt. Whitney in the distance

Rod in front of Keeler Needle and Crooks Needle

When we reached the summit, I took a few photos, ate a snack, and signed the register. I thanked Rich, Roz, and Calculated Risk for inspiration. Rod was crashed on a summit block. Rich and Roz were eating and resting, and there were a dozen or so other summit loungers. A playful marmot came out looking for food, and by his plump size, apparently had been quite successful. After 10-15 minutes, my headache was suggesting descent. The others agreed. On the way down, AMS hit Roz pretty hard. She required assistance navigating the stretch back to Trail Crest. We met Sandy and Danny at Trail Crest. Danny continued on the summit while Sandy waited at the John Muir Trail intersection due to her nagging AMS. Danny got to the summit and we all met up again at Trail Camp. We refilled water again at Trail Camp and headed down.

Rich and Roz heading toward the summit house

Standing on top of the lower 48, for a little while

Keeler, Crooks, and third needle

Upper Boy Scout Lake from the summit

Wales Lake from the summit

Summit marmot

Rod made an excellent video of the trip.

Reflecting on Mt. Whitney, it takes a confluence of events to make the summit on the first attempt. All of the following need to work out in your favor:
  • win a lottery hike date (or get an abandoned permit/go off season)
  • have favorable weather on your hike date (completely out of your control)
  • have reliable transportation to get to Lone Pine and the Portal
  • make it to the Portal at the right time
  • don't get sick immediately before the trip
  • don't have any family emergencies immediately before the trip
  • do the hike without getting severe altitude sickness
Being willing and able to do the hike is only one piece of the puzzle. You also need a little bit of luck.

Additional Info:
Mount Whitney Portal Forum


  1. Looks like an excellent adventure! Thanks - when will you do Mt. McKinley? :-)

  2. energyecon,

    Probably when I am diagnosed with a terminal illness. Wife says no 20k'+ mountains until then. Maybe I can change her mind when the kids are out of the house, but if I do one of the seven summits, I won't start with McKinley. Kili or Aconcagua would be first.

  3. JP,

    Marmots were everywhere. Very friendly and well fed. Above the tree line, I only saw marmots and birds.

  4. How was the weather when you started the hike at 3am in Whitney Portal trail head, how was it around sunrise, during switchback, along trail crest, and during the return trip. I am doing this July 20th of this year and want to make sure I dress appropriately.

  5. Mag Tisan,

    It was comfortable starting out and got cooler as we ascended. However, a lot depended on the clouds. When we were in direct sun, I got warm and peeled off my top layer (I had three). When it clouded up, I put my top layer back. This happened several times. This web site gives you forecasts of the conditions at various elevations on the route: Whitney

    I suggest checking it a couple of days before you go and take enough layers to handle whatever you face. Good luck!