Mt. Whitney, the tallest point in the Sierra Nevadas and continental United States, is a popular climb during the California summer months. At around 21 miles round trip, climbing 6,132ft up to the peak at 14,497ft (4,418.69m), the hike is a doable in a day, but a challenge for those not in good shape (like me). As if it weren’t enough of a challenge already, we attempted the summit early in the season while it still had a lot of snow cover.
For more photos, see the Mt. Whitney Photo Gallery at the end of this article
My Dad is into his hiking, he’s a member of a hiking club, he’s got all the fancy gear, and he goes on long strenuous hikes regularly. He applied for the lottery to get permits for a day climb at Mt. Whitney in February, and got word sometime in May that he was getting 4 passes for July 1 2011. I got home to California June 12, hiked Peters Canyon (a short up and down park near my house), then climbed the 18 miles and 4640ft elevation gain to Santiago peak (the tallest peak in Orange County), then climbed the 20 mile 6000ft. San Gorgonio peak, and then it was time for Whitney. We were forced to keep close tabs on the weather as the snow season of 2010-2011 in California was one of the heaviest in years, and Whitney still had a lot of snow. Even San Gorgonio had some snow still at only 12000ft. The trip reports from those who climbed Whitney in the days before us were mixed, but most said only parts of their parties made it, and it took a very long time. Bottom line, we should not attempt without crampons and ice axes. The main problem was a set of switchbacks towards the peak which were closed due to the snow. The alternative route was to climb about 1,200ft up a snow chute at about a 35° angle. This presented a problem as we didn’t own this gear, and none of the local stores which rent them had enough for us. Luckily we were on top of it and were able to mix and match 4 sets of gear from a couple different stores in the area, because when we got to the local town of Line Pine below Mt. Whitney, they were completely sold out. If you plan on hiking Mount Whitney early in the season, be prepared to rent this gear, especially after a heavy winter.
Not going to lie, we spoke about cancelling the trip, or maybe just doing part because of the snow. A lot of people were calling it off completely; we had met a couple the weekend before while climbing San Gorgonio who were meant to be on Mt. Whitney, but decided not to attempt it. We decided we’d try getting overnight passes while checking into the ranger station from these people who were deciding not to go, and we did. This allowed us to camp a few miles in, at a higher elevation. At the end of the day its tough to say whether this was the right decision or not, it meant we had to haul more gear in, and we weren’t going to get as good of a sleep, but it also meant we had less to hike the following day, and we would be a bit more acclimated.
Next day we were off at about 6am (after listening to people pass us in the dark for 2 hours). It was smooth sailing for the first 4-6 miles or so, up to around 11,640ft, when our first member started having problems from the altitude. We took it slower and continued working our way up. At somewhere around 11700ft we hit the first area we needed crampons, it wasn’t very long, but it was a steep uphill for about 640 ft distance. This was brutal, but we moved past it. A little further up ahead at Trail Camp, with the famous snow chute in site, our first member called it quits. The chute looked worse than it had in photos; it was not going to be pleasant.
The chute sucked, it was a bitch just getting to the base of it, and it hadn’t even started. It took us a while, probably about 2 hours. My friend was doing well, jumping out front then waiting for us to catch up. He got about 3/4 of the way up it, when the elevation hit him and he slowed down. Eventually all 3 of us finally made it up, I’ll be honest and admit I was the last one, it was probably the hardest physical activity I’ve ever done. I nearly quit, and I’m not the quitting type. A group of girls near us were crazy, they were so exhausted that they were literally crawling up on their hands and knees, but we saw them later on and they all made it. One girl didn’t even have crampons which was a huge mistake.
From there we continued the remaining 2 or 3 miles, which were pretty mellow, but at a high elevation. My friend who was doing the best had hit a wall, the elevation hit him quick and hard, and he was forced to turn back. My brother and I struggled on, and near the last 1/2 mile or so, were told by a ranger we should head back, because going down the snow chute after the sun went down was a bad idea. We were aware it was best to get down before it started to freeze over, but too close to turn back. We kicked it into a gear we didn’t know we had and hustled to the top. We peaked, snapped a few photos, signed the book, and headed back down. It was a great feeling for the minute we had to enjoy it.
We didn’t make it to the chute before the shadows hit, and it was a mistake (although I don’t regret it). Never having glacaded (where you slide down the hill on your butt and use your ice axe for a brake), we were forced to attempt it on an icy, very uneven surface. The top was steepest, and it had a track worn in from people throughout the day. I went down about 20-30 feet, and reported to my brother it was a bit sketchy. He went down some, stopped, then lost his footing and came sliding down where I was luckily able to stop him. We didn’t know what to do, try to hike down which did not seem safe either, or continue glacading. We put our crampons on to attempt a hike, then decided we’d try glacade with crampons on. Not sure, but I don’t think you’re supposed to do this. Could probably hook a foot and break an ankle or tear an ACL or something pretty easy. However, this seemed like the safest bet for us, and it worked a lot better. We caught up to a group who were hiking it pretty quick, and shaved a lot of time off the decent this way.
The rest of the hike was quick and easy, but for the last few miles one of my knees was pretty sore, and it was dark. Definitely be sure to bring a head lamp, we had 3 for the 4 of us, and there were a couple streams we had to cross which were tricky and took a team effort to get our headlamp-less guy across. If you’re going to try to sneak to the peak without a permit, there were rangers taking exit interviews when we started the hike, but coming down at 9pm there was nobody around. I don’t know how it normally is, but you may want to consider coming down after dark. Nobody ever checked our permits, but we did see a couple rangers leading groups through the hike, and I’ve heard they do patrol.
May to November
Bears! Marmots, Mice, Squirrels, all sorts of birds, and some deer
Yes, Mt. Whitney requires a permit for any ascent, day trip or overnight. You’re allowed to hike a few miles in to Lone Pine Lake, but beyond that requires a permit.
Mt. Whitney is one of the most popular peaks in North America (mainly due to location and how easy it is to get there), having over 30,000 visitors each year. However, due to the rapid elevation gain and the overall elevation of 14,497 feet, only about 10,000 people actually summit each year. Therefore, about 33% of the climbers are successful.
Yes, there are several camp sites on the Mt. Whitney trail. You can camp at the trail head at Whitney Portal (8,360’), at Lone Pine Lake (9,900’), or if you have an overnight permit at outpost camp (10,400’) or Whitney Trail Camp (12,000’).
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