Mount Whitney is the most spectacular hike up highpoint. There are waterfalls, mountain lakes and streams, breath taking drop offs, great views the entire route and its gray granite face changes hues from brilliant red sunrises to a moon glow.
I climbed Mount Whitney on September 16, 2000.
The 21-mile roundtrip, 6,100-foot vertical hike from Whitney Portal is said to induce visions.
And for good measure you have to go through a Hollywood stage to get there (the Alabama Hills at its base was the site of most Westerns filmed in the 1940’s and 1950s as well as many contemporary films including the Star Trek movies).
Predictably, since it is less than 5 hours from San Francisco and Los Angeles, it is also very popular.
The National Forest Service has permit process (of which lately changing a lot) so that no more than 200 people are on the mountain at anytime (150 hikers and 50 campers max). You may sometimes think that there are more than that.
In 2000 the permits (costing $15/person) were issued in February on a lottery basis. If you are willing to dayhike the peak you can generally get permits during the summer and fall (except for Saturdays, Holidays and some Sundays). Camping permits are scooped up immediately and are impossible to get after the February lottery.
The permits which are in the name of the person applying are not transferrable (although if you have a permit you can change your partners).
In any event you should get the permit in advance. You can stop by the ranger stations. You cannot just show up at the trail head and buy it.
The conventional ascent time is 8 to 10 hours (I did it in 9 1/2 hours).
For dayhikers, the traditional start time is 4 a.m. This would place you on the summit by 2 p.m.
I personally feel that 2 a.m. is more preferrable start time. It’s better to climb the mountain in darkness than to come down in darkness. When I did it, I had the added advantage of a nearly full moon. There aren’t that many trees on the trail and the light on the gray granite made things quite bright. I probably used my head lamp less than 15 minutes. The trail is fairly easy to find. Rather than having blazes, the granite boulders by the trail have small polished squares. It’s quite a grand site in the darkness!
There is ample water (bring iodine and filters).
Keeping hydrated is critical to preventing mountain sickness.
I drank more than 6 liters of water the night before and in the morning. I did not have to purify water as I carried 3 liters for the entire but this is unusual. The ranger said the conventional rule of thumb is that however much water you drink before Trail Camp, you should double up for the ascent to the peak. In my case I hadn’t drank anything before Trail Camp.
My big mistake on hydration was not using sunblock on my lips. They were chapped so badly that it took weeks to recover.
I started the ascent of the famous 97 switchbacks by Trail Camp 4 1/2 hours after starting. It was perfect timing. The sun was just rising and the needles that make up Whitney glowed red.
“It’s a real bummer if you get over Trail Crest and don’t see this,” a hiker said.
There’s about 100 feet of the switchbacks that have wire ropes to keep you from falling on the ice and snow (there was very little on the mountain but on the section there was enough that I actually fell and had to check my fall with the wires).
Many hikers say that at the 8 mile (approximately 13,000 foot level) you hit a wall when the elevation starts to take its toll. Just on cue, that’s when it hit me too. From that point on, I plodded and I quickly lost all the great time I had made. Folks that were far behind were now passing.
“A lot of people think the worst is over when you reach Trail Crest, I think the worst is ahead because you’re affected by the altitude and the fact that you lose the trail. Be careful!,” one of speed hikers advised.
Lots of trip reports tell of the great feeling of community accomplishment at Trail Crest. I didn’t get any of that enthusiasm. My early arrival on the mountain meant I was dealing with fast hikers with little time for slowpokes. I was to see the communal enthusiasm on the way back when I ran into the 4 a.m. hikers.
A sense of discouragement settled in as I headed down the mountain on the west side of Trail Crest behind Mount Muir. Shouldn’t I be climbing rather than descending? The 30-40 mph winds from the west were casting a chill and I was being pushed against the mountain. Thank God, I thought, I wasn’t being pushed into the drop offs of thousands of feet that were on the west side of the trail. That security quickly evaportated at the first “V” notch between the pinnnacles where you had drop offs of thousands of feet on both sides — with the truly sheer drops being the side I was being blown into!
The ridge of course is the most dangerous portion of the climb. Signs warn you to turn back in case of lightning. Countless numbers of climbers have died on the summit in the summit house. Sure it has lightning rods but it’s a death trap.
But that wasn’t even the most discouraging part. I saw all the speed hikers who had overtaken me were now tiny dots in the distance. My heart was beating fast. I could see the summit house. I sat down thinking up an excuse to turn around.
But nothing is worse than coming down a mountain telling people you didn’t make it. Just as I was getting ready to turn around I announced my intentions. “My heart’s beating too fast.” To which the reply was “Maybe you need to breath.”
I sat down for 10 minutes, took a mini nap, and realized I could make it if I plodded. I didn’t have to race the speed hikers. That made all the difference.
I plodded on and rested and went worked my way up the Whitney pinnacle (everybody makes their own trail across that boulder field).
I paid the pilgrimage to the usual summit landmarks — the sign erected in 1930, the registry on the west side of the of the summit house, the USGS markers. I stepped inside the one room open in the house and got my photo taken (lots of folks stand on a flat boulder for an awesome photo — I squatted instead).
I also did my ugly hiker rendition by making a cell call to my aunt (you can make cell calls on the trail as long as you are within line of site of Lone Pine).
Things of course were easier on the way back. I could marvel at the beauty of the lakes and waterfalls which I had missed or only heard on the way up.
A prop plane buzzed the peak. I had checked on aerial tours. They fly out of Bishop.
Hikers told of a conspiracy of the NFS which requires bear cannisters for all campers. They cost $49.95 to rent and $99.95 to buy. Nobody sees bears above timber line but you have to have the cannisters anyway. Above timber line the problems are with the small animals. A marmot sat comfortably by a tent taunting me.
At Outpost Camp and its magnificent waterfall, I ran into the ranger who I missed earlier in the morning checking my permit. She had a chocolate lab with her. I had wanted to bring my dogs on the hike but they are not permitted in Sequoia National Park. Consequently they could have gone with me as far as Trail Crest. In fact I saw dog poop on the 97 Switchbacks. Instead we had frolicked the day before on a warm up hike to Cottonwood Lakes. On the day of my hike, my hiking companion had taken them to Diaz Reservoir in Lone Pine.
I did not have any blisters going up but I got them going down.
When I made it to Whitney Portal by 6:30 (16 1/2 hours round trip), I could barely move. I didn’t chat with the folks from the Portal who have the best Whitney web site. Their message board is the best source of info on the mountain — although there are some major league flamethrowers. I was blasted for inquiring about the dogs (but also got very some very good advice about Cottonwood Lakes).
If you want to really get flamed on the board, say you dayhiked the summit in 4 hours.
The folks noted there is a lot of people who climb the mountain for spiritual reasons. The day before a group of breast cancer survivors were on the mountain. A Christian group sponsored a bicycle ride from Badwater to Whitney “The Whitney Classic.” The winning time was 10 hours. In the record heat the temperature at the start was 124. No doubt it was in the 100’s in Lone Pine. It was 65 when I started climbing at Whitney Portal and I had to wear a jacket on the ridge with the wind (although my thermometer showed it was 60).
I was happy to see the dogs.
We had dinner in Lone Pine at an outdoor restaurant across the Mount Whitney Restaurant that sported tiki torches. Locals complained that it had been a slow year. I was curious how the focus of the town could be “Gateway to Death Valley” when it is the entrance to such a magnificent mountain (the only light in town is for Whitney Portal Road”). There were an awful lot of German tourists.
We had spent the nights before the hike at Lone Pine. Lots of folks tell you this is a new good way to get acclimated as it is at just below 4,000 feet. Most will tell you to acclimate at 8,100 foot Whitney Portal. It’s a glorious campground and you can feast on the off days on the famous pancakes at the Whitney Portal store. Just watch out for its bears who have been known to break into cars looking for food (many people leave their cars parked with the windows open). The Portal gives you a chance to chat with the Doug Thompson and Elisabeth Newbold proprietors of the store and whose names are synonymous with the Whitney experience.
People who have camped on the trail at higher elevations (e.g., the 11,400 foot Trail Camp) complain of getting no sleep because they can’t acclimate at night.
We settled back in to our accomodations at the Alabama Hills Motel with its picture postcard view of the mountain (it glows red every morning contrasting with the Alabama Hills). A plaque at the entrance was dedicated by Roy Rogers whose shows were filmed there. A song kept going through my head.
“Happy Trails to You.”