Mount Whitney

Elevation: 14,496
Location: Sierra Nevada Range, California

It seems everyone wants to climb Mount Whitney. The reasons are obvious. It is the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous states, and it is accessed by a quality trail that is nothing more than a long, long walk. I first attempted Mount Whitney in July of 1998, and returned again in August of 1999.

Sunrise on Mt. Whitney trail After climbing Colorado's Mount Elbert in 1997, the second highest peak in the 48 states, I knew I'd be on Whitney's slopes soon. Allen and I planned the trip, getting the permit for the long day hike up the east side of the mountain. We left Salt Lake and drove all day to get to the Best Western in Lone Pine. The drive was long, but late in the afternoon I got my first glimpse of the peak's towering granite walls. We spent sunday relaxing from the long drive and driving up to the portal to familiarize with the trail since we'd be starting in the dark. We stopped at the local ranger station where they informed us that due to the worst winter they'd had in 100 years, a lot of snow remained on the mountain, and the famous 99 switchbacks above Trail Camp were snowed over. I wasn't sure we were ready for a 1,700 foot climb up these conditions.

We had permits for monday and tuesday in case the weather was bad, but in July in the Sierras, apparently the weather is quite reliable. We hardly saw a cloud the entire trip. Finally we were getting close. We ate dinner at PJ's, and retired back to the hotel and tried to get to bed at 8pm since we were waking up around 1am. I struggled to sleep, and when the alarm went off, we slept for quite a while longer. When we finally arose and got dressed, we were well behind our intended schedule. This was ok because I think we both realized with the snow conditions we were probably not going to make the summit.

Consultation Lake and Mt. McAdie, July 1998 We reached the trailhead and started hiking around 4:30am. With headlamps on we followed the well-marked trail up switchbacks and across streams while the granite walls glowed in the moonlight. Stars filled the sky. We reached a meadow near Outpost Camp (10,350 feet) where already large patches of snow were remaining. Not long after, the first light of the sun started to rise behind the White Mountains to the east. Soon the sun was lighting the granite peaks above in golden colors, and then the sun was upon us. It made an immediate impact in the temperature. We continued up, soon reaching large snowfields on the way to Consultation Lake. Most were easy walking, but one spot was across a steep hillside. I was glad to have at least brought ski poles. By this time we'd seen only a few hikers.

Soon we arrived at Consultation Lake at about 11,400 feet. Mount McAdie towered behind the still frozen over lake, and it was one of the prettiest mountain scenes I've ever seen. By now we could only see a few jagged peaks on the ridge that made up Mount Whitney. A few other sub-peaks not on the main ridge were equally impressive. After stopping at Consultation Lake for a while, we continued up the now solid snow to Trail Camp at 12,039 feet. The place was busy with camped out climbers waking to make their climb of the peak. Ahead we could see rugged Mount Muir (14,015 feet) and to the left of it, the "chute" that we would have to climb to get to the ridge.

Sun cups along trail, Allen in distance The scenery was absolutely beautiful in all directions. There weren't many trees on this side of the range, but it didn't matter. The rugged beauty was unmatched by anywhere I had hiked before. A group of four climbers were slowly making their way towards "Trail Crest" on the ridge. Allen and I rested for a bit to contemplate if we wanted to try this climb. After watching this group climb up so slowly, and hearing of an accident here just a few days before, we decided to call our trip good here. While it was frustrating to not reach the peak, the scenery was so outstanding I really didn't feel too bad.

We milled about Trail Camp for about two hours, talking to the various climbers, many of whom were also not making the climb to the summit. All the while, that group slowly inched their way up. Birds practically walked right up to Allen to get food, evidently not too shy in this area. We had heard that bears are also quite common and not too shy here either, but we had no encounters, there were a few marmots however sunning themselves on the granite rocks not still buried in snow. Another of the strange things here were the "suncups", where the snow rises to points, I'd never seen them before.

Mt. Muir from Trail Camp, July 1998 Soon we had to start down, as just hiking to Trail Camp was six miles with a 3,600 foot descent. The climb down gave us a chance to see the parts of the trail that we really couldn't see climbing up in the dark. The section over the steep drop was a little hairy, but otherwise the trip down was pretty routine. We cleaned up and relaxed for another day in Lone Pine before heading off for some tourist hikes in Yosemite Park (extremely crowded and hot at this time of year) and the Devils Postpile area to the north. Our stay in Mammoth was chaotic with a bike race going on at that time of year. I found Mammoth to be a typical ski town, overpriced and crowded, and generally unpleasant to be in, much like I had found Aspen and Park City to be. Lone Pine was a small but enjoyable town, and we found a great pizza place in the Pizza Factory. The climb was not a total success, but we enjoyed the trip...of course, we knew we'd be coming back again.

We decided to try Whitney differently in 1999. First, we wanted to camp on the mountain to minimize the hiking distances. However, we found obtaining the overnight permits to be nearly impossible, and we were forced back to the day permits. Fortunately, the winter wasn't nearly as bad, and we had moved the trip back to the first week of August anyways. The afternoon thunderstorms can happen here, but they are not nearly as common as they are in the Colorado mountains. I rarely get sick, yet the days leading up to the trip I had been down with a cold. I wondered if the Elbert jinx would get me again. Finally the time had come to attempt Whitney again.

Mt. Whitney from Best Western parking lot, Lone Pine When we left on saturday I was about 90% over my cold. This time the drive through the Nevada desert was easier because it was overcast, and we were not driving all the way to Lone Pine the first day, but stopping 50 miles earlier in Bishop for two nights. We stayed in Bishop primarilly because the town is bigger and has more restaurants to choose from. We spent sunday exploring nearby Lake Sabrina and South Lake, both very pretty. From Bishop, Mount Humphreys (13,986 feet) fills the skyline. On monday we left for Lone Pine, stopping along the way to drive up to Glacier Lodge near to the Palisades. Here we hiked up about a mile of the North Fork trail. I felt good, and I was now confident that I was over my cold. I hope to go back someday and follow the North Fork trail all the way to the Palisade Glacier. We stopped at the ranger station to try to clear up what the official height of Whitney was, as we'd seen it listed as 14,494 feet, 495, 496, and 497. The couldn't really answer the question either. We finally went with the elevation on the shirts we bought.

Following our new tradition, we ate dinner at PJ's on monday night and got to bed early for our extremely early wake up time of midnight. Again, sleep was minimal knowing what kind of a day is ahead. The alarm went off and we got ready. The drive up to Whitney Portal is a lonely one, and a mile before the portal our headlights caught a large black bear crossing the road. We got a good parking space in the dark, and hit the trail about 1:15am. I had it all planned out to try to get to Trail Camp around 6:30am at a pretty gradual pace, then taking a good rest before going up the rest of the climb.

View down from Trail Crest We hiked a little nervously in the dark after the bear sighting, making sure to make noise often. It was obvious at stream crossings that there was not nearly as much snow on the mountain this time. We stopped for a nice rest around 10,000 feet and gazed at the stars. Soon another hiker passed on his way down from the climb the day before! We continued up past Trail Camp in the dark. We were up around 11,500 feet in the area by Consultation Lake when the light of the sun started to hit the trail. The lake was thawed and only patches of snow clung to the peaks this time. Both of us were doing quite well as we arrived at Trail Camp just after sunrise.

We stopped and rested on the rocks for about 45 minutes while all sorts of other hikers were leaving their camp for the summit climb. We left Trail Camp at about 7:30, ready to embark on new territory. We started ascending the switchbacks, and by about ten I'd stopped counting and was falling into a hiking lull. One section has rails where apparently in spring ice covers the trail, and a large drop waits below. I climbed quickly, faster than most of the campers, and Allen stayed close behind. Getting closer to the saddle, the rugged spires near Mount Muir tower above you. I was getting more tired now, and was happy to see the pass emerge in front of me. I reached the pass and found the sign welcoming me to Sequoia National Park.

Entering Sequoia National Park, Guitar Lake visible in distance It was 9:15am, and while my time is slow compared to times I've read from other sites, on this day only about four hikers were faster than me up the switchbacks. I rested for 15 minutes admiring the view west to the Great Divide and nearby Mount Hitchcock with Guitar Lake below. Soon Allen joined me, gasping for air. I wondered if he was ready to make the final climb, but he assured me he was going the rest of the way. I told him to rest for a while, and that I was continuing on. The next section of the trail actually drops about 300 feet to meet the John Muir Trial coming up from the west side. Below we could see hikers coming up that trail merging with the hikers from our side on the Whitney highway.

The descent was nice, as it helped regain more energy. We met the trail at about 13,480 feet, almost exactly 1,000 feet below the summit. I had been considering climbing nearby Mount Muir also, but the rocks seemed more rugged than I had expected them to be. I now set my sights on Mount Whitney, now visible as a bland lump who's east side drops away sharply. The trail from here was very spectacular with all the peaks to the west, and the sections where you looked down sheer drops to the east side. I reached a sign indicating just one more mile to the peak. I knew I was close, but I was starting to really tire now.

Summit ridge of Mt. Whitney I churned away up the final mile, stopping often. Soon I was at the base of the final climb, and that was even more tiring. Every few steps required a rest, and I kept looking to 14,240 foot Keeler Needle to see when I was above that peak. What seemed like forever was probably more like 15 minutes. Soon the hillside was leveling off and I could see the huge stone hut on the summit and the scores of hikers up on the peak. A long walk up gentle rocks finally led me to the summit I had wanted for such a long time. I signed the register, and found a sheltered area away from the crowd on the highest point and phoned my dad to tell him I was on the peak. I returned to the high point to take photos, and hoped that Allen would be coming up behind me.

I rested on the rocks for some time, trying to get comfortable but it was nearly impossible. I waited for nearly an hour watching climbers arrive, but none had been Allen. I was starting to think he'd given up the climb when I saw him plodding up the summit rocks. I was thrilled for him, now both of us had the two highest peaks in the lower 48 (and yes, we did Colorado's Mount Massive in 2000 giving us the top three). He arrived exhausted, so we rested a while, and took some more pictures. At about 1pm we started the long trip down (I reached the peak just before noon). I didn't look forward to the nearly 11 mile walk down, but I did look forward to the bed at the Best Western, and that was my strongest motivation.

Summit marker - finally there!!! We plodded down the steep, rocky summit slopes to the main trail, where we both encountered urges to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately we had missed the tiny toilet on the summit. Rest assured, there is very little room for privacy on the narrow summit ridge! I was getting ahead of Allen again, and I reached Trail Crest a while before him. He soon emerged, and we started the long walk down the 99 switchbacks. By this time my shoulder was killing from the heavy daypack filled with liquid and camera gear. We took a nice rest here, but we knew we still had six more miles to walk out! My shoulder continued to worsen and I was stopping fairly often to relieve my shoulder's pain. Now Allen was moving much better than I was.

After a couple more rests, and a lot more hiking, we could see the parking lot below. A long switchback in the wrong direction didn't help, but soon we were back at the parking lot and our car. Fortunately it had not been ravaged by the bears. We threw our gear and limped into the car. It was 7:15 when we finished the hike, about an 18 hour day, but one neither of us will ever forget. We cleaned up at the hotel and got take out pizza from the Pizza Factory and struggled to get to sleep between the cramps in our legs. I felt a sense of satisfaction in climbing the peak I wanted more than any other, and another feeling of wondering what was next, this was always my number one goal, and now it was gone.

The following day we did our souvenier shopping (summit in one day t-shirts are a must for any Whitney climber), and most importantly resting. We returned to Bishop after that for the bigger restaurant selection, and then to Las Vegas, then home, where now a large slab of granite sits on the computer desk above me from the summit of Mount Whitney.


Allen on summit Me on summit