- Training for Mount Whitney
- Getting Started
- First Day at High Elevations
- Training Backpack to Kearsarge Lakes
- Hiking Mount Whitney
Early this spring (2002) I heard that some of my friends had planned a hiking (actually backpacking) trip to Mt. Whitney, California (elevation 14,494 feet), the highest peak in the 48 contiguous States. I had not been invited, and grumbled gently. When one of the original group had to drop out because of work pressures I was invited to take her place, and accepted with great eagerness.
I am not a highpointer, but now that I am retired I enjoy hiking "interesting" mountains far from home. My main interest (outside New England) at present is the easier Colorado Fourteeners, but I am beginning to look at the more challenging state highpoints, and what can be more challenging than Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48?
The trip was planned to maximize the chances of success. Several days were to be devoted to acclimation, and we would climb Mount Whitney over three days: one day to get to Trail Camp, one to summit and return to Trail Camp, and the third to break camp and go down.
If you do not have a printed map handy you may want to look (in a separate window) at a Topozone map of Mt. Whitney as you read this page.
Our group consisted of four: Pete and I, both retired and in our mid-sixties, and Barb and Cliff, both a couple of decades younger. We had all done a lot of hiking together until Cliff moved from the Boston area to the Washington, DC, area, but still kept in contact.
I was the only one of the group who had any experience hiking above 10,000 feet, but all had done a lot of reading, and we were all pretty confident that with good acclimation we would have no problems.
All of us had been training for this trip, I will say a few words about my training.
I hike year round in New Hampshire, often doing hikes that might be considered strenuous. It is my only form of training, I try to hike both days of most weekends and, now that I am retired, at least once midweek. At the end of winter I normally take a break from hard hiking to recover from one season in preparation for the next, and I do the same as fall changes into winter.
This spring I started training much later than usual, and once I started found a lot of excuses to train less seriously than in previous years. As a result I was not really prepared for my early summer Mount Elbert (Colorado) trip. I returned from Colorado in much better shape than when I started out, and by the time we left for California (mid-August) I was in acceptable shape.
We flew to Las Vegas separately and met at the car rental counter there on the evening of Friday August 16th, spending the night at the home of Cliff's brother. Next day we bought a few things, then drove across Death Valley to Lone Pine, passing by Badwater, the lowest point in the country. It was a hot day, the highest temperature in Death Valley, around 2 PM, was 124°F! We reached Lone Pine before the ranger station closed, and got some maps and rented bear cannisters there.
On Sunday we drove to the Whitney Portal for our first acclimation hike, along the Meysan Lake trail. This is a beautiful hike, our first experience with the deep valleys that cut into the Sierra Nevada. Since we had spent the night at Lone Pine we were not at all acclimated, and we huffed and puffed as we went up. We managed to climb about 2,000 feet, from 8,300 to around 10,500, before turning around. We then drove down to Lone Pine, got our Wilderness Permit for our planned backpack into Kearsarge Lakes, and drove up to the Onion Valley campsite at around 9,200 feet.
After a lot of discussion we had planned to sleep in individual tents. We realized that this would increase the weights of our packs, but all felt that the added privacy was well worth that extra weight. What we did not realize was that we could not fit four tents into our campsite at Onion Valley, so Pete and Cliff slept in their respective cars!
We set up camp, cooked dinner, and watched the sun set. With the setting of the sun the temperatures dropped, and we were glad that we had brought lots of warm clothing for use in the evenings around camp, as well as three season sleeping bags rated to around 20°F. As the evening progressed we saw the sky above one mountain lighting up, and soon the moon appeared in the midst of a totally clear sky. Full moon was about four days away, and the almost full moon illuminated the mountains that surrounded us. A glorious sight!
From the glorious to the mundane but essential details. Before going to sleep we put all our food and other scented things in one of the bear boxes provided at the campground. These are essentially bear proof lockers that are found at many campgrounds, trailheads and in some backcountry locations.
We slept moderately well that night, and woke early next morning. We had breakfast, broke camp and packed for our planned overnight trip to the Kearsarge Lakes. We packed the food for the overnight trip in our bear cannisters (we had three of them for four people) and left the excess food, plus other scented items, in another bear box at the nearby trailhead.
Soon after the start of our trail a trail joined it from the right, with a sign pointing along it saying "Pack Trail" or something similar. And we soon found evidence that pack animals used our trail extensively! To accommodate them the trail was relatively broad, with good footing and gentle grades. And switchbacks! We had all heard of the switchbacks in the West, but seeing them and hiking on them was a new experience for New Englanders!
The main attraction of the trail was the openness of the views, and the many lakes, one above the other as we ascended. And the steep rock walls on either side of the valley. As we were resting at one of the lakes we were passed by a train of three mules carrying gear, led by the outfitter on a horse. The clients had hiked in with minimal packs, and were waiting at the Kearsarge Lakes to receive the rest of their gear.
Kearsarge Pass (elevation 11,760 feet) was about 5.5 miles with 2,600 feet of elevation gain from our starting point, and we reached it with little difficulty. The gentle grades did make everything much easier. Once there we had a spectacular view into the valleys on both sides of the pass, all with many lakes and waterfalls, and with mountains rising steeply on the sides. The lakes were probably the most attractive part of the scenery, we do not have that profusion of lakes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire where I do most of my hiking.
We met two other groups at the pass, where we all stopped to rest, and chatted pleasantly. A ranger joined us, and warned us again about the bears. He also described the locations of the bear boxes at the sites at which the various groups were staying. From there the way down to the lakes was a bit steeper and a bit rougher than the previous section of the trail, but still quite easy (especially so since we were going down!).
We set up camp at an appropriate distance from the first lake (elevation around 11,000 feet), and since it was still early in the afternoon we went for a walk to explore the area. We met the clients of the outfitter, they were in for a multiday trip on the John Muir Trail and had decided to have their gear packed in over the first, and highest, pass. They would carry it themselves for the rest of the trip.
The evening was uneventful, we made dinner and watched the moon rise, once again illuminating the whole landscape. After dinner we carefully put all the food in our bear cannisters, and put everything that we suspected might have a smell in the bear boxes. We all slept less well that night than the previous one; 11,000 feet is quite a bit more elevation than 9,200 feet!
Next morning our neighbors (they were camped several hundred feet from us) told us that a bear had visited their area, sniffed around, and left. Fortunately they had, like us, secured all their food safely. After breakfast we broke camp and returned to Onion Valley, that trip was much easier as we only had 700-800 feet to climb to the pass, after which it was downhill all the way.
Having spent the last two nights in the mountain we decided to spend this one in the valley at Lone Pine. After a shower and laundry we did some food shopping, had diner, and went to bed early. The big adventure would begin tomorrow!
We had planned to do it the easiest way possible, taking three days and thus spending two nights on the mountain. On the first day we would hike 6.3 miles, gaining 3,700 feet of elevation, to Trail Camp, where we would spend the next two nights. On the second day we would attempt to reach the summit, returning to our camp, for a total of 9.4 miles and 2,700 or so feet, including a short climb on the way back. On the third day we would descend, 6.3 miles with no real elevation gain.
We woke up early, had breakfast in Lone Pine, and drove to the Whitney Portal (elevation 8,300 feet). Once again we had all our food for the trip in our bear cannisters, and all other food and scented items were placed in the bear boxes. Whitney Portal bears are notorious for breaking into cars if they smell any food items in them! At about 9 AM we were on our way.
The trail is very similar to the Kearsarge Pass one. The grades are very gentle, with constant switchbacks, and the footing is very good. It was our fourth day of hiking at elevation, and we were now used to the diminished oxygen. Since we had ample time we hiked at a slow but steady pace. Once again the gentle switchbacks took us up the very steep walls of the valley, with streams flowing from one lake to the one below it, with waterfalls whenever there was a substantial drop. We crossed the North Branch of Lone Pine Creek, and saw the start of the much more arduous Mountaineer's Route.
Two of the more scenic areas at the start of the hike were Bighorn Park, a large well irrigated meadow covered with willows, and Mirror Lake, with the vertical wall of Thor Peak towering above it. We had a late morning snack at Mirror Lake both on the way up and on the way down. Further on there is the beautiful Trailside Meadow, much smaller than Bighorn Park but equally beautiful. Camping is not allowed at Mirror Lake or Trailside Meadow, but there is a campsite, Outpost Camp, near Bighorn Meadow. Camping at Outpost Camp makes for a shorter first day, with the full pack, but makes the summit day that much longer. We did not even consider that option.
It took us about five hours to get to Trail Camp, which we reached around 2 PM. We were among the first to arrive, so we had our choice of sites, we chose one quite close to the small lake (of course, at a legal distance!). We set up camp and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, and occasionally exploring the immediate vicinity. We were at 12,000 feet, higher than we had been on this trip.
Throughout the afternoon we saw hikers coming down the switchbacks and going through Trail Camp. As the day wore on the descending hikers seemed more and more tired, most passed through the camp, so they were either doing it in a day or camped at Outpost Camp 2.5 miles further down. Just before dark a group of hikers straggled into camp, went to their tents, made dinner, and broke camp to start a long trip down. I did not envy them!
While we saw no bears the cannisters were certainly useful in defending our food from the voracious marmots, which seemed to be everywhere! Once again as the sun set we put on extra clothes, cooking dinner with most of our clothes on. I slept very poorly both nights at Trail Camp; sleep disturbances are one of the more common effects of high elevation.
It was cold overnight at 12,000 feet, and we found a thin film of ice on the surface of the water in our bottles. A good breakfast warmed us up, and we were on our way! The infamous 99 switchbacks are steep by California standards, as the trail rises 1,620 feet in 2.2 miles, or about 740 feet per mile. But in New Hampshire we consider "steep" to begin at 1,000 feet per mile, and in any case we had all the time in the world to do them. Furthermore the footing was excellent, which certainly made things much easier.
We hiked slowly but steadily, stopping occasionally to admire the scenery which was unfolding below us. A couple of hours got us to Trail Crest, an opening in the wall of the Sierra which would bring up to its west side. Shortly before reaching the gap we felt the wind blowing through it, so we stopped to put on our windgear and have an early morning snack. Then onward to the gap! From there we had wonderful views on both sides of the crest.
Trail Crest is about 2.5 miles and 1,000 feet below the summit, so we were not yet there. But the steep part of the day's work had been done. We lost a couple of hundred feet going down to the junction with the John Muir Trail, where we saw a large collection of packs. Many people climb Mount Whitney as part of a multi-day backpack through the Sequoia National Park, and end by climbing the John Muir Trail to its junction with the Mt. Whitney Trail. They leave their packs at this junction, follow the Mt. Whitney Trail to the summit, and return, pick up their packs, and hike out by the Mt. Whitney Trail ending at the Portal. That is one possibility for next year's trip!
From the junction the trail follows the western side of the wall, with great views into the Sequoia National Park and its many lakes. Along the trail are about four "windows", areas where there is no wall, so you are on a ridge with lots of exposure on both sides. I fear exposure very much, and had been worrying about these windows ever since I had started planning for this trip. They turned out to be totally inoffensive, as the trail is wide with good footing. They might well be less benign with snow or ice!
Flat sections alternate with sections that rise gently, and we had little difficulty with this section. When we started the final climb to the summit of Mount Whitney we were surprised how easy and rounded that mountain's western side is, compared to the vertical wall to the east! Then we saw the hut, and the crowds on the summit!
The summit seemed to be one big party, with people taking turns being photographed near the plaque. I have no doubt that many of the people had pushed themselves to their limits, and were very tired. But on the summit all aches disappeared, and only joy remained. We spent about half an hour up there, enjoying the views and celebrating our successful climb.
The way down was easier than the way up. The two short climbs were unwelcome, but not much of a problem. Once we crossed Trail Crest we could see our tents, and as we descended they grew larger and larger. We were back in camp early in the afternoon. I have no doubt that we could have broken camp and reached our cars before dark, but we were very happy not to have to do so. Once again we "hung around" camp, watched people coming down, and relaxed. At sunset we again put on extra layers, cooked dinner and went to bed. I slept as poorly as I had the previous night.
We woke up early, had breakfast and broke camp. We descended slowly, enjoying the scenery far more than we had on the way up. We took long rest stops at the two most interesting lakes. Mirror Lake has the imposing Thor Peak rising vertically above it, while Lone Pine Lake is beautiful in a more peaceful way. At the Whitney Portal Store we bought the obligatory Mount Whitney t-shirts, then drove down to Lone Pine. Laundry was followed by an early celebratory dinner, and then to bed. Next day our group split: Pete drove to San Diego while Barb, Cliff and I drove to Sequoia National Park for a few days of easy hiking.
Climbing Mount Whitney is a challenge for most people who attempt it, and certainly was a challenge for us. We had, however, planned carefully, and that substantially diminished the difficulty of the trip. First of all we were all reasonably fit, with experience in carrying a pack up the mountain. Secondly we took the time to acclimate properly, doing three hikes over 10,000 feet before starting on Mount Whitney, and also spending two nights above 9,000 feet. Finally, we were able to get a permit for three days, which took all the pressure off. On each of the three days we had reached our destination by 3 PM without needing to push our pace.
As a result I got much less satisfaction out of our Mount Whitney climb than I had gotten out of my Mount Elbert climb. On Mount Elbert I was still not in good shape, and had genuine doubts about my ability to do it. It was also my first "big" fourteener, adding to my uncertainty about the outcome. Finally, in spite of my poor fitness I was able to do it in what was for me a very respectable time which increased my feeling of accomplishment.
The Sierra is a beautiful region, and I may well return to Mount Whitney. I would like to climb it as a multi-day backpack through Sequoia National Park, and if I get in better shape might even want to try doing it in a single day.