Learn how to be prepared for Mt Whitney at 14505 feet with elevation gain of more than 6000 feet from Whitney Portal
Hiking Mt Whitney is certainly a bucket list hike, and rightfully so the majestic mountain is a beauty. At 14,505 feet, this is the highest point in the lower 48 and is one of those peaks where you can choose to hike up or use your mountaineering skills based on the route you choose. This also makes for an excellent region to backpack into the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Whitney region includes the Sierra crest from Shepherd Pass to Cottonwood Pass.
One of the critical pieces of doing this hike is attaining the permit to hike, tribe attempted to snag the permit two years in a row, but one time did not get a pick in the lottery and the second time the plans were derailed due to wildfires in the vicinity. Third time lucky certainly is tribes mantra with this hike, and we were super excited. The permit season ends in November every year, some people prefer to do the hike at that time. The elevation does bring in the snow and knowing navigation in snow and/or ice is important for that time of the year.
It's interesting to think how nature has evolved, the lowest point in North America is at Death Valley at the Badwater Basin and Mt Whitney the highest point is about 84 miles away. It rising almost 10,000 feet from the town of Lone Pine, this majestic granite summit demands careful preparation, planning and strength. Besides altitude, weather and wind conditions play a critical role in successful accent. The tribe in the past has climbed Mt Elbert in Colorado which is 65 feet lower than Mt Whitney, we were excited to see what this beast would unfold for us.
14505 feet, Mt Whitney is the tallest mountain in California and the tallest peak in the Lower 48 states
The first step is to understand the various options for the hike and apply for the permit accordingly, here are a few that we evaluated:
Overnight via Whitney Portal - This is a 22 miles RT that allows for overnight camping in one of the campgrounds on the trail - Outpost Camp and Trail Camp being the most popular. Backcountry permit is required for the same via lottery system
Day Hike via Whitney Portal - Many attempt the hike as a long day trip, while permits are still required for the same it is logistically simpler. If you happen to pick this option, it's important to acclimatize prior to the attempt for a elevation gain of >6000 feet which happens in 8-14 hours
Mountaineers Route - For those who enjoy rock climbing, the Mountaineers Route provides for the adrenaline rush. It is attempted year round in variety of conditions. The choices for moderate to more advanced alpine rock climbing is available to tackle the Whitney massif depending on skill and comfort level
Permits can be attained via the https://www.recreation.gov/permits/233260 website, also note the dates published for when permits open and when the open spots become available.
Leave no trace, be bear aware and enjoy the beauty of this magnificent 14er
Once the tribe got the pick on the lottery the preparation started with first doing smaller hike, expanding that to longer and higher elevation hiking and adding on to it was hiking with a full backpack, given tribe was going to do the overnight with camping at the trail camp. Tribe felt prepared, but there was still a bit of nervousness given tribes 9 year old member was doing a high altitude of 14000 ft for the first time.
Also its important to note that the email of successful lottery is not the permit, about 7 days before we dropped a note to Inyo National Forest Whitney Permit check in ID to attain the actual permit.
https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=20806&actid=51 is a good source of information on what to do when and how to attain the permits.
The day had arrived, packed and loaded we left for Lone Pine. The first night was reserved at the Whitney Portal Campground, it was about 4PM by the time tribe arrived, taking ample breaks on the way for breathtaking views of a clear day through Yosemite National Park. Before the Whitney portal store could close, we managed to grab dinner and get a good view of the start point right around the store. The famed Whitney burgers were truly amazing! And checked off the bucket list. Back to the campground tribe set up and prepared for the next days start. The campground was fairly full and there were signs of it being an active black bear area - while we knew that was the case we were not expecting one to show up. This huge black bear came by sniffing, thankfully tribe's member saw it and started to scream loudly to scare it away. Few of us did not sleep well that night, we could hear footsteps or imagine they were around the tent. Through the night we could also hear some screaming from other parts of the campground, so most certainly it was a fairly active bear area. Keeping all food, scented items out of your tents, and in bear boxes is crucial. While you park cars at the Whitney Portal parking lot, ensure there is nothing in the cars, all items can be stored in bear boxes provided around this area and yes that's how your stuff and your car can stay safe. Bears have been known to break into cars at the portal parking lot.
While there was a optimization done the backpack ended up being heavy when weighed at the trailhead and tribe was worried it would make for a tough climb. By the time we started it was almost 8AM and month of July, the sun was beating down on us right from the start - we should have started earlier. The next couple of hours seemed grueling with the heavy backpacks and the heat. But occasional stream crossings, logs that formed bridges and waterfalls along the way made it interesting. Ample breaks to ensure we keep hydrated with electrolytes and chatting with hikers coming down was fun. There is ample company upto Lone Pine Lake, as this is accessible without a permit. Granite ridges and mountains that surround the trail make for great photo op. Slow and steady, tribe reached Outpost Camp, time for a lunch break and refill of water. Interestingly all along the way there was great sources of extremely refreshing chilled water, it should be filtered and consumed.
After a grueling uphill, tribe reached the camp for the night, what a beautiful setting, just below the towering granite walls of Whitney and surrounded by the views all around. Tribe set up camp, looked for source of water which was a nearby lake and prepared for dinner to retire early in the night. As tribe settled in the tents, the footsteps of hikers on the day hike could be heard and at a distance you could see the headlamps traversing the infamous 99 switchbacks. The morning came by early, tribe woke up at 5AM and started to prep for the summit push. It rained in the night and was chilly.
Watching the headlamps ahead of us tribe started accent at the switchback - the first ray of sunlight was such a pleasant view it lite up the entire surrounding with its glow. Slowly and steadily one step in front counting each switchback we continued this beautiful journey. It took us a couple of hours to get to trail crest, once past the switchbacks, trail crest seemed like a walk. As you approach the mountain at trail crest an entire stunning landscape opens up on the west, lakes, rock walls and the shire grandeur of the Sierra pops open.
It's merely 1.9 miles from here to the summit hut, but it seems one of the longest. Backpackers tend to drop their heavier bags at this point and enjoy the detour to the peak. The path from here is a bit tricky demands careful navigation - it can get narrow at places, had wind tunnels and cliff drops with bit of a scramble. The altitude sickness started to kick in and so did the heat of the day, the ridge was completely exposed. Tribes junior member was ready to give up through this tough traverse, but something came from within and he continued to march ahead tired but determined. After much gruel the hut was in sight, we made it! It was cold and windy at the top, a well deserved snack break at the hut, picture taking and celebrating the wonderful achievement made it all worth it. The exposed climb is extremely prone to thunder and lightning strike, be sure to check the weather forecast prior to departure on this hike.
While the way down was fueled by the accomplishment of summiting the highest in lower 48 states, the fatigue, tiredness and the afternoon sun was absolutely grueling. Tribe was running low of water, the streams flowing on the switchbacks was a welcome relief. Our tents were in sight, back down around 3PM, we decided to stay another night and enjoy the wonderful setting. Fellow campers on their way up and some on the way down all had great stories to talk about. Some happen to be doing Mt Whitney the tenth time.
Tribe immensely enjoyed all the alpine lakes Lone Pine Lake, Mirror Lake, Consultation Lake, Guitar Lake, the meadows, the streams, the cliffs and watching the marmots. Next mornings plan was to set off early and get back on the road by noon. So grateful that everything went as per plan, managed to catch the famous pancake and eggs breakfast at the Whitney portal, it sure was fresh and yummalicious. Time to head back home our bags were full with memories and heart with stories of this adventure!!
Learning's from the tribe - Each journey is incredible and slightly different and so is every mountain. Plan ahead, prepare well and enjoy being one with nature.