Successful Day Hike of Mt Whitney from Whitney Portal
August, 18 2008
Inyo and Sequoia Forests
6200 feet elevation gain
How to successfully day hike Mt Whitney
Last year I attempted Mt Whitney, but didn't summit. This year was different. I summitted in one day.
I tried to summit Mt Whitney last year, and did not make it. This year, I made another attempt, and this one was successful, starting at 3:30AM and finishing at 9PM. I went with two people who had never done it before. One of which hadn't been hiking ever until 4 months ago. For a detailed description of the trail through my last year's eyes, read here. To read about this year's trip in which I will discuss preparation and planning more extensively, and also the ins and outs of the trail, continue on. If you follow my instructions regarding training and planning, you too will be able to climb Mt Whitney in one day.
The Permit Process
First let's start with the permit process. For all the details, visit the Inyo National Forest Site. In brief, you can't climb without a permit, and there are two types. One is a day pass permit, the second is an overnight backpacking permit. The overnight permits are hard to come by, I know many people who have entered the lottery and have not gotten a permit. They day ones are easier, I have gotten my first choice date two years in a row. I believe that these permits are to enter from Whitney Portal on the Main Whitney Trail. I am not sure of the process if you are coming from the west side of the mountains, from the John Muir Trail or the Sequioa Forest side. I can't help you there.
I would recommend as a first timer that you do what I did. Make sure to send in your application early in the year of the year you want to climb. See that permit link I posted earlier for exact dates and deadlines. If you want the trail to be free of snow don't go earlier than mid-June, I went in August both years and had crystal clear sunny skies. Once your application is complete and accepted, make sure you allow for time in the days leading up to your hike for acclimating. You can do this at the Whitney Portal Campground, located on Whitney Portal road west of the town of Lone Pine and about 1/2 mile from the trailhead. It is at about 8000 feet which makes it perfect. Allow two days for acclimating.
The campground is quite nice, and is $17 per night I believe. Reserve early in the year as this is a popular campground and is used by more than just hikers. As mentioned, the campground is very near the trailhead, and also the portal store. Each campsite has bear boxes, and there is high bear activity, so use them. While acclimating, do some day hiking. There are plenty of trails around, what we did was hike the first 3 miles of the main Whitney trail. You don't need a permit until after you pass Lone Pine lake, which is a little short of 3 miles from the trailhead. Hike up there, spend some time by the lake at 9900', it is beautiful, and you get to spend some time at a little higher elevation.
Note that the campground doesn't have showers. There is one at the portal store, and I believe it is $3, if you want to use it, pay in the store. Also, down in Lone Pine there is a hostel that has EXCELLENT showers. You can just walk in and pay $5, this is highly recommended if you can get down there. Very convenient and clean.
If you are planning to day hike Mt Whitney, do not underestimate the value of training. My girlfriend (who had never hiked before) and I started training about 3 months out. We started with some good cardio training, jogging and 3 to 6 mile local hikes. From here we progressed to doing some elevation training, working up to 6000' in the local San Diego mountains, about 5 miles or so. Next we took it up a notch and did some more elevation hiking at Tahquitz Peak and San Jacinto. During this entire time we were still doing cardio training several times per week, I was jogging between 3 and 5 miles, she was doing gym training. I cannot over emphasize the actual training hikes at elevation. This is critical. I could notice a difference in my cardio improvement after each altitude hike, much more so than after a good jog near the beach. We did probably 2 per month, so in total 4 or 5 in the two months leading up to the hike. San Jacinto takes you over 10,000 feet and is a total of 16 miles, which makes this a great benchmark. If you can do something like this relatively pain free in the weeks leading up to your hike you will be fine. As you can see, we started early, were dedicated, and stepped up our game each time, with the culimation being the successful summit of Mt Whitney, and with the exception of a beating on the feet and knees, it was relatively pain free.
Start early! If you can leave your stuff at the campsite, that saves you some trouble. We were done camping and had a hotel for the evening after the hike was over, so we had to pack up camp and driving to the trailhead and unload our stuff into the bear boxes. There are plenty of them up there, just try to consolidate your stuff as much as possible so you don't monopolize the space since everyone shares it. As mentioned earlier, we started at 3:30, I would go earlier if possible. Obviously it is still dark out at this time, so have a headlamp. And we actually needed it during the last few miles of the descent as well.
As for what to pack, bring all the hiking essentials. Don't skimp, there is a plenty that may go wrong and you will be thankful that you have all your stuff if you need it. Be aware that even in August it will be cold at the summit. I was wearing a shirt, a fleece, a windbreaker and winter hat and gloves. In August! Make sure to bring the sunscreen and a hat too, the sun at the elevation is intense. It make be smart to also bring some aspirin or ibuprofen. Also, be prepared for thunderstorms. We were lucky to have great weather, but from what I understand storms can come out of nowhere at that elevation. Be aware of the possibility of lightning too, in which case you need to suck it up and head down ASAP. This is another reason to start early, as the storms usually come in the afternoon.
On the trail you will see plenty of places to stop and rest. Some of note are near Lone Pine lake (3 miles), Outpost Camp, Mirror Lake, and then Trail Camp (7.5 miles, 12,000). If you stop at Trail Camp, this is your last chance to filter water. We each brought a little over 4 liters and that lasted us. Starting early lessens your need for water too since sweating is minimal. At Trail camp also be aware of the marmots, they WILL STEAL YOUR FOOD if you leave it unattended.
From Trail camp you begin your way up the switchbacks, they go for about 2 miles and will take at least an hour. Once you finish them you are at 13,600' and at the junction with the John Muir Trail. From here it is another brutal 2 miles to the summit. It took us almost 2 hours to do this last two miles. And in my opinion it is even harder than the infamous switchbacks, and the terrain is rougher. At least it was for me as it was all rocks and that is what kills my feet. But the reward is at the top! Now all you have to do is walk down. Just ignore the pain in your feet and knees. In all it took us 9 hours up, and 7 down. Make sure to factor in time enjoying the summit.
This was an extremely difficult hike, but very rewarding. Bring a camera, prepare a lot, start early, pack your essentials, and just enjoy. My pack was 26 pounds when I started, yes, heavy for a day pack, but had I gotten hurt or stuck up there I would have been thankful. Luckily no one had any serious problems with the elevation other than light headaches. 22 miles, 18 hours, and some sore feet. But also an experience that none of us will ever forget.
|Mount Whitney from Lone Pine Visitor Center
||Mount Whitney from Whitney Portal Road
||From Whitney Portal Campground looking east to Lone Pine
||One of the first streams on Mt Whitney Trail
|Entering John Muir Wilderness - No permit required
||Pack out your poop!
||Whitney Trail looking down to Lone Pine
||Pine Tree - Lone Pine Lake
|Lone Pine Lake
||Another near from Lone Pine Lake
||Lone Pine Lake
||One more near Lone Pine Lake
|Sunrise on Mt Whitney Trail
||Waterfall at Outpost Camp
||Moonrise - Mt Whitney Trail
|Lake on the way to Trail Camp, yes snow still in August
||Mt Whitney Trail Camp - Marmot - Protect your food they will steal it!
||Mt Whitney Tail Camp - Looking up towards switchbacks, they're there somewhere
||Heading up the switchbacks, the black dots there are people!
|Cables going up the switchbacks
||The cables still
||Don't look down!
||Trail Crest looking west, 13600 feet
|Trail Crest looking east to where we started, 13600 feet
||Past trail crest heading up the last two miles
||Looking south from the summit!
||From summit looking east to Lone Pine and the Portal where we started
|Starting the descent
||More descent ... don't fall