This is the story of two babes summiting Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. Located on the east side of the Great Western Divide, the challenging 22 mile hike climbs 6,100 feet to an elevation of 14,505. We backpacked to the summit, spending 1 night on the mountain.
In preparation, we took on the Six Pack of Peaks Challenge, a series of hikes designed by Jeff Hester of SocalHiker.net, featuring a progression of six peaks in Southern California. Nearly three years post-back surgery, I felt strong enough to polka up Whitney in the footsteps of my ancestors. Here is some footage of my grandfather and Uncle Frank on Whitney:
We arrived in Lone Pine on Friday afternoon and picked up our permits, wag bags and a bear canister from the Eastern Sierra Inter-agency Visitor Center. (More on bear cans and wag bags at the end of this post.)
From there, we drove to the Whitney Portal trailhead and found a vacant site at the backpacker’s campground, which accepts walk-ins only for a maximum 1-night stay. At 8,365’, the trailhead is an ideal place to begin adjusting to the altitude. It is also an ideal place for bears to scavenge, so secure all food and toiletries in the bear lockers provided. No joke, we had close encounters with two bears in one night!
Most day hikers begin between 2-5AM. We had two days to complete the hike, so we treated ourselves to a good night’s rest and began at 8AM.
The first section of the trail is a steady climb through the forest. Once you reach Lone Pine Lake, you cannot continue without a permit.
After entering the Whitney Zone, we hiked up some more switchbacks and through a meadow. About 3.5 miles from the start, we reached Outpost Camp, and stopped for lunch beside a beautiful 50-foot waterfall.
From Outpost Camp, we passed Mirror Lake, the last lake below the tree line. We continued to hike up the rocky switchbacks and baked in the afternoon sun as we trekked along Trailside Meadows, a lush green section of the trail where a waterfall flows down the broken rocks.
From the trail, we caught a glimpse of Consultation Lake. After 6.3 miles, we arrived at Trail Camp with heavy legs and napped on a boulder before dinner. The campground was crawling with fuzzy marmots, large squirrels-like scavengers. We devoured some dehydrated lasagna, locked our food and trash in the bear can and ducked into our tent before dark.
The sunrise and footsteps of day hikers woke us around 4:45AM. We filtered 3-4 liters of water each from the lake beside camp, since the rest of the trail is mostly dry. Leaving behind our tent, sleeping bags and some extra weight, we began to climb the infamous 99 switchbacks.
At 7AM, the sun beat directly on the switchbacks, as I struggled for every breath. Rachel waited patiently each time I demanded a “mini,” similar to a power-nap-on-foot. Often a short 60-second break provided the extra boost I needed to keep going.
We crossed the section of the trail known as the cables, named for the cables that prevent hikers from falling off the steep face when the trail is covered in snow and ice.
After an eternity, we made it to Trail Crest at the top of the switchbacks, a small area with a view of Lone Pine to one side and Sequoia to the other. We continued our hike along the backside of the ridge toward the summit and crossed the junction with the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail.
Even though the steep, rocky trail demanded most of our attention, we stopped to admire the spectacular views toward Long Pine through the Windows, unique breaks in the ridge to our right.
Toward the Sequoias on our left, we could see Hitchcock Lake and Guitar Lake. Guitar Lake actually looks like a guitar!
The final stretch was a mental challenge for both of us, as the summit cabin bobbed in and out of sight.
At last, after climbing 11 miles and over 6,100 vertical feet, we arrived at the summit. I imagined my grandfather and Uncle Frank standing beside me as I stepped up to the edge of the peak for the full view. To my surprise, a climber popped up over the edge. Apparently, you can climb to the summit via the mountaineers route, as if walking is not challenging enough!
After fully admiring the view, we signed the trail registry at the summit cabin and began the long journey down the mountain. We descended the 99 switchbacks, re-loaded our packs at Trail Camp, breezed by Trailside Meadows, rested at Outpost Camp and booked it down the final 3.5 miles, completing our journey around 8:30PM on Sunday evening. We celebrated our victory with food truck quesadillas and energy shots at a gas station in Lone Pine before our 4 hour drive home.
The weight of our accomplishment settled in over the next few days. I’ve heard women sometimes forget the pains of labor after giving birth to a precious little bundle of joy. Well, Rachel and I agree Whitney was like that. The feeling of standing on top of the world will remain long after the soreness in our muscles has gone.
Mount Whitney Trail:
- About this Hike: 22-mi RT; 6100-ft climb, 14,505 summit elevation
- Time: 1-3 days; June to November
- Fitness Level: Very strenuous
- Permits: Wilderness permits are required for day and overnight hikes. You must enter the permit lottery in February at Recreation.gov. Winners will be notified in April. Visit the Inyo National Forest website for more information on the process.
- Trailhead Directions: From U.S. Highway 395 in California, travel to the town of Lone Pine. The campground is 13 miles west of Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Road.
- What to Know: Altitude training is essential to prevent altitude sickness, which can lead to death in severe cases. While some may not feel the effects of altitude at all, others can be very sensitive (like me). Educate yourself on the symptoms before you go. When in doubt, go down.
- What to Bring: Do not underestimate being prepared for this hike, whether you are doing it in 1 or 3 days. Mountain weather conditions can be especially unpredictable. Bring the 10 essentials. You should be able to carry 3-4 liters of water and a filter to re-fill from the lakes and streams.
- Pack-in, pack-out: Not everyone will tell you this, so here it is. You must pack-out all solid human waste. The ranger station will give you a “wag bag” when you pick up your permit and explain how to use it properly. Bring an extra plastic bag to tie the wag bag on to the outside of your pack in case you must use it. Avoid standing downwind of anyone with a plastic bag swinging on the back of their pack. You’ve been warned.
- Bear Cans: All food, trash and toiletries must be secured in a bear canister, available for rental at the ranger station. Bears are common at the trailhead and marmots on the trail. When you park at the trailhead, all food and ice chests must be secured in a bear locker while you hike.
- Photo Equipment: I wanted to bring my DSLR and tripod, but I decided against carrying the extra weight, since my pack was already 38lbs. with 4L of water. I’m pretty happy with the photos I took with my smaller Sony RX100III. This was not an easy decision!