July 5, 2016
The allure of Mt. Whitney is obvious: at 14,505 the granite massif towers above the Owens Valley and claims its number one spot atop the podium of high peaks in the lower 48. As the tallest mountain in the United States outside of Alaska, Mt Whitney can be a formidable challenge to the uninitiated hiker, looming large above the trailhead and dominating the skyline from the town of Lone Pine. However, with the right gear, knowledge and a little bit of training, Mt. Whitney is a very attainable and pleasurable objective.
Nestled in the southern Sierra Nevada, Mt. Whitney and it’s neighboring pinnacles (Keeler Needle and Crooks Peak) appear to have no easy routes when viewed from highway 395; they rise sharply skyward and turn steep exposed faces towards those passing through town. Fortunately, there is an extremely well maintained hiking trail that snakes up a flanking escarpment just south of the peak and loops around the backside of Mt. Whitney, making the final summit approach from the much gentler westside. Despite the relatively easy trail, elevation gain and 22 miles worth of round trip hiking conspire to make one day ascents of Mt. Whitney a challenging endeavor. Many parties start as early as two or three in the morning to increase the chances of summit success and allow for maximum daylight hours during the most demanding parts of the hike. Other groups opt for multi-day ascents, enjoying a less frenetic hiking pace and soaking in the granite vistas and alpine lakes which litter the area. Camping along the way is a wonderful backcountry experience and breaks up the mileage into manageable chunks but requires overnight gear like tents, sleeping bags, and larger backpacks.
Whether you decide to go for the peak in a single push or spread the trip out over the course of multiple days, you’ll need a special permit for the Mt. Whitney Zone. Due to the popularity of this area, land managers have implemented a permitting system that is based on a lottery system. If you’re like most people and need to plan your trip well in advance then you’ll have to use the www.recreation.gov website and reserve dates months ahead of time. If your schedule is more fluid, you can show up to the Lone Pine ranger station and try for a walk-up permit, issued daily and based on availability and crowds. Have a backup plan in the area (Mt Langley is a 14,000 foot peak just south of Mt. Whitney and is rarely crowded) should you not get a permit. Either way, be prepared to encounter other backpackers and hikers on trail, this area is impacted and future access is dependent on responsible and ethical usage.
Successful ascents of Mt. Whitney usually have a couple of things in common: plenty of sleep, ample hydration, general fitness, and a positive/enthusiastic mindset. If possible, arrive at the trailhead the day before you hike out and acclimate; hiking and sleeping at 8,000 feet (the Whitney Portal trailhead clocks in at 7,850 feet) will improve the way you feel at 14,000 feet the next day and gives your body some time to get used to the thinner air found at higher elevations. The most common mistake people make while attempting the contiguous states’ high point involves water: drink it, lots of it! Hydrating for big days in the mountains starts well beforehand and you’ll thank yourself after the fact. Bring along a Platypus or Nalgene and sip it constantly. If plain water isn’t appealing, pick up some Skratch Labs. These water additives replace electrolytes and salts lost during high aerobic activities and come in a variety of flavors. Starting the day before, drink plenty of water; when you have to wake up in the middle of the night to pee you can remind yourself that’ll you’ll be headache free and feeling great on the summit while others are dragging and complaining of pounding head pain.
Hiking 22 miles is strenuous, but there are many ways to prepare yourself physically. The best training for bagging Mt. Whitney’s summit is hiking other peaks and trails leading up to the big day. Whether you’re logging huge elevation training hikes or short evening jaunts on pavement, the important thing is getting out there and putting in some work. Summit Post has some great information on tall peaks in southern california, perfect for becoming accustomed to hiking at elevation. If you don’t live close to any local hiking areas, running or walking stairs is a great way to build leg muscles and the necessary endurance for tackling the nearly hundred switchbacks that separate the Whitney crest from the lower campsites below. This Yelp trail and park list will test your endurance and aerobic fitness: stairs, bleachers, trails, and bike paths are sure to have you in top shape before summit day. If you have never used Trekking Poles before, now is the time to invest in a pair. Equally adept at saving your knees on the downhill as they are at distributing the workload to to your arms on the way up, trekking poles also help with balance, stream crossings, and pointing out remote peaks in the distance to your fellow hikers.
Armed with fancy walking sticks and comfortable hiking shoes, the hike to 14,505 is easier than you might think. With the right training and gear, everyone from kids to grandparents is capable of making the trek to the top; expansive views and cool mountain air are sure to reward your efforts. If you’re really feeling adventurous you can scamper to the edge of the summit for some toe-tingling exposure, you might even catch a glimpse of some people rock climbing one of the many routes ascending Whitney. Despite being able to see Lone Pine from the summit, hikers shouldn’t take Mt. Whitney lightly. This is a big mountain and the round trip journey clocks in around 21 miles. While the trail is not technically difficult and is extremely well marked, make sure to give yourself enough time to get back to the trailhead at a reasonable hour. Headlamps are not optional. These incredibly handy yet hands-free lights illuminate the trail for your predawn start and post sunset return. If you’re back in time, grab a delicious burger from the Whitney Portal Store and say hi to Myles and Amy, the resident rock climbers and cooks at the quaint trailhead restaurant. The Mt. Whitney area is incredibly beautiful and the three hour drive makes it amazingly accessible. Don’t wait any longer: grab your friends, get your gear and start training, adventure awaits.