My first thought when I got the text inviting me to hike Mt. Whitney in 2 days time was ‘Yes!’ Then ‘Shoot…How long has it been since I’ve done a long hike…Or anything athletic requiring more than an hour or two of effort?’ And so begins an unexpected weekend adventure in which I summited the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. I’ve recounted my hiking journey below, following off with some things I would do differently if I was to do the hike again. Which I won’t. Ever. It was an amazing adventure, but definitely a once in a lifetime experience for me.
Before the Hike
We left the Bay Area midday Friday and camped at Whitney Portal Friday and Saturday nights to acclimate at 8,300 ft. We stayed in site 39, which was lovely. There was space for 3 little tents, all a little bit on a slope, a picnic table, fire pit, and bear box. Just down the hill from our site was a rushing creek that serenade us throughout the night.
I did not have the luxury to prepare for this hike months in advance, but I know the importance of the days leading up to a big endurance effort. My focus at this point was good sleep and nutrition, and light exercise to help speed along acclimating to the elevation.
Lone Pine Lake hike
Lone Pine Lake is 2.8 miles and 1,700 ft climb from Whitney Portal campground. We drove to the trailhead parking just below the Portal store a mile away from out campsite and headed up the hill along the Mt. Whitney trail. The hike is lovely with shaded creek crossings and expansive views up and down Whitney Canyon with the granite cliffs on either side. Despite the 1,700 ft elevation gain it doesn’t feel steep as the trail maintains a gradual, consistent slope. It was a beautiful day, and the sun shining through the leaves on the trees were beautiful.
I’m really glad we did this hike on Saturday even though we would do it again in the dark Sunday morning. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the Whitney trail and difficult to enjoy during the 22 mile summit hike. This part of the trail does not require a permit, so anyone could enjoy it.
Saturday evening, over delicious salmon and veggie packets cooked over open flame, we examined the map and developed our plan for the following day. We would be on the trail at 4am and plan to summit or turn back by 1pm. This would put us at the car and ready to drive home around 8pm. The Mt. Whitney trail logically breaks up into quarters: 3.6 miles to Outpost Camp, +3.1 miles to Trail Camp (and last water stop), +2.3 miles and 100 killer switchbacks to Trail Crest and intersection with the John Muir Trail, +1.9 miles to Whitney Summit. With alarms set for 3am we prepped our day packs for the next day’s adventure and retired to our tents by 8pm.
The Big Day – Summiting Mt. Whitney
We hit the Mt. Whitney trail at 4:30am after a quick breakfast of coffee and banana. I tried to eat some peanut butter, but at that hour I just couldn’t get it down and didn’t want to start the hike feeling gross. At the start of the trail there is a little scale to weigh your bag, I had a pretty heavy water ration so my bag was 18lb.
The beauty of starting this hike so early is the amazing sky, full of stars, with little to no light pollution to disrupt the view. There were plenty of other hikers along the way, but not so many that we had to hike along with anyone else. While it was tough getting up so early, the view of the sky was lovely and the hike pretty easy on my fresh legs.
Outpost Camp is just beyond Lone Pine Lake, and walking up this wide canyon at sunrise is nothing short of epic. We were able to turn off headlamps and gradually see the details of the marsh and meadow that make Outpost Camp. Soon the sun was gently shining a pink glow on Whitney and the surrounding peaks, as we took a break just past the established camp area. We didn’t stop at Outpost, despite this being our original plan, because the wind is really gusty through this area. I don’t imagine I would want to camp there.
We stopped on the sloping switchbacks just past Outpost Camp to have a snack and enjoy the view. Its a great spot to see down the valley to Lone Pine and across to the mountains far away. I was feeling pretty good except a cramping muscle in my left butt cheek. So I did my best to stretch my butt and hip flexors, chowed down on a Cliff Bar, and chugged some water.
Shortly after we started moving again we came upon Mirror Lake. As we moved along we got to enjoy the early morning light on the mountains mirrored in the lake’s surface. This is where our group of 4 started to spread out. Christine and I were moving at a slow and steady pace, while James and Ryan had the unfair advantage of an extra 9+ inches in height and were able to stride along a little faster.
The trail rises above Mirror Lake and runs along side a stream as we continued along some long steady switchbacks towards Trail Camp (mile 6, 12,000’). We are now above the tree line, the trail is rocky and the views are forever across the Owens Valley; the only green to be seen is along the creekside.
This is the place to stop to fill your water one last time for the final ascent. You can fill at the pond at Trail Camp, or even easier is probably the creek you cross a little before Trail Camp. I think this is the only actual creek crossing, so you can’t miss it. Do not proceed without adequate water for another 4-6 hours of hiking.
The hardest part of the trail follows: 100 switchbacks. Probably whoever designed the trail thought this would make the climb easier, but 1,700 ft over 1.9 miles is just hard. Christine recognized during the switchbacks that the altitude was too much for her, and she turned around midway through this stretch. Once she turned around and was less rushed she said this was her favorite part of the trail; a viewpoint I couldn’t share as I slogged on to the top. I set a goal for myself to reach the top of the switchbacks, a little saddle area where the trail crosses to the western side of the ridge. With that destination in mind I made it up the hill, one foot in front of the other at a snail’s pace.
A note about staying together while hiking
I normally prefer to hike using the buddy system or keeping the group mostly together. On this beautiful October day the trail was just full enough that I was never alone, despite my group not keeping . I had my radio, first aid kit, water and food. I knew I was ok and had people around to ask for help if I needed it. The Mt. Whitney trail is well established; you would have to get really distracted (or delirious from altitude sickness) to get off it, and the entire community on the mountain is supportive. Most people that passed me when I was taking one of my frequent breaks checked in to make sure I was ok, and I did the same to strangers I passed. My group chose to take this risk. Only do so if you can care for your self, and watch out for others on the trail who may need help. I carry a disposable water bottle just in case I find someone who has run out and needs help.
Back at it! I reach the Trail Crest saddle and check the time, assuming its about time to turn around….but I have over an hour left until my self imposed turnaround time! I check the topo map to understand the remaining trail: I’m at 13,600, there is a little over 2 miles to the summit, and some descent included in the final milage before I climb the final 900 ft. I decide to go for it!
From Trail Crest the trail pops over on the west side of the ridge and descends until it intersects with the John Muir Trail. This is where a lot of backpackers drop their heaviest load and complete the 1.9 miles without the burden of a pack. I decided to do the same, layering up and stuffing my pockets with water, snack, and radio, and hitting the trail sans backpack.
The next mile or so is a very narrow trail, barely carved out of the mountainside. The only benefit is it is a gradual climb, so with my lightened load and renewed motivation I was able to energetically and safely cover the distance.
In the final mile of to the summit of Mt. Whitney the incline increases, the thin air is practically useless to breath, and it feels as if you will never reach the shelter at the summit (that by now you can see from time to time). I caught up to one of my trail mates, Ryan, and we encouraged each other in the final slog to the top.
I made it to the top of Mt. Whitney! At 12:50, with 10 minutes to go until my cutoff time! Finally there I breezed past the shelter and found several USGS indicators of ‘summit’; making sure I stood on all of them. I was so excited, I energetically bounced from one marker to another! When I found a flat rock I did 14.5 pushups in honor of the achievement. I high fived every person up there, took selfies, and eventually sat down for a break with James, who had been at the top waiting for us for an hour, and Ryan who arrived right behind me.
As I sit at the highest point of the lower ’48, I took a little time to compile my thoughts from the past 11 miles and 9 hours of hiking. I’m impressed that I can do this hike. The elevation and distance are no joke and I didn’t have time to prep for it. I’m ecstatic that I have friends like Christine, Ryan, and James who think of me when they have a last minute adventure opportunity. Most importantly, I am proud that I’m the type of person who is willing to try such an undertaking, that my boyfriend (unable to join me) was supportive of my doing so, and that my lifestyle enables me to do so.
What goes up…
And now the descent. Fueled by concern for Christine, desire to be off the mountain, and following my two 6’ tall trail mates, we headed back down with haste. The trail from the summit back to Trail Crest had some challenging bits, none of us wanted to EVER walk uphill again, so we took a break to share a Snickers as a reward at Trail Crest before beginning the switchbacks.
I highly recommend adjustable trekking poles for this sort of descent. I was thrilled with my lack of knee pain, despite so many steps down and constant pressure on my joins. We took a short break at Trail Camp to regroup, and continued on to Outpost Camp where we planned to find Christine. By the time we met up with her, refreshed and no longer nauseous from the altitude, my feet were killing me and I was ready to be done, but my knees felt fine.
We got back to Whitney Portal just after dark, around 7pm. I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy the second half of the trail much; with our pace and desire to regroup it was just something that had to be done. Once at the car I changed shoes, chugged a protein shake, and shared another round of high fives for a job well done before jumping in the car to drive home.
I’m glad I did the Mt. Whitney hike. It was on my bucket list, and the required preplanning of the permit had always gotten in the way of my doing it. That being said – I think once is enough for me. I’ll accompany friends on the first half, maybe even a little ways up the switchbacks, but I’m content to have checked the box, completed the task, and not have to go back to the peak.
- Allow time to acclimate! Definitely arrive 2 nights in advance and get some light exercise at elevation. I would suggest camping one night at Whitney Portal (8,300’), then a brief backpacking hike to Lone Pine Lake (9,900’), camping at the lake and starting the hike from there to cut out a little distance on the big day and acclimate as high as possible.
- Bring plenty of food! Protein and sugar! You may not be hungry, but you need to eat. The altitude will likely mute your hunger, if you actually get hungry you have gone WAY too long without eating.
- Drink plenty of water – this is my personal solution to avoid altitude sickness. Make sure to be hydrated the day before, and drink constantly while hiking.
- Refill your water at Trail Camp – don’t risk running out. You must filter water, bring a filter or iodine.
- Electrolytes are key! The day after our hike I was hurting mentally until I took some electrolyte supplements. Avoid this by drinking Gatorade or using electrolyte tabs on the hike
- Bring your trekking poles, save your knees.
- Listen to music or an audiobook to keep you moving on the hike, it worked for me.
- Good prep ideally starts months before, but is essential days before. Don’t skimp on sleep, eat plenty of protein, drink lots of water.
- Whitney Portal has a small store with limited hours, Lone Pine is about 20 minutes away and has some food options. Make sure to bring what you need.
- When we did the hike the Whitney Portal water supply was contaminated so we had to bring all of our water. Check conditions before you hike.
- Check trail conditions before you hike! In October we had planned for some snow and ice on the trail so we brought crampons. Based on what we heard from several hikers on Saturday, we didn’t carry them, and fortunately didn’t need them.
- Altitude sickness can be deadly. Be careful, be mindful of yourself and the condition of those in your group. Watch out for others on the trail. You may be able to mitigate and manage light symptoms, but the only cure is to descend. It is smarter to cut your hike short than to push through and require a medic on a mountain.