Mt Whitney – 14,508, California Highpoint

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RT Length: 22 miles

Elevation Gain: 6772’

I won the lottery! Well, not really.  I applied for the Whitney Lottery, didn’t win any of the dates I selected (even though I put in 15 different dates) and then had to hound the site for a dropped spot.  Long story short I scored a day trip pass to hike Mt Whitney and considered it my birthday present this year, as every year around my birthday I try to check off a bucket list adventure, and it’s my birthday this week.

Hiking Mt Whitney has been a goal of mine ever since I attended Girl Scout camp in middle school. I didn’t know much about it other than it was the highest point in the continental United States and was supposed to be a strenuous hike.  At this point in my life as a mountaineer I can tell you the most difficult part of this hike was obtaining the permit:  basically it’s a long walk up a very well maintained trail with no route finding involved.  I didn’t get out my map once (but bring one!)There aren’t cairns because they aren’t needed. If you’re in good shape, the weather’s good and you start early you should have no difficulty hiking this mountain.

I was a little bummed my new camera hadn’t arrived yet: My old camera had been destroyed in the weather on Jagged, so I’d ordered a new one and it was supposed to arrive the day before my trip (side note:  it still hasn’t arrived, even almost a week later).  This meant I’d need to use my phone camera, which wasn’t ideal because it had been acting “iffy” lately, but worked as a decent backup.  It just meant selfies as summit shots.

I woke up at 1am, worked out on the treadmill for an hour and drove 2 hours to the airport. I was very light on gear, bringing only my small backpack and small hiking pack, both carry-ons.  The only reason I needed two packs was my sleeping bag took up too much room in my day pack, so I had to bring another.  They were both light and no I had problem carrying them through the airport.

I get stopped at security every time I pass through an airport. Every time. Usually it’s because of some sort of food item (dried mangoes, beef jerky, Girl Scout cookies, etc.) but this time it was for a valid reason:  I’d left a small pocket knife in one of my bags (an honest mistake, as I’d thought I’d cleared all such items out before packing but apparently I’d missed the knife as it fell into the spot my water bladder rested).  Funny thing, they took no issue with my crampons.  My flight was only about half full so I got a window seat and sat back and relaxed.  There must be a body building competition in Vegas this weekend because the plane was full of body builders.  My toes were already burning so I took off my shoes, sat back, and read a book.

My first stop after landing in Las Vegas was to obtain my rental car. I’d reserved one online, intending to upgrade when I got to the facility. The lady at the reception desk was nice but English was her second language and her first was outside of my skill set (Thai?).  I asked her over and over again about ground clearance and told her I’d be driving on 2WD dirt roads.  To her my only options were a Toyota or a Hyundai.  I took the Toyota Corolla and was on my way.

My second stop was the local Walmart for supplies I couldn’t take with me on the plane: food, bottled water, and a trekking pole.  I also picked up a few birthday crowns (they were out of hats, boas, etc, so I took what I could get) and snacks (peanut butter – also not allowed on planes, milk duds, and dried mangoes).

I’m not a fan of Las Vegas. I used to frequent the city as a teenager (read fake IDs and freedom 3 hours from So Cal) but once I turned 21 it lost its appeal.  Las Vegas today was simply a conduit for a larger goal:  it was the closest reasonable airport to Mt Whitney, and still a 4 hour drive to get there.

No worries though, because I love to drive! The only downside was the automatic beeping noise the rental car dashboard made when I was “drifting into the next lane”, which drove me crazy because:

  • I wasn’t drifting into the next lane
  • I was driving on curvy mountain roads and at times if I wasn’t hugging the center line I’d be falling over a cliff
  • It went off when I wasn’t using my blinker and switching lanes (who uses their blinker when they’re the only one driving for as far as you can see?)
  • It oftentimes mistook skid lines on the road for the center line and went off ‘randomly’
  • It told me it was time to pull over and take a “coffee break” because I was driving erratically (this was a bit insulting, but I understood the intended purpose)

In short, I will NEVER buy a vehicle that has this mechanism. I’m sure there was a way to turn it off but I was unable to figure it out. The constant beeping was annoying, but I got over it by turning up the volume on the radio.

My drive took me through Death Valley which was cool because its lowest point is 282 feet below sea level (the lowest point in the US) and the next day I’d be hiking to the highest point in the continental US, so it seemed fitting to start from the bottom. The lowest elevation I was able to tag as a photo with my phone altimeter was 130 feet below sea level.  The weather was about 100 degrees outside; not bad for September.

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I drove from Las Vegas to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to pick up my permit.

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Side note about the permit process: I completely understand the need for a permit system on this mountain, yet I seriously hope the permit system never comes to Colorado.  The permit system as it applies to hiking is one of the (many) reasons I left California: you need to get the permit several months in advance of your intended hike, they cost money, parking is an extra fee (passes were $60 a year when I left in 2007) and you’re screwed if the weather is bad on the date of your intended hike (especially if you’re coming from out of state).  Many people feel the financial NEED to summit on their given permit date due to the time/work it takes to obtain a permit and the necessary reservations for the hike.

There are also separate overnight and fire permits you need to apply for in addition to a hiking permit (god forbid you need a fire and don’t have a permit to build one…). I also don’t like the government knowing where I am at any given time (weird, I know, but it bothers me).   I’m not averse to paying to use public lands (although many people are), I just don’t appreciate the lottery system:  It took me years to obtain a permit to hike this one mountain.  Also, walk-up permits are no longer allowed.   I’d be more in favor of a hiking license (similar to a hunting/fishing license). I’m not sure how this would look exactly, but in any event, I beg you Colorado: please don’t implement the permit system:  It stinks!

Ok, off my soap box. I picked up my permit, wag bag, and bought a shirt and patch for good measure.  I was extremely lucky the weather forecast was perfect for this weekend.

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There were several people waiting outside the permit office hoping to get a day permit. Most were internationals who didn’t understand they don’t issue day permits for Mt Whitney.  These people were seriously bummed (having travelled thousands of miles for this opportunity) and were told to keep scrolling online, looking for a dropped spot.  I felt sorry for them:  permit slots aren’t open immediately after someone drops them; they come up randomly afterwards with no rhyme or reason.

From the permit office I travelled north on US 395 to the first and only stop light in town, turned left, and drive for 13 miles to the Whitney Portal/parking/camping area for the Whitney trail.

The parking area held about 200 vehicles and was completely full, so I drove around and finally found a parking spot in the overflow area. Bonus:  it was in the shade!  The campground looked like a typical California campground with sites piled on top of each other, all full, with no privacy from the campers next to you.

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I parked the Corolla in backwards and since it was still early I decided to do a little exploring. I walked a quarter mile up the road to the portal store

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The portal store was like a mini and overpriced REI, with everything from camp stoves and winter weather gear to patches, souvenirs, t-shirts, duct tape, and emergency supplies. I wasn’t in need of any gear so I walked around a bit more.  There were bathrooms and a place to throw away wag bags and a separate area for all kinds of trash.

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There was a water pump directly outside the bathrooms with a sign indicating you couldn’t wash there, which is totally understandable but a missed opportunity for income on the part of the portal: They should have paid showers somewhere in this place.  I’d have paid for them, and I know tons of other thru hikers would have seized the opportunity as well.

I’d heard from people there was no overnight camping in your vehicle at the portal, yet there were dozens of people doing so and no signs indicating you weren’t allowed to. I saw trucks with tents set up in their beds, and even RVs in parking spaces (you KNOW people are sleeping in those).

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I felt it was busy, yet overheard the workers at the portal store comment on how slow it was for a Friday, and how the season must be winding down. When I asked the lady working at the portal store if I was allowed to sleep in my vehicle she said “Why not?  Everyone else does.”  So that’s what I decided to do.

I took a selfie at the beginning of the trail and also took a picture of where people weigh their bags before beginning their hike. Today I was hiking light (my pack couldn’t have been more than 10lbs) so I didn’t weigh it.

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I talked to a bunch of people while walking around and everyone I talked to said they intended to be “on trail” by 1am. I thought that sounded like a great idea so I decided to get to bed early for an early start.  I packed up all my gear, set out what I needed for the morning, and was asleep in the back of the Corolla by 4pm.  The last thing I saw before closing my eyes was a very small and very pink smart car racing down the road back to US 395.

I woke up at 1am and groggily took a look around. What I thought were dozens of people with flashlights getting ready to hike ended up being the full moon reflected on the windshields of all the vehicles in the parking lot. I was on the trail by 1:30am, curious how I couldn’t see any flashlights ahead of me.

The first thing I thought to myself as I started this hike was “it smells like the California mountains”. I’m not sure how to describe it, but the mountains here just smell different than the ones we have in Colorado.  It must be the serrano, sage, mahogany, pine and scrub oak combination.

The hike starts at the Mount Whitney Trail and switchbacks and switchbacks and switchbacks. And switchbacks.  If you’re on the Mount Whitney Trail you’re on a switchback.  The first set of switchbacks head north and then west

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I crossed several well-maintained creek crossings in the dark (so well maintained they took the “fun” out of crossing the creek)

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And after 3.1 miles came across this sign (apparently up until this point you don’t need a permit to hike here?)

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I crossed some more well maintained creek crossings

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And in the dark saw the bear canisters set out on rocks before the tents at outpost camp. I couldn’t help thinking what a rotten place this seemed to camp:  full of rocks and dirt.

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There were people still sleeping in their tents so I passed through quietly and continued up the trail

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The moon was bright and I didn’t need my flashlight to see. I still couldn’t see any flashlights shining ahead of me and wondered about all those others who’d intended on a 1am start?

Treeline in California seems much lower than in Colorado (I encountered it here at 10,800’) so much of this hike was done surrounded by huge boulders.

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Luckily there was an easy trail to follow: I had no difficulties in the dark

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This area was kind of fun. In the dark it looked like you were supposed to just walk right through the water to get to the other side, so I just rock hopped the large boulder to the left. On the way back I could see an obvious trail to the right and took that instead

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Now I was in a big basin. Here I saw dozens of flashlights and wondered how so many people got ahead of me so quickly, until I saw all the tents.  This is another camping area (Trail Camp) which also looked like a bummer place to camp (similar to the Boulder Field on Long’s Peak).

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Still on a well maintained trail I continued and encountered more switchbacks. I couldn’t help but think of all the work put into this trail:  it was amazingly easy to follow. There’s a “cables section” on this route where I encountered some ice.  In an online forum I’d been told to bring microspikes for this area, but these people obviously didn’t have much mountaineering experience/know what microspikes are for:  they would have been useless here, and in any event, the ice was avoidable.

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Here’s looking down on some of those switchbacks…

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I started passing hikers in this area, saluting “good morning” as I passed. My aim was this notch, which is the “trail crest”.  This is where my mouth started hurting:  my back left molar curiously started throbbing so I took a few ibuprofen and continued on.

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The trail crest is at 13,000’: 8.8 miles from the Whitney Portal. I reached it at 5:45am.  It took me 4 hours and 20 minutes to get there.  From here I could see dozens of headlamps shining on the trail below.

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From the trail crest the trail loses a couple hundred feet in elevation as it snakes northwest towards the John Muir Trail. The junction is obvious and less than .2 miles away.

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I saw a bunch of gear stashed here that looked like it was from thru hikers who didn’t want to haul all their stuff to the summit: there were bear canisters and even full overnight packs.  The views were amazing as the sun began to rise.  I kept wanting to stop and take pictures but it was getting cold and I had a summit to gain.

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Here’s the trail as it curves around to just below the summit

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In this area I encountered a small (40 foot long?) patch of snow that was easily navigable

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I turned the corner and followed the trail northeast to the summit of Mt Whitney

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I summited at 6:50am: it had taken me 5 hours 20 minutes to hike 11 miles.  I reached the summit to cheers:  a group of 4 were perched atop a large boulder.  They’d been finishing the JMT and hiked up from their camp below.  It had been their gear I’d seen on my way in stashed at the junction.  One was snuggled in a sleeping bag, another cooking up breakfast in a jetboil.  I reached into my pack and took out the ‘Happy Birthday’ crown I’d bought at Walmart the day before and snapped a quick photo.

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Summit of Mt Whitney:

It’s your birthday?!?!?! They exclaimed, and then we proceeded to chat for a bit.  I actually had cell service (3 bars:  Verizon) and they did not (T-mobile).  We discussed previous hikes and goals and why we each looked so familiar?

There are a lot of boulders at the top of Mt Whitney, so I started boulder hopping around. There are also a ton of summit markers!  I got pictures of a few…

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They were all pretty tough to read, and I figured they were from all the various surveys of this mountain (14,494 – 14,496 – 14,505 – 14,508). Currently Mt Whitney’s measured at 14,508’

I was seriously cold (I’m guessing it was closer to the 20* right now than the forecasted 50*) and my tooth has started hurting again so I didn’t stay long. I took a quick look at the cabin

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Signed the register (shocking, I know… I’m not sure why I did it?) and was on my way back down, my fingers frozen at this point (I’d need to look into buying gloves at the portal store before tomorrow’s summit)

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Here’s a look at hike back to the trail junction

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I loved the way this hike looks from just before the trail junction up to trail crest: It’s like something from out of a Tolkien novel.

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There were a bunch of people stopped at the junction of the Whitney/John Muir Trails. I’d forgotten I still had on my crown, and several people wished me a happy birthday.  It was cool hearing all the different accents from the hikers, and at this point I decided to wear the crown for the rest of the hike.

Check out the reflection of the Hitchock Lakes

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Back through the notch I went, and took another selfie

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At this point I really started passing people (all those flashlights I’d seen on my way up were now at the switchbacks below the notch). I’m not the kind of person who likes to draw attention to myself so keeping the birthday crown on was a conscious decision I was ready to take back at any moment, but the positive comments I got from the other hikers was a huge incentive to keep wearing it.  I got a reaction from about 90% of the people I passed on my way back down (the other 10% were too tired to even look up and notice me).

It was cool: someone would notice my crown and their eyes would light up as they said “Happy Birthday!”  No matter how exhausted they were a smile would come to their face when they read the words on the crown.  It was like my birthday was giving them some small pleasure.  I could tell if they were here visiting from another country (“You have birthday today?!?”) and a few were celebrating a birthday of their own (so I shared my crowns:  4 came in the package).  All in all it was a fun experiment and very gratifying.  So much so I’m considering wearing a birthday hat on my next popular 14er just to encourage others on the hike (not really, but if it’s your birthday you should wear one; you’d be surprised at how much you’ll brighten everyone’s day).  Also, I got really good at saying “Thank You”, something I personally need to work on.

About halfway down the switchbacks below the notch my fingers had thawed out and the sun was getting intense so I stopped to put on my sunscreen. I wasn’t able to find it and realized I must have left it in my other bag in the car.  Whoops!

Another note: I passed so many people who looked absolutely exhausted and were only 1/3 of the way (or less) done with this hike.  I have doubts as to whether they made it, and physically they should have been up for the challenge.  This isn’t a technical hike:  the only difficulty is the length and being at elevation.  If you’re in decent shape you should be able to summit this mountain.  The path is easy to follow (too easy in my opinion) and the elevation gain is spread out over a long distance.  I wasn’t even winded when I reached the top, and I’d never taken a single break (but my body’s conditioned to hiking at altitude).  The mistake these hikers were making was starting after sunrise.  I started at 1:30am and this was a great time to start, but I could have made the sunrise if I’d started half an hour earlier.  I wouldn’t start this hike after 3am.

I passed a group of hikers on my way down and we chatted for a bit. Their leader (a male in his late 20s) was taken aback when I said the hike wasn’t really that challenging. He looked like I’d just said the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life was akin to a walk in the park.  I had to quickly add “well, it’s going to be much more difficult for you because you’re doing it during the hottest part of the day”.  This mollified him a bit, and it’s totally true:  why would anyone do this hike, and especially the hardest part of the hike, in the heat of the California sun?  My advice is to start early, hike in the dark, and summit as close to sunrise as possible.  Then you get to enjoy the scenery on the way down in the daylight when you’re not too tired to enjoy it.  This also saves water weight, as you won’t be drinking because you’re hot but instead when you’re thirsty.

I’ve had people ask me which was harder, Mt. Whitney or Pikes Peak via Barr trail? Pikes Peak.  Mt Whitney was shorter, had less elevation gain, and felt like a steady climb, whereas Pikes Peak packs most of its elevation gain into the last 3 miles.

I made it back down to the trailhead at 11:20am, making this a 22 mile hike with 6772’ of elevation gain in just under 9.5 hours.

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Bucket list item checked!

I headed to the portal store to look for some gloves but didn’t buy any, as their cheapest pair was $50. Don’t they understand thru hikers are poor?  Back at the car I immediately put my sunscreen in my hiking bag and got out a fresh set of clothes.  I took a wet wipe bath and was quickly on my way to my Nevada for my next summit:  Boundary Peak.

The low tire pressure light was on in my rental vehicle which bothered me a bit, but I also knew this was common at higher elevations and crossed my fingers it would go off soon (it did).

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Author: Laura M Clark

Mom, Solo Colorado 14er Finisher, Outdoor Enthusiast, Traveler, and Girl Scout Leader with an MBA in International Business and Marketing. I value adventure, growth, courage, wisdom, integrity, accountability, and family. I enjoy yoga, wine, whiskey, traveling, reading, and the outdoors. I strive to be the person who inspires and motivates myself and others to succeed.

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