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Hiking Mount Whitney, Part I

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At just over 14,500’, Mt. Whitney in California is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. With a trail going all the way to the top, this mountain is potentially accessible to any fit hiker who can stand the altitude.

This is Part I of 2 posts on Mt. Whitney. Here, I’ll focus on the hike up the Main Trail, the most popular approach. (The accompanying pictures were taken on different trips and in different seasons.) In the second post, I’ll discuss logistics, including how to get permits, where to stay, what to eat, what to bring, and alternative routes.

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Mt. Whitney at dawn (from Lone Pine). All images: Karin Schwartz

Your hike starts at the Whitney Portal (about 8,400’), approximately 13 miles west of the town of Lone Pine, California. If you are planning to “day hike” Whitney, it will be dark when you start. But if you arrive during the day, it is worth stopping in at the Whitney Portal Store to get information on trail conditions, handle any last minute equipment needs, and fuel up on their famous, impossibly humongous, pancakes.

Getting Started

On the initial part of the climb—from the trailhead to the junction that leads to beautiful Lone Pine Lake (approx. 2.8 miles from the trailhead, 9,900’)—the switchbacks are gentle. You’ll come to a log bridge shortly before you reach the junction. Lone Pine Lake, accessible via a spur trail on the left a few minutes after your cross the logs, is a lovely place to rest.

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1.The log bridge right before the turn off to Lone Pine Lake.

Continue on toward the summit by turning right and officially enter the “Whitney Zone,” where permits of required of day hikers and overnight hikers alike.

Whitney Zone

The next part of the climb, through a few short switchbacks and around lush and peaceful Bighorn Meadow, takes you to Outpost Camp (approx. 3.8 miles from the trailhead, 10,400’). With its own waterfall, and lots of sandy spots under tall trees, this is a popular place for people to camp prior to a summit bid. But if you’re acclimatizing well, and your legs aren’t too tired, it may be worth pushing onward to a higher camp.

On a sunny day, the next section can be brutal as you soon climb above the tree line. Some switchbacks above Outpost Camp take you to Mirror Lake (pretty, but no camping allowed), and then up a long sun-exposed granite section. EventuallyTrailside Meadow comes into sight (approx. 5 miles from the trailhead, 11,400’), a surprisingly green and tranquil place to rest and refill your water bottle.

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Alpenglow at Trail Camp.

More switchbacks bring you to Consultation Lake, a stunning snow-fed lake nestled in a granite cirque. Level sandy camping platforms are hidden among the slabs. But most people who plan to overnight continue to Trail Camp (approx. 6 miles from the trailhead, 12,000’), which has its own lake, but is not nearly as pristine. In summer, there are typically an unfortunate number of discarded WAG bags at Trail Camp (more on that in the next post). If you hunt around, you can find relatively clean secluded spots with front row seats to the morning’s superlative alpenglow. (Hint: for the cleanest water, head to the inlet on the westernmost side of the little lake at Trail Camp, though you still should filtration and/or treatment.)

99 Switchbacks

Just as you are probably really starting to feel the altitude, it is time to climb the 99 (really, 97) switchbacks leading up to Trail Crest (approx. 8.2 miles from the trailhead, 13,700’). Trail Camp may be the last water on the trail, so you’ll want to fill up your bottles before starting the climb; depending on the heat, I take 2.5 to 3 liters for the round trip to the summit, and some people may require more. You’ll pass through the infamous cable section, with the vertiginous drop off on the right. Look out for purple Sky Pilot, a beautiful, ubiquitous high wildflower.

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The infamous cables on the even more infamous 99 (97) switchbacks

The view at Trail Crest provides the pay off for the tedium of the switchbacks. To the east and far below, you see Trail Camp Lake, Consultation Lake, and Owens Valley. And now to the west, you see the Hitchcock Lakes and Hitchcock Mountain. A sign advises that you are now entering the national park (no pets or weapons!). If you make it to Trail Crest feeling fine, and if there are no storm clouds visible, you have a very good chance of making the summit.

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Trail Crest.

Final Push
Continue down the trail (yes, down … you drop a hundred feet or so) to the junction with the John Muir Trail. You will want to focus your oxygen-deprived brain very carefully to ensure that you take the trail on the right to the summit, rather than the trail on the left that leads down the backside of Whitney. The trails are clearly marked but, unfortunately, each year, some hikers returning from the summit make a wrong turn here, and end up deep in the National Park rather than back at the Portal.

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Mt. Whitney's back side at sunrise.

Now comes a long traverse of the backside of the Sierra Crest leading up to Whitney’s summit plateau. The climb is gradual, but the trail is rocky and you’ll need to focus on making good foot plants. There are some cliffy drop offs on the left …for me, hiking poles add a margin of stability and safety. The summit hut will finally come into view, though it is still some distance away.

Once you pass the three “windows”—narrow openings in the wall on your right with astonishing views and drop offs—you are on the home stretch. You are now probably moving fairly slowly unless by chance, you spent the last few weeks somewhere like Nepal or Peru. One foot in front of the other will get you up the plateau.

The Summit Push

Finally, the summit hut will again come into view (11 miles from the trailhead, 14,508’). You’ve made it! Time to eat, hydrate, and take some pictures. And don’t forget to sign the summit register!

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The author on the summit.

I’ve summited Mt. Whitney six times, and will keep returning. For me, it is not just a wonderful climb that changes with the seasons. It is also the place where I met my goal weight, back in 2010, after two years on Weight Watchers. Each climb recommits me to the healthy, active lifestyle that I chose back then, and to the sense of empowerment that I felt on that first summit. And each climb reconnects me to a large community of other folks that I have met through the years who, like me, tend to return to this mountain over and over again.

At the heart of everything we do are the folks who make the magic happen. A group of likeminded footwear-industry vets who left our big-brand jobs back in 2007 intent on doing business a better way. 

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