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How to climb Mt. Whitney in a day February 27, 2015

Posted by Jenny in camping, hiking, memoir.
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Jenny and Helen, conquerors of Mt. Whitney.

Jenny and Helen, conquerors of Mt. Whitney, August 1997.

The best-known trail route to the summit of Whitney is via the Mount Whitney trail. Since this involves a total climb of 6,100 vertical feet and 22 miles round trip from Whitney Portal to the 14,496′ summit, most people do it as a two-day trip, camping at Trail Camp just below the infamous “99 switchbacks” section. After all, it’s worth taking some time to reach the highest point in the contiguous states.

But you can do it in a day. Three keys to success: be in decent shape, be acclimatized before you start the climb, and start before dawn.

One consideration is that it’s easier to get a “day-use” permit than an overnight permit. The demand for the overnight ones is so high that you may not have any luck with the Forest Service lottery.

This is an account of a trip taken in 1997. If you are interested only in Whitney, you can skip down through the photos. Six of us did a five-day backpack at high altitude in the area around Mt. Humphreys, west of Bishop. By the time we finished that, we were acclimatized. Four of the group went on to do the one-day Whitney climb. Of the four, two—Steve and Bob—climbed Mt. Muir instead of Whitney, since they had done Whitney before. At 14,018′, Muir is shorter but a more difficult climb than Whitney, as it involves scrambling with a steep dropoff. Its summit is located quite close to Whitney’s, so the four of us were able to stay together for most of the climb.

Our trip started with a flight into Vegas. We arrived late at night, picked up our rental cars, and stayed at a place called Circus, Circus. It had garish red and white stripes in the lobby. We departed early the next morning, saving the slots and the blackjack tables for the end of the trip.

One of the great things about approaching the eastern Sierras from this direction is that you get to drive through Death Valley, thereby experiencing the incredible geographic contrast of the lowest elevation in the US only a short distance from the highest in the 48 states.

Helen and Bob at Death Valley.

Helen and Bob at Death Valley.

Jenny at the Death Valley Museum, where a thermometer told us it was 124 degrees.

Jenny at the Death Valley Museum, where a thermometer told us it was 124 degrees.

The temperature was a lifetime record high for me. As soon as you stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the sun, you could sense the life-threatening dryness and heat. It felt as though the moisture was being sucked out of your body moment by moment. Then we made the long climb out of the valley, past Telescope Peak and over the crest of the California-Nevada divide. There we dropped into the Owens Valley.

We organized our gear at Bishop, dividing up food, and it was a good thing that we checked packs, because I discovered my backpacking stove had been confiscated by the airline—even though it had no fuel in it. So we had to buy another stove, as well as the fuel that we’d already planned on purchasing in Bishop. By the way, I had a big fight with the airline when the trip was over, because they should have informed us they’d removed the stove. I won the fight—they apologized and reimbursed me for the cost of the stove.

From Bishop, with the Sierras looming overhead—a solid granite wall—we headed up the road for the trailhead that led over Piute Pass into the Humphreys Basin.

We reach Piute Pass.

We reach Piute Pass.

Big, heavy packs.

Big, heavy packs.

We spent the first night at Desolation Lake. I believe this is looking back at the lake and its neighbors. Notice how incredibly blue the water is in all of these lakes.

Typical above-treeline scenery in the Sierras.

Typical above-treeline scenery in the Sierras.

The next day we climbed an unnamed peak, Point 12,801.

Bob and I climb up the boulderfields.

Bob and I climb up the boulderfields.

In case you are wondering, we left the big packs at the campsite, to which we returned that night.

Helen on the summit ridge. Mt. Humphreys in the background.

Helen on the summit ridge. Mt. Humphreys in the background.

Bob touches the actual summit. You couldn't really stand on it.

Bob touches the actual summit. You couldn’t really stand on it.

Happy mountaineers.

Happy mountaineers.

The next day we continued northward and then east, toward the Four Gables area. Unfortunately, my memory is fuzzy about the details of where we camped the following nights. There was a fishable lake (golden trout, I think) at the next campsite.

Bob and I with our fishing rods, which look like antennas in this photo.

Bob and I with our fishing rods, which look like antennas in this photo.

We both caught something, and we had fish for dinner. I recall that our next campsite was plagued with mosquitoes—the only place we had trouble with bugs. Behind the Mosquito Campsite was a tall rubble-pile that we climbed just to get in a little more acclimatization.

Rubble leading up into a deep blue sky.

Rubble leading up into a deep blue sky.

The night after that we camped beside a lake. A breeze blew across the water, and we had no bugs. Bob had a running joke of trying for a “highest-altitude swim” record. This lake was above 12,000′, the highest place he’d ever taken a dip. The water was a bit cold, as you can tell from his expression in the picture below. Every night, it dropped below freezing—low-to-mid 20s—and then warmed up quickly as soon as the sun started shining. One big advantage to the Sierras: it never rains there in the summer. You don’t have the afternoon thunderstorms like you do in the Rockies.

Bob sets new personal record for "Highest altitude swim."

Bob sets new personal record for “Highest altitude swim.” I didn’t even think of going in the water myself. Brrr!

By this point on the trip we were getting sick of our camp food. There was a lot of bartering going on: “Anyone want to trade chocolate pudding for gorp?”

The last day of our trip, we descended a valley with rock formations that reminded me of Dr. Seuss drawings. I wish I could tell you the name of the valley. I studied maps—it might be somewhere in the Horton Lakes area—but couldn’t find anything that quite met the description.

Dr. Seuss rocks.

Dr. Seuss rocks.

We had a gigantic meal in Bishop and drove down to Lone Pine to stay in a motel. I recall that we learned that night that Princess Di had just been killed.

The alarm went off at 4:00, and we drove up to Whitney Portal, beginning the hike in the dark with headlamps.

Dawn on the lower Mount Whitney trail. These rocks reminded me of Maxfield Parrish rather than Dr. Seuss.

Dawn on the lower Mount Whitney trail. These rocks reminded me of Maxfield Parrish rather than Dr. Seuss.

 

A grouse stood on a rock to greet the dawn.

A grouse stood on a rock to greet the dawn.

We climbed through a forest of beautiful large trees before emerging into an area of lakes and meadows. In this section you enter the official Whitney Zone, and you may be checked to see that you have a permit.

 

Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake.

We were all intent on eating and drinking enough to keep up our energy as we went along. Unfortunately, the large volumes of water we drank had an inconvenient but predictable outcome: we had to keep stopping to pee. Perhaps we were overdoing the water intake. As we got further above treeline, it became harder and harder to find an unobtrusive place to step off the trail. This was particularly a problem in the “99 switchbacks” section that takes you 1,700 vertical feet from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. Not a place with a lot of privacy!

"99 switchbacks" section. A large blubbery marmot gazes down at a couple of hikers.

“99 switchbacks” section. A large blubbery marmot gazes down at a couple of hikers.

I had thought all the switchbacks would be demoralizing, but I found the opposite to be the case. The switchbacks were often quite short, giving you a sense of progress as you rounded each corner and headed up the next stretch, and the trail was never very steep. Finally we topped out at Trail Crest (13,600′). This was higher than any point we’d reached on the backpack. We all felt about the same—we were working hard, but none of us felt sick or weak. The views from Trail Crest were tremendous.

View west from Trail Crest.

View west from Trail Crest.

I see that I didn’t take very many pictures in the next stretch—perhaps this was due to my being more affected by altitude than I realized. We dropped down slightly to reach the John Muir trail junction, then continued sidehilling along the steep west side of the ridge. It was along this section that Bob and Steve left us to make the climb up Mt. Muir.

Toward the summit, I felt a bit dizzy, but I still had a fair amount of energy. Helen and I pushed on, climbing to the nearly flat tableland of the summit, past the Summit House and to the plaque pictured in the top photo. Someone passing by did a nice job of framing the picture by putting the plaque at the bottom.

We looked over to Mt. Muir to see if we could spot two tiny figures climbing it. Sure enough, we saw them on the small, precipitous summit.

After resting, we headed back to meet the Muir conquerors and, just by chance, arrived at the meeting spot at almost the same time as the others. We were all proud of what we’d accomplished.

Steve took the photo below of Bob climbing the last pitch up to the summit. You can see why it is rated as Class 3 in the Yosemite System.

Bob approaches Mt. Muir summit.

Bob approaches Mt. Muir summit.

Now all we had to do was retrace our steps—all the way back. We certainly got into “Death March” mode by the time we returned to Whitney Portal, but only in the sense of plodding along without much conversation. None of us were really hurting, and we didn’t feel stiff or sore the next day. It had been a worthwhile adventure.

Steve and Bob on the tiny summit block of Muir.

Steve and Bob on the tiny summit block of Muir.

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Comments»

1. Clyde - February 27, 2015

Jenny, I did Whitney a few years before you did with a different route. We certainly didn’t try to do it in one day, we made a backpack out of it, but the beginning and end were brutal. We went in from the east side north of Lone Pine across Shepherd Pass. We started at 5,000′ and crossed Shepherd Pass at 12,000 in a day and a half with a 1,000′ drop in the middle. Taxing! When we got to Shepherd one of my buddies looked at the guide book which said, “Shepherd Pass maybe the most difficult pass trail in the Sierra Nevada.” He cussed me out big time. “Austin you sob don’t you do anything the easy way” We then went south for three days along the west side of the Sierra. We camped the last night before Mt. Whitney at Guitar Lakes and then climbed Whitney from the west side. That climb was not bad as we started at about 12,000′. We were able to leave our packs at the X at the pass and come back and pick them up. We intended to spend the night at the campsite at the bottom of the 99 switchbacks, but when we got there it was such a zoo we just said, “no way”. There must have been 150 tents. We hiked all the way out to Whitney Portal. So our last day ended up at about 17 miles most of it with the packs, but downhill mostly. Fun outing. Since we got out a day early (but late at night) we had a heckuva time to find a place to spend the night. That side of California is empty.

Jenny - February 27, 2015

Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! I always thought of Shepherd Pass as the approach to Mt. Williamson. There was a time I actually thought I might try to do all of the California 14ers. I only did three of them! Well, for an East Coast person that’s not as embarrassing as for a Californian. I used to read the Secor guide to the Sierra like a Bible, knowing I could only do the peaks by the easiest routes but still gaining inspiration. I haven’t thought much about the Sierra for a long time, but a sudden inspiration led me to do this writeup. Now I realize how much I miss that area.

Clyde - February 27, 2015

Jenny, I think I maybe a minority of one, but I like the King’s Canyon-Sequoia area much better than Yosemite.

Jenny - February 27, 2015

The problem with Yosemite is that it is so heavily visited, especially in the valley area—for very good reason. I mean, c’mon, Half Dome? El Capitan? But you have to put up with the crowds to see those places. The Tuolomne Meadows area isn’t so jammed. I’ve only been there once. My trips to the California mountains have all been from the Owens Valley, either to the eastern Sierra or to the White Mountains on the Nevada border.

Brian Reed - February 27, 2015

So Clyde’s route was 8,000 feet of gain with a heavy pack? Wow. That makes the Portal route sound easy.For me there’s not much that can compare with Yosemite Valley. When I go to a crowded place like the summit of Half Dome I have a different frame of mind than a normal wilderness adventure. You can chat with people from all over the world. There’s something about a shared, exhilarating experience where you have this instant sense of camaraderie that you don’t normally have with strangers. I think of the interesting talks I’ve had with people at Clifftop on Leconte.

Jenny - February 27, 2015

I have mixed feelings about crowds. Sometimes I get tired on the Alum Cave trail on LeConte running into so many people. I think for me the problem on LeConte is that there is too much of a contrast between my experience of getting up there off-trail (almost always the way I get up there, up one of the stream valleys) and the crowds coming down. But in a place like Yosemite Valley, I would be driving in there, probably, just like everyone else, and so can participate in a group feeling. Still, if there are too many busloads and too many people, eventually the perception of people right around me would overwhelm the perception of the places around me. Still, Brian, I like your feeling of shared humanity and aspire to partake of that rather than an unfriendly attitude.

Clyde - February 27, 2015

Brian, I enjoy talking with folks, but the valley is too much of a zoo for me. I love staying at LeConte and chatting in the day room. I think one of my turn offs in the Valley was staying in the refugee camp there. (well they call it something else, but one of my group called it the refugee camp, it is some kind of tent city). I will still stick with my opinion (and that is all it is, one man’s opinion) that the two long backpacks I have done in Sequoia and King’s Canyon were far prettier than Yosemite. I would have to admit that I enjoy some solitude along with the company. I have done the High Sierra Camps loop multiple times in Yosemite and it is fun and beautiful, but it would not make my top ten list of hikes I have done.

2. Kent Hackendy - February 27, 2015

What kind of fish did you catch, just out of curiosity. And who cleaned them? ; )

Gorgeous pictures! I’ve yet to experience a 14er — been around 9,500 when I was in Switzerland. The name of the peak escapes me, but it was near Davos. Of course, we went up by tram. I wasn’t hiking or doing much of anything in those days (except gaining weight). I hope to get back to the Alps someday.

Jenny - February 27, 2015

You may have thought “golden trout” was a sort of poetical expression. That is actually the specific name for the trout you find in high-altitude lakes of the Sierra. That is what we caught. Bob cleaned them. I was happy to let him do that—he was much more experienced in that than I was.

There’s such an interesting contrast between the Alps and the western US high peaks. Obviously there are many incredibly difficult climbs in the Alps, but there is also this interesting proximity to the long-cultivated valleys with their beautiful little villages. I’ve never done any hiking in the Alps, though I’ve been through various parts of those mountains three times and was able to observe what they were like. I will say that even though I am very interested in European culture and history (as you may know from my 1870 to 1918 blog), I feel that most of Europe can never approximate the wildness of areas like the Sierras, and that is something I highly value.

Kent Hackendy - February 27, 2015

My brain must not be retaining information well, today for some reason. I missed “golden trout” in your blog. I’ve cleaned plenty of fish, but I’ve always hated it — and my fillet skills are not the best. (I’m a butcher of crappie.)

Like you say, the villages of Switzerland are beautiful. There’s also something about those lush green cow-inhabited pastures with the snow-peaked mountains in the background that hold an infinite charm to an American. I have yet to explore much of the natural riches of the western U.S., so I can’t really compare the two regions, myself.

Jenny - February 27, 2015

Kent, I totally agree with you about the picturesque nature of the Alps, with that contrast between the rugged peaks and the pristine villages. A great place to explore, and I would have been wanting to do some real hiking there for a long time.

3. Brian Reed - February 27, 2015

I like Bob’s high altitude swimming challenge. Sounds like he was one of those guys who goes in for the full experience. You were smart in pacing yourselves with altitude. I did that hike as well, betting I’d be up and down before getting too sick. I was fine on the top but lost my lunch about halfway down and I’m sure it took me longer than you.

I’ve had lots of interesting experiences in the Andes with sickness because I’m too impatient and short of vacation time to acclimatize. It’s a fickle thing–I can’t predict whether I’ll get it or not. Full acclimatization, where you not only don’t get sick but also feel little fatigue takes weeks. I had what I’m sure will be my only opportunity to do this during a month of cycling in Tibet. After a week I struggled to pedal more than a few minutes at a time at 15000 feet. A few weeks later I could sprint uphill at 17000 feet. The natives were truly impressive. Some kids living at 16000 feet chased me on foot and I could barely keep ahead of them on the bike! It was discovered recently that Tibetans carry a genetic adaptation to altitude picked up from an archaic hominid that lived in the region before Homo Sapiens arrived.

Jenny - February 27, 2015

Acclimatization is such a fine art. You want to get plenty of time in at high-altitude points before you go for your major goal. However, if you spend too much time working strenuously at high altitudes, you can wear yourself out. That’s what happened with me and Steve and Bob when we attempted Huayna Potosi in Bolivia. I think it was a combination of being constantly at elevations >12,000 feet, the cold dry air, and the bad food. At any rate, when it finally came time after about 10 days to make our summit attempt, Steve was out of the picture due to intestinal problems and Bob and I were both wracked by coughs and feeling weak. We had to give it up (though I will say I have no regrets about spending the time we did in such an interesting place, and we did achieve 17,000′, my highest ever).

Sometimes it seems there’s no rhyme or reason to acclimatization. On a climb of Wheeler, the state high point of New Mexico (13,000+), I did fine all the way up but partway back down I experienced a crushing headache such as I had never experienced before. This was two days after getting out to the area. I had a severe case of pneumonia in 2004, and on trying some of the Colorado 14ers after that, I had mixed results, sometimes doing OK but sometimes feeling what I describe as “nausea of the lungs,” a highly unpleasant experience. Ever since then I haven’t done so much at high altitude. (I had tests done and was told I had lost 25% of my lung capacity.)

4. Brian Reed - March 1, 2015

You lost 25% of your lung capacity? I never would have guessed that. Doesn’t slow you down much! I remember your Bolivia adventure. I have a somewhat arbitrary desire to go 20,000′ above sea level and I guess Bolivia and Chile are the easiest place to do that. I tried to go near that elevation in Ecuador once, but the weather didn’t cooperate and we had to turn back.

Jenny - March 2, 2015

You can compensate in several ways, by increasing leg strength and also actually changing the way you breathe (a little yoga knowledge helps with that). People who hike with me may notice that I find it difficult to keep up a conversation while I’m doing a steep climb. Regarding Ecuador, that has always sounded intriguing. Some very interesting microclimates there.

5. Jim Cornelius - March 6, 2015

Great stuff. I climbed Whitney in 1991 with a buddy. We came back down to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. That was just weird. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

I gave my wife a ring the next year at the foot of the mountain, on a shooting trip to the Lone Pine Pheasant Club.

Though I live at the foot of the Cascades now, I do miss the Sierra Nevada. I guess it’s really crowded now, so maybe I should leave it nostalgia.

Jenny - March 6, 2015

I have a history of learning about current events when I’m in remote places. I learned of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens when I was in Guadalajara, Mexico. I saw the footage of O.J. Simpson driving along the freeway in his Ford Bronco when I was in Bangalore, India. I learned of the death of Jerry Garcia when I was in Baxter State Park, Maine. It’s gotten to be kind of a joke—whenever I’ve been out in the wilds for some time, I ask myself, ‘Who’s died now?”

Regarding the crowds in the Sierra, I think as soon as you get away from the Whitney area, you hardly see anyone, especially if you do any cross-country travel. On our five-day trip starting in the Humphreys Basin, we saw no other people the whole time.

6. Jim Cornelius - March 8, 2015

That is comforting to hear. I always found it amazing, living in the LA basin, that you could go a quarter-mile from the Angeles Crest Highway in the Angeles National Forest and hardly see anybody for two days. That was a great thing.


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