How to climb Mt. Whitney in a day February 27, 2015Posted by Jenny in camping, hiking, memoir.
Tags: California Fourteeners, Mt. Humphreys, Mt. Muir, Mt. Whitney, Mt. Whitney trail, Piute Pass, Sierra Nevada, Sierras
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.
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 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.
The next day we climbed an unnamed peak, Point 12,801.
In case you are wondering, we left the big packs at the campsite, to which we returned that night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.