Monday, July 14, 2014

The Best Way to Hike Mt. Whitney

This past week, I hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney. Depending on who you talk to, it is either 14,496 ft, 14,497 ft, 14,505 ft, or 14,508 ft. No matter what, it's the highest peak in the lower 48 states. And it requires no technical climbing or mountaineering skills to get to the top. Which is why people come from all over the world to hike it.

I think that's the wrong reason to do the trail. Don't hike it because it's the tallest; hike it because it is GORGEOUS. It's an incredibly pleasant, relatively easy trail (with the exception of a part near the top), and it's a really worthwhile hike even if you don't plan to go to the top.

Read on to find out why most people hike Whitney the wrong way (in my opinion) and how to do it right.

Mt. Whitney
Whitney's summit is smack in the middle of this pic.

Most people who hike up Mt. Whitney do it one of two ways. Some get day permits and they day hike. Typically that means starting anywhere between midnight and 4am, summiting in the morning, and hiking back down by evening. Unless you're in such good shape that a 22 mile hike with 6100 feet of elevation gain doesn't phase you and you're already acclimated well to high altitude, this option is grueling.

Everyone I spoke to who did it said, "Don't do it." Some added, "It's a beautiful trail. Enjoy it." When I did the hike, I ran into plenty of day hikers on their way down. With few exceptions, they all looked miserable. I hiked part-way with one day hiker at a spot toward the end. He was dead tired and not happy about having a few more miles left to go at that point.

Why turn one of the most enjoyable hikes in the country into a grueling marathon? Besides, the lower altitudes are so beautiful, and if you day hike, you pass them in the dark on your way up and when you're too tired to care on the way down.

An option, if you are really set on a dayhike, is to hike up to Lone Pine Lake, which is 2.8 miles up the trail, the day before to take pictures, see the trail, and acclimate to the altitude. You do not need a permit to go to Lone Pine Lake.

Here are some photos of what you miss if you do this section of the trail in the dark:

Steller's Jay
Steller's Jay

Anderson's Thistle
Anderson's Thistle

Mountain Monkeyflower

Glaucous Willow Herb

Scarlet Monkeyflower
Scarlet Monkeyflower

Poison Angelica
Poison Angelica

Bitter Dogbane
Bitter Dogbane

Scenic View
The View


Western Monkshood
Western Monkshood

Scarlet Gilia
Scarlet Gilia


Mule Deer

Shooting Star
Shooting Star

Elephant's Head
A flower called Elephant's Head. Can you see the elephant's heads in there?



Waterfall and Wildflowers


Lone Pine Lake
Lone Pine Lake

That's just a few photos of the first 2.8 miles of the trail, from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake. See why it's a dumb idea to hike it in the dark and miss all of that?

The other way that people do the hike is better, but I still wouldn't like it myself. They hike 6.3 miles up the trail and camp at Trail Camp. Then they get up early in the morning (sometimes VERY early, like 2am) and hike to the summit, and then backpack out that same day. The trail is 22 miles total, so they only have to hike about 16 miles in one day. And at least they see all the beauty on the trail. But they have another problem:

Marmot Attempting Food Theft

That is a yellow-bellied marmot, and it is more than happy to chew its way into your pack or your tent to see if you have food in there. And if you were responsible and put all your food in a bear-proof canister, oh well. Now you've got a hole chewed in your pack or tent. Someone I met on the trail had that happen to him. Another person followed the advice we got in advance and left her tent open to save the marmots the trouble of chewing it. The marmots got in her tent and peed and pooped all over, even on her sleeping bag.

I don't know what your stuff cost, but I know what mine cost. Tent, $259. Sleeping bag valued at $420 (I paid much less but that's what it would cost to replace it). Backpack valued at $275 (again, I paid way less). I don't want my gear damaged by a marmot.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot
Marmot at Trail Camp, looking for goodies

Trail Camp is at 12,040 feet and it is rather crowded. It's above the tree-line so it's very exposed and windy. It can also be cold.

Here's what I did. I hiked in only 3.8 miles to Outpost Camp at 10,360 ft and I stayed there two nights. On day 1 I hiked in and took my sweet time, taking as many photos as I liked. You already saw the trail up to Lone Pine Lake (2.8 mi). Here the next mile, between Lone Pine Lake and Outpost Camp.

Mountain Heather
Mountain Heather

The View Just Above Lone Pine Lake

Looking Down on Lone Pine Lake
Looking down on Lone Pine Lake

Crimson Columbines
Crimson Columbines

Bighorn Park
Bighorn Park, near Outpost Camp

Bighorn Park
Bighorn Park, near Outpost Camp

Here's the view from my campsite at Outpost Camp:

Outpost Camp

Waterfall at Outpost Camp
Waterfall at Outpost Camp

When I arrived in Outpost Camp, my first thought was "Wow! I get to sleep here???" I was so excited! Sure, I would wake up in the dark the next morning and leave very early, but I was staying two nights - so I'd get all the opportunity I wanted to poke around on day 3.

The advice I got to stay at Outpost Camp was mainly that it's warmer, less exposed, and less crowded than Trail Camp. Plus, some people don't sleep well at altitude (I sleep fine) and it's 2000 feet lower than Trail Camp so you might get more sleep. After the fact, I'd say my main reasons for staying there are that my feet are prone to injury and don't do well carrying weight, so backpacking 3.8 mi is better than 6.3 mi for me, even if it means a longer way to the summit; it's beautiful; and there isn't a big marmot problem. I had zero marmot trouble. I did keep all of my food, trash, and cosmetics in my bear canister, which I left about 20 feet from my tent, so there was nothing interesting in my tent at all.

So my first day, I hiked those 3.8 miles to Outpost Camp. The next morning I got up at 3:15am and by 3.48am I was on the trail to the summit, in the dark, with a head lamp. I never even saw Mirror Lake (about 4.0 mi into the trail). By the time I reached Trailside Meadow about a mile later, it was light enough to see.

I saw some cute little pikas:

Pika, related to rabbits

Got some water:


And passed by Trail Camp. It was already light, and Trail Camp had nearly emptied out by then. After passing Trail Camp, I started on the Infamous Switchbacks. It's a 2 mile section of the trail with 99 switchbacks. You're above the treeline, and the view is nice... but otherwise it's pretty boring.

Looking Down at the Lake
Looking down on Trail Camp Pond from the Switchbacks

Your last place to get water before the summit is a spring at switchback #23. Make sure you have at least 3 liters to take to the summit. Your only other option from here on is eating snow - if there is any.

The View Down on Trail Camp
The view from a little further up

Snow near the cables section of the switchbacks
Section of switchbacks with cables. At this point, you are 6.7 mi into the 11 mi trail

A few of the plants from this section

Sky Pilot
A type of Polemonium known as Skypilot. You'll see lots of this and not much else from here on up.

The view yet a little higher up

View from the Top of the Switchbacks
The view when you are nearly at the top of the switchbacks

Finally, finally, you hit Trail Crest. At this point you have completed 8.2 miles of the trail and you are at 13,700 feet up. You now enter Sequoia National Park (you were in Inyo National Forest). You cross over to the other side of the mountain, and remain there for the balance of the hike. Here's the view from the other side, looking down on Sequoia National Park:

Entering Sequioa National Park

View of Sequioa National Park



What I read before going was roughly "once you reach Trail Crest, the work is basically done, and you're basically there. It's just an easy 2.5 miles to the summit."

I disagree. I hated this part of the trail. Admittedly, I had a monster migraine (it wasn't altitude sickness, it was an out of control horrible migraine, the worst of the decade, that began the moment I woke up that day). But I think I'd hate it anyway. Here's the trail:

The Scary Part of the Trail

The Scary Part of the Trail

Yup. One wrong move and off you go over a cliff. The trail is really rocky for about a mile or two, which means it's not comfortable on your feet, and you have to watch what you're doing to avoid tripping and/or breaking an ankle. The way down was as bad as the way up (or worse), and I'm just grateful it wasn't wet and slippery.

From Trail Crest, you descend a bit and - about a half mile in - you unite with the John Muir Trail at 13,480 in altitude. Then you start going up again. At about 9.0 miles in, you see cairns marking the route up Mt Muir. Shortly thereafter, you come to the "Whitney Windows" - rock formations that allow you to peak through and see the summit.

This is the view of the ridge leading to the summit, taken of the side of the mountain facing Lone Pine. So the trail to the summit is on the back side of what you're seeing here. The last bit on the right side of the photo that is sticking up and out is the summit:

A View of the Summit

Don't underestimate the time it takes to go these last few miles. It's not a major elevation gain, but it's challenging hiking because of all the damn rocks on the trail.

Finally, finally, you get to the summit:

Me on Mt. Whitney

See all those clouds? They had just rolled in, in between when I reached Trail Crest and when I got to the summit. It was 12pm, and it was lightly hailing while I was on the summit. Afternoon storms are common, and I was relatively lucky on weather. It was cold at the summit, but it cleared up pretty quickly and never really rained. The day before I summitted, it snowed. I met some people who hiked nearly the whole trail and turned around because of the cold. I met others who kept going despite the cold - and they were dressed in shorts. I packed several layers, including a down jacket and a space bag. I didn't need the down jacket but I wanted to be prepared to be stuck on the mountain overnight, should a disaster occur. Thankfully, it didn't.

That day, another hiker broke her ankle near the summit. Fortunately, she got cell reception at the summit, and they airlifted her out:

Helicopter Landing on Mt. Whitney

So, now it was time to go down. My migraine was in full swing at this point, and hiking was not even fun anymore. I just wanted to get below Trail Crest, to get off that exposed ridge at the top of the mountain. At long last, I did. As I hiked down, I met more people who were still going up. Some of them looked like they were in bad shape.

I felt better once I reached the switchbacks again, and still better once I reached Trail Camp. As I reached Trailside Meadow on the way down, I stopped and threw up everything in my stomach, which wasn't much. I had tried to eat a sandwich at Trail Crest and had only succeeded in eating a bite. The only other thing I'd been able to eat was dried mango. And lots and lots of ice cold water.

Some people get sick from the altitude on Mt. Whitney. If you live in the U.S. you don't have too many opportunities to find out how your body reacts to being at 14,000 feet. But I'm lucky because I've spent plenty of time in Bolivia, where normal life takes place at 14,000 feet. I know exactly how I react to 14,000 feet. When I go from sea level to 9000 or above, I suffer from a minor headache and slight nausea the first day. After that, I feel fine. What happened to me on Mt. Whitney wasn't altitude sickness. It was a migraine - and one of the two worst migraines I've had in my entire life.

Fortunately, when I arrived back at Outpost Camp, my tent was already set up and ready for me. My stuff was all there. I sat with a hiker who was setting up camp next to me and we chatted as he had dinner. I ate an apple. Then I changed into clean(er) clothes, got in my sleeping bag, and was asleep by 7:30pm. And I slept for 14 hours.

During the night, I heard hikers going past me starting around 12:30pm. I woke up then and again at 3am and 7am. I got up two of those times to go to the bathroom. All three times I woke up, my head still hurt. But when I got up at 9am, my head felt fine. I got up, ate breakfast, packed up, and had an enjoyable 3.8 mile hike back to my car.

If I had to do it over again, I'd do it exactly the way I did. But now that I've done it once, I don't plan to do it again. I hike because it's fun, and the rocky top part of the trail was not my idea of fun. I really preferred the beauty of the lower altitudes over the part of the trail above 12,000 feet. I also like steeper trails than the Mt. Whitney Trail. It's not a steep trail at all. If I go back, I'll hike it as far as Lone Pine Lake or Outpost Camp or Trail Camp and then head back down. And then I'll explore the other trails in the area, because there are plenty of them, and they are no doubt gorgeous, just as this one was.

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