Ascent of Mount Whitney on 2014-09-05

Climber: David Odenwalder

Others in Party:Peter
Date:Friday, September 5, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Whitney
    Elevation:14498 ft / 4418 m

Ascent Trip Report

This was indeed a most challenging hike - more than expected. And I was indeed apprehensive about the ascent ever since I "won" a lottery ticket to go to the top last spring.

As is well-known, to climb Mt Whitney, you need to apply for a reservation for a permit in the early part of the year with the US government. Either that, or take your chances that someone will be a no-show on the day you decide to climb. I submitted my application, and got the perfect date that I wanted - right after Labor Day. After beating around the bushes for a few days, I found 3 people to take the other slots available (I requested five permits) - two of my sons, and my son's father-in-law. Later in the summer another son's friend asked if he might fill the extra slot.

Two weeks before the Mt Whitney climb, we tackled San Jacinto near Idyllwild, CA, as a conditioning hike. That was the closest we could find in southern CA in terms of hike length, elevation gain, and total elevation. That was good practice, but a grueling hike in its own right.

Two days before the Whitney, three of us drove 400 miles north, and camped for a couple of days at Horseshoe Meadows, at about 10000 ft elevation and maybe 20 miles from Lone Pine. A great little campground with water and a few other amenities, to get acclimated to the rarified atmosphere. Very quiet, and relatively lightly used. The other two members of our party joined us on the night before the actual hike - they had less opportunity to acclimate. Prior to the hike, we had to pick up our actual permits, bear canisters, and "poop bags" at the local US government facility just a mile or two south of town. There was a place in town that offered smaller bear canisters for rent - but they were all in use at the time, so we had to settle for the larger US government-issued type. Be prepared, you are required to use the canisters, and they can be as big as a sleeping bag. It was quite a job figuring out where to put them in our packs. We took two for the five of us, and redistributed the pack loads as best we could to accommodate the extra weight and volume.

We started off for Whitney at about 10:30 AM Sep 4, from Whitney Portal trail head. The first section was relatively easy going - a well-maintained trail. Not handicapped-accessible, but certainly not too challenging. Quite a few trees, so relatively cool, too. When we reached the first yoke or saddle, I could see the access road far below - and assumed that we had gone a couple of miles, and up 1000-1500 feet. The GPS was less generous - only 500 feet elevation gain (though it seemed that there was constant climbing). Soon there is a log bridge over a meadow, some flat hiking, and then more climbing to a second meadow. Now we're supposed to be nearly 4 miles out, but the elevation is still pretty low - a mere 10000 feet. We were aiming to camp at 12000 feet. All the while, the cliffs on either side still tower above you, and it looks daunting - you know you have to go higher than they are. At the second level meadow (Outpost Camp) there is a pleasant-looking camping spot, a stream of water cascading down, and places to set up a tent. It would have been nice to have camped there - but we needed to get further up the mountain. Again, lots more climbing, and the trail gets progressively tougher and more rocky. Past Mirror Lake (no camping allowed), up some more, over the top, and up some more. With each corner, it seemed that there was another set of switchbacks. Finally we reached a small stream, where everyone was filtering and pumping water - the Trail Camp was just a fraction of a mile further. We found a spot in a ravine to set up camp for the night - nearly 8 miles from the trail head, according to our GPS. I was so tired, I ate a couple of tiny applesauce snacks and bedded down for the night. A few others in the party tried to cook a simple supper - soup or whatever.

Next morning, we were up at about 7 AM, and on the trail by about 8 AM, after a quick breakfast and refilling water. bottles You couldn't quite make out the famous "97 switchbacks" from our campsite - but they are there - just as you leave the Trail Camp. Because of the angle, you can't really see much until you're right at the start. Interestingly, the peak of Whitney is still not visible even this close, because it's obscured by another lower rock face. The 97 switchbacks (I counted them coming down, there might be 98, but either way, darn close to 100) are not as daunting as you might think. It probably took us a couple of hours to the top - some 1700 feet elevation gain from the valley where the tents were set up.

As we reached the trail crest, the winds picked up. The Whitney Portal side of the mountain is drier and more exposed to the nearby desert. The west side is obviously more exposed to weather from the direction of the coast. Still it was mostly pleasant, with occasional colder gusts.

The trail on the back side - in Sequoia National Park - was in some respects the hardest part of the hike. Not a huge amount of elevation gain (800'), but very rocky, and a considerable amount of boulder hopping. The trail dropped for a short section starting around Mt Muir, then began the gradual climb to the summit, past a half dozen "needles" on the crest. The hut on top of Whitney is visible in a few places - but seems very far away. The trail threads its way up past several "windows" between the needles - generally close enough that you can look down on the valley you have just left. I didn't see any reason to be particularly nervous about these openings - there is plenty of width of trail if someone is wary of heights. The west side had some pretty steep drops, too, but not as sheer as the east side. After threading through a craggy section around Mt Muir, the rest of the hike is sideways along a boulder-strewn slope to the summit. The trail is easy to follow - if long - and leads clear around to the west flank of Whitney before making the final ascent to the top. It's something like 2 or 2.5 miles along the crest from end of the 97 switchbacks to the summit. Our GPS put the entire hike at about 13 miles, one way - and this was confirmed on the return trip. I'm very doubtful about multiple statements that the trail is only 11 miles.

We reached the summit almost exactly at noon - 4 hours from the campsite carrying only light day packs. One member of our party had nausea from altitude sickness at the top. I felt a little lightheaded. One member of our party had decided not to try for the summit, and stayed around camp. There were probably 50 people on top when we arrived, and we passed several dozen hikers going each way - so clearly this is a popular destination.

It took us something over 3 more hours to return to the Trail Camp. We were exhausted, and it would have been much preferred to have spent the night, instead of hiking out. But our permit was only good for a single overnight stay - so we dismantled tents, packed up, and headed out. Our pace down the mountain was pretty good - until darkness hit. The last mile or two was painstakingly slow, as we felt our way along with headlamps and flashlights. We reached the bottom at about 9 PM. For three of us, it was a short drive to get fast food and a motel room in Lone Pine. For the other two, they drove back to San Diego, arriving in the wee hours of the morning.

The weather was absolutely perfect - not a cloud in the sky the day we reached the summit. Temperature probably in the 50s or 60s, dropping occasionally as the wind gusted. I had on a long-sleeved shirt, thermals, and a jacket slung around my neck - it was plenty warm for me. To the west, it appeared that there were several ranges, one behind the other - I'm not sure, but think it is possible I could see the coastal ranges in the distance - visibility was probably well over 50 miles in any direction. The views from the top were nice, but I've seen other vistas that were more impressive. I was surprised to see how tree-bare most of the western part of the Sierras are. The mountains of the Great Divide almost looked desert-like - just trees in the very lowest parts of the basin. Of course the view to the east is over desert areas and above timberline anyway, so largely treeless.

Some key learnings of the trip.
After a long hike like that, my appetite drops to nearly zero. We carried far too much food, weighing down our packs. Some duplication in equipment, too. We also carried more water than needed for this hike - there were several places to fill up, right up to the base of the 97 switchbacks (a small tarn is located just before the first leg). Hiking poles were a real lifesaver - almost everyone uses them on this mountain. I have acquaintances that have made the entire trek up and back in one day. I think that borders on insanity. If I were doing the hike again, I'd plan to spread it out over 3 days, and enjoy it a little more. Three shorter 8-mile-hikes, in that type of terrain, with that kind of elevation gain, is plenty unless you're a real die-hard.

The current value for Whitney's elevation, as printed by the US Government on our permits, is 14,508 feet. Either the mountain is taller, or the measuring stick is shorter! The crest crossing is supposed to be about 13,700 feet. And I believe the trail length is probably close to 13 miles each way. It's probably a close call, whether Whitney or Kings Peak (UT - climbed one year ago by me) is the tougher hike overall - I'm voting for Whitney right now.

There are several survey markers and a plaque on top of Whitney - attached to different rocks/boulders. Again there is the question of which feature is actually the "top" of the top - the highest natural point. From some photos, it almost looks like the peak drops down a little toward the eastern edge of the precipice - which would put the actual summit closer to the hut. There is one very large odd-shaped boulder closer to the hut than are the markers, and it juts up quite a ways - at least a couple of feet. But my calibrated eyeball said it looked more like the second survey marker - one that looks like it was put in with a gob of tar or something - is probably the highest point. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the boulder with the plaque is not the actual summit.
Summary Total Data
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:3 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
warm to cool - almost cloudless sky and great visibility
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:12 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Time Down:8 Hours 30 Minutes

This page has been served 1715 times since 2005-01-15.

Copyright © 1987-2018 by All Rights Reserved. Questions/Comments/Corrections? See the Contact Page Terms of Service