Ascent of Mount Whitney on 1989-06-13

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Tuesday, June 13, 1989
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Whitney
    Elevation:14498 ft / 4418 m

Ascent Trip Report

Monday, June 12, 1989:

I woke up at 5:30 A.M. to the beeping of my little LCD alarm clock, threw on some clothes, and walked down Lone Pine's main street about a quarter mile to the National Forest Ranger Station, where I had to get a camping permit for the Mt. Whitney Trail. I didn't want to make a 25-mile dayhike gaining and descending 6150 vertical feet, so I was glad I was the first person there. Two other groups of guys soon joined me, though, and we waited outside in the morning chill until the ranger came, a little after 6 A.M.

She said that she could handle both Mt. Whitney groups (one of the other groups was going somewhere else) with permits for today that had been canceled or not reserved already, and she gave them out, explaining how they worked. They allowed one group of less than 10 to enter the National Forest at Whitney Portal and camp for as many days as they wanted thereafter at legal campsites. They only let 50 groups a day have a permit, to prevent overcrowding on the popular Mt. Whitney trail.

Now that I had my permit, I could camp out halfway up Whitney, allowing me to get a late start, so I went back to my room and went back to sleep after a quick breakfast. It was still god-awful early.

When I woke up again at 9:30 I carried my junk back out to the car, checked out, and then hit the other diner in this little town, a much nicer place than yesterday's, where I had a big breakfast. All set, I then drove up the Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine, which headed west through the strange rock formations of the Alabama Hills in the desert, then, on a huge, steep switchback, climbed up into treeline on the slopes of the Sierra into a sunny, forested glen to Whitney Portal Campground.

I parked under a huge tree in one of the few unoccupied spots, then went to the campground store, signed a log, and then went through the hassle of packing up my backpack, this time with sleeping bag, tent, stove, food, extra clothes, and one ski pole for the snow, if there was any up high. I then locked the car, used the modern bathroom at the campground, found the Mt. Whitney Trail entrance in the sunny evergreens, and started up the path to California's (and the contiguous 48's) highest point at 14,494 feet.

This trail was a remarkable engineering feat, for it must have contained literally thousands of switchbacks--as a matter of fact, it was constantly switchbacking, either broad gentle ones or hundreds of short little ones if the slope became very steep. Hiking slowly, just like I had done on Boundary Peak, I climbed up above the campground and through the open forest, generally having the hot sun shining on me. I exchanged words with the many people coming down or the ones I passed on the way up as I went higher and higher, passing a side trail to Lone Pine Lake, crossing a flooded meadow, but, in general, just switchbacking uphill through sunny, pleasant woods.

I was making good time, and I thought I'd camp at Trail Camp, which was just before the final ascent to the ridge of the Sierra Nevada, a good seven miles up from the road. However, the trees were getting thinner and thinner, and my wood-burning backpacking stove wouldn't have any fuel up that high, so at one of the last glades of trees I started picking up twigs and pine cones and putting them in a plastic bag, and when I felt I had enough I tied it to the back of my pack.

Just above this, on a rocky ledge, there was a ranger checking everyone's permits as they came up. I was alarmed because I had read a sign about a half-mile up the trail saying that fires were illegal, and this specifically included Zip Ztoves, which is what I had, and if she saw the wood in my see-through bag hanging from my pack she would be very suspicious. Therefore I took my pack off and extricated my permit from it well below the ledge, where she was talking to the two guys who had gotten their permits with me that morning. When I got up to the ledge, I carefully hid my back from the ranger while showing her my permit before carefully taking off up the trail without her ever seeing my wood. I even
talked with this little group of people for a little while.

I continued uphill, now totally above timberline in increasing cloudiness, amazed at how it clouded up every single afternoon despite the clarity of the morning. I again passed lots and lots of other hikers, going both ways, making this hike by a mile the most crowded I did all year. After more switchbacks among the gray rocks, with views of the massive wall of the Sierra crest in front of me, I came to Trail Camp, where, it seemed, all 50 groups of hikers allowed on the trail were camping out.

I passed the strung out line of tents and passed a little lake surrounded by some grassy meadows, and then the trail started climbing through a boulder field up towards the distant crest. One or two switchbacks up I struck off the trail and in a few minutes I found a nice little grassy plot for my tent. It was hidden from the trail by big boulders, and near a little running brook. I pitched my tent, squeezing it on to the tiny plot, glad for finding a secluded place higher up than the masses below me.

It was still very early and light out, so I carried my stove, food, and bag of wood down to the tiny meadow near the little lake an attempted to cook dinner. Without going into details, I can tell you it was a total botch. The stove worked fine, but either the food I had (dehydrated supermarket fare, some specialized backpacking stuff, or just plain noodles or rice) wasn't meant to be cooked the way I cooked it, or I didn't know how to cook it. I did manage to produce several mouthfuls of warm nourishment and make a mess of my little cookpot and pan, though.

As the coolness of the evening set in I explored the boulder field my tent was in, made some iodine-purified water, found a discarded canteen near my tentsite, and finally turned in while there was still light out, lying awake in my tent until it got dark and I fell asleep. At approximately 12,150 feet up, I was tying my night-spent height record from Yankee Boy Basin in January.

It got very windy during the night.

Tuesday, June 13:

I woke up at 4:30 A.M., setting another record, and quickly ate cold food (candy, gorp) for breakfast. Taking my big internal frame backpack without tent, stove or sleeping bag, therefore very light, I set off up the Mt. Whitney trail again by 4:50 A.M. I was getting such an early start because I wanted any snowbanks I encountered to be hard from the overnight freeze, and I also wanted to get to the top before the inevitable afternoon cloud-up.

Above trail camp the trail started switchbacking in earnest as it attacked the almost steep slopes up to Sierra Pass, at the crest of the range. It started encountering snowbanks, too, but they were very minor and never presented a problem at all--I was always able to pick up the trail on the other side of them. The number of switchbacks on this section of trail, steeply ascending a rocky, boulder strewn slope, was mind-boggling.

After over an hour of purposely slow cranking I came to one large snowfield where a path led across it to Sierra Pass. I made this crossing, longer than I thought it would be, using my ski pole for balance on the snow. At last I came to the pass, a rocky, jagged little notch in the rugged ridgecrest. From here the trail descended the other, less steep side of the range a little, and then wound its way north, always just a little west of the ridge. This part of the trail was largely flat, and though it made some hairy passages around rocky pinnacles and past sheer drop-offs, it was easy walking. There was still an occasional minor snowbank, but they were, again, no problem at all.

I walked along easily, marvelling at the far-ranging view to the west towards the Central Valley as I traversed these generally gentle slopes, and soon saw Mt. Whitney ahead of me. The west slopes of this monarch of a peak were very rounded and easy, and the trail, after passing the similar slopes of the sub-peaks to Whitney's south, gently switchbacked its way up the rocky summit dome. Anxious to arrive, I started hiking fast, and, after a couple rests, I arrived at the summit, the highest point in the United States outside Alaska and a new personal highest for me.

The top was very flat, with a dilapidated little hut amidst the jumble of huge boulders lying around. There was a truly fantastic sheer cliff dropping off to the east, and by looking over its edge I could see the route of my ascent and Lone Pine in the Owens Valley, 10,000 feet below. I had arrived at 9:25 A.M., and there was not a single cloud in the sky. To the west I could see Kern Canyon, the Great Western Divide, the Central Valley, and maybe even the Coastal Range on its far side--only haze blocked my view. To the north and the south more rocky summits, speckled with intermittent snow, marched to the horizons.

I rested a long time here, glad, because of my ungodly early start, to have the summit to myself. I took lots of pictures, tried to determine which of the many rocks was the highest (impossible without surveying equipment) and touch them all, and ate some of my food. I also climbed on to the roof of the hut and stood up as tall as I could, since the roof was actually the highest thing there. After about forty minutes I left, easily making my way down the gradual west slope on the trail, dodging the intermittent small snow patches. The 14,000 foot altitude was not affecting me much.

I started seeing people as I made my way south along the ridge, and I pointed to the summit and otherwise encouraged them when they asked how much further it was. As I neared Sierra Pass I thought I'd climb 14,018 foot Mt. Muir, one of the jagged pinnacles along the Sierra crest just north from the pass. This took some doing, though, since it was very hard to determine which of the many spires was in fact Mt. Muir. I scrambled off the trail and up a steep rocky pitch to the top of one of the pinnacles, but, looking back north, saw that Mt. Muir was clearly the previous one. It looked nasty, too.

So I backtracked on the now-crowded trail past an old man, dropped my pack, and scrambled up another steep talus slope. As I neared the summit, though, unscalable sheer walls blocked my access to the top of the spire. I descended to my pack, backtracked some more, and tried again, hoping that the summit would be more accessible from the northwest than from the southwest. Again, I had to turn back, even after doing some plainly dangerous solo rockclimbing-type pitches.

Now I was mad at this seemingly impossible needle, and I was now hot and thirsty (having left my water bottles in my pack below) in the bright sun, but I went around a little bit on the rocky lower slopes and went for a third try. This time, again having to use my hands and toes to climb some steep pitches with huge cliffs all around, I found a series of little clefts that after a few more hairy climbs led me to the miniscule summit of Mt. Muir. Third time was a charm for me, and I gleefully rested on a spire of rock that dropped almost straight down from all sides, with an especially huge drop to the east.

I noticed a little metal box wedged in a cleft of the summit rock, and I signed my name in the logbook there, happy to have a place to record my triumph over this bothersome little peak. Apparently the Sierra Club guidebook called Mt. Muir "insignificant", and most climbers disputed this claim in the book. I agreed with them, feeling my Muir climb was more significant than tramping up Mt. Whitney on a graded trail.

My descent form Mt. Muir was treacherous, since going down cliffs is more dangerous than going up them, but I was able to lower myself down easily with a minimum of jumps or falls, and I hiked down the jumbled rocks of its lower slopes to my pack and the trail in five minutes, where I quaffed a lot of water before resuming my downhill hike.

At Sierra Pass I discovered I didn't have to traverse the snowfield, since the trail stayed above it and switchbacked around it. I stayed with the trail, and the interminable series of utterly endless switchbacks, now wet with melting snow, often brooks, tired me out. I saw people well below me who were glissading down a snowfield in the valley to get to Trail Camp, and I sort of wished I had tried it, but I had to stick with my trail.

I returned to my tent, visible from the trail above if you knew where to look, and rested there for a good long while. I was a little sunburned and the early start and intense hiking (2300 high-altitude vertical feet over five miles in four and a half hours) of the morning had made me a little weary. After eating some more cold food I packed up my tent and sleeping bag, and, leaving my campsite as clean as I could, I left Trail Camp and started descending again.

It was an easy downhill that never quite became a slog as I switchbacked down, seeing hordes of hikers, admiring the mountain prospects of the High Sierra, and resting now and then. I re-entered the forest, and, only two miles from the trailhead, came to the side trail to Lone Pine Lake. I took this short path and decided to camp out again this night, since I had time to kill and wanted to camp out twice in a row at least once on my trip. I could have easily made it down to my car, but there was no point.

So I set up my tent again near the north shore of Lone Pine Lake, a cold, blue pond in the sunny, open forest with a grey cliff rising not far from its south shore, and then set up a little kitchen a ways from my tent and attempted, again, to cook a hot meal. This became an even bigger disaster than the day before: the dehydrated food I was trying to cook (eggs, peas) was fundamentally gross to begin with, and all I could make was a soupy mass and I got my pot and pans totally black from the soot my wood-burning stove generated. I tried something else, made a similar mess, and gave up. Again, I did generate some somewhat palatable mouthfuls, but I still remained a cold-food devotee for the time.

It was only 6 P.M. when I had cleaned up from my cooking debacle, but I went to sleep anyway, given my early start. I had some trouble falling asleep, but by the time it got dark out I had managed to nod off in my sleeping bag.

Wednesday, June 14:

I slept late, and when I awakened to another clear, crisp Sierra morning I ate what little remained of my cold food, struck camp, took some pictures, including one of myself with my pack on, and started back down the remaining two miles of the Mt. Whitney Trail after an abortive attempt to find a way down from the outlet of the lake failed.

The downhill hike was uneventful--it was hot out, and I met tons of hikers on their way up to Whitney, even a few planning it as a day hike. My feet hurt a little bit in my worn and battered six-year old hiking boots, so I was glad when the switchbacks finally ended after dropping me down to Whitney Portal Campground. My car was cool in the shade where I had parked it, and I happily unloaded my pack, changed, used the campground bathroom, signed out in the log at the general store, and then carefully drove out of the narrow one-way roads of the crowded campground.

Mount Whitney is the flat-topped feature to the left and behind the much more spectacular-looking Keeler Needle in this picture taken from the final section of the Mount Whitney trail (1989-06-13).
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:6148 ft / 1873 m
    Total Elevation Loss:800 ft / 243 m
    Grade/Class:Class 1
    Quality:6 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Weather:Cool, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:6148 ft / 1873 m
    Route:Mt. Whitney Tr
    Start Trailhead:Whiney Portal CG  8350 ft / 2545 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:800 ft / 243 m
    Route:Mt. Whitney Tr
    End Trailhead:Whitney-Muir Saddle  13698 ft / 4175 m
Ascent Part of Trip: 1989 - Mount Whitney (2 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Mount Whitney1989-06-13 a6148 ft / 1874 m
2Mount Muir1989-06-13 b314 ft / 96 m
Total Trip Gain: 6462 ft / 1970 m    Total Trip Loss: 6462 ft / 1970 m

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