Climbing Mt. Whitney
Tallest Mountain in the Lower 48 States
Text and Photos by A.R. Royo
Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, rises like the phoenix from the western rim of the Great Basin Desert of California. At an elevation of 14, 495 feet, Whitney looms high above Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 262 feet below sea level, less than 100 miles to the east.
Located within the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range of Sequoia National Park, Mt. Whitney is situated on the east side of the Great Western Divide, a chain of mountains that runs north/south through the center of the park, and is therefore not visible from any of the roads to the west.
But Mt. Whitney can easily be viewed from nearby Lone Pine, California (hotels) on U.S. Highway 395, which runs north/south along the eastern foot of the Sierras. Highway 395 can be reached via Interstate 15 near Victorville, California, over Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park (summer only) or by coming south from Reno, Nevada. There are no roads across the Sierras in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Mt. Whitney is the most frequently climbed peak in the Sierra Nevada, and perhaps the entire U.S. The summit can be reached most directly via a 10.7-mile trail from Whitney Portal, 13 miles west of of Lone Pine. Ice axes and crampons are needed in spring and early summer, but technical climbing equipment is not usually necessary between mid-July and early October. During snow-free summer months, some individuals in excellent physical condition can climb to the summit and return the same day.
There are other routes besides Whitney Portal which can be taken to reach Mt. Whitney. These routes start from less heavily-used trailheads, but require a longer hike to reach the summit. The High Sierra Trail begins in Giant Forest on the west side of Sequoia National Park, and takes a minimum of 10 days (round trip) to complete. John Muir Trail, which runs south from Yosemite National Park, and the Pacific Crest Trail, also provide access to the summit.
The peak hiking seasons are July and August, at which time all the campgrounds are likely to be crowded. The weather is unpredictable during all seasons, and summer thunderstorms are common. Summer days can be quite hot at lower elevations while nighttime temperatures can drop below freezing throughout the year. Ice can be encountered on the trail year round.
Some days are extremely crowded with 500 or more hikers on the trail. To minimize the impact of day-hikers on the Mt. Whitney backcountry, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, who manage the Whitney Portal trailhead, have required permits since summer 1996. Now, everyone entering the Whitney Zone between May 22 and October 15, including day-hikers, are required to obtain a permit.
Rules, Regulations, Recommendations
- Practice a strong wilderness ethic
- Acquire all necessary permits
- Make camping reservations
- Leave no trace
- Camp only on sites already impacted
- Pack out all waste
- Be respectful of others
- Prevent altitude sickness
- Avoid lightning
- Avoid hypothermia
- Be prepared for rapid weather changes
- Be prepared for water purification
Permits for day users and backpackers entering from the east are issued from the USFS office in Lone Pine. Everybody throughout the Mt. Whitney Zone must possess a valid wilderness permit year-round. Permits are issued only at the InterAgency Visitor Center, one mile south of Lone Pine, CA.
From May 1 to November 1, all use is regulated by limited entry quotas. There is a lottery for permits. (Find out more about all permit types on the USDA Forest Service site here.)
All Mt. Whitney visitors must pack-out their solid human waste. Pack-out kits are distributed with wilderness permits.
For additional information about Whitney Portal trailhead, contact:
Mt. Whitney Ranger District
640 S. Main Street
PO Box 8, Lone Pine, CA 93545
Hours: Monday - Friday 8:00am to 4:30pm
Whitney Portal offers the easiest and most direct approach to the summit of Mt. Whitney. Portal Road is paved and leads from a traffic light at U.S. 395 in Lone Pine, due west 3 miles to the portal. It has many switchbacks and is quite steep and is usually open May through early November. The last six miles are not plowed during the winter.
Lodging in Lone Pine
- There are motels in Lone Pine, with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list click here. (Rates, availability and reservations online)
Lone Pine Campground, 7 miles west of of town on Whitney Portal Road. Fee required.
Whitney Portal Campground is one mile east of Whitney Portal proper. Fee required. At Whitney Portal, all food, trash, toiletries and coolers must be removed from your vehicle and stored in bear-proof lockers. Failure to comply may result in extensive damage to your vehicle.
Trailside Backcountry Camping is available Outpost Camp (3.8 miles), Trail Camp (6.3 miles) and at the Whitney Summit (11 miles).
There is a general store and restaurant at Whitney Portal, open from Mid-May to mid-September, groceries, camping gear, food and drinks are available, as well as hot showers for a fee. A small picnic area is located nearby a fishing pond at the bottom of the trailhead with grills and tables.
From May 25 to October 31, all food, trash, toiletries and scented items must be stored approved bear-resistant containers. Hanging food is unacceptable and ineffective.
Even if you intend to ascend Mt. Whitney and return the same day, carrying the necessary amount of water -- 1 gallon per day -- can make for a very heavy load. Should you be making the hike in 2 or 3 days, 24 pounds of water, in addition to necessary clothing, camping, cooking and food, is obviously way too heavy.
There is plenty of water available, below 13,000 feet on the Whitney Portal Trail. Unfortunately, it must be purified before consumption to avoid disease. This can be accomplished by either boiling, filtration or iodination. Allowing water to boil 5 minutes should ensure safe drinking water at Whitney. Outdoor stores sell water filters, which can purify water of everything except viruses (i.e. hepatitis). These purifying filters can cost up to $100.
The cheapest and most common means of water purification is chemical. It is well established that iodine is effective in sterilizing drinking water, and iodine tablets for such purpose are sold in most outdoor stores for under $10.00. The unpleasant aftertaste can be improved by adding flavoring, AFTER the iodine tablet dissolves. Warning: Individuals with thyroid problems or iodine allergies should not use this method.
Everyone is affected by the reduced amount of oxygen at the elevation of Mt. Whitney. Some people with pre-existing medical conditions -- chronic heart condition, chronic lung conditions, previous stroke, chronic high blood pressure, sickle cell anemia -- should not attempt to climb Whitney without a physician's approval.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Most individuals will experience some form of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) above 10,000 feet. Children are more susceptible than adults. Symptoms of AMS, will vary greatly by individual and will not necessarily be related to age or physical condition. they include. Aspirin or similar analgesics are often taken for symptoms.
- Irregular breathing or shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite
- Disturbed sleep
- Anxiety attacks
- Cyanosis (blue-tinged lips and tongues)
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPES)
This is a form of altitude sickness in which the lungs fill with fluid. HAPES is a dangerous condition that can result in death if not treated promptly. Individuals with severe AMS symptoms above should be monitored for signs of HAPES. Distinctive symptoms are:
- Severe, persistent cough
- Rapid pulse (over 110 per minute)
- Rapid breathing (over 20 per minute)
- Confusion, delirium, irrational behavior
- Gurgling chest sounds
High Altitude Cerebal Edema (HACES)
This much less common, but much more dangerous form of altitude sickness involves a swelling of the brain. It usually only occurs when someone has spent a number of days spent above 12,000 feet. In addition to all other symptoms of AMS and HAPES above, HACES sufferers exhibit a loss of coordination (ataxia). The drunk driving test of walking a straight line toe-to-heel is the best way to diagnose HACES.
The only affective treatment for both HAPES and HACES is descent to a lower altitude. A difference of only 2,000 or 3,000 feet elevation can provide great improvement. These conditions worsen during the night, so once diagnosed, waiting till morning is unwise. It is never a good idea to continue a climb once the individual improves. Severe cases should seek medical attention to avoid complications.
Ways to Minimize Altitude Sickness
Adhering to the mountaineering adage of ascending no more than 1,000 feet per day. But this is usually impractical, so:
- Arrive at Whitney Portal the day or evening before the ascent
- Schedule at least one night on the trail
- Maintain adequate fluid intake (1 gallon per day)
- Maintain low-fat, low-protein, high carbohydrate diet
The Trail to the Mt. Whitney Summit
- 0.0 miles: Trailhead (8,360 feet)
- 0.85 miles: Enter John Muir Wilderness (permit required beyond)
- 2.7 miles: Cross Lone Pine Creek. Shortly after crossing, trail forks to Lone Pine Lake on left, right continues towards summit. (9,980 feet)
- 3.8 miles: Outpost Camp with Thor Peak dominating the view. (10,360 feet)
- 4.3 miles: Mirror Lake (10,640 feet)
- 4.9 miles: 50 yards past Whitebark Stump, a dwarf whitebark pine is the last tree on trail
- 5.3 miles: Trailside Meadow (11,395 feet)
- 6.3 miles: Trail Camp, a good place to rest before the grueling 96 switchbacks to Trail Crest. (12,039 feet)
- 8.5 miles: Cross Trail Crest and enter Sequoia National Park. (13,777 feet)
- 9.0 miles: John Muir Trail joins from the west. Altitude sickness common. (13,480 feet )
- 9.3 miles: Cutoff to Mount Muir.
- 10.5 miles: Keeler Needle, just a short climb to the summit from here. (14,003 feet)
- 11.0 miles: Mt. Whitney summit. No water. Camping permitted. (14, 495 feet)
- 0.85 miles: Enter John Muir Wilderness (permit required beyond)
Making the Climb
If you're interested in climbing Mt. Whitney, be aware that for most people, 2 to 3 days are required. This means backpacking in with sleeping bag, tent, food, stove, water and most of the time, ice axes and crampons. Be prepared to get wet. Be aware also, that weather can quickly change without warning, and that near the summit, lightning can be an extreme danger.
Plan in advance to acquire permits for the 2- or 3-day trek, if you'd like to climb during July and August, the only time of the year when the trail may be free enough of snow and ice to climb without ice axes and crampons.
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