In September, 2002, my dad and I climbed Mt. Whitney the week before school began. Below is an account of how we did it. I also have some photos from the trip.
To arrive at Whitney Portal from the San Francisco area, we took interstate 580 east to 205 east, about 30 miles which took us over the Altamont pass and past Tracy. Unfortunately, we left on a Wednesday afternoon, and so had the privilege of commute traffic. Leaving the bay area really is best left to hours when there is no traffic, as we spent a good solid 40 minutes stuck near Tracy. Near Manteca, we took 5 north for about a mile, and then exited on 120 east.
Although there is a $20 fee for going through Yosemite, this was by far the shortest route from San Fran. It's still a good 150 miles though. We arrived at the Yosemite entrance at about 8PM, right as it was getting dark. Passing through Yosemite took a bit more than an hour. The last leg of the trip was a good solid 140 miles on US 395 south, which took us from Lee Vining to Lone Pine (11:30PM). We spent the night at a hotel in Lone Pine, but if we'd arrived at a reasonable hour, it would have been a better idea just to go west on the road to Whitney Portal and stayed at the campsite there. In any case, the trailhead is only about 12 miles by car from Lone Pine.
To hike up Mt. Whitney from Whitney portal, you must have a wilderness permit for the area. The fines for not having one: $150 or $200 depending on whether you day-hike or backpack, simply don't encourage one to bend the rules. The problem is that Whitney is an extremely popular hike, and so there is a very strict quota to prevent people from overrunning the place. Unfortunately, that also makes getting a permit rather tricky. If you are smart (we weren't) and plan your hike well in advance (we're talking early to mid February for a hike in August or July), you can send in an application, and they'll have a lottery. The alternative is to hope to god that someone cancels their reservation, and you can somehow get it, since 100% of permits are reservable.
We, being stupid, did the latter. Now it is true that there are often cancellations. However, during the peak season (late June-early September), competition for these is quite fierce. In any case, when you get to the Wilderness office to try to get one of these permits, you will definitely not be alone. We were there in mid-September, and there were 9 different groups trying to get permits (admittedly some were trying to go elsewhere). They have a lottery for the people without reservations too, so every group picked a number out of a hat and went in for permits in that order. I, being very lucky, picked 7 (out of 9). To my utter and complete amazement, there were backpacking permits available for 3 nights, so we were very lucky.
There is an alternative, which is to hike in to Whitney from the other side. This isn't exactly easy, since the shortest such route we found was all of 35 miles (one way), going from the New Army pass. That would have been a good solid backpack of 4 days if we left from the Whitney Portal trail, and 6 if we'd gone back the way we came. Still it was an option we considered, and probably would have tried, had we not been lucky with the permits. For such a route, you'd still need a wilderness permit for that other trailhead, but most of those are much less popular, and so your chances would be pretty good. Note: all trailheads leading into Sequoia from the eastern Sierras require the use of bear cannisters. The ranger stations rent them for $5 a week, which was much better than REI or anyone else. We picked ours up at the ranger station.
We took the trip slow, and did it as a 3-day hike. 1 day to hike in (with backpacks) to Trail Camp. One day to go up to the peak and back to the camp, and one day to hike out. We obviously had to carry much more than the dayhikers did, and the 25-30 pound packs didn't exactly speed us up, but they did allow us to spread the distance and elevation over 3 days.
Okay. So we finally finished preparing the packs, moving all the food out of the car and so forth. We started hiking up the trail about 11AM. I'd really recommend starting as early as possible, but even an hour earlier would have been a big help, since much of the valley is in shade in the early morning. We weren't in the shade at all, and the sun and moderate grade made thing heat up quick. The trail kept to the north side of the valley, climbing in switchbacks pretty much the whole way to the camp.
Trailhead was 8,365 ft, and Trail Camp was over 12,000 ft., so it's a lengthy climb, even without packs. After the first 500 vertical feet, we crossed North Lone Pine Creek, the second stream we reached. There, I filled our water bottles (several quarts), and take the opportunity to splash water all over myself. I was perhaps a bit too liberal, soaking my boots, a fact I'd later regret. Anyway, we continued edging our way up. After about the first 1,000 vertical feet, we began to have occasional shade. The switchbacks led up to a little plateau, around 10,000 feet, which has Lone Pine Lake at its lower end. We reached the area around 1:00PM, and took a break. Thusfar we'd gone 2.8 miles and climbed 1,600 feet.
After the little plateau, the trail climbed again, going up perhaps 500 feet in switchbacks, which was fortunately well-shaded by trees. At this point things flatten out again, and we passed through a nice green meadow, over a small creek which we used to refill our water. Just before the climb started again, we passed Outpost Camp, elevation 10,600, where a couple a people were staying. The camp's sole landmark was a solar-powered outhouse.
From Outpost Camp, the trail climbed again, reaching another flat area, this time with a lake sitting at the end: Mirror Lake, approx. elevation 11,000. It was almost 3:00PM now and we'd gone 4.5 miles. The shade was almost entirely gone, as we left Mirror Lake, and vegetation, especially trees, were getting really scarce. From this point on, the trail was much rockier, and at some points even consisted of stone steps. The grade also increased. Around 11,300 feet, we passed a meadow full of marmots. The climb continued in narrow, and steep switchbacks for 700 more vertical feet, landing us at Trail Camp, elevation 12,000 feet. at 4:45PM, having covered 6.2 miles. The thin air had become particular noticeable over that last stretch.
Trail Camp was basically a relatively flat rocky area, directly adjacent to a small lake (which provides it with water), and with a solar-powered toiled near its entrance. It's basically at the end of the valley, for beyond it, in all direction, lie steep granite walls, some nearly vertical. The elevation was certainly noticeable to me, and aside from the difficulty of moving around, I developed a serious headache which required two aspirins to quell. Around 5PM, the camp fell under shadow from the mountains to the west, and by 7PM, it was pretty much dark. Although comfortable when the sun was out, the temperature dropped precipitously after it set, and since wood fires are not permitted above 10,000 feet, people either huddled around propane stoves, or hid in their tents once the sun was gone. We, having brought no stove, huddled in the tent.
Fortunately, the temperature did not go too low. Still, by early morning, I was bundled up with a jacket, inside my sleeping bag. The sun began to rise over the Owens valley around 6:00AM, and by a quarter of 7, we had sun in the camp as well. We spent the morning preparing our day pack, and pumping water from the lake. We ended up taking 5 quarts of liquid with us, since there was reportedly no water further up the trail. This turned out to be true.
We left camp around 8AM. Immediately, the trail began to ascend the southwest wall of the valley, climbing up 98 infamous switchbacks in 2.3 miles to the Trail Crest, elevation 13,600 feet. Before long, the sun was up, and it was getting quite warm. Thankfully we had a slight breeze, which kept things bearable. My biggest problem was lack of oxygen, and despite the night's stay at 12,000 feet, I could still feel distinctly the need to breathe more often. The climb took about 90 minutes, with breaks, yet despite the dozens of people climbing up as we did, there were no log jams.
The crest was a the low-point of a razorlike ridge of imposing granite. There we paused for a good 20 minutes. The main reason was simply that going on seemed almost impossible. There was also an ancillary reason that I had a camera, film, and an unparalleled view within easy reach. A little water and sitting down for a few minutes did wonders for the body.
At a bit past 10AM, we left the crest. The big surprise was that the trail actually descended down the west side of the ridge. The reason for this was a series of rocky pinnacles which made the upper part of the ridge impassable. After a short bit, we reached the junction with the trail from the Crabtree Lakes ranger station, some 6+ miles away. At that point the trail leveled out. Gradually, the ridge broadened on top, allowing the trail to traverse upward without switchbacks. We slowly began to regain elevation.
In all fairness, the final stretch of trail to the top was quite good. It was not overly steep, extremely rocky, or even particularly exposed. Nonetheless, the altitude kept us to a subdued pace. Others kept an equally subdued pace, and we met many of those who had passed us earlier on the stretch to trail crest. At 11:20AM, we were standing on the summit of Mt. Whitney, highest mountain in the lower 48.
Mt. Whitney is not one of those slender peaks that seems to prick the very sky. Rather, it is a massive monument of granite, a fist lofted skyward by some unimaginably huge giant. Although I heard a number of the 20 or so people on top of the peak claim that there was a 360 degree view, I feel a more accurate statement would be that the view included all directions, provided one was willing to walk a bit. We sat and ate lunch looking down a 2,000 foot cliff, facing east towards the Owens Valley and the White Mountains. Along with the hikers, a number of ground squirrels, a marmot, and many little brown birds occupied the area in which we ate. Near the top stood a neatly constructed little building, a shelter for those caught by foul weather.
Overall, we spent about 90 minutes on top taking pictures, resting, eating a quasi-lunch, and so forth. In the sun it was quite warm and comfortable.
In many ways, the return was more difficult than the ascent. Although we took our time, made a number of breaks, and took a good number of pictures, we were tired, the altitude had given me a headache. Somewhere along the way, we even managed to lose the trail briefly, and scrambled around for a while on the rocks. The 150 foot scramble back up to the trail crest was particularly difficult. We paused briefly at the trail crest for a picture, then continued down the 98 switchbacks below. Perhaps it was due to the long day, or maybe to our own tiredness, but it even seemed as if the trail had changed over the passage of the day. At 4:10PM, we finally reached the campsite.
We had a very early dinner and went to sleep early as well. Had we been faster at returning, it might have made sense to return to the Portal that day, but we had not. The next day's return was delayed by the necessity of repacking the packs. This, coupled with dismantling the tent, meant we did not leave until well past 8AM. The trail back was slightly eventful, chiefly thanks to the many hikers coming up (I counted more than 70) and the sun which bathed our side of the valley. Baked is probably the more appropriate word, since despite the fact that we were descending, not ascending, the sweat rolled unceasingly. We made a breakfast stop slightly above Lone Pine lake, and then continued our descent to Whitney Portal, where we arrived shortly before 1PM