Mt. Whitney, the pyramidal potentate of the Sierra Nevada, is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. The sheer height of the bare granite summit, combined with its dramatic appearance — rising more than 10,000 feet from the town of Lone Pine, Calif. in the Owens River Valley — means bagging the summit is on the list of every serious mountaineer.
The good news is that due to the grade of the trail and accessibility of the peak, anybody in decent shape can add it to their quiver. The bad news is two-fold. One, due to the popularity of the hike, you need to enter a lottery to get a permit. Two, due to the grade of the trail and accessibility of the peak, people underestimate the overall difficulty of executing a strenuous hike at high altitude.
Approximately 30,000 people try to summit Mt. Whitney every year. Only 10,000 succeed. No doubt poor conditioning, and difficulty with altitude play a large role in the relatively high failure rate, but there are other factors to consider as well.
The Facts, Jack
At 14,505, Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the “lower 48,” but ranks 11th in the United States (the top ten are all in Alaska) and 24th in North America. It’s 65 feet taller than Mt. Elbert — the tallest of the Rocky Mountains located in Colorado.
Whitney sits only 84 miles away from the lowest point in North America — Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park. It is situated on the Sierra Crest, running north-south and is surrounded by several other Sierra Nevada high peaks. The United States Geological Survey brass marker incorrectly states the peak’s measurement as 14,494, as the shape of the earth has been measured more accurately since it was installed.
Muir, Whitney, and the Three Fishermen
The California Geological Survey named the peak after Josiah Whitney, California’s state geologist. Whitney often publicly squabbled with the famed naturalist John Muir. Muir attributed the shape and form of the Sierra Nevada to glacial activity, while Whitney maintained it was faulting. Muir’s theory is the one generally accepted by today’s geologists.
Muir climbed Mt. Whitney in 1873. He was almost the first, but not quite. Three locals from Lone Pine — Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Lucas — summitted the peak about a month before as a part of a fishing trip. As a result, he christened it Fishermans Peak. It didn’t stick.
On our way up Mount Whitney.
There are several different ways to climb Mt. Whitney. If you have technical experience, you can choose from a bevy of lines that take a more direct route to the top. John Muir climbed the famed Mountaineers Route a hefty Class 3 scramble that presents a cardiovascular challenge. The East Face of Mt. Whitney, a technical rock climb, is listed as one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America. It is rated 5.4, but has the challenge of thin air. But the views on the way up are incredible.
If you posses the know-how, by all means, bag it this way. Here are a few additional tips.
If hiking boots are more your thing there are two basic options. One is the 22-mile long Mt. Whitney Trail that starts at Whitney Portal. This by far and away is the easiest and most popular method for bagging Mt. Whitney. However, permits are required to hike beyond Lone Pine Lake and for any overnight camping on the mountain.
The other option is backpacking.
From the Onion Valley, about 36 miles to the north, you can access the John Muir Trail, ascending up the backside of Whitney from Guitar Lake. This route requires a simple backcountry wilderness permit, easy to obtain. If you have more time you could trek 72 miles on the High Sierra Trail, which starts in Sequoia National Park.
If you are overflowing with free time why not really get after it and do the entire 212-mile John Muir Trail, which begins in Yosemite National Park. It will take you about a month. The last two options cover some of the most beautiful terrain in the world and are well worth the effort.
Not everyone camps overnight. You can get a single-day permit. It’s possible to summit Whitney in a day, particularly if you’re in fine fettle. But people in poor athletic condition or unused to the thin air of high altitude also fail at a high rate.
By far the more popular option is hiking to one of the many camps along the trail, sleeping overnight, getting an early start and baggin' the peak by morning. Most use the first day to hike 6 miles to Trail Camp, situated at an altitude of 12,000 feet. At 5 miles away, it is the closest you can camp to the summit. Under this scenario, the first day is a breeze and the second day can be extended but manageable.
Unfortunately, most of us are pressed for time. If circumstances mandate an accelerated timeline, you will have to win the lottery. Literally. To keep the number of hikers reasonable, the Mt Whitney Lottery, run by the Inyo National Forest, opens every year on Feb. 1 and closes March 15. If your number is pulled, you have to claim the permit by May 1. But winning the lottery is far from guaranteed.
In 2016, about 13,600 people applied for approximately 65,000 spots. Inyo National Forest limits use to about 100 overnight campers per day and 60 same day users, meaning approximately 28,000 people get permits each year. So there are many unsuccessful lottery attempts. Your best bet is to enlist friends to enter the lottery and increase your chances. But don’t overdo it. People from the same group applying for the same day can result in disqualification.
Try to line up your dates with the full moon in the months of July, August and September. These are the most desired times, but if lottery luck is on your side, it’s ideal. These months are the least likely to get snow or ice and the moon will help with your pre-dawn hiking.
An early start is critical because, whether day hiking or camping overnight, summit before noon. Mornings on Sierra peaks are when the wind is calmest and when the chance of inclement weather is significantly reduced. While most attribute Whitney’s failure rate to altitude, weather is equally culpable. Rain is infrequent in the Sierra during the summer, weather does build up almost daily at the Sierra Crest.
Mt. Whitney Trail starts high at 8,600 feet and ascends gently over the course of its 6,000 vertical feet gain in elevation. The average of 550-feet in elevation gain per mile makes for a relatively gentle ascent. For fast hikers, the ascent can be done in about 5 hours, with about 7 to 8 hours for the average hiker. A slow pace may mean 10 hours to the top. Generally, coming down takes about 2 to 3 hours quicker. In order to get back Whitney Portal before dusk in the summer 8pm it often requires starting before sunrise.
Sleeping at Altitude
If you are prone to altitude sickness, camping at Outpost Camp (10,400 feet) or Lone Pine Lake (9,900 feet) are good options. It just means a slightly more strenuous second day. The bonus of overnighting is that you can backpack up the first stretch and then keep your gear down at camp as you summit with a significantly lighter pack.
Worth the Effort
The lottery system is a pain, but it keeps crowds on the trail and at the summit reduced. It means when you do achieve the top, you are afforded the picturesque views of the High Sierra extending in every direction without having to jostle about. It’s a great reward for reaching the highest spot in the lower 48 after one of the best hikes North America has to offer.
Matt Renda is a friend of NEMO, who has been known to take epic, slightly questionable adventures with his pals from our team.