In addition to the magical appeal of the Sierra Nevadas, Mt. Whitney's
the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states and its proximity to major
population centers, makes this one of the most popular highpoint hikes. As
with other trails in the Sierra Nevadas a quota system is in place and you
must obtain a permit if you plan to spend the night on the trail. In
addition to the usual paperwork your permit must also bear a Mt. Whitney
In 1996 the permit system was major fiasco and I tried in vain to obtain
the permit. In 1997 a new reservation system was in place and I finally
was able to obtain a permit for four hikers for an entry date
of July 1.
I was joined by old friends Brian Hildebrand and Jim Richards, and by
Brian's sister Nancy. We spent a couple of days camping and hiking at
elevations of 8,500-11,000 feet before we hit the Whitney trail in hopes of
becoming acclimated to the altitude. That strategy seemed to pay off.
Our trip covered 22 miles in three days. On day 1 we hit the trail early
and arrived at Trail Camp in the middle of the afternoon. Trail Camp is
6.3 miles from the trailhead and sits within sight of the Whitney summit
and well above treeline at 12,039 feet.
Despite our acclimation period I did have a very slightly upset stomach
the first night in Trail Camp. But the feeling subsided when we hit the
trail the next morning.
The Sierras had roughly twice the normal snowfall the previous winter
season and we did have to
cross a few brief snowfields en route to Trail Camp. On summit day, July
2, we started up the well-known 96 switchbacks section. At the top was the
first significant snowfield we had to contend with. I was glad I had
instep crampons and trekking poles, although others in the group choose
not to use their instep crampons and claimed to have no trouble.
We puposely got a rather late start, (8 a.m.), in order to give the
ice a chance to thaw. (There was a hard freeze overnight.)
This proved to be a wise decision. The only danger spot was the perenial
icy patch where a steel cable has been installed.
While the previous day's hike had been primarily up Lone Pine Creek past
alpine lakes and meadows, the summit day hike was defined by stark
barren rocky peaks. At the top of the 96 switchbacks was Trail Crest
where the Mt. Whitney Trail enters Sequoia National Park. There is a
nice view of Crabtree Meadows to the west from here.
Shortly before this point we were joined by Steve, a resident of Southern
California who had been camped at Trail Camp several days waiting for his
companions to get over their mountain sickness. Since they never did he
set out on his own hoping to join up with another group. He seemed to be
a competent mountaineer so we were happy to oblige.
Between Trail Camp and Trail Crest the trail gains 1738 feet in the
switchbacks. The remaining two miles to the summit only gain about 800
feet although the trail does lose about 300 feet initially on it's way to
a junction with the John Muir Trail. It's steady but not difficult uphill
from that point to the summit.
After Trail Crest the trail stays on the west side of the ridge line.
Along the way are some spots that would be tough except that this is a
constructed trail and where necessary rock has been blasted or piled up
to make this trip a hike rather than a climbing expedition.
On the west flank of Whitney the trail got lost in a sizeable snowfield
so we followed the tracks of those before us straight up the snow to the
gently westward tilting mountaintop. There we were able to relocate the
trail. Proceeding east only a few hundred yards brought us to the summit
hut and the dramatic peak itself with it's sheer drop to the east side.
Luckily the weather was perfect. We were able to eat a leisurely
lunch, enjoy the views, and savor the moment. Only two days before the
winds had been 60-70 m.p.h. at this spot.
The hike back to Trail Camp was rather exciting thanks to a sitting
glissade we were able to perform from Trail Crest down nearly to Trail
Camp. There was a major snowfield on the north side of the 96 switchbacks
and we had seen several other parties take advantage of it to shorten
the hike back by an hour or more. We donned rain suits and launched ourselves
down the trough created in the snow by our predecessors. The main worry
was not to get out of control in the steep upper reaches. While ice axes
would have been preferred, a shortened trekking pole made an effective
brake when dug into the side of the trench.
Although some hikers choose to hike back to the trailhead on the
afternoon of summit day, we elected to spend a leisurely evening at Trail
Camp and exit on day 3. Actually, a fair number of people do the whole
trip as a day hike. I personally recommend taking three days. I guess it
just depends on whether you're there solely to "bag a peak" or whether
you want to spend some time enjoying the natural surroundings.
I won't bore you with a description of the hike back to the trailhead, but
I will mention one aside that may interest you. A couple of days later we
did the hike up White Mountain Peak -- a moderate day hike in the White
Mountains and another California "14'er". White Mountain Peak has several
distinctions: it is the highest peak in California's White Mountains, it
is the third-highest mountain in California, and it is one of only
two of the fourteen California 14'ers that is not part of the Sierra Range.
This is a very enjoyable complement to the Mt. Whitney hike and provides a
dramatic study in contrasts. Though nearly as tall, the White Mountains
are in the rain shadow of the Sierras and have a totally different
ecosystem. Check it out if you have the time.