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In addition to the magical appeal of the Sierra Nevadas, Mt. Whitney's status as 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 zone stamp.

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.