Mount Whitney (California)

The highest mountain in the “contiguous 48 states”, Mount Whitney is a tough overnight hike – or an even more gruelling and long day walk to the 4,420m (14,500 feet) summit.

I need a bit of luck for this walk – both because it’s late in the hiking season (October), and because hiking permits can be hard to get. I’m fortunate that I have no problem securing a permit on-line a week before my planned hiking date. Now I just have to get to the start of the hike. I’m driving from LAX to Lone Pine, which in itself is an interesting drive. State Route 14 passes Edwards Air Force Base, one of the main landing strips for NASA’s space shuttle. A bit further and about half-way along the five hour drive, I make an unplanned stop at the Red Rock Canyon State Park. Located at the convergence of the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada Range and the El Paso Range, the park features scenic desert cliffs, buttes and spectacular rock formations.

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It’s impossible to miss from State Route 14 – and I discover later has been the filming location for many movies and TV series including Jurassic Park, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and The Twilight Zone. I take the opportunity to stretch my legs, and do one of the short walks around the odd landscape.

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The next hundred or miles or so of highway traverses a pretty barren landscape, with the dead-straight highway passing salt flats and what seem to abandoned mills.

I reach the small town of Lone Pine in the late afternoon, to pick up my permit and get a few supplies. I’m staying in Lone Pine, ready for an early-morning start the next day… 

The Whitney Ascent

It’s not often I start a hike at 3am, but with a 35km (22-mile) round trip and 1,860m (6,100 feet) elevation gain, it’s going to be a long day… The first three hours are in the dark, as I trudge up along Lone Pine Creek from the Whitney Portal trailhead with a head-torch. Beyond Mirror Lake and as I reach the tree-line (I’ve done just over 6.5km or 4 miles) the first light illuminates Mount Whitney and the surrounding peaks with a surreal alpenglow.

Sierra peaks in the morning sun

Looking east, the sun is still below the horizon, but there’s enough natural light that I can put away the head-torch.

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The trail is quite rocky as it gains altitude beyond Trailside Meadows (8km / 5 miles), and there’s now a few remnant patches of snow and ice.

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There’s a few other hikers on making their way up the barren trail – so far I’ve encountered almost no other hikers.

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A little further is Consultation Lake, one of the camping sites you can use if doing the hike over multiple days.

Consultation Lake (4000m)

The last campsite is the popular Trail Camp (9.7km / 6 miles from the start), with the Mount Muir and Mount Whitney mountain range towering above it. There’s a few people packing up camp as I trudge past…

Morning light on Pinnacle Ridge

The next section is considered the hardest, as the trail goes up 99 switchbacks toward Trail Crest. About half-way up you reach “the cables”, which is more of a hand-railing on one side of the track. There’s snow and ice on the track along this section, and while I would probably be fine (with extreme caution) wearing just hiking shoes, I’m glad I brought some micro-spikes. (If there’s a possibility of ice or snow, I carry a pair of Kahtoola MICROspikes, which have been invaluable both on US and Australian winter hikes.) While it make progress a bit slower, it’s nice to be walking on snow and not a rocky path, as I’ve seen in many of the photos of this section.

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Looking back, there’s a view of Trail Camp Pond and Consultation Lake – I hadn’t really noticed the lakes as I walked past them, in the low morning light.

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The trail keeps steadily climbing, with views toward Lone Pine and the Inyo Mountains on the other side of the valley.

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As the trail passes Trail Crest, the views extend even further: to west you look toward Sequoia National Park in the distance and Hitchcock Lake below, with Mt Hitchcock rising steeply behind it.

Shortly after reaching Trail Crest is the junction with the John Muir Trail. From here the last section of the walk is much less steep, with the track following the side of the cliff. in the distance is the Mount Whitney summit,

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There are sheer vertical drops to the left as the track weaves along the side of the cliff past interesting rock formations, with some spectacular views out to the west.

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Neat the top is a view of the Needles, which appear as jagged peaks from below.

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Finally the 4,420m (14,500 foot)** summit is reached, which features a stone hut – the Smithsonian Institute Shelter – built in 1909. It was originally constructed to house scientists who used the summit to study high-altitude phenomena, after a  US Fisheries employee was struck and killed by lightning on the summit in 1904.

(**  The accepted elevation of Mt. Whitney has “changed” a few times since the mountain was first climbed in 1873 – even today there are references to its height as being 14,496, 14,497,  14,505 and 14,508 feet. Based on the data available to date, the true elevation of Mt. Whitney is 14,500 feet – Sierra Club)

Nearing the summit...

The summit is almost anti-climactic – it’s a vast area, and the views arguably less spectacular than from the track… No that the views are bad. You get 360-degree views, with Sequoia and Kings Canyon to the west and Lone Pine, the White Mountains, and Death Valley to the east.

I don’t spend too long at the top – as I’ve got a long walk back down to the car!

The trip back down commences...

On the descent, having micro-spikes on makes a huge difference – although the track doesn’t look steep in the photo, there are a few sections you’d need to take very slowly and carefully without some added traction!

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One of the nice things about starting the walk before dawn, is that on the way down I’m seeing things I didn’t see on the way up… as I reach the lower elevations, Lone Pine Creek sustains a meadow along its course. And Mirror Lake, framed by steep cliffs, is very picturesque.

Defying the inhospitable terrain and low summer rainfall, are various pine trees:  around Mirror Lake the stunted lodgepole pines are most dominant.

Further down is the bright-blue Lone Pine Lake, surrounded by pine trees and the first camping site along the Mount Whitney Trail.

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With the light beginning to fade, I complete the hike around 6pm. It’s been about 15 hours of almost constant walking, with 1800m of elevation gain. Despite being exhausted, it’s been one of my best hikes – challenging but with constantly changing scenery and views.

My adventure is not quite over, though… my destination on the following day is San Francisco, where I’m attending a conference. I’ve booked accommodation not far from Whotney Portal, and driving to San Fran the following day. That was the plan. As I start driving down from Whitney Portal, I hear on the radio warnings of a cold front coming through overnight, with Highway 120 through Yosemite being closed to traffic. That means an additional two hours of driving, which I hadn’t planned on. Bugger. I decide I’d better push on and get to San Francisco that evening, taking Highway 120 through Yosemite. Having crossed the Sierras ahead of the storm and looking forward to getting some sleep, my route is abruptly stopped by locked gates and flashing warning lights! Highway 120 has been closed – and I’m on the wrong side of the gate. I’m the only car, at about midnight, as I ponder who I’m supposed to call to get myself out of here. Eventually, a few more cars pull up behind me. Someone must know who to call, as about half an hour later a police car turns up to unlock the gates, and let us through. I finally make my hotel in San Fran at about 2am – making it about 24 hours of hiking and driving. I sleep well that night.

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 0.0km Whitney Portal trailhead (2,552m . 8,360 feet elevation)
 4.0km (2.5 miles) Lone Pine Lake junction
 5.6km (3.5 miles) Outpost Camp (3,243m / 10,640 feet)
 6.5km (4.0 miles) Mirror Lake
 8.1km (5.0 miles) Trailside Meadows
 9.7km (6.0 miles) Trail camp (3,670m / 12,039 feet)
13.2km (8.2 miles) Trail Crest (3,962m / 13,000 feet)
14.1km (8.7 miles) Junction with John Muir Trail
17.3km (10.7 miles) Mount Whitney Summmit (4,421m / 14,505 feet)
34.6km Whitney Portal trailhead
Location Start / finish at Whitney Portal, an 18.5km (11.4 mile) drive up from the town of Lone Pine.
Distance 34.6km (10.7 miles) return
Grade Very hard. Total ascent is 1,680m. May be snow/ice year-round
Season/s May-November. Permit required 1 May to 1 November)
Can be done year-round but needs appropriate equipment and skills!
Map/s Interactive topographic map with GPX download
Custom topographical map (A4, 1:9K) [PDF]
Mount Whitney (National Geographic Trails) Map
GPS Route PlotaRoute map with option to download GPX / KML files
Resources

Image result for mount whitney trail map

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