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Summer hikes

Big Five Lake number 4       Big Five Lake number 5

 

ON THE BEATEN PATH:

MOUNT WHITNEY IN A DAY

(Published September 13, 2002)

Our son on the summit of Mount Whitney, who

at the age of 12, was the youngest person

on top of the mountain that day. He is shown here

with his Minimed Medtronic insulin pump

as he has had Type 1 diabetes since 1999.

Whitney by the Miles:  

0.0   0.5   2.8   3.0   3.8  4.3

5.0    5.8   6.2   8.5   8.7   9.0   10.2  10.7


   If you are seeking a solitary backcountry experience, choose another trail. But if you want to drive a paved road to 8,361 feet and bag the highest peak in the Lower 48, then the Mount Whitney Trail was engineered for you.
   You and about 129 other people, that is. As many as 130 people a day begin a trek up this famous 11-mile trail, intent on completing the round trip in a 24-hour period.
   Some make it. Most don’t.
   Being in good physical condition is important. Being acclimated is a priority.
   Having enough food and water, or a water filter, is essential. Having well-fitted, broken-in, trail-tested boots is mandatory.
   On Monday, Aug. 5, our family of four (kids ages 12 and 13) set out at dawn to tackle the 23 miles from Whitney Portal Campground to the Mount Whitney summit and back in one day. It was the first Monday in August when, as a family, we embarked on the longest dayhike we had ever attempted.
   It was a challenge we were looking forward to, but also realized there was a possibility of not reaching the 14,496-foot peak, the summit of which is in Sequoia National Park. We have a family hiking pact, which we renewed that morning — “one for all and all for one,” meaning together we make our destination or together we turn back.
   To hike Mount Whitney in a day is as mentally challenging as it is physical. Keeping a positive outlook and maintaining perspective becomes difficult as the air thins, the trail steepens, and the miles become longer and longer.
   It became a matter of reaching several mini-destinations at varying elevations rather than getting to one place that at so many times during the day seemed impossibly far away.
   0.0 miles (8,361 feet elevation)— The Mount Whitney trailhead is located just east of the Whitney Portal Store. The trail is well-maintained and heavily traveled.
   The route begins by heading northwest and away from Mount Whitney. Although the summit is out of view for the time being, the vistas of the Owens Valley to the east are breathtaking.
   Our views of this broad plain, as well as the town of Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills in the foreground, weren’t as dramatic as usual due the McNally Fire, a wildland fire burning to the south.
Smoke had settled into the lowlands, obscuring the valley floor. Except for the hazy scene below, we were not affected by smoke and admired the white granite peaks against a vivid blue sky.
   The wide trail ascends gradually through chaparral that includes chinquapin, sagebrush, mountain misery, and manzanita. An early start is advised on this exposed slope, which is shaded only by a few Jeffrey pines and red firs, and we were glad to be on the trail before sunup.
   0.5 mile (8,480 feet)— After some easy rock-hopping across the north fork of Lone Pine Creek, a sign along the trail marks the entrance into the John Muir Wilderness. We were now heading west and south, this being the only route through the nearly impassable sheer granite cliffs.
   We passed a couple here day-hiking to Lone Pine Lake. Soon after, we passed a solo woman hiker, who explained she was from Lone Pine — the gateway community to the Whitney Portal area — and tries to hike to Trail Camp and back one day each week during summer.
   At just over two miles, as we reached the top of a ridge, the sun found us. We were amidst the shadows of trees, surrounded by sheer granite walls, and over 9,000 feet, so its warmth was welcomed.
   It’s alpenglow in reverse when on the east side of the Sierra. We had watched the sun illuminate Mount Whitney earlier when all else was yet untouched by the new day, then the rays slowly worked their way down-canyon.
   The trail levels out at the top of the rise. Here, we caught up to a man and his teenage son who revealed they, too, were heading for the Whitney summit.
   They inquired about our bright orange permits fluttering on our daypacks, the visibility of which is a requirement. They were unaware that permits were mandatory to enter the Mount Whitney Zone, the boundary of which we were nearing, but they continued to climb upward for a while longer.
   We crossed Lone Pine Creek on a series of logs set in place to keep boots dry.
   2.8 miles (9,420 feet)— Just after the creek-crossing is the spur trail to Lone Pine Lake. This pretty lake is perched precariously on the edge of the canyon with excellent views of the Owens Valley seen from the east side of the lake.
Dayhikers may hike to Lone Pine Lake without a permit.
   3.0 miles (9,450 feet)— The trail continues southwest through a dry, barren streambed. There is a sign here that marks the entrance into the Mount Whitney Zone. All hikers must have a permit to continue up the trail.
   Rocky switchbacks lead up and over yet another low ridge, then the trail drops down into a willow-lined meadow that used to be a lake. The trail levels out and traverses the east side of the meadow and a creek.
   3.8 miles (10,335 feet)— The trail veers north away from a cascading waterfall, fords the stream, and enters Outpost Camp.
   Here, beneath a canopy of conifers, is a popular overnight stop. There is a solar outhouse and plenty of water, but the summit is still seven miles and more than 4,000 vertical feet away.
   As we passed by, there were three sets of backpackers doing various camp chores — taking down tents, loading packs, and filtering water. On our return trip, there were more than 15 tents pitched in the area, and it was dinnertime.
   4.3 miles (10,640 feet)— More switchbacks zigzag over the next rocky outcrop to Mirror Lake. The willow-covered shoreline of this lake has been closed to camping for 30 years due to overuse.
   From this section of trail, Mount Whitney towers over the lake to the northwest. The water is like a reflecting glass for the pinnacle high above due to the lack of wind in this sheltered canyon, thus the lake’s name.
   The trail begins to climb in earnest above Mirror Lake, soon leaving the last foxtail pine behind and rising above timberline. The ascent is relentless for the next four miles.
   The landscape is white and nearly blinding in the sunlight, from the great granite chutes that tower above the trail to the sandy surface and glacier-polished slabs on which we were walking.
   5.0 miles (11,395 feet)— A series of switchbacks up a narrow ridge leads to Trailside Meadows, identified by a sign that also states that no camping is allowed here. The trail is bordered on one side by a sheer, white granite face and on the other by a tumbling stream lined with shooting stars and Indian paintbrush.
   5.8 miles (11,680 feet)— Passing by Trailside Meadows, the route turns away from the creek and switchbacks to the next bench. Along this windswept ridge, we left the trail to find a sheltered area among the boulders overlooking Consultation Lake.
   As we snacked, a discussion arose as to why the name Consultation Lake. We agreed that it is here where many must consult with their parties as to whether they should continue to the summit or turn back.
   In reality, the lake acquired its name as early as 1895, but the U.S. Board of Geographic Names decision states the lake was named in 1904 when the men who were constructing the Whitney trail consulted here as to which direction the trail should take. They decided to build it over Whitney Pass to the south; the trail was realigned in the 1930s to take a more westerly route to another saddle, present-day Trail Crest, located about one mile north of Whitney Pass.
   Here, at just over the halfway point on the trail between Whitney Portal and Mount Whitney, food and water must still be in plentiful supply, the weather needs to be favorable, foot health and physical stamina should be reassessed, and the hour of the day becomes a consideration. If all of the above are in order, then it’s onward and upward, but if any one factor is questionable, then it becomes advisable to opt for safety and turn back.

  6.2 miles (12,000 feet)— The kids (ages 12 and 13) once again took the lead as we started on yet another set of switchbacks, which included some concrete steps. Soon the second solar outhouse along the trail came into view, as did its aroma briefly.
   After our examination of the high-country comfort station, we turned our attention to Trail Camp, the likes of which we had never experienced in the backcountry.
   There were about a dozen tents pitched in various locales near the rockbound pond that lies beneath Wotan’s Throne and serves as the camp’s water source. Since it was almost midday, the area was nearly deserted, with just a few blister-plagued stragglers hanging out at campsites in and around the boulders and rock walls that provide windbreaks for tents.
   The landscape is stark, revealing a chapter in earth’s tumultuous history — telling of violent volcanoes and massive glacial ice, of inland seas and jolting earthquakes. Besides the human occupants, the area seems completely devoid of life, but the careful eye will discern otherwise.
   Birds flit here and there, seemingly in silence as their sounds are quickly dispersed into the atmosphere. In the distance, movements amongst the boulders reveal that pikas reside here too, but prefer to stay out of sight.
   Bear-resistant canisters in each camp take the place of kitchen cupboards, although it seems unlikely that the bruins would enjoy much about this above-timberline locale unless migrating solely for the intention of obtaining human food.
   Marmots seem a more likely nuisance, and there were several sentries perched on towering rocks to observe their next invasion. It is advised when camping in the territory of these marauding rodents to leave tents and backpacks wide open for them to investigate, because they will, whether they have to chew a hole through the nylon or not.
   Mount Whitney towers above Trail Camp to the north, either luring hikers to its vast reaches or deterring them once and for all. What still lies ahead on the trail are two of the most significant challenges that dayhikers face, and we were about to confront the first.
   Immediately ahead were the infamous 97 or so (who counts such things?) switchbacks that would take us the 2.3 miles and 1,700 feet to Trail Crest, the boundary of Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park.
   This is also where we would surpass the highest altitude we had ever before experienced (Sawtooth Peak, Mineral King area, 12,343 feet). We were already feeling the effects of the thin air, attributing the lack of oxygen to how heavy our legs felt and why we were stopping more frequently to catch our breath.
   Because of our later-than-usual Whitney start time, we had seen relatively few hikers. It was on this stretch of trail that the onslaught began.
   This section of trail defeats many Whitney-bound travelers in their quest. As we continued our ascent, we passed several hikers strewn along the trail in various states of exhaustion and injury.
   A 70-year-old man said sadly he had climbed Mount Whitney several times, but this trip had proven too strenuous and he was turning back. A very large man came hobbling down the trail so slowly due to his cramping leg muscles we wondered if he could make Trail Camp by nightfall.
   Others were sitting on rocks with their boots off, nursing blisters in various states from hot spots to broken and bleeding. One couple was turning back because they were out of water and had headaches, and another duo turned back because they were just too tired to continue.
   We pushed onward, reaching a section of trail directly above Trail Camp that is blasted out of a vertical granite slab and so narrow that a cable is erected to keep wobbly hikers from pitching over the side. Directly below in the talus, an abandoned trail is seen leading from Trail Camp up the drainage.
   Mount Whitney is perched directly north of the trail here. The imposing East Face is spire-like at this angle, challenging trained rock-climbers with its routes that vary in difficulty from Class 2 to Class 6 to, as yet, unclimbed.
   It was just after 11 a.m. when we met the brunt of Mount Whitney hikers — all heading down. Dozens and dozens of them had now either made their summit bid or realized they wouldn’t, and they were all flooding down the trail directly at us.
   It’s a funny thing about high altitude. People lose all sense of trail etiquette, and most were doing whatever it took to just get off the mountain.
   At one point, we veered to the outside of the trail to let two 30-something men pass by. On this narrow section of trail, with no margin for error, they hurriedly shoved by the kids, who were in the lead, nearly throwing them off balance. They didn’t even glance up as they continued on their way.
   Soon after, I had a brush with an interesting breed of Whitney traveler. On a particularly steep, rocky section, I was concentrating on the ground when I felt someone attempt to push past me.
   Startled, I looked up and was face-to-face with a Lycra-clad marathon man. He paused just long enough to give me a sneer and continued on his way.
   We met several more of these trail runners, all racing downhill, all assuming right-of-way. Many types of folks attempt the Whitney trail, but these fitness fanatics were, surprisingly, the least compatible with the other users.
   We met a kindly group on their way down who were impressed with the kids’ stamina and stopped to talk. They had hiked the trail several times before and said Trail Crest was close and the view from top of Whitney was worth every step.
   This infused us with renewed energy and determination.
   8.5 miles (13,620 feet)— Once we arrived at Trail Crest, spirits soared. We embarked on the last leg of our ascent knowing now, without a doubt, that we would be victorious in reaching the highest peak in the Lower 48.

  At Trail Crest, the trail enters Sequoia National Park and crosses the summit ridge to the Sierra’s western slope. Upon surmounting this steep obstacle — reached via 100 switchbacks, 2.5 miles, and more than 1,600 vertical feet — the view is the payoff and well worth the trek from eastside to west.
   Most of Sequoia National Park can be seen from this vantage point with an unbelievable array of peaks and valleys. Immediately below are Hitchcock Lakes and, to the north, is Guitar Lake.
   Farther west is the Kern Canyon trench. Beyond, are the peaks of the Great Western Divide, an area very familiar to us and so close to home.
   There was little time, however, to identify mountains and other landmarks. Another challenging section of trail was laid out before us… all downhill.
   Downhill? Although this brief descent is a respite for weary legs, the subconscious knows that somehow, somewhere, this elevation has to be regained to reach the summit.
   8.7 miles (13,480 feet)— The Mount Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal now junctions with, and becomes, the John Muir Trail, which terminates atop Mount Whitney. Here, the narrow, cliff-side trail again begins its relentless ascent.
   This rocky route offers expansive views that offer a pleasant distraction for exhausted travelers.
   9.0 miles (14,015 feet)— The trail travels in the shadow of Mount Muir. The route now passes by “The Windows,” a series of cols which provide breathtaking glimpses to the east of the Owens Valley and most of the Mount Whitney Trail below.
   The trail contours north along this ridge beneath serrated peaks which include Mount Muir, Day Needle, and Keeler Needle. These “Vs,” where each of these jagged crags meets its neighbor at trailside form the “windows,” classic Sierra vantage points that allow hikers on the west ridge to see unparalleled views to the east.
   The drop is sheer, but the unique views from the top of these chutes are 360 degrees and thousands of vertical feet. This section of trail and the dizzying panoramas are not for the faint of heart.
   10.2 miles (14,000 feet)— When looking at the eastern Sierra from the valley floor, Mount Whitney becomes lost in the jagged crest of 14,000-foot peaks. It is discerned mainly by its proximity to two spires which are directly to its south — Keeler Needle and Day Needle.
   From the western base of the Keeler Needle, the top of Mount Whitney is seen at close range and even the summit hut is visible. This view once again renews tired hikers’ determination to stay the course.
   From the Keeler Needle, the trail veers west and makes its last ascent to the summit of Mount Whitney. Just one lingering snowbank remained on this early August day, and it was easily negotiated.

 

The Smithsonian Institution Shelter,

built in 1909,

on the summit of Mount Whitney.


   10.7 miles (14,496.811 feet)— As we were on our final ascent to the top of Mount Whitney, the last party of hikers on the summit was descending. Their first comment to us was to ask the ages of our children.
   They were disappointed when we revealed their ages (12 and 13) because the boy accompanying them was 14 and had, for a few minutes anyway, held the record for being the youngest on the mountain that day, according to the summit register.
   Always enjoying shattering a record or two, we realized that besides this, we also had the peak to ourselves. With more than 10,000 visitors attempting to climb Mount Whitney each year, solitude on the summit is certainly a rare treat.
   We took advantage of it by throwing prudence to the wind and staying on top for an hour beyond our pre-planned turn-around time. The sky was clear and cloud-free, there was no wind, and it was a balmy 54 degrees (just three degrees shy of the warmest temperature on record, according to Doug at the Whitney Portal Store).
   We settled in among the boulders and blackbirds to take advantage of the accommodating conditions. As we relaxed and rejuvenated, we scanned the horizon, pointing out all the significant Sierra peaks seen to the west. The magnificent panorama also includes cirques, passes, ridges, and dozens of shimmering lakes.
   The summit of Mount Whitney, which looks like a needlelike pinnacle from lower elevations, is actually a spacious plateau. At its uppermost, boulder-strewn reaches, it is actually a rounded, gentle slope.
   The aesthetics of this sky-high mountain are strangely enhanced rather than marred by the presence of the summit hut. Built in 1909, the structure has been used both as a shelter from the elements as well as a base from which to conduct scientific research.
   As we were shuffling here and there to take photos, we noticed a man had appeared on the mountaintop. He seemed to have come out of nowhere, but soon another man appeared from over the East Face wall hauling ropes and harnesses.
   When asked how long their climbing exploit took them, the mountaineers explained they were on the wall for more than three hours.

  “We’re in good shape and should have climbed faster,” one of the men explained. “I think the smoke affected us.”
   That was when we peered over the side to the east and saw that the smoke from the McNally Fire, a wildland fire that had been burning to the south for more than two weeks, had crept up from the Owens Valley and blanketed the area as high as Trail Camp.
   After two hours of regaling at the top, we realized we were only halfway in mileage for the day and started the long trek down. Conversation, we discovered, was much more abundant on the descent.
   As we chatted, we rounded Trail Crest, leaving Sequoia National Park and returning to the easternmost side of the Sierra. Although it was not yet 4 p.m., the sun soon set behind the towering granite formations of the Whitney escarpment, leaving us in the shadows the rest of the return trip.
   We had the mega-switchback portion of trail to ourselves. But as we passed through Trail Camp, it was a scene reminiscent of a Wild West boomtown.
   Dozens and dozens of tents in every color imaginable were haphazardly pitched on either side of the trampled trail and amidst the rock outcrops. A multitude of backpackers wandered the area, sat in front of their makeshift dwellings, caught up on camp chores, or visited with neighbors about their summit experiences that were or were to be.
   We maneuvered through this High Sierra city, knowing that the race was on to beat nightfall. Darkness caught up to us just below the Lone Pine Lake spur trail, and we walked the final 2.5 miles of trail using headlamps for illumination.
   The goal of climbing Mount Whitney in a day, although ambitious, is now recalled as an important achievement. As challenges arise in day-to-day life, they are put into perspective when compared to this accomplishment, which required physical stamina, mental strength, teamwork, and heart and soul.
   Day-hiking Mount Whitney can be accomplished by anyone in reasonably fit condition, but the trip should never be taken lightly.
   Although we’re 129 years too late to consider Mount Whitney virgin territory, nature, no matter how well traveled, is subject to whims and should never be taken for granted.

 

 

 

 
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