THE BEATEN PATH:
WHITNEY IN A DAY
September 13, 2002)
son on the summit of Mount Whitney, who
the age of 12, was the youngest person
top of the mountain that day. He is shown
his Minimed Medtronic insulin pump
as he has
had Type 1 diabetes since 1999.
by the Miles:
3.0 3.8 4.3
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Smithsonian Institution Shelter,
the summit of Mount Whitney.
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
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
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
“We’re in good shape and should
have climbed faster,” one of the men
explained. “I think the smoke affected
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
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