Mount Whitney Trip Report
Main Trail, 07/21/05
It was November of 2004 when I first decided to climb Mount Whitney. I had already been to the top of Kings Peak, the highest mountain in Utah, and decided that the next summer, I would climb Mount Whitney, at 14,497 feet, the highest point in California, and the highest mountain in the continental United States. I learned that a trip to the top of the Sierras requires a fair amount of planning, largely due to the permits that are required by each hiker on the trip.
Over the next few months, I researched what it would take, and convinced Bruce, one of my roommates to come with me to climb Whitney. We submitted our permit application during the first part of February, and then waited for the permits to come. The letter arrived sometime in April, and we had our date, July 21. We had the added bonus that it was around the full moon, which would give us some light for the early start.
Between April and July, I did some training hikes around Utah Valley. The heavy snow year made it difficult to do all that I had planned, but I was able to get better as deciding what I needed and what I didn't need to take with me on the Whitney trip. Toward the end of April, I also managed to get engaged, and we set the wedding for August 13, only 3 weeks after the planned Whitney hike. I appreciated Heather's understanding in letting me go through with the trip, even though it was so close to the wedding.
To the Trailhead
We began our adventure at 5 a.m. On Wednesday, June 20. With the excitement of the trip, neither Bruce nor I got much sleep the night before, and we were glad to finally be on our way. After being surprised by an excellent plate of cinnamon roles from Heather, we departed Provo just as the sky was beginning to glow with an early morning light. We initially drove south, and after passing through a number of smaller towns, passed through Delta, Utah around 6:30 a.m.
From Delta, we drove the "loneliest highway in America," Highway 6, for several hours though the Great Basin. The road is long and straight, and there aren't many cars, or towns. In fact, from Delta to Bishop, California, a distance of over 400 miles, there are only 2 towns of any consequence. Needless to say, we got gas in both of these towns. There were stretches of highway 15 miles long without a single turn, and the greatest amount of excitement was when we ran through a swarm of grasshoppers. The loneliness of the road made for easy going, and we made good time to Bishop to be there by 12:30. On the way, we even got a glimpse of Boundary Peak, the Nevada highpoint.
After a short break for lunch in Bishop, we drove the hour to Lone Pine, the town that sits beneath Mount Whitney. From there, we got our first glimpse of Whitney's granite spire, towering more than 2 vertical miles above the valley floor. Because we were there early enough, we decided to attempt to claim one of the limited number of walk-in campsites at the Whitney Portal Campground. To our satisfaction, we were able to get one, which greatly simplified our plans for the following morning. After a brief trip back down to Lone Pine to get our permits from the ranger station, we returned to our campsite and walked up to see the trailhead and the famous Whitney Portal Store.
Upon returning from the store, we double checked that our food was properly stowed in the bear lockers at the campsite. In talking to the camp host, it seems that they have quite a problem with bears in Whitney Portal, and each campsite, as well as the trailhead, has bear lockers for people to store their food and other bear-attracting goods. We didn't have any problems with them during the night, but the group in the next site over from us mentioned that they had seen the bears that night. Our only difficulty was getting to sleep, because of the earliness of the hour, and also the heat. We finally managed to go to sleep, prepared for our 3 a.m. alarm.
After a very short night, our alarm went off at 3 a.m. We were excited to get going, but it took a while to put everything back in the car from the bear locker, move up to the trailhead, and then put everything back in a bear locker there. The final delay came when we couldn't find a pen to label our stuff that was going into the bear locker. We hit the trailhead, glanced at the interpretive signs, weighed our packs (30 pounds each), and then began our quest to conquer the tallest mountain in the lower 48.
From Trailhead to Trail Camp
We were both very eager to get started, and began going at a pretty good pace. Even though we opted to pack a breakfast instead of eat before we started, we felt good and made great time up the trail to Lone Pine Lake. The trail switches back several times as it wends it's way up to the lake. Lone Pine lake is where the trail enters the Whitney Zone, which is the area where permits are required. A little past Lone Pine Lake, we were able to see sun as it rose, painting the sky first in subdued tones of purple and orange, and finally bursting into the sky, turning the gray granite walls pink.
Once the sun was up, we expected it to get warm, but it stayed surprisingly cool the entire trip. We started out wearing shorts and t-shirts, and continued that way all the way to the summit. The gain in altitude offset the warmth of the sun, and not more than once we were grateful when the sun came back out from behind a cloud.
Trail camp is well above timberline, and looks like I imagine base camp on Everest would look like: snow, rocks and a few clusters of people. We arrived at trail camp at 8 a.m., and rested for a few moments, talking with others who were there, some who had summited the day before, and others who were getting ready to make their summit bid. Upon arriving at Trail Camp, we also got our first close-up view of Mount Whitney, and its half-mile tall south face.
To the Summit
From Trail Camp, we began the assent of the infamous 99 switchbacks to Trail Crest. This stretch gains around 1,500 feet, and can sometimes be rather steep toward the end. We found the seasonal spring that occasionally crosses the switchbacks was still quite seasonal, and took the opportunity to fill our water bottles. The heavy snow year had left some snow still on the mountain side, but there were only a few short stretches where we actually crossed it. Toward the top of the switchbacks, the vegetation was relegated to small clumps of purple flowers, and the only animals were the occasional marmot.
It took almost two hours, but once we reached Trial Crest, we got our first glimpse into Sequoia National Park. It was incredible. Ridge after ridge of alpine beauty unfolded to our gaze, as we beheld the pristine wilderness of the Sierras. We sat for a minute to join a few other people in eating snacks and talking. While we were at Trail Crest, two men came up from the Sequoia side of the trail who had been backpacking. As I was feeling the effects of altitude pretty heavily by now, I was very impressed by two 50-somethings hauling 50-pound packs up to 13,600 feet.
Once over Trail Crest, we descended over two hundred hard-earned feet to the junction of the Mount Whitney Trail with the John Muir Trail. From here, we followed the trail as it runs along the sloping backside of the ridge. While we only had a thousand feet left to gain until the summit, the trail undulated at times, and I was beginning to really feel the effects of the altitude. The views continued to be spectacular, with the summit looming larger and larger in the distance. There were several clouds, but none that looked threatening. We went as fast as we could to avoid whatever bad weather might have been lurking in the skies.
As with any climb, the last few hundred feet to the summit seemed like an eternity. We had reached the back of the small plateau that is the Mount Whitney summit, but because we could no longer see the top, we weren't sure how far it was. Persistence prevailed, and shortly before noon, Bruce and I made it to the summit of California! For the first few minutes, I just sat by the famous Smithsonian shack and ate some granola bars. It was then off to take pictures, talk to our fellow hikers, and just enjoy the thrill of having achieved our goal.
One of the worst moments of the entire Mount Whitney hike occurred when I took my first step down, and realized that I still had 11 more miles to walk to the trailhead. The hike down was just as scenic as the way up, but I missed a bit of it because I was attempting to put nature on hold, having not availed myself of the facilities at the summit. Finally, I succumbed, and had the rather unique privilege of using the WAG-BAG at 14,000 feet. The switchbacks were just as long going down as going up, but I was glad to be losing altitude, instead of gaining it.
Once down at Trail Camp, we started to notice darking and more ominous clouds gathering around the summit. We were glad that we had reached the top when we did, and were now grateful to be back down off the exposure of the climb. The trail downward was just as steep as it was going up, but this time I felt it in my joints, not in my legs. Bruce and I were both grateful we had brought trekking poles.
The clouds continued to gather, and by the time we got down to Outpost camp, it had rained in bits and spurts. We had also seen lightening strike one of the side ridges. If anything, though, we were grateful for the rain and clouds, because it kept us cool as we descended. Shortly after reaching Lone Pine Lake, the storm unleashed marble-size hail, at which point we decided to take cover under one of the many trees now growing along the trail. It was difficult, though, because we could see the road and the trailhead, and both Bruce and I were eager to get back to our car.
After a couple more miles and the final long switchback, we made it back to the trailhead at 6:30p.m., 14½ hours after we started. We got rid of our trash, fetched our goods from the bear lockers, and bid farewell to Mount Whitney. We had already made the obligatory stop at the Whitney Portal Store the night before, and were now anxious to get back home. Our muscles were sore, our feet tired, but we had done it, conquered the King of the Sierras.
That night, we grabbed a quick bite to eat in Lone Pine and then drove to Bishop, where we grabbed a motel room. As the Sierras faded into darkness under the dome of a spectacular sunset, I couldn't help but think what a great day it had been, and what great natural wonders we are fortunate to have. We woke up early the next day, but Bruce and I were both pretty worn out, so we abandoned our possible plan of hiking Boundary Peak, opting instead to drive back to Provo, ending our grand excursion to Mount Whitney.
It was a great trip, and a wonderful mountain to climb. I have the feeling that I haven't seen the last of this mountain and the great area surrounding it. I'd love to hike the John Muir Trail from the north and summit Whitney that way, or possibly even do one of the technical routes on the east side of the mountain. Only time will tell.