This post is a continuation of my previous post describing an ascent of the Mt Whitney Trail as part of a day hike from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt Whitney and back. The hike was so amazing, and there was so much to see and experience, that I’m writing 4 posts in all: an overview, the ascent, the descent, and the wildflowers I saw along the way. This post describes the descent from the summit to Whitney Portal. My GPS tradk and elevation profile are in the overview post.
As a quick summary, I was with a group of eight hikers. We’d agreed to start hiking at 2:00 am and, as a consequence, had hiked the lower part of the trail – up to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet elevation – essentially before first light. Then came the heavy work, hiking up the switchbacks to Trail Crest and then the final 2 miles across talus fields to the summit at 14,505 feet elevation. By the time we summited, we had spread out over more than 2 hours, with two people ahead of the main group and two behind, and with each gap at least an hour.
My summit time was about 9 hours 40 minutes for the 10.6-mile climb, and I was very happy to have made it in less than 10 hours with no elevation-related issues and with good energy. In fact, it was pretty exhilarating to be at the highest elevation in the lower 48 states with incredible views and beautiful weather.
After almost exactly 1 hour at the summit it was time to begin the descent. The two faster hikers and one of the main group had already started to descend, so three of us started the descent together. We passed the last two about 20 minutes after leaving the summit.
Although I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, as I was preparing to begin hiking down I did briefly think ahead to a few of the significant milestones that lay ahead: the switchbacks, and hopefully seeing most of the lower trail below Trail Camp in daylight. First, however, there was the difficult 2.1-mile section across talus fields and past the pinnacles to Trail Crest – and there were some incredible views in this section. This preview view is across the upper talus field, with Keeler Needle on the left and Crooks Point on the right.
Keeler Needle (left) and Crooks Point (right)
As my sub-group of three hikers was getting ready to begin the descent, this was our view toward the beginning of the Mt Whitney Trail from a spot right next to the summit hut. I am not completely sure of the landmarks, but I think the row of peaks just to the right of center includes Mt Kaweah, Black Kaweah, Red Kaweah, and Kaweah Queen, with Kern Canyon below. You can see a couple of hikers on the trail, making their way among the talus rocks.
View from next to the Mt Whitney summit hut
Less than half a mile down the trail we came to the view of Keeler Needle and Crooks Point. These features are not considered to be separate peaks from Whitney, as their prominence, or elevation difference from the surrounding baseline, is too small. It is said that they are straightforward talus slopes to climb, but I didn’t see anyone over there. If anyone did want to climb them, it would be important to pay attention to where the summit is, because the eastern face is a sheer drop-off for hundreds, if not thousands, of feet.
About 1 mile from the summit is the beginning of the so-called pinnacles section of trail. Sharp, pointed rock structures thrust upward into the sky. Some of the towers begin practically right next to the trail, leaving skinny windows with incredible views down and to the east. These views were so amazing I photographed all of them! Here is the first: remember that the Owens Valley floor is over 9,000 feet below, and the Inyo Mountains rise on the east side, just outside the western boundary of Death Valley National Park.
View through first window in the pinnacles
Only a few minutes later I came to the second window. Here you are looking down on Wotan’s Throne, almost in the center of the picture, with Candlelight Peak behind and slightly to the left and Lone Pine Peak further behind and to the right. Lone Pine Peak is the most prominent peak you see from the town of Lone Pine, and its summit is at an elevation of about 12,950 feet, nearly 1000 feet lower than this viewing location.
View through second window in the pinnacles
Barely 100 feet further along the trail there is a fantastic view of Mt Muir, with a peak elevation of 14,018 feet. The Mt Whitney Trail passes by at an elevation of about 13,750 feet, and some brave souls do make this ascent – with proper equipment and skills, and most likely not as part of a day hike from Whitney Portal!
The gap between Mt Muir and the next pinnacle to the left forms a third window with a spectacular view. Here you can see Pinnacle Ridge on the left, with Wotan’s Throne in front of the ridge and Candlelight Peak to the right, behind Wotan’s Throne. Again, the Inyo Mountains are visible in the background across the Owens Valley. The views through these windows have been described as jaw-dropping, and it is hard to disagree with that description!
View through third window in the pinnacles
As beautiful as the pinnacles – and the views through the windows – are, there are also exceptional views off to the other side of the trail, where the west side of the Whitney crest drops off steeply for about 2,000 feet to a basin that contains the Hitchcock Lakes and aptly named Guitar Lake, shown in this picture. The longish ridge in the center of the picture is topped by Mt Young, with a peak elevation of 13,160 feet.
Guitar Lake, with Mt Young behind
Zooming in a bit over Mt Young, you can see a nice view of a more distant skyline in Sequoia National Park. In between is the Pacific Crest Trail, which coincides with the John Muir Trail (JMT) north of Crabtree Meadow and continues south to Kennedy Meadows on the way to Mexico. The peak on the skyline that is reminiscent of Half Dome might be Kern Point, about 9 miles away from the Mt Whitney Trail.
Sequoia National Park skyline west of the Mt Whitney Trail
About 2 miles from the summit is the junction with the JMT. Here some backpackers leave the heaviest part of their pack weight in order to summit Mt Whitney with a much lighter load. It is worth noting that anyone who intends to do this should leave all food in bear containers. Although I’m not sure there are bears in the area, any unsecured food will probably be taken by marmots, ground squirrels, or chipmunks, all of which have been known to tear into fabric pockets and packs to reach unsecured food. Indeed, one of the hikers in my group had found during the ascent that her water bladder was leaking, so she left her day pack here and summited with a bottle or two of water and a few snacks in her pockets. When she returned, the rest of her food was gone! – but the more valuable items, such as her water filter and headlamp, were untouched.
Backpackers sometimes leave their heavy packs at the JMT junction
For about 0.15 mile past the JMT junction the trail climbs – the only noticeable climb of the return trip – to Trail Crest. Not far from Trail Crest, if you look away from your feet at the right place, you have a fantastic view of the upper switchbacks. I somehow managed to miss this view, and borrowed this picture from the group member who had descended about an hour ahead of me. I can only surmise that the lighting was more dramatic at the time she came through, since this view just presents itself to hikers who are paying attention.
Top portion of the switchbacks
Here is a look back toward Trail Crest from the long traverse above the switchbacks, with the south end of the pinnacles at the right. In addition to the hikers visible in the notch at Trail Crest, by this time (almost 3pm) some clouds were beginning to come into the area. In retrospect, I do think the lighting was better earlier in the afternoon to view the switchbacks.
Looking back at Trail Crest, just before beginning the switchbacks
In any case, I proceeded down the switchbacks. By this time our little group of three hikers was somewhat spread out, and we simply planned to regroup at Trail Camp at the bottom of the switchbacks. I thought it would be interesting to see what the switchbacks look like in a birds-eye view: This image of my GPS track shows the section between Trail Crest and Trail Camp. The end of the orange section indicates the approximate location of the handrail mentioned in the post about the ascent.
GPS track of the switchback section between Trail Crest (left) and Trail Camp (right)
In order to keep my focus I decided to count the switchbacks on the way down. As it turns out, another hiker who was close to me was doing the same thing, though he was counting more loudly than I was. Our counts agreed at least into the 30’s, and then I was interrupted by someone calling to me to relay a message from one of my hiking companions via a stranger, to wait for her at Trail Camp. In the process I may have counted 4 switchbacks as 2. Some of them are quite short, so it’s not possible to distinguish them on the GPS track and do an independent count. By my count, the hand rail was after #52, and I got a total count of 94. Published counts of the switchbacks range from 94 to “approximately 99”.
In the upper part of the switchback section I came upon a pika, presumably an American pika (Ochotona princeps) scurrying around on the rocks right next to the trail. It had just grabbed a mouthful of leaves, I think from some sky pilot, and was most likely going to leave them on the rock to dry, to be stored later under a nearby rock. This is a primary way pikas store food for the winter, since they do not hibernate.
Pika gathering food for the winter
After completing the switchbacks I arrived once again at Trail Camp. On the one hand the most demanding part of the hike was done, but on the other hand there were still 6.5 miles to go and my watch assured me that the last part of the hike would be done, once again, in darkness. I was the 4th to arrive at Trail Camp, out of what would become a group of 5 hiking the last 6.5 miles together. We waited for my companion who had verbally messaged me higher on the switchbacks. We had a light meal and refilled our water supplies at the beautiful small lake. And we discussed what to do about our two companions who were most likely already over 2 hours behind us and hiking more slowly. (We did not have radios and, of course, there is no cell phone service.) Eventually we decided that it was more prudent for the 5 of us to get off the mountain safely and sooner, and then make further plans about how to meet up with the last two hikers when they reached Whitney Portal.
After a 45-minute break, we began hiking the last 6.5 miles at 5pm. As it turns out, it took us about 4 1/4 hours to reach Whitney Portal, but a bit more than the first half was in daylight.
Trailside Meadow is a beautiful hillside meadow about 1 mile down from Trail Camp. We had passed it in the dark during the ascent without being aware of it. A small stream, which turns out to be Lone Pine Creek, trickles and tumbles down the hillside from Consultation Lake, with tiny waterfalls along the way. The moisture gives rise to the beautiful green meadow. This would be a beautiful place to explore with more daylight available.
About 1/4 mile past Trailside Meadow there was a pretty view of Mirror Lake, about 500 feet lower in elevation. We would pass this lake a bit later, just before reaching Outpost Camp.
Another short distance past the view of Mirror Lake, just above 11,000 feet elevation, we started to see trees. Here is what I presume to be a foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana). The shadow line on Candlelight Peak was a reminder that we didn’t have a lot of daylight left, and we didn’t take time to stop and enjoy our first trees of the day – after hiking more than 16 miles.
Foxtail pine above Outpost Camp at 11,000 feet elevation
After passing Mirror Lake at lake level we were treated to a pretty view down the canyon formed by Lone Pine Creek. In the base of the canyon, near the water, there were more trees and other plants. For reference, the elevation here was about 10,650 feet, which is about 100 feet lower than the summit of Mt Rose in the Lake Tahoe area and therefore the highest conveniently accessible hiking location for many Californians. Amazingly, we had already descended 4,000 feet from the summit of Mt Whitney (and still had a little over 2,000 feet to go)!
View down the Lone Pine Creek canyon
About 1.4 mile past Trailside Meadow, and nearly 1000 feet lower, we reached Outpost Camp, a very pretty campground that would make a wonderful home base for shorter day hikes in the area. This was another landmark we had passed in the dark on the ascent, unaware of its very existence since we didn’t see the sign. Just past Outpost Camp, Lone Pine Creek cascades down a lovely waterfall on a steep, rocky hillside.
Lone Pine Creek waterfall near Outpost Camp
Less than 1/2 mile past Outpost Camp we came to a particularly nice view down the canyon, with the Inyo Mountains again in the background and still experiencing some sunlight, and with Lone Pine Lake appearing to be a perfect reflecting mirror in the growing twilight. At last, we had dropped below the height of the peaks in the Inyo Mountains.
Lone Pine Lake near twilight
About 0.8 mile past Outpost Camp we passed the sign designating the boundary of the Whitney Zone, where a permit is required for either day use or overnight use. I was, frankly, delighted to pass this sign in the daylight. While I might wish to return in the future to spend some more leisurely time between Outpost Camp and, say, Trailside Meadow, within the Whitney Zone, I had at least seen this area once in daylight. It would be straightforward to revisit the area below and outside the Whitney Zone at my convenience, because a permit is not needed.
There was one more nearby goal that I was hoping to reach before dark: the so-called balance beam, a long water crossing just below a spur trail to Lone Pine Lake. The water crossing is accomplished via some 8 to 10 logs placed end to end, passing through an area that must be wet for much of the year. We had not been able to see very well in our night-time crossing during our ascent. We just knew that the logs seemed to go on for a long time!
So-called balance beam water crossing, crossed in the dark on the ascent and at twilight on the descent
Literally just a few minutes after negotiating the balance beam we stopped for our last 5-minute break and then turned on our headlamps for the remaining hour and 40 minutes – and 3 miles – of hiking. Because we reached the Whitney Portal trailhead in full darkness, we did not linger for a celebration. Instead, WAG bags were unfastened from packs and disposed of and our car, parked without a permit, was checked and found to have not been ticketed. We climbed in and drove back to Lone Pine to meet up with our lead hiker, who had finished at least 2 hours earlier, and strategize about how to connect with the last two hikers. It turns out that they finished their hike around 11:40pm, which meant that their hike had lasted nearly 21.75 hours.
For the record, my descent was accomplished in 8.5 hours, the ascent took 9.75 hours, and I spent 1 hour at the summit, for a total of 19.25 hours. Among the many things I was grateful for were these: I had good energy for the last 3 miles of hiking in the dark (some people insist that they are the hardest miles of the entire journey); I had not developed any blisters or hot spots on my feet; my knees felt great; and my legs were not especially tired or sore, even a day or two later. Last but not least, I had remained vertical. I think preparation and focus, with a touch of determination, must have helped to carry me through.
In the final post about this amazing experience I describe the wildflowers I saw along the Mt Whitney Trail.