I recently had the incredible experience of hiking the Mt Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt Whitney and back in one day. This hike is truly amazing! There was so much to see and experience, and that I’d like to share here on my blog, that I’m writing a total of 4 posts: an overview, the ascent, the descent, and the wildflowers. This post covers the ascent.
Completing this hike in one day virtually requires starting before dawn. In fact, the group of eight people I was hiking with agreed to start hiking at 2:00 am in order to have a good chance to summit by noon. This is a safety concern, since summer thundershowers can occur and they are usually in the afternoon. So it is a good idea to plan to be at and off the summit by early in the afternoon, especially if there is any question about the weather.
Jumping ahead for a moment: after a long hike in the dark we arrived at Trail Camp shortly after sunrise. The small lake there captured a beautiful reflection of nearby Wotan’s Throne. The promise of a beautiful morning was one of the things that spurred us on during the night hike.
Note that a 2am start and noon summit meant that we were hoping to complete our ascent in 10 hours. Since the hike is 10.6 miles each way, these simple numbers give an indication of just how strenuous the hike is. Indeed, it begins at 8,400 feet elevation and tops off at 14,505 feet elevation. If your body is not accustomed to high-elevation hiking, AMS (acute mountain sickness, or elevation sickness) is a very real possibility that can force a turn-around at any time. Happily, everyone in our group summited successfully and, as a group, we had relatively few altitude-related issues. Most hikers go somewhat faster at the lower elevations and more slowly as the elevation climbs. As is evident from the elevation profile in the hike overview post, the grade could be described as relentless, but not especially steep – or flat, for that matter.
For about 4 hours we hiked in full darkness with headlamps on to light the way. In this picture I have my headlamp pointed toward a plant at the side of the trail, but this image pretty much sums up the views during this first section of the hike.
Since there were other groups that started hiking almost at the same time that we started, there were a few occasions when I could see a row of bobbing lights on the next switchback below me. Also, not long after we started hiking the moon rose: a waning crescent just 4 days before a new moon.
In the first few miles of the trail there were several water crossings, mostly rock-hopping but a couple in which it was inevitable that we would get our boot soles wet. There was one exceptionally long crossing that is accomplished via 8-10 long logs placed end-to-end. We decided it should be called the balance beam, perhaps in honor of the just-completed Rio Summer Olympics, so we channeled our inner Simone Biles to cross without falling off! I hoped we’d return when there was still daylight.
Shortly before 6am we could see the eastern sky begin to turn red in the twilight anticipation of sunrise about a half hour later. I surmise that the range of hills in the background of this picture is the Inyo Mountains on the east side of the Owens Valley and on the west side of Death Valley National Park. We had already climbed to an elevation of about 11,450 feet completely in the dark! In terms of trail landmarks, we had passed Outpost Camp and Trailside Meadow without being aware of our surroundings: just our headlamps illuminating the trail immediately in front of us and, often, illuminating the feet of the hiker in front of us.
As the sun approached the horizon behind us, the granite walls of the Whitney crest in front of us turned rosy in pre-sunrise alpenglow. This was a quite ephemeral view, but it was so beautiful that it, alone, made the early rising hour and over 4 hours of hiking in the dark completely worthwhile. In this picture Mt Muir is the prominent peak about 1/3 of the way in from the right, and I think Crook’s Peak is at the very right. The notch at the upper right side of the steep flat slope, almost exactly in the center of the picture, is Trail Crest.
Another 8 or so minutes later the sun finally rose above the topography behind us. It was just after 6:30 am and we were about to arrive at Trail Camp at 12,000 feet elevation.
Trail Camp marks the end of the first section of the hike, the lower section where there are multiple opportunities to find water along the trail. Above Trail Camp, an 8.8-mile round trip to the summit, there is no water. Most hikers stop here for a longer break, including a light meal (I had a half sandwich) and a refill of water containers. The refill is accomplished at a small unnamed lake less than 50 yards from the main trail (see the picture at the beginning of this post).
After about 35 minutes at Trail Camp, mostly taking care of the necessities while overnight campers were just getting up and heating water for breakfast, it was time to tackle the next section: the famous switchbacks. The number of switchbacks is variously reported between 94 and 99. They basically go up the flat-looking slope in the center of the alpenglow picture, gaining 1600 feet in 2.1 miles. Since they begin at 12,000 feet elevation it is advisable to take them slowly.
One of the techniques I had practiced in my mostly low-elevation training was to achieve and maintain a good rhythm of stepping and breathing so that I could make steady progress with tolerable effort and not too many stops. It took me a few minutes less than 2 hours to climb the switchbacks to Trail Crest, so I still paused quite a few times to drink and to appreciate the spectacular views. This is a view of what I think of as the granite wall at the top of, and to the north of, the switchbacks.
Although the slope of the relatively flat talus field criss-crossed by the switchbacks looks like it could be at a 45-degree incline, I think it is more like 35-40 degrees: still very steep. You would not want to trip or stumble off the trail. There is one section, a little less than halfway up, which traverses some flat rock and which apparently sometimes retains snow and ice well into the summer. In this section a hand rail has been built to help ensure that hikers stay safely on the trail. Fortunately the snow was gone for the 2016 summer season.
On steep hillsides like this one I tend to hike toward the uphill side of the trail, as far as possible away from the edge. I found the footing to be quite secure, as long as I primarily looked at where I was placing my feet! If I wanted to sightsee, I stopped.
The switchbacks end with a long traverse to the west toward Trail Crest, a small notch in the ridge-top topography. In this picture Trail Crest is the notch near the center of the skyline. If you look closely you can see several hikers pausing there for a short break.
At Trail Crest you are literally at the crest of the Sierras, and the views are quite remarkable. If you look back roughly the way you’ve come up the switchbacks, you can see Consultation Lake as well as the smaller lake to its left at Trail Camp. The distinctive notched peak in the background may be Candlelight Peak.
The views to the west are equally impressive. The two lakes nearly directly below Trail Crest are the Hitchcock Lakes, with Mt Hitchcock behind.
While enjoying the views at Trail Crest, I was mindful that there were still about 2.1 tough miles to hike before arriving at Mt Whitney’s summit. First there was a short-but-steep descent to the junction with the John Muir Trail (JMT), about 0.15 mile past Trail Crest and past a sign announcing entry into Sequoia National Park. This is a point where many backpackers join the Mt Whitney Trail from adventures on the west side of the Sierra crest. Some leave their backpacks at the junction to hike to the summit with minimal gear. Day hikers generally just continue carrying everything to the summit.
This section of trail seemed to be mainly across endless talus fields. Here is a view of the trail crossing a talus field just past the JMT junction. Crossing this particular talus field is the only place where the trail seemed not quite well-defined in all places. I was hiking with two of the women in my group, and we did get slightly off-trail at one point. As we were trying to figure out whether to go uphill or downhill to find the trail, descending hikers came into view and essentially showed us the way.
The step-and-breathe technique became more important, since we were above 13,500 feet elevation and needed to work a bit to get over some of the talus rocks. I should note that my pedometer more-or-less failed throughout this section, as it seemed to detect that my foot was actually taking steps only about half of the time.
This section of trail passes a section known as the pinnacles, with spectacular other-worldly structures perched on the Sierra crest. In this view, I realized only after I uploaded my photos to my computer that the summit hut is barely visible on the flat-topped nose just to the left of the jagged structures. At the time my focus was, quite honestly, on slow and careful hiking and on minding my breathing and hydration.
Through this section from Trail Crest to the summit, my average progress was about 0.9 mph. Besides taking care of my breathing and so on, I had a great curiosity to see what would come next. And there were some spectacular views that I mention in the post on the descent. Also, the highest elevation wildflowers were here: alpine gold and sky pilot, amazingly growing and apparently thriving in spaces between talus rocks where it seemed impossible for any life form to exist.
After passing Keeler Needle the trail curves to the west, then angles northeast and east. Throughout this section the summit hut is not visible. The ground is so steep that you don’t really have a sense of how much higher the top is. Then, suddenly, the summit hut comes into view. I think anyone who has come this far feels a surge of energy to complete the last 0.1 mile or so of the climb!
As is evident from the picture, the weather was fantastic, and we knew that thunderstorms were not going to be an issue. The hike overview post describes in some detail the official tasks for the summit: signing the ledger, finding the geodetic markers and the commemorative tablet, etc. I even posed for a special picture holding a specific magazine cover I’d carried up in my pack for that purpose. But the most fun thing I did at the summit of Mt Whitney was a (very small) celebratory jump – you can tell I was jumping because all of my straps, my permit, and my camera and GPS are flapping. For the record, the wind was absolutely calm.
I had summited in approximately 9 hours and 40 minutes. Although that is not considered a “fast” ascent time, I was very happy with a time under 10 hours. Most of the other hikers at the summit seemed to be in their twenties, which meant that they were roughly 40 years younger than I am. Here are a few of the others who were climbing around on the summit rocks just east of the hut. I’m pretty sure I saw a GoPro-type camera mounted on the white helmet. The short sleeves emphasize that the temperature was very comfortable. I think that the two overlapping peaks just to the right of the fellow in the white helmet are Mt Keith and Mt Williamson, with Mt Russell at the right and closer.
Although the weather was clear, with no clouds in the sky, my impression was that the atmosphere was not as clear as it sometimes is at the summit. Here is a view looking down to the east at the Owens Valley. It is roughly 2 miles down and several miles away horizontally, yet seems hazy. The Los Angeles Aqueduct carries water to southern California metropolitan areas.
This is a stunning view generally south, showing numerous landmarks: The arc-shaped ridge is Pinnacle Ridge; the angular lump in the basin-like area is Wotan’s Throne, with Trail Camp immediately to its right. On the horizon, the flat-topped peak is Mt Langley, with Mt LeConte and Mt Mallory just to its left. Probably just out of view at the left, and lost in the haze, is Telescope Peak at the western edge of Death Valley. The pointy-top peak is Mt McAdie, with Cirque Peak and Olancha Peak behind it. Crooks Pk and Keeler Needle are in the foreground at the right. The pretty lake within the curve of Pinnacle Ridge is not named on any of my maps.
Altogether I spent about an hour at the summit, doing official things like signing the register, getting my picture taken, taking pictures, eating/drinking, and resting a bit with my pack removed. After that it was time to begin the descent. I should probably note that one of the cardinal rules, especially of out-and-back hikes, is to never hike up – or down – anything that you are unwilling or unable to hike in the opposite direction. Part of the purpose of the rest was to regain the necessary energy for the 10.6-mile descent, described in the next post.