Trip Report- Mt Whitney, CA-14494’
Highest point in lower 48
via standard route
21.4 miles RT, 6850’ gain (w/ attempt of Muir)
Day 1 (6.0 miles to Trail Camp, 3640’ gain, 5hr 10min)
The day had finally come to climb the big one in the lower 48. Since obtaining our permit way back in Feb, my wife and I were looking forward to this hike. We both felt well conditioned for the long hike, but the added weight had us dreading the first day. We stayed in Bishop after two days in Yosemite, just an hour’s drive from Lone Pine. We arrived in Lone Pine around 7:30am and got some laundry started before the ranger station opened at 8, where we would get our permits. Since another guy and myself were the only parties with reservations, I was out of there pretty quick after the obligatory lecture about bears, human waste disposal, etc.
We finished our laundry, swept out the car of all remnants of food, and headed up the steep 12 mile road to the Whitney Portal at 8360’, nearly 5000’ above Lone Pine. The parking lots were still pretty full on a busy Sunday, one day after the celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the construction of the trail. We stored our food in some nifty storage bins in the parking lot that were crammed with all kinds of stuff that bears would be interested in. We got our gear together in 30 minutes or so and were on the trail at 10:35am. My overnight pack weighs nearly 8 pounds by itself, so add water, sleeping bag & pad, clothes, bear container w/ food, and cooking assesories, filter, etc., and the pack was probably close to 60 pds. I thought I was bringing the essentials, but I guess not! Everybody else seemed to have a lighter load. I kept Jenni’s load under 30 pounds. My body was in shock the first mile, but my breathing was good, so we both felt the 6 miles wouldn’t take as long as expected. The switchbacks throughout this trail are short and gentle, easier than Barr Trail on Pike’s in my opinion. Most people were coming down as we only came across a couple parties going up. We guessed that the party had already started without us at Trail Camp.
We finally got into a groove after the first mile or so, coming to Lone Pine Lake which is beautiful from above. A ranger passed us before entering the Whitney Zone where permits are required. He said there had been heavy rains the day before and a couple we met who were coming down had to go back to Trail Camp to retrieve there gear as they were too soaked to stay. We were blessed by excellent weather both days. At Mirror Lake (4 mile mark), we took a much needed lunch break. My hips were starting to get hammered, but we both felt reasonably well considering the weight. Above Mirror Lake, the trail breaks out above treeline and the switchbacks become shorter and steeper. There is a maze of rocks and steps to negotiate, but this trail was well engineered. We didn’t have any problems following it.
At mile 5, Trailside Meadows afforded tremendous views of Lone Pine Creek cascading through the snow. That inspired us to press on for the last mile up to Trail Camp, where as expected there were probably 50 tents in the vicinity of the unnamed pond at 12000’. We arrived at 3:47pm, a little earlier than I had expected. It looked like it could rain at any time, so we quickly picked a spot about 400 yards from the pond and setup our tent. The rock shelters and smooth sites were excellent. I could tell that water could be a problem with a heavy rain, as erosion ruts were present in the dirt. We filtered water, had a nice chicken and rice meal, and hit the sack at 8pm. It was a little difficult to fall asleep with the late arrivals, but we slept fairly well at 12K.
Day 2 (15.2 miles, 3210’ gain, 9hr 41min)
We awoke at 5am with visions of the summit dancing our heads, at least mine. Jenni didn’t want to get up so early, but I quickly reminded her that we didn’t want to have to ascend the 99 switchbacks twice! Our daypack was pretty much ready, so after a breakfast bar, sunscreen, bugspray, etc., we were heading up the infamous 99 switchbacks at 5:37am. We saw only two parties leave before us after 5am, so we felt the journey up would be free of major traffic. The switchbacks are not too bad in my book, going back and forth at a gentle grade. We came across a party who had left at midnight from the portal just below the cables. In retrospect, we probably should have done the same thing. It would mean fewer miles of pain and faster hiking. The cables section is not a big deal in summer. There was a thin band of snow to the left of the trail, but it was plenty wide. This section would be dicey in winter though. We made it to 13777’ Trail Crest in about 1hr 45min, and got our first view of the skies to the west. Dark cumulus clouds were building, but I felt we still had a reasonable window to make the summit.
My secondary goal was to summit Mt Muir, an impressive spire along the ridge to Whitney that is on the CA 14’er list. I plotted a waypoint where the use trail to the summit broke off to the right. The summit is only about 200’ vertical above the trail, but it involves some class 3+ climbing on the summit block. We made our way across the windows section, which I thought was a little overhyped. Yes, there are 1000’+ drops to your right, but you aren’t going anywhere to your left. Even I was comfortable with that section. The trail quickly loses elevation after Trail Crest, which is a little disconcerting, but it is not the typical 14’er grunt from the saddle that is experienced on so many of them. Other than the elevation loss, the final 2 miles are slow but doable. I would not want to traverse this in a storm though.
We made our way across a 100’ snowfield just below the summit, which the trail easily cut through. We finally saw the summit hut and I topped out at 8:45am, with Jenni soon to follow. Standing on the flat summit boulder on the edge of the east face was exhilarating. A group of marathoners were up there with us and they came all the way from the portal in under 5 hours! They were training for the Pikes Peak marathon. Another father/son team from Boulder celebrated the dad’s 65th birthday on top of Whitney. What an accomplishment! Jenni signed us in the large register at the hut for state highpoint #34 and 32 for Jenni. The clouds continued to move in, so we set off after the obligatory pics, video, and yells.
We made our way over to the Muir use trail and Jenni waited for me on the trail. She was not comfortable with me going up there by myself, but I knew my limits. My first mistake was I left my route photos and description in the car. I remembered to ascend the boulders by climbing to the right, then pick the path of least resistance. I quickly arrived at the class 3 section and gave it a shot. After climbing about 40 feet or so, it quickly turned to class 4 terrain and I was worried if I would be able to get down, since it was always harder for me to do that. I came to a point where a risky lunge to the left was required, so I backed off and tried another route. I found a crack system further to the left, but I was not sure how hard it got just below the summit. I was not comfortable attempting this with my limited experience by myself, so I bailed on Muir and headed back down,
Jenni and I came across quite a few people on their way up. We made good time moving through the switchbacks, and were back down to Trail Camp in 2hr 52min including the Muir side trip. I refilled the water bottles, we packed up camp, and began the dreaded death slog down the final 6 miles. Even though we were descending, we plodded along pretty sore as the weight was a problem on the rocks and steps. Many people blew by us with their day packs. We took a snack break at Mirror Lake, then staggered through the final 4 miles. With visions of pizza and showers dancing through our heads, we finally saw the trailhead kiosk some 3hr 41min after leaving camp. Jenni took a shower at the portal, while I just rested in the car and retrieved our food stash. On to LA for a few days to visit family, then Humphreys in AZ!