I was the tallest man in the U.S. (beside Alaskan) for a minute this past weekend. At 14,505, Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. The mountain is located in Sequoia National Park but the peak can be accessed from Whitney Portal, which is located in Inyo National Forest near the town of Lone Pine, CA in central California. It is still hard for me to believe that I finally did it. I can feel the muscle in my calf crying walking up and down between my bathroom and bedroom. Regardless of how much my feet hate me right now, I would do this again in a heartbeat. I did this hike in a day, and while it was a great challenge that I wanted to taken, I’d recommend everyone else to take their time and backpack overnight to truly enjoy the experience. Mt. Whitney should be on the list for all hikers.
Trail name: Mount Whitney trail
Trailhead: Mount Whitney Portal, Inyo National Forest, Lone Pine, CA.
Trailhead GPS: 36.586945,-118.240025
Mileage: 22 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 6,100 ft
Difficult: Very difficult, largely due to elevation and length
Trail: At any elevation lower than 10,000, this trail would be considered moderate or even easy. However, this hike is hard due to thin air and length. If you do this in a day, this hike will feel and will be very long. The trail is extremely well maintained by the park as well as hundreds of hikers who hike it every single day during peak seasons. Depending on each winter, the trail may have some snow until late July. However, when i did it, there were only a couple of snow patches left. The trail can be largely divided into three sections; Whitney Portal to trail camp, trail camp to trail crest (97 switchbacks), and trail crest to Summit.
Average moderate hike time: 12-14 hours. 7-8 hours up and 4-5 down. Some people can do this in less than 10 hours, but why rush? Also, some people can take up to nearly 20 hours. So know your limit and hiking pace!
Recommendation: You want to reach the summit before noon or around 12pm. Leave the summit before 1pm to allow enough time to access and avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
Caution: If you see dark clouds in the area, the summit can become very dangerous and likely to get hit by lighting. Hiding in the shelter in the summit isn’t safe. It may ruin your trip to turn around, but the mountain will be here for another year, so make sure that you are alive for another year too! Lighting is a real danger is high sierras especially the tallest point!
Season: Whitney can be done year round but it’s easiest reached during the summer months and early fall.
Water: There are lakes, streams, and waterfalls all along the way until the last 3 miles from the summit. Invest in a water purifier and filter water along the way as you need. However, you should have at least 2 litres for the last dry 3 miles to the summit. I personally use Saw Squeeze Filter but a much cheaper option is the traditional purifier drops like the Aquamira. If you don’t have a purifier, you should carry at least 5litres per person and maybe more on a hot day depending on when you begin. I drank over 7 litres, but I drink like a cow usually.
3 main things to take into consideration before hiking Whitney
- Permit Process
- Personal Fitness & Endurance
Getting permit for Whitney is very hard. Most people get denied every year. Only about 200 permits are given out compared to thousands of people who apply PER DAY. You will need a permit for everyone in your group in order to hike up to the summit. No permit is required to stay at the campground and hike to Lone Pine lake or any other trails nearby.
Getting the permit is difficult so I will direct you to a website that will explain it better than I can.
Hiking mount Whitney wouldn’t be as hard if it wasn’t 14,505 feet. I got a bit altitude sickness at 12,000 (trail crest), I felt really lightheaded and found it hard to catch my breath. I didn’t acclimate well the day before. Actually, I drove up to the trailheads merely 6 hours before started hiking. That isn’t really enough time to allow my body to adjust to the altitude.
The safest way to acclimate is to backpack, which will allow your body to handle with only 3,000 feet of elevation change in a day rather than 14,000 feet, if you come from sea level like I did.
However, if you are day hiking this, the best way to do is to drive up to Whitney Portal campground, 8,000 ft, and spend at least 24 hours there before making the hike. This will allow you sufficient time to adjust to altitude.
If you do long distant hikes or play sports that require you to be active for multiple hours regularly, you should be fit enough to do this hike. Average hiking time for Whitney is 14 hours, so make sure that you are comfortable with being active for that amount of time.
If you live in Southern California, there are two mountains where Whitney hikers use to train before their hike or to test their endurance. The two mountains are Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Gorgonio, both reaching over 10,000 ft with the later one being the tallest in Southern California. San Gorgonio offers you a similar experience to hiking Whitney with multiple water refill places, shades, rocky terrain, and permit process. Baldy is easier than Gorgonio. I recommend that you should try out San Gorgonio first before making a 4 hours drive out there to Whitney. Knowing your own limitation is important. Pushing yourself is a challenge that every human being’s should do, but your own safety is also essential. You don’t want to find yourself in a difficult situation up in the mountain.
Fortunately, I was invited by an online hiking group to join the team to hike this mountain. The permit process is difficult and thousands of people, if not more, are denied every year, so I felt very lucky to get the opportunity to do this.
I left my canyoneering class at 2:30pm and drove up to Whitney Portal by 7pm, met up with the group, slept at 9pm and woke up at 1:30am. I don’t have to say that it wasn’t the best thing to do before tackling this mountain. But both were opportunities that i couldn’t pass. I didn’t allow myself to acclimate and sleep, which really impacted my performance. I got minor altitude sickness close to the summit, but I was still able to make it luckily.
The trail was amazing. We left when the moon was high and the stars covered the sky. It was a special night hike experience for me. After a few hours, the sun made its way up from the horizon. It was the reddest sun I’ve ever seen. I turned my headlamp off and enjoyed the warmth that the sun brought.
We finally got to the trail camp. We hung out, ate, and refill our energy and water. A lot of backpackers were rising after their good night of sleep. I was jealous. We finally made our way up the infamous 97 switch. It felt long! The switchbacks never seem to end and the summit did’t look any closer.
I got up to the trail crest and the John Muir Trail Junction, this would be where most through JMT hikers exit their trips. From here, it was merely a couple of miles to the summit. They were the hardest miles by far though. The altitude finally kicked in and it was hard for me to make every step. You are also very exposed at the top. It may chili but the sun is still contacting your skin. Every step helped me to get closer and i didn’t want to stop although it was getting really difficult for me.
You will see plenty of hikers sitting along the way up to the summit. It’s hard for everyone. Finally, i saw the Whitney hut and took the last breath before made my last push up to the summit. Wow, i was finally at the tallest point in the lower 48.
I had some food and took plenty of photos before making my way down. My feet were killing me but that wasn’t enough to take a smile away from face.