Mt. Whitney Trail (Whitney Portal to Summit)

Snowfield in Consultation Lake drainage, June 2011

At 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States. As the “highest peak”, it carries a certain amount of mountaineering cache. How much mountaineering cache? Well, that depends on what kind of a mountaineer one aspires to be; and when one climbs the mountain. Some mountaineers dismiss the peak as a “walk-up” because in July and August when the snow melts, a summit attempt only requires hiking eleven miles to the summit and eleven miles back down to the trailhead, which requires no technical climbing skills at all. From late fall to mid-summer, when the trail is covered with snow, the peak is not a mere “walk-up”, and technical skills are required to traverse snowfields safely while climbing up to the summit. I’ve been on the peak – and on the mountain a number of times, and what I can say about the mountain is this: there are prettier mountains; there are uglier mountains; it can be a place of mystic serenity; and it can be a place of brutal despair; but even though I’ve summited it seven times, I keep going back because it’s there, and because I like to go to the mountains to seek their tidings for my own inner peace.

But let’s talk about the facts about Mt. Whitney. Assuming you are taking the Whitney Portal Trail – the most popular trail, and the one that is run by a lottery, you are talking about over 6,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit; and 6,000 feet of elevation loss from the summit. You are talking about a total distance of twenty-two miles roundtrip. While these numbers won’t confuse anyone with the distances and the elevations gained and lost in the Himalayas, they’re nothing to take lightly either. This is to say nothing of the other hazards that you will encounter on the mountain: acclimatization issues, heatstroke, dehydration, hypothermia, weather, bears, and yes, marmots. (

 The "chute", June, 2011

As I mentioned above, I’ve been on the peak a number of times (11); and I’ve summited seven times – this may seem like a lot, until you realize that other, more experienced climbers have been on the peak many more times than you (26 weeks in a row consecutively; 10 times in a week). The best things to know about Whitney are to know your limits and be prepared. What is the best resource for information about Mt. Whitney and current conditions? The Mt. Whitney Portal message board. Every time that I’ve climbed Mt. Whitney (in the internet age), this board has provided me with invaluable resources about conditions and what to expect. This information is crucial, because conditions vary on the mountain from day to day, and month to month. In 2001, when I summited Whitney, it was 95 degrees on the switchbacks – and it felt like 120 in the direct sun. In 2005, I couldn’t make it past Trail Camp in early May because I had no snowshoes, and was breaking trail the whole way. In 2007, when I backpacked up with a group, we had 50-70 mph winds ripping through our camp at Trail Camp all night before our summit bid the next day.

In 2009, I got off the summit just before clouds rolled in and the thundersnow began. In 2010 I got my group off of the summit and trail crest just as it began to snow on the day of the summer solstice. This is to say nothing of what happened in 2002, or any other year. In order to summit the mountain, you have to know the conditions, and be prepared for the conditions, as well as know your own physical condition and limits. Last year, in 2011, when I led my group up in mid-June (when all of these pictures were taken), there was still quite a bit of snow. In fact, there was more snow than when I had taken my group up on June 20, 2010. (Pictures here:

Looking back down the chute, June 2011

Like 2010, we had decided that we were going up the mountain in one day, and we were taking the main trail. Unlike 2010, however, we ran into snow covering the trail from a point just beyond Lone Pine Lake. At that point, it was no problem – since we had the proper gear and knowledge, we traversed firm, packed snow through the drainage of Consultation Lake up toward trail camp. We arrived at Trail Camp at around ~9 a.m., which we assumed would give us plenty of time to traverse the snow covering the “chute” to Trail Crest. However, unlike 2010, the snow in the chute was already warm and slightly sloppy at that time of day. The result? We spent a brutal two hours slogging through knee high soft snow to Trail Crest in the direct sun, which totally destroyed our energy levels.

After a rest, we headed out toward the summit along the backside. While my two climbing partners were still in good form, I was dragging. Even worse, having been up the summit seven times, I knew I was dragging. And this is where the first lesson about Mt. Whitney comes in: know your limits. In the 11 times I have been on the mountain, I have seen all sorts of crazy things, mostly involving people not being prepared, and not knowing their limits. Now, there’s a fine line here: as a mountaineer, you want to push yourself to accomplish your goal; but you also want to be safe. As Sir Edmund Hillary noted, a successful climb of any mountain involves descending. On Whitney, like any mountain, you have to know your limits, especially when risks like altitude sickness do exist. You have to know that when you are on the summit you are only halfway done with the hike. Think about that: on Whitney, when you are on the summit, you still have to descend 11 miles safely, which, like in 2011 and 2010, may be treacherous due to snow and ice. You have to apportion your energy accordingly, and know your limits.

 West Side,Mt. Whitney Trail, June 2011

As for me in 2011, I sat down on the crest within a quarter mile of the summit (how do I know it was ¼ mile or less? Really? After being there past there 7 times, you know) and waited for my friends to come down. Could I have made it to the summit? Sure, I could have made it. Did I have to make it? No. Would anything bad have happened to me on the descent had I gone for it? Probably not. But stopping to rest; take in the view; and the mountain was the right decision and one that I would make again. (More on that here: Was it easy? Nope, I am a very competitive person, and having been to the summit seven times before doesn’t make me less competitive, especially knowing how close I was. Still, it was the right decision, and next week I’ll be going back – and stay tuned to see where I end up on the mountain. But if you are considering attempting to summit, be prepared – and know your limits!

Current Conditions for 2012: There was not much snow this year in the Sierra, so from what I hear, the trail is pretty clear to Trail Camp. However, check back in next week for my report on the trail conditions. At this point, it still appears that you will need an ice axe, and crampons. 

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