So, you’re looking to climb Mt. Whitney? If so, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve climbed Mt. Whitney a number of times – without snow, with snow, on the mountaineer’s route, on the Mt. Whitney trail, under sunny skies, and under cloudy skies with thundersnow. I’ve seen bears, lots of marmots, and all sorts of hikers, mountaineers, and climbers. While I’m not going to say that I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve written a lot, so this is a great time to recap all of the resources that are present on this site (and off this site). So, without any further ado, if you want to know how to climb Mt. Whitney, here’s what you need to know!
Permits: As you may or may not know, you need a permit to climb Mt. Whitney. If you don’t know that, then I’d suggest that you read any of the posts I’ve written about Mt. Whitney, as you’ve been required to have a permit for a very long time. What is new is that the Forest Service has gone to an electronic permit issuing system from recreation.gov. With respect to this development, I say, “Well played, Forest Service, way to enter the 21st century”. Seriously. This is a good thing. Gone are the days of when you would – gasp – MAIL your permit application in and wait – gasp – WEEKS – to find out whether you had a permit. Likewise gone are the days of the faxed application. The online application allows you to know what days are available and when you can get a permit immediately. As compared to the old system, the new system seems like magic.
However, there is a teeny tiny dark side to the new system that I have to warn you about. No, it isn’t that you might not get a permit for the 4th of July for your group of fifty people. That wouldn’t have happened under the old system either. It’s that under the new system, things are a little more stringent. Under the old system, things were a bit relaxed: I remember picking up permits at the old ranger station in Lone Pine, from the mailbox after hours, and no one ever really cared when you arrived to get your permit. (And now I’ve made myself sound old…”back in the day, before cell phones…”). Under the new system, the Forest Service does care when you arrive.
Case in point: when I went to get my permit on Sunday for my hike on Monday, I arrived at 2:30 p.m. No big deal, right? Wrong. The computer said that I was supposed to pick up my permit by 12:00 p.m. I was therefore two hours late. A big deal? Not a huge deal, but enough of a problem in that I had to tell the Ranger I was delayed by traffic, which he then put in the computer so it would release my permit. The lesson here is as follows: if you are like me, and you are used to arriving whenever to get your permit, because you’ve always done that, know that you now actually have to pick up your permit at a reasonable time. (More Info about permits here: https://fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5333235.pdf, http://www.recreation.gov/permits/Mt_Whitney/r/wildernessAreaDetails.do?page=detail&contractCode=NRSO&parkId=72201)
Bonus Tip about permits: While you have to have a permit to hike Mt. Whitney, it is not as hard to get a permit as you think. The toughest months to get permits are the following: July and August. That leaves ten other months during which obtaining a permit is not that difficult. Obviously, the longer you wish to stay on the mountain and the larger your group, the more difficult obtaining a permit will be. If you are flexible on dates, and willing to climb the mountain outside of those two months, you probably will be fine. This year, I obtained a permit for Memorial Day a week in advance – and there were plenty of other permits available for day use up to 5/28/12.
Good Mountaineering Karma: Pass it On. In my opinion, there are two types of mountaineers in this world: 1) the type that attempts to summit no matter the cost; and 2) the type that is willing to help their fellow climbers. Personally, I think that Type One climbers are a bit ridiculous at their best; and at their worst, are reprehensible for not helping their fellow man. Obviously, no one should place themselves at life threatening risk of death in order to help another, but aside from that, I feel that mountaineering is a team activity, even if you are climbing solo, and that one should provide support to the best of their ability to other climbers when they can. This is a policy I’ve lived by for my entire mountaineering time, and personally, I’d like to see more climbers adopt it. When I was on Mt. Whitney on Monday, I encountered a patch of ice that realistically, you needed an ice axe and crampons to traverse safely (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/5/29/current-trail-conditions-on-the-mt-whitney-trail-may-2012.html). While it was theoretically possible to bypass this area (even though a steep drop-off was around it), as a practical point, it was basically impassable for novice climbers without the proper gear.
When I saw this, I first analyzed it to see how I could traverse it safely, and after doing so, looked up at the climber immediately behind me. He did not have an ice axe, nor crampons. I did not know him, in fact, I don’t even know his name now. Directly behind him? A couple that I didn’t know either, also without equipment. All of them were staring at this segment of ice with dismayed expressions. The summit? It was a mile away. That’s right: all of these people had hiked and climbed 10 miles up to potentially be stopped by this obstacle. How do I know they could have been potentially stopped? I heard them discussing it. Now, if I was a Type One climber, I would have: a) not listened to this conversation, because I would have already been down the trail; and b) not cared.
Since I’m a Type Two climber, what did I do? I cut steps for them to descend. It took me maybe ten minutes. Then I lent two of them my axe as they descended so they could have extra security. The result? All of us reached the summit. If I hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have reached the summit on that day. The Lesson: good mountaineering karma: pass it on – who knows when you’ll need help to see something amazing. (As an additional aside, I saw plenty of other people using those steps on my descent as well!)
Summer Conditions. 2012 has been a dry year for the Sierras. As I said yesterday, the current snow conditions are what I would expect to see in August normally. This means that in the next couple weeks the remainder of the snow will melt off, and the seasonal flows will disappear. If you are climbing Mt. Whitney this year from this point on, I would strongly recommend that you have enough water for your climb (good advice any year), as there may not be any sources for you to filter water from. This will also aid you in avoiding dehydration and altitude sickness as well. And as always, enjoy the 97 switchbacks and the hike, and don't forget your wag bags!