Winter Climbing Mt. Whitney, 2005 Style, Part 1

Author's Note: Seeing as how I never got paid for this submission from 2005, I think I'll post it here! Hope you enjoy it!


At three-thirty in the morning, the last thing one wants to hear is the shrill tones of an alarm clock; especially the type of alarm that is built in to a standard cell phone. I’m already awake at this early hour because I’m uncomfortably hot. I’m uncomfortably hot because I’m wearing long underwear and ensconced in my sleeping bag. I’ve placed myself in this unusual position of being awake at an odd hour and physically uncomfortable because I want to climb Mt. Whitney for the third time. Rather than ignoring all of the above problems, I fumble for the alarm, turn it off, and slip out of my bag to see my excess heat radiating off my body.

Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the continental United States. It is located on the southern portion of the Sierra Nevada range, and stands at 14,496 feet above sea level. The mountain is located in the Inyo National Forest, but does border Sequoia National Park on its western side. There are no roads that lead to its summit. The summit of the mountain is not close to any major amenities. The closest town to Whitney is Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine sits directly on the Interstate 395, which runs North and South along the Eastern Side of the Sierra. Lone Pine is a picturesque small town, with signs and placards proclaiming it the “Gateway to Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills”. Behind its few city streets, the Sierras rise in majestic splendor.

From the middle of Lone Pine, most people drive up the road, through the boulders of the Alabama Hills, and up into the Sierras to Whitney Portal, a combination of parking lots, campgrounds, picnic grounds, and one store at eight thousand feet. From the Portal, the main Mt. Whitney trail snakes eleven miles to the summit. There are many ways to summit Whitney; one can approach from the Western Side via the John Muir trail, one can technically climb the mountain’s face, one can take the mountaineer’s route in the winter, and one can, of course, do what most people do, which is to hike the main Mt. Whitney trail.

It is this trail that earns the mountain its greatest degree of contempt. As the tallest mountain in the continental United States, the mountain is viewed as a challenge to be conquered by all manner of individuals. Consequently, the Forest Service created the eleven mile trail that passes two campgrounds before reaching the summit. In the summer, the trail is packed full of people walking and straining to reach the elusive goal. The main Mt. Whitney trail, while an asset to those attempting to hike the mountain, has also become a source of discontent. Some feel that the trail makes the summit bid an easy, simple affair – “a mere walk up of a climb”. Others are unhappy about the access it provides to the public; especially in the height of summer, when hundreds on a daily basis attempt to summit the mountain in the dry, hot air. A contemporary of mine once stated to me dismissively that the trail should just be paved, and then they could properly name it the “Whitney Highway”, because in his opinion, that is what it was.

The main complaint about the trail is the permit system. The Whitney Portal zone receives thousands of people each year who wish to attempt to hike and or climb the mountain. The trail, much maligned for superficial reasons, was therefore causing a real problem – the access it provided was causing harm to the sensitive high altitude environment. As a result, the Forest Service instituted a system in which access would be limited to a certain number of day hikers and overnight hikers per day. The permitting system would be based on a random lottery for individuals applying far in advance, and then based on the number of spaces remaining on a first come, first served basis for the remainder.