Whitney Portal Route

Whitney Portal Route
Single day, 12-18 hours roundtrip
Distance: ~22 miles
Elevation: 6600’+

Overview
Drive to the Whitney Portal. Spend the night at the trailhead. Wake up at 2 or 3 AM. Get on the trail and start walking. If you’ve trained, you should make the summit in 6-8 hours (8 – 10 AM). Spend an hour on the summit. Descend. 5-7 hours to return. Get back to car around 4-6 PM. Fall asleep in your car.

This is a good and reasonable trip plan.

The Route
You want to get as early of a start as possible. The later you leave, the higher your chances of encountering mid-afternoon thunderstorms and the lower your chances of success.

Whitney Portal Trailhead
Distance from Trailhead: 0 miles.
Elevation: ~8300′

Leave the Mt. Whitney parking lot.

01 - Whitney Trailhead

Yeah, that’s me on my first Whitney hike. Damn, I was young.

A little ways in, you’ll encounter the John Muir Wilderness sign.

02 - Entering JM Wilderness Sign

Welcome to the John Muir Wilderness.

Head up the trail past some easy switchbacks and you’ll soon encounter a log bridge over a low creek.

03 - Log Bridge before Lone Pine Lake

Sometimes there’s a creek here.

After the bridge, you’ll come to Lone Pine Lake.

04 - Lone Pine Lake

Lone Pine Lake. I’m a little older here.

Above Lone Pine Lake, you’ll enter the Mt. Whitney Zone (where permits are required). You’ll follow the edge of a beautiful alpine meadow and reach the first campsite.

05 - Meadow Before Outpost Camp

Looking back from Outpost Camp toward the trailhead.

Outpost Camp
Distance from Trailhead: ~3.5 miles.
Elevation: ~10,300’

Outpost Camp is a very nice little campsite nested in some shade with a small stream running nearby. Water quality is good (still needs filtration), and the campsites are nice. This is a great place to overnight if you are backpacking.

After Outpost, you’ll start climbing up to Mirror Lake. Ascending up from Mirror Lake, you’ll follow Lone Pine Creek and pass Consultation Lake on your left. After Consultation Lake, you’ll enter the Trail Camp area.

Trail Camp
Distance from Trailhead: ~5.5 miles
Elevation: ~12,000’

06 - Camping at Trail Camp

Camping at Trail Camp in wintery conditions.

Trail Camp is the closest campsite to the summit. Whitney’s peak will be ahead of you and a large ring of high ground surrounds you. It’s above the treeline and you’ll be exposed to weather with no shelter except the large boulderfield you’re in. Be warned, thousands of hikers and campers come through here and the water quality is very poor. Make sure to filter any water you draw from the small lake here. It’s not a very scenic campsite, but it is close to the summit and makes a great place to stop for a summit push. Another great campsite if you are overnighting up here.

07 - Trail Camp to Summit Summer

Looking from Trail Camp to the summit. Summer conditions.

Crossing the Trail Camp valley, you’ll start the real climbing. Ahead of you is the infamous Hundred Switchbacks section. It’s steep and long and high up. Enjoy the pain.

08 - Switchbacks

One of a hundred switchbacks! Fun!

Once you get on top of the Hundred Switchbacks, you’ll be at Trail Crest.

Trail Crest
Distance from Trailhead: ~7 miles
Elevation: ~13,500

09 - Trail Crest

Trail Crest. I’m so frickin’ epic right now.

Congratulations, you’re almost certainly going to summit. You’re at ~13,500’ and only a few more miles of trail are between you and the summit. At Trail Crest, you should check the horizon. Make sure it is clear of thunderclouds. Storms roll into the Sierras from the west in the mid-afternoon, and you do not want to be on the exposed summit during a lighting storm.

10 - Looking Back toward Trail Crest

Near the summit, looking back toward Trail Crest.

A few miles of easy hiking takes you to the summit hut. A note here about lightning:

THE SUMMIT HUT WILL NOT PROTECT YOU FROM LIGHTNING.

Despite the presence of lightning rods on the hut, it is not designed to protect its inhabitants from lightning. People have DIED INSIDE from lightning strikes. Do not shelter there during a thunderstorm. DESCEND!

11 - Summit Hut

Summit hut. Does NOT protect you from lightning.

Mt. Whitney Summit
Distance from Trailhead: ~11 miles
Elevation: 14,505’

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Tag the summit, sign the summit register, take some pictures, and enjoy the view. You’ve earned it.

12 - Easy Button on Summit

Summit register. Easy button?!?

Here’s the one buzzkill. You’re only HALF WAY done. There is still the descent. And guess what?

Most people who get injured on mountains get injured on the descent!

Being tired and in a rush to get back to the car is a surefire way to an ankle injury. Downhill is also much harder on your joints. Take your time getting down. Unless there is weather rolling in, there’s no rush. (You brought a headlamp along right?) Go slow and get back safely.

Winter Climbs
If you get to Whitney early or late in the season, there is a good chance your hike will turn into a winter climb. Snow and ice will make the Hundred Switchbacks section treacherous and impassable. Most people take the direct route to Trail Crest by climbing the low-angle snow to the right of the switchbacks.

07a - Trail Camp to Summit Snow

If it looks like this, you’re not “hiking” anymore.

It is not a very technical route, but it does require ice axe and crampons (and the knowledge to properly use them).

08a - Snow Climb to Trail Crest

Climbing low angle snow. No helmet, bad example!

Winter mountaineering requires (in order):
1) TRAINING.
2) HELMET.
3) ICE AXE.
4) CRAMPONS.

KNOW HOW TO SELF-ARREST BEFORE YOU ATTEMPT A SNOW CLIMB.

Let me say that again.

KNOW HOW TO SELF-ARREST BEFORE YOU ATTEMPT A SNOW CLIMB.

Practice this.

Practice this.

Too many people get killed up here trying to fake it. This is not a place to learn on the fly. Know what you are getting into and PRACTICE.

On Poop
Yep. There’s a section here on poop. Get over it.

When you pick up your permit, the rangers will give you a Wag Bag. It’s a bag to poop in.

Yes, you have to use it. It is required.

With the thousands of hikers coming into this zone, human waste accumulates faster than it can decompose. To address this problem, all overnighters must carry (and use) a human waste bag. If you are a dayhiker, it is optional. I recommend carrying it anyway.

The kit includes a large plastic “target” sheet, a few heavy duty bags, odor-absorbing chemicals, and some toilet paper. The “target” sheet is huge. You can’t miss. However…

WEIGH THE EDGES OF THE SHEET DOWN WITH ROCKS BEFORE YOU POOP.

There’s nothing more disgusting than having the wind pick up your poop and throw it on your leg.

You do your business and add a little water to the chemicals and wrap the whole thing up in the bags. It’s actually a pretty sturdy system. Dispose of the bag at the specially marked waste containers at the trailhead.

13 - Wag Bag Disposal

Ewwwwwwwww.

If you are overnighting, I suggest carrying two. They can be reused, but you DON’T want to do that. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.

Final Thoughts
Walk all day, destroy your legs on the Hundred Switchbacks, risk snow and ice and rain and lightning, bake in the sun, get sick from the altitude, and poop in a bag. Sounds like a good time! Where do I sign up?

Go do it. It’s either that or live your safe boring life on your couch.

Don’t be lame. Be awesome.

Good luck and be safe!

Training for Whitney

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Ok, I’ve put in for a Mt. Whitney Permit. Now what?

Start training.

Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states. It is 14,505’ of quad-burning, ankle-turning pain. If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking about tagging the summit. If so, say this next sentence out loud:

“EMBRACE THE SUCK.”

Yep. It’s going to be a long day. A VERY long day.

But you should do it anyways. Because it’s good for your body and it’s good for your soul.

Outside Ed’s Five Step Guide to Training

  1. Commit to Doing It.
    1. Be decisive. Decide as early as possible to commit to the summit. It’ll mentally focus you on the task at hand and give you maximum time to train.
    2. Deciding early also allows you to train with the gear you will be using. The most critical piece of gear on this trip will be your footwear. Get your shoes/boots ASAP and start getting your feet used to them.
  2. Train.
    1. It is 22 miles long with 6600+’ of elevation. You need to train for it. Start walking.
    2. Cross-training is good, but nothing gets you ready for a long hike like a long hike.
    3. Hiker smaller local mountains and work your way up.
  3. Train Some More.
    1. Get up early. Go for a run. Spend your weekends hiking. Get strong.
    2. If you want a good indicator of your fitness, go hike the Vivian Creek Trail on Mt. San Gorgonio. If you feel good on that, you’re probably ready.
  4. Acclimate.
    1. Get high. Get to altitude. Sleep up there. The air is thin, so you’ll need to get used to it.
  5. Do It.
    1. Be a beast and tag the summit.

5 Common Reasons People Fail to Summit

  1. Out of Shape
    1. This is a long hike. Don’t underestimate how arduous it is. Come ready for a long, long day. You’ll be doing a lot of elevation gain. Make sure to do plenty of training hikes between now and summit day. Try to do a trail with at least 5000’ of elevation gain to simulate this hike.
  2. Altitude Sickness
    1. The summit is at 14,505’. If you’ve never been up to altitude before, it can seriously kick your ass. You need to acclimate your body to being at higher elevations BEFORE you arrive. That means spending nights above 5000’. Your body will make more red blood cells to oxygenate your body while you sleep. So climb something local and spend the night on top. Do this in the months leading up to the hike.
    2. Ascend slowly. Walk at a slower pace than normal. If you’re overnighting, spend your nights at lower camps and allow time to acclimate. Ascending quickly further exacerbates the symptoms of altitude sickness.
  3. Dehydration
    1. Bring a lot of water and drink it. Refill at Outpost camp. Then fill up again at Trail Camp. Then fill up on the way down. FILTER YOUR WATER. The water quality there is horrible.
  4. Weather
    1. You’re in the Sierras. There will be weather. Be ready for it and turn around if there is any question. Don’t get killed for a stupid summit.
    2. Snow. If you’re shooting for an early summit date, be prepared for snow and snow travel. You may need ice axe and crampons to ascend. With snow and ice, the switchbacks section from Trail Camp to Trail Crest will be closed and you will have to ascend the snow chute to the right of it. If you do not have experience with ice axe and crampons, turn around. Learn to self-arrest and self-belay. It’s not a very technical climb and it’s not very steep, but it can still kill you.
    3. Thunderstorms. The Sierras are notorious for thunderstorms. They usually roll in during the early afternoon, around 2PM. You should be ALREADY DESCENDING by this time. Get an early start and be on your way down. If you see thunderclouds on the horizon, you need to abort your hike and turn around. THERE IS NO COVER ON THE SUMMIT AND SUMMIT AREA. The hut has lightning rods all over it. IT WILL NOT PROTECT YOU. People have died inside the summit hut from lightning.
  5. Injury
    1. It’s a trail. There are rocks. There might be ice and snow. You will probably slip and fall at some point. Be prepared for ankle injuries. Carry a full roll of athletic tape and learn how to properly tape an ankle.
    2. Blisters can immobilize you. Make sure you wear proper footwear and break it in before you get there. Make sure you’re used to doing long days in your shoes. Carry a blister kit and know how to treat hotspots before they turn into blisters.

Whitney is a pretty major undertaking. It’s big and tall and long. Don’t underestimate the mountain and show up IN SHAPE.

Good luck and go get it!

Mt. Whitney Permit Lottery

Fourth Time

My fourth summit of Whitney.

The annual Mt. Whitney lottery is here! If you’re looking to climb it this year, I hope you’ve turned in an application. They start issuing dates in a few days! If you haven’t, here’s a quick rundown.

The Lottery
Mt. Whitney is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the ENTIRE UNITED STATES. To limit access, the Forest Service issues permits for Mt. Whitney in a lottery.

Here’s how the process works:
You send in an application between Feb. 1 and March 15. Earlier doesn’t mean you have a better chance. It all gets lumped together. If you turn in an application after March 15, they’ll still take it. You just end up at the back of the line (very low chance of getting a permit).

March 16 – They randomly start picking applications and assigning dates.
March 24 – You can see the status of your application.
April 1 – You can accept or decline your date.
April 30 – Last day to accept your date.

Last year: 38% of applications were successful. 4500 out of 11,500.

So even BEFORE you start, you’ve got less than 40% chance of GETTING a permit.

Some notes:
July and August are the most popular months.
Weekends? Holidays? Good luck.
Be flexible with your dates.

Picking Your Dates
The presence or absence of snow will be a major factor in your summit bid. Too early in the season and you might have to posthole your way to the top. Too late in the season and you might get an early winter storm dumping powder on you. Either way, snow is no fun for the average hiker.

Snow can persist on Whitney through late July. Luckily, this year has been very dry. No guarantees, but June will probably be hike-able. July and August are best, but the popularity of those months makes getting a permit difficult. Early September can be very nice. Cooler weather, but there is a higher chance of thunderstorms.

If you do encounter snow, come prepared or turn around! Ice can make the Hundred Switchbacks section from Trail Camp to Trail Crest impassable. You should have basic ice axe and crampon skills. Learn to self arrest. It’s not that hard, but it does require practice!

People die up there. Don’t be one of them.

Good luck and go get a permit!

Official Forest Service site (for more info): Forest Service Mt. Whitney Page
Official Recreation.gov site (to apply for a permit): Whitney Lottery

Carrying Yeats

Carrying Yeats

My hair is a mess. I hadn’t showered in four days.

The meaning of life is carrying a beat-up paperback copy of William Butler Yeats along the Sierra backcountry, cursing its ten ounces of deadweight along every sweaty step, trudging under the combined heft of a pack stuffed with gear and silly romanticism, hating his portrait on the front cover and hating the foolish decision to bring it. It’s falling asleep every night bundled in your bag with a headlamp and curled deep under down reading another poem and his wandering words from half a world away, the mythical green hills of a beautiful hilly island and wondering if he would have been so enamored of its beauty if he had to clamber over treeless ten-thousand foot passes and drop into the dusty brown moonscape of scree and talus with small snowmelt ponds bereft of slumbering trout.

But it’s also getting up at dawn, heavy with sleep and missing my usual morning coffee, and hiking to the shoulder of the Whitney giant. It’s dropping my pack and my cares, and accelerating with fleet feet, energized by excitement and a sugary granola bar, running up switchbacks by other backpackers, laden like lumbering pack mules, and flying. It’s tapping the top, signing the register, and running back down. It’s being invincible, being impossible, being indomitable. It’s feeling strong and tall and so high up, so far beyond the fourteen and a half thousand feet of the summit, far up in the thin atmosphere and being so damned alive at the moment, running over loose rocks and knowing you’ll never trip, never fall, never die. And it’s zooming back to your campsite where you fall asleep again, reading Yeats in your fading headlamp light, and holding only your dreams.