Climbing Mount Whitney is a dream for any avid hiker. But, using it to cap off a year in which I had climbed Mt Shasta, Mount Baker and Mount Rainier felt like a dream. It was a season I won’t ever forget and one I will not soon repeat.
Taking off from Sea-Tac I got a view of Mount Baker lit up by early morning sun. It stood like a reflection on the season passed. The moment felt cinematic. It took years of work to get to where this year brought me and I cannot wait to see where it all goes.
Climbing Mount Whitney started to feel like a gateway to bigger accomplishments. Going down a day early was a good choice. I enjoyed a stroll on the beach, had a beer at a local brewery, and then got a full night of rest. From LA it is a half-day drive to get to Whitney Portal and the start of the route for Climbing Mount Whitney.
We woke up early and were on the road around by 8 am. After stopping for the Mount Whitney climbing permits we arrived at Whitney Portal by 1:30. The trail starts off in earnest, and I felt as though I should have stretched a little more.
My legs caught up to my over-excitement and before I knew it we were approaching the top of the first hill. Here, there is a small lake with a trail to it that makes a good water source. Make sure to know where all the water sources are. There isn’t many of them when climbing Mount Whitney.
I was in total awe at the scenery surrounding me. The towering peaks that are crumbling and dotted with crystal blue lakes. The meadows and rock fields all felt so barren but alive. This is not what I expect from such a mountainous desert area. After climbing through the areas of Mount Whitney I understand John Muir better now.
We chose to spend both nights we would be on the mountain at trail camp (12,000 ft). That gave us around 6 miles to go for the first day. The trail is steep and tough but with the scenery I don’t remember much of my impressions of the trail. Instead I just remeber how stunned I felt at the experience I was having
Trail camp is a beautiful camp area nestled below Mount Whitney and it’s sub-peaks. The silence and desolate nature of it both felt entrancing. By the time we had our tent set up it was nearing 6 pm. After a warm meal, we chatted with some hikers coming down. They told us the conditions were perfect. We both went to bed smiling and ready for the next day.
If you are camping here get some rest. The Famous 99 Switchbacks start immediately after trail camp. We decided to tackle them in the dark, I would suggest doing the same if you have camping permits.
If you are doing the 1 day push car to car, good luck.
We planned to wake up around 4:30 and get on the trail for an early start. But, we woke several times before this due to hikers that had gotten off-trail. They stood next to our tent discussing where the trail was. This scene repeated many times and by 2 am I was ready to get up. You may want to bring a pair of earplugs along with you if you plan to sleep.
As angry as I was at the errant hikers, the earlier start to climbing Mount Whitney paid off. I thought I would count the number of switchbacks on the way up. There seems to be a lot of question whether it is 99 or not. But, I only got to 30 before I got lost in my headlamp and my pace on the trail.
Though I have not ascended the 99 switchbacks in the light, I did have to come back down. Even the descent would be better in the dark. They seem to go on forever. I still don’t know if there is 99 or not but it felt like 200.
At the end of the switchbacks the trail levels out and winds along the backside of the ridge. From here you will see the vast expanse of this area come to life in the morning light. Until you reach the trail junction for climbing to Mount Whitney’s summit, the trail is easy.
The sheer scale of what is happening geologically to this area is what impressed me most. Along the ridge that connects Whitney Trail to the summit route the peaks are crumbling. Throughout the PNW I have seen scree fields, but, these looked like garbage dumps of sharp rock. The views of Mt Hitchcock and the many other peaks that were lit up with Alpenglow also drew my attention. The entire ridge walk felt like sensory overload. I didn’t fully process it until I was flying home two days later and checking my photos. When I look at the photos now from climbing Mount Whitney I still don’t believe I was there. The whole area is stunning.
Once you get to the second trail junction, make sure that you take the trail up not down. Zoned out on the scenery I almost walked past it. There was a large number of packs laying at this trail junction. There is also an obese marmot sitting next to them. Do not leave your packs here. The marmot will chew through them. You will lose your food, and it will get habituated to people. Everyone loses.
Past this trail junction the trail becomes less defined in some places. You will be trekking over boulder fields and doing some light scrambling. Though Brandon and I are both experienced, we got sidetracked by people’s trails. There are cairns all over the place. The actual trail is easy enough to see. So, if something does not look right, stop, and find it.
Both of us were attempting to make it to the summit before the sun crested the horizon. Due to my lack of drinking water all day I was a bit slow but Brandon managed to do it. All in all about 2.5 hours from trail camp to the top of the lower 48. Not bad.
Standing on the summit of this historic peak was an experience I can’t put into words. I know I called my wife from the summit and wasn’t even able to tell her what that feels like. When I started crying instead of talking she said enjoy your day and we hung up. If you climb Mount Whitney in the dark like us, make sure to stop a lot on the way down for photos. There is a lot you will have missed in the dark of night.
After we arrived Back at camp we each took some time to go wander around the basin. There is several lakes and multiple trails to take around. I being fond of scrambling had heard that you can climb some of the smaller peaks in the basin near trail camp. I forgot that the camp site I was in stood at 12,000 feet. While scrambling up a "hill" nearby our tent I suddenly felt weak and it took me until i got back to camp for Brandon to explain to me the altitude was affecting me. A blonde moment for sure.
We woke up for sunrise so we could get back to LA for our flights. The hike is a simple 6 miles filled with spectacular views. Most of it I missed on the way up in my excitement for climbing Mount Whitney. Compared to the other mountains we had conquered this year, Whitney was by far the easiest. But, it holds a special meaning to it that the others don’t possess.
The worst part of climbing Mount Whitney was leaving. The area has a desolate beauty I have never seen before in my life. As soon as my plane took off from LAX I had a sinking feeling that a summer like this one was not likely again anytime soon.
No matter why you climb Mount Whitney it is an inspiring peak. Next time I will give it a shot in the winter. I have heard the mountaineers route is a little more challenging.