Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mt. Whitney, CA

*Click image to view large.

September 14/15, 2010

Mt. Whitney – 14,505’ towers along the Sierra Crest and it is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States……and perhaps, it is one of the most popular mountain hikes in the Sierra Nevada. Whitney is located between Inyo and Tulare counties, 85 miles west of the lowest point in North America = Badwater in Death Valley National Park (282’ below sea level). It also stands within Sequoia National Park and the summit is the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail which is 211 mile wilderness trail from Yosemite National Park through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sequoia National Park and King's Canyon  National Park and ends at Mt. Whitney with the elevation of 14,505’.

The official plaque on the summit rock
“No pain, no gain” - this proverb would fit in this 22 mile RT journey to the highest peak.  There are many people who do this hike repeatedly. That may be the captivating power of the beauty of this magical landscape and pristine wilderness = the Sierra Crest. In fact, there are many moments that you stop and feel “awestruck’ by jaw-dropping vistas all along the Whitney trail, not just to stop and inhale as much “thin air” as possible!? Particularly, the views of alpine lakes and mountain ranges of the Sierra Crest along the John Muir Trail are dramatically stunning.
If you are planning to summit Mt. Whitney?  Here's some tips for you.  Prepare in advance both physically and mentally, particularly for high altitude and do some homework before heading out to Whitney.  Wilderness permit is required for both day hikers and backpackers. And guess what?..... permits based on annual quotas can be all gone prior to the season.  Mt. Whitney trail is a very popular hike.  But, don’t be discouraged if permits are all sold out because there are always unreserved or cancelled permits which become available on a first-come, first-served basis after 2pm daily during the season. Bear-proof food canisters are required and no food is allowed to leave in your car because there have been incidents attacked by hungry bears!  Bear lockers are available in the parking lot so that you can keep your food.  You can rent a bear canister at the visitor center ($2.50/day).  Pack-out all human waste and campfires are prohibited.  If you have any questions re climbing Mt. Whitney, contact Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center in Lone Pine, CA.  They have necessary information and daily updates such as weather, trail condition, permits, etc.
View east of Alabama Hills along Whitney Portal Road and
Lone Pine and US 395 in the valley.

Mt. Whitney from Alabama Hills
  1. Whitney Portal       8,360'   0.0 mi
  2. Lone Pine Lake      9,900'   2.8 mi
  3. Outpost Camp     10,400'   3.8 mi
  4. Mirror Lake         10,640'   4.0 mi
  5. Trailside Meadow 11,400'   5.0 mi
  6. Trail Camp          12,000'   6.0 mi
  7. Trail Crest           13,700'   8.2 mi
  8. Muir Trail JCT      13,480'   8.7 mi
  9. Summit              14,505'  11.0 mi

How to get there: 
From Lone Pine, CA, travel 13 miles west on Whitney Portal Road. Trailhead is on the right side of the road at Whitney Portal.

The Journey

I arrived at the trailhead in Whitney Portal (8,360’) around 5:30pm with a luck in my hand....there was one cancellation of Wilderness Permit that afternoon, thank God! The parking lot for overnight hikers was almost FULL. After I managed to secure a spot for my car, I checked around the portal area first to familiarize myself  - Whitney Portal store, restrooms, bear-proof food lockers and the trailhead.  My game plan was to change clothes, check all the gear and essentials, eat dinner, store food in the bear locker, and hit the trail by 8pm.  Hike about 4 miles to Outpost Camp (10,360’), set up a tent, sleep, get up before sunrise and aim to summit by noon.

 Mount Whitney Trailhead at Whitney Portal.

Entering the John Muir Wilderness.  It was pitch dark!

After 2.5 hrs hike from trailhead, I reached Outpost Camp (10,360’) around 10:30pm. I set up my base camp, which was very simple - sleeping mat and sleeping bag with a bivy, that’s it. I planned that way to make it simple, easy and light.  I knew the weather was going to be cooperative that night - calm and warm.  As a general rule, the bear canister is supposed to be placed at least 50’ away and in a leveled area, not by cliff or water.  I placed it under a tree about 100’ away from me.

The sky was crystal clear and myriads of twinkling and shooting stars.  It made me feel like I was not there at Mt. Whitney, but flew into the starry sky and exploring the universe.  It was after midnight.   I finally closed my eyes and slipped into another universe…….

Time to hit the trail!  After a short sleep, I was back on trail by 4:30am, ascending to Trail Camp 12,000'.  Around 11,000', looking down toward Lone Pine, which was covered by low clouds and only seen were some peaks of the range on the other side - the Owens Valley.  Mt. Whitney trail is visible traversing down below.

 Magic moment near Trail Camp - Alpenglow at sunrise.

The great wall of Mt. Whitney?  That’s what I called it when I saw this.  The peak in the center is Mt. Muir (14,018’).  At Trail Camp - 12,000'.

Be ready for 98 switchback!

The infamous switchbacks of Mt. Whitney trail.  Do you know how many switchbacks you have to clear between Trail Camp to Trail Crest with the elevation gain of 1,777’ in 2.2miles? 98 switchbacks!  The high altitude trail section between Trail Camp – Trail Crest is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the climb for many hikers. It's a point of no ascent where some hikers may start to feel “altitude sickness” due to the high elevation above 12,000’ and trekking up 98 switchbacks to above 13,000’.  The key is to pace yourself, no rush. Stay hydrated.  Enjoy the vistas as you hike up those 98 killers.  Take a break and sip water as you need.   Also, a little snack to keep your energy going helps prevent altitude sickness.   The best way to avoid altitude sickness is acclimatization.  If you feel a little headache or lightheaded, then, stop and rest.  If it doesn't help, you must descend right away for your own life's sake.

At the beginning of the 98 switchbacks, looking down toward Trail Camp…..a tarn (L) and Consultation Lake (R).  The valley down below is still covered by low clouds.  By the way, Trail Camp is the last place where you can refill your water.

The Cables are installed for safety on this steep icy face of the trail.  It only takes one slip to sheer cliff.

View of Mt. Muir (14.012’) and Mt. Whitney (14,505’) en route to Trail Crest.

Trail is well-maintained over all, but very rocky.

Entering the John Muir Trail.  The Whitney trail junctions with the John Muir trail at Trail Crest and continues on to the summit.  The trail runs along the west side of the Whitney range from this point on.  Sequoia National Park is visible in the distance.

View southeast of the summit with Pinnacle Ridge crossing forefront.  Peaks in frame are Wotans Throne-12,746’, Mt. Marsh-13,510’, Mt. McAdie-13,799’, Mt. Mallory-13,850’, Mt. Irvine-13,770’, Mt. Le Conte-13.930’ and Mt. Langley-14,026'.  Also, Olancha Peak – 12,123’ is visible in distance.

The official USGS brass benchmark disk on the summit stamped as 14,494'. (Estimated using the older vertical datum (NVGD29) from 1929.)  By the new vertical datum established in 1988 (NAVD88) the summit elevation is now estimated to be at 14,505 feet - Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States.

View west of the John Muir Trail - Sequoia National Park.  Hitchcock Mountain, Hitchcock Lakes and Guitar Lake.   The Sierra Crest in skyline – it's the Great Western Divide!
View east of Mt. Whitney summit.  Iceberg Lake seen in front. Mountain peaks in frame are: 
Mt. Russell Ridge Line
Lone Pine
Thor Peak, 12,300’
Lone Pine Peak, 12,944’
Mt Irvine, 13,770’
Mt. Mallory, 13,850’
Mt. Langley, 14,026’
Mt. Le Conte, 13.930’
Olancha Peak, 12,123’
Wotans Throne, 12,746’
Pinnacle Ridge

View north – west – south of Mt. Whitney summit.  The summit plaque on the front rock and the summit shelter in center.  Sequoia National Park and The Sierra Crest in skyline.  Hitchcock Mt. and Hitchcock Lake are partially visible to the left.

South view of Mt. Whitney summit.  Hitchcock Mountain and Hitchcock Lake in foreground.  The Sierra Crest (the Great Western Divide) lies between Mt. Whitney and Sequoia National Park.

Time flies!'s time to descend.  I spent about an hour at the summit and it was around 1:30pm when I began descending.

 Rocky trail continues surrounded by granite landscape.  This is Alpine zone.

Lone Pine Creek runs into Trailside Meadow at 11,400’.  If you want to pick a place to rest on the way, this place must be it.  It is so pretty and peaceful.  You can refill water, too.  A sign of life (vegetation) begins here at the end of Alpine zone, entering Sub-alpine zone.  Rest those tired joints and muscles here while enjoying this lush scenery along the trail.

Thor Peak (12,300’) towers over Mirror Lake at 10,640’.  No camping allowed here.  A few hundred feet below Mirror Lake is Outpost Camp, where my base camp is.

 A lone pine (foxtail pine) and Thor Peak-12,300’.

A beautiful lush meadow opens up down at Outpost Camp.  I do remember hearing the sound of a waterfall and creeks as I slept.

Approaching the meadow where I set up my camp last night.  Outpost Camp, 10.400'.

After Outpost Camp, there are many creek crossings along the trail.  You notice vegetation becomes more dense - it’s Montane zone.  The trail goes through the montane chaparral community – drought resistant evergreen shrubs such as mountain mahogany, bush chinquapin, etc. are among them.  White firs and Jeffery pines join the forest community along the trail from Lone Pine Lake (9,850’) to the trailhead – Whitney Portal (8,360’).   The end of the journey!

Mt. Whitney casts its sunset shadow over the meadow by Outpost Camp and Lone Pine Peak.

 Lone pine and Lone Pine Peak (12,944’) near sunset.

Alpenglow en route to Mt. Whitney Trail Camp

"Grandma Whitney" 
Click to read more about this AMAZING grandma!

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