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Mt. Whitney Trail Crest

Inyo National Forest

August 2nd, 1999

17.0 miles
5416 vertical feet
Total Time: 19:40

Rating: 9/10

Directions:   View Driving Map


Jean, Jennie, Reza, Weihaw and I woke up at 1am in the Whitney Portal family campground. Well, at least they may have woken up -- I don't think I ever fell asleep that night.

We packed up and drove the short distance to the trailhead, where we placed our scented items (food, toothpaste, etc.) in a bear-safe locker (they're free to use, but crowded).

At 2:46am, under a three-quarters full moon, we started out up the trail. The trailhead lies at 8361 feet, and starts climbing immediately. Our headlights led the way as we climbed up the switchbacks. The moon provided us some light to enjoy the surrounding scenery, but wasn't enough to walk by.

Despite the early hour, there were other hikers along the trail. We could see their headlights bobbing up and down either above or below us. We stopped for a break at the Lone Pine Lake turnoff, about 2 hours and 2 1/2 miles into the hike. Reza whipped out his handy 2-pound chair and made us all envious (I am definitely going to buy one!). While waiting, another large group (about 8-10 people) would pass us. We would leapfrog each other for the next few hours.

Sunrise. You can see the city lights of Lone Pine at right center

The light from the rising sun began to light up the way as we approached Outpost Camp. There's a solar toilet here, and a few campers. The sun itself was rising as we approached Mirror Lake. Despite the early hour, the sun was strong and we stopped to apply sunscreen. At high elevations, the sun can burn quickly.

Jean and Jennie zonked out at Trailside Meadows

At Trailside Meadows, 5 miles into the hike, Jean and Jennie needed a break. Reza stayed with them while Weihaw and I went up ahead to start filtering water. We stopped at a creek near Consultation Lake and started filtering. The rest of the group joined us a few minutes later. One by one we refilled our water packs as we ate lunch. Jennie filled her water pack and then went on up to Trail Camp and the solar toilet. Then Jean and Reza. Finally, Weihaw and I headed up after the others.

The climb above Trailside Meadows

Filtering water near Consultation Lake

Consultation Lake

After a short climb, we reached Trail Camp, about 6 miles into the hike. I was envious of all the backpackers who'd gotten permits and had set up camp here. There were tents everywhere. The 99 (or 96 or 97?) switchbacks led up to Trail Crest from here. Although it was impossible to see the trail from below unless you saw people on it.

The view from Trail Camp

Bags were hung from rocks to keep them from the numerous and hungry marmots and chipmunks. There's a small lake there which could be used for filtering, but I think I prefer the rushing creek we used.

The solar toilet has the unexpected warning that you're not supposed to urinate in it. Basically, it's a shit-only toilet. Not really sure why, but it has something to do with the chemical process. With tens of thousands of people hiking the mountain every year, shit is a serious problem. They used to helicopter it out once a year. Not sure exactly what their waste management process is now.

Mt. Whitney isn't actually visible from Trail Camp. The Trail Crest is. From there, Mt. Whitney is a 2 1/2 mile hike behind the mountains visible from Trail Camp. We started off on the infamous switchbacks a little after 9am. Still time to summit and start heading down by 3pm (preferably earlier).

There was to be possible trail maintenance in August and September, from 10am to 3pm. This would lead to possible delays of up to 1 1/2 hours each way. But we heard the good news from someone at Trail Camp that the construction hadn't started yet, and wouldn't for a few days. We were in luck -- the path to the top was all clear.

The lower section of the switchbacks has water (from melting snow) running through it. We had to pick our way through, but it wasn't enough to get our boots wet. Much of the switchbacks is very rocky and dicey in places. If you're not careful, you'll fall a long way down, and get hacked up by the rocks in the process. But if you ascend or descend them in daylight, there shouldn't be any problem.

Heading up the switchbacks

Part of the reason no one can seem to agree on how many switchbacks there are is that it's hard to tell when they start. We started counting but soon gave up. We were joined by dozens of people, pretty much all of them going up at this relatively early hour.

Jean at the cabled section

Reza and Weihaw ready to hike after a rest

We stopped at the short cabled section of the switchbacks. This isn't nearly as steep as the cabled section of granite on Half Dome. Psychologically, it's nice to have the cables here, though, because there's a steep, smooth granite drop-off from here. Reza complained about being cold, and then I pointed out to him that he was sitting next to a big chunk of ice (leftover from the winter storms, it hadn't melted yet). It was like sitting next to an open refrigerator.

Reza reapplying sunscreen to defend against the vicious sun

At switchback 58, someone descending told us that we were at switchback 58. Encouraged, we started counting up from there. The switchbacks up to 80 or so are fairly short, and we made good progress. My complaint in general is that the switchbacks are too switchbacked. The trail is much too long and not steep enough. It may sound strange to complain about the trail not being steep enough, but I'd much rather have a shorter trail. The grade was excessively gentle.

Ninja girl, aka Jennie, with her own protection from the sun

The last few switchbacks are really long. Around switchback 94 or 95, Jean had to stop. She complained of on-and-off headaches, and the urge to vomit. This wasn't good. We were now at about 13,500 feet. It would only get worse, but we were so close now. We decided to stop and rest and see how she felt. Jennie said she would turn around and descend with her, but after a rest Jean decided she felt fine and we would keep going.

View from the switchbacks. That's the Owens Valley, elevation 4000 feet, and then another mountain range in the background

Jean led a slow but steady pace up the remaining switchbacks and we soon found ourselves at Trail Crest, 13,777 feet above sea level, about 12:30pm. Only 722 vertical feet below the summit. The view was amazing. The mountain dropped off almost vertically on the western side.

View of Hitchcock Lake (elevation roughly 11700 feet) from Trail Crest

Unfortunately, Jean was getting worse. She threw up her lunch. At this point, we knew we had to descend. Sure, we wanted to get to the top. I'd been planning on summitting Whitney for 2 years. Jennie had passed up a free Alaskan cruise to do this hike. Rez was...well, out of shape but doing amazingly well considering. I felt great and I was proud of everyone for making it this far. But as Jennie would say, "the mountain will always be here." We knew we had to get Jean down. That's the only thing that would make her recover from the altitude sickness she was suffering.

Group shot at Trail Crest, just before descending

After a brief stay at Trail Crest and a mandatory group photo, we started our descent. Trekking poles made the descent much easier than it would have without them. But the trail is still so long down to Trail Camp. It seemed to take an eternity to descend. Indeed, we didn't make it back down to Trail Camp until about 4:30pm.

Reza, trying not to damage his knees (which were encased in two knee braces), took an even slower pace and arrived a bit later. We filtered water for the trip down while Jean rested up. It was nearly 6pm by the time we continued our descent.

One of the amazing things about this hike was how many people were unprepared. We saw so many people with little food or water, inadequate clothing...basically no respect for the mountain. As it grew darker, two women came down the trail and asked us if they could borrow a lighter. A lighter? They really needed a flashlight but were too stupid to ask. The frustrating and ironic thing is that these people made it to the top and we didn't. We spent the rest of the way helping light the way for them, slowing our progress considerably.

The moon, which was high in the sky at the beginning of the hike, was now nowhere to be found. After the sun set, the darkness was complete, and our headlights were the only things keeping us from falling off the trail into oblivion. Okay, I might be a little bit overly dramatic here. But the dangers are real. People have died on Mt. Whitney. Others have wandered around in cold and darkness, trying to find their way back. With no light and no moon, it would be almost impossible to find your way back in the dark. Too many people don't understand the dangers. The problem is, similar to Everest, when you a climb a mountain, you're not climbing it alone. There's a decent chance you may have to assist others who are less prepared or less experienced.

On the other hand, if you do get into trouble on the mountain, there are lots of people to help you. There were many people on the switchbacks who noticed Jean's illness and asked if there was anything they could do to help. Despite my contempt at ill-prepared people, I am happy to say the number of helpful, prepared people probably outnumber them.

After the hike we returned to our cars, got the food from the bear-safe locker, and made the half-hour drive back down to the motel. I was so happy to sleep in a nice warm bed after all those days of camping.

I don't think I'll ever attempt Mt. Whitney as a day hike again. The chance that someone will get altitude sickness is too great. And there's also the chance that a storm will come in and ruin your chances of summitting. I know it's seemingly impossible to get lucky and get an overnight permit for Mt. Whitney, but I will try. Staying at Trail Camp (12,000 feet) to acclimatize and attempting the summit from there seems like the most reasonable idea.

Another day, then. The mountain will always be there.

Addendum: The permit process for Whitney has changed since my hike. They are now done by lottery, which is a much saner approach; when I tried I had to call every morning at 8am and the phones were always jammed. Also, they have removed the outhouses on the trail. You now have to pack out all waste.

Return to Mount Whitney trip report.


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