August 2013 – Mount Whitney Trip
The main purpose of this trip was to peak-bag Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states of the US, at 14,508’. Despite being the second-highest state highpoint in the United States (behind only Alaska’s Mount McKinley), Mount Whitney is a non-technical hike that poses little real difficulty to the experienced hiker. There are 2 routes to the ridge, from which a single trail traverses to the summit (and ends there - the John Muir Trail). One route (utilizing more of the John Muir Trail) ascends the ridge from the West, and is a multi-day backpacking trip to access. From the East, where most people ascend from, the Mount Whitney Trail ascends roughly 6300 feet in 11 miles to the summit (one-way). The trail is rocky and somewhat steep in places, but the only real challenge, aside from getting permits to enter the Whitney Zone, is hiking at a high elevation where the air is much thinner. Altitude Sickness is a real threat, and for the best chance of summitting, acclimating to high altitude is highly advised.
Beaurocracy is a major obstacle to climbing Mount Whitney. Due to its popularity, permits are required to enter the Whitney Zone, which begins on the Mount Whitney Trail a couple of miles from the trailhead (access from the John Muir Trail is handled separately and I am unfamiliar with the details). The permits limit the number of people in the Whitney Zone to 100 day hikers and 60 overnight backpackers per day. And while the single, long, day hike is possible, it is a very long and difficult day. As such, most hikers wish to climb Mount Whitney over the course of 2 days, using day 1 to ascend 6 miles and 3600 feet to Trail Camp at the base of the final climb at 12,000 feet, where on day 2 they will start early, attain the summit with light day packs, and then pack up camp and hike out to the trailhead in the afternoon (making for a roughly 16 mile day with a little under 3000 feet of elevation gain).
Wanting to further increase our chances of successfully summitting, we decided to go for 2 nights at Trail Camp, which would allow us a second day for a summit attempt if the weather was going to be poor on day 2. Applying for a permit to hike Mount Whitney involves entering your permit application into a lottery system, where your chances of your permit even being pulled for evaluation is somewhere in the 25% range. Each application can have up to 15 different itineraries (if your permit is pulled in the lottery, they progress down your listed itineraries in order until they find dates with permits available), and so we each submitted 3 permits canvassing a series of dates from late July through late August. Only 1 of the 6 permits was successful, but we landed with our ideal dates on that permit, with an entry date of August 8 and an exit date of August 10. We got EXTREMELY lucky getting these permits, as we got effectively 3 days (2 nights) for 2 people in the Whitney Zone during the busiest time of the year for the mountain. This permit must have been pulled very early on in the lottery process.
With permits attained, we planned the rest of the trip so as to allow us to acclimate before entering the Whitney Zone. We opted to fly through Las Vegas and rent a small SUV from there (a Kia Sorento as it turned out). We ultimately decided to spend all of our camping nights at the Onion Valley Campground, which sits at 9200 feet and is less than 1 hour from the Whitney Portal. Our acclimation process worked flawlessly, and we had little trouble with the elevation on any of these hikes, aside from needing more breath breaks than normal. The itinerary ended up looking like the following:
Day 1 – August 3, 2013: Fly to Las Vegas, both landing late morning, pick up rental car, visit REI in Henderson to get fuel, pick up groceries (also in Henderson), and drive through Death Valley, visiting a few spots along the way, eventually getting to Onion Valley Campground shortly before sunset. Included on this Tour De Death Valley was the spectacular Zabriskie Point.
Day 2 – August 4, 2013: Hike to Kearsarge Pass – 11,700’ (~10.5 miles, 2500’ elevation gain). The Kearsarge Pass Trail leaves right from the Onion Valley Campground, and so made for easy morning logistics on our first day. We could wake up, eat breakfast and set up our packs from the travel, and still get on-trail at a decent hour. This was a spectacular hike that was an outstanding introduction to the Sierras.
Day 3 – August 5, 2013: Hike in the Cottonwood Lakes vicinity (~12.5 miles, ~1500’ elevation gain, between 10,000 and 11,000 feet). We were initially going to hike to Telescope Peak (11,000 feet – 14 miles, 3000’ elevation gain) but during our drive through Death Valley 2 days before, we noted that the roads that access the road leading to the trailhead were all closed due to flash flooding issues (less than 2 weeks before our trip, Eastern California received very heavy amounts of rain and flash flooding occurred in many places). The upside to the change in hike was that we no longer needed to do a roughly 2.5-hour drive each way to the trailhead, but instead a drive of a little over 1 hour. This hike was awesome in so many ways, and was probably the clearest day we had the entire week (not that we had any bad weather).
Day 4 – August 6, 2013: Initially intended to be a smaller hike in the Cottonwood Lakes region, we instead drove North to the Bristlecone Pine Forest. This was a fascinating area which has a couple of shorter trails (the longest is just over 4 miles with ~800’ of elevation gain) at an elevation of over 10,500’. We took that longer trail, and enjoyed learning about the oldest living things in the world (some of the trees are over 4500 years old!)
Day 5 – August 7, 2013: Zero day. We picked up our permits at the Interagency Visitor Center, rented the required bear canister (you can use your own if you have one), and took possession of a couple wag bags (in the Whitney Zone, due to the heavy traffic and limited soil, all solid human waste must be packed out). We then spent a couple of hours driving around the Alabama Hills, site of many movies over the years including Westerns, the TV series Bonanza, and more recently the film Iron Man. We spent the afternoon back at Onion Valley, packing and relaxing before the main event.
Day 6 – August 8, 2013: Hike in to Trail Camp (12,000’) from the Whitney Portal (8350’). ~6 miles, ~3700’ elevation gain. Set up camp and relax for the afternoon.
Day 7 – August 9, 2013: Take day packs from Trail Camp (12,000’) to the summit of Mount Whitney (14,508’). ~10 miles, ~2900’ elevation gain round-trip.
Day 8 – August 10, 2013: Hike out from Trail Camp (12,000’) to the Whitney Portal (8350’). ~6 miles, ~100 feet elevation gain. Get Portal Burgers and beer at the Portal Store (large burgers and lots of fries!). Drive South to Ridgecrest to spend the night in a hotel. After showers and dinner, we visited the Trona Pinacles a little North of Ridgecrest, getting a few sunset pictures in before returning to our hotel for real beds.
Day 9 – August 11, 2013: Take a leisurely tour of more of Death Valley on the drive back to Las Vegas. We had hoped to be able to access the Charcoal Kilns near the Telescope Peak trailhead, but even this Southern approach was closed due to flash flooding (we weren't surprised), and so we ended up driving back North on US 395 and mostly re-tracing our drive from the first day, visiting different spots this time, including Badwater Basin, the lowest land elevation in the Western Hemisphere (-282’).
Day 10 – August 12, 2013: Fly home.
Due to not being able to go to Telescope Peak, we had initially pondered tackling Boundary Peak just over the Nevada border (the high point of Nevada), as it was a similar drive time from our campsite. However, Boundary Peak involves a total ascent of roughly 4000 feet and includes a very steep climb up a loose scree field. Not wanting to jeopardize our chances of summitting Mount Whitney, we passed on that hike, but perhaps on a future trip?
Click on any of the links above to see pictures from that day (and trip reports for the hikes). There are pictures linked from each day, so be prepared for a LOT of them!