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Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the continental US and quite an amazing trek.
Relevant Guidebooks & Maps
Mt. Whitney topo map.
See "East Side Sierras - Whitney Portal"
The resident expert on climbing Whitney is Dr. Rick Hazlett, geology professor. The following is almost entirely a direct quote of Rick:
The Whitney ascent is usually only possible, due to storms, snow and ice much of the year, between late June and late November. Wilderness permits are required if you plan to camp within the John Muir Wilderness Area at any point during your climb. They may be obtained in Lone Pine, at the National Forest Ranger Station. If you plan to hike to the top of Whitney and back all in one day, no permit is needed. Nor are permits needed after mid-October. (Inquire with the Forest Service before departure just to make sure; this policy is subject to change).
The hike begins at El Portal, at around the 8,000 foot elevation. It is approximately 11 miles one way to Whitney summit from here, following the John Muir Trail most of the way. If you intend to do this in one day, you'd be nuts not to camp at El Portal the night before in order to adjust to the altitude. Also, expect to be hiking back in the dark (i.e.--bring a flashlight with extra batteries, or plan your trip to coincide with good weather and a full moon).
The preferred way of climbing Whitney is to reach Whitney Portal around noon the first day and hike in several miles to one of several campgrounds in the wilderness area. The highest campground, at around 12,500 feet, lies above treeline at the base of the steep face up which the trail switchbacks into Sequoia National Park.
This is one hell of a great hike. The view from the Sierra Divide and Whitney crest will be unforgettable--and the satisfaction of "conquering" the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states (at 14,500 feet) will be warmly remembered for the rest of your days. Professor Hazlett plans to make Whitney an annual event (most likely in mid-October). Call Professor Hazlett at x8676 if you are interested in climbing Whitney with him.
How best to prepare? For hiking, be sure you carry a lightweight jacket and maybe rainpants to stay warm. Shorts and shortsleeves are OK, if it's warm enough, but beware that the UV at this altitude is hyperintense. You're walking in a natural microwave, so cover yourself with plenty of sun-screen (at least spf 15 is recommended, especially on nose, ears, and back of neck), or "Mr. C" may come back to haunt you in your middle age. You need hiking boots, or hiking shoes with excellent traction. (Occasionally, even into the fall, there's a bit of snow and ice to deal with on the switchback slope mentioned above). The trail to the summit is excellent, well-graded, and mostly well marked, so you should have no trouble finding your way. Bring a map nonetheless. (One without topographic contours is pretty much a waste of time). At least two quarts of water are a must. A camera, too, will be missed when you and your buds make the summit and feel like celebrating, but have no way to document the occasion. It's a fantastic trip--but cannot be undertaken casually.
For camping, prepare for nighttime temperatures into the 40's or 30's in the summer, and as low as the teens in the autumn. It is usually not windy, but wind may be a problem above timberline, requiring you find a rocky shelter. The lower campgrounds are warmer, easier on the heart (if you're unaccustomed to sleeping at altitude), and seem more sanitary. The upper-most campground (above tree line) smells of untreated latrine in many places, but gives you the best headstart on tackling the summit.
Daytime summer temperatures are in the 60's and 70's in the summer months, unless it is storming, when hail and snow may fall even from modest sized clouds. Fall weather is milder. There are very few storms after mid-September (until the first winter fronts, that is), and you can count on clear weather for days. Daytime temperatures range in the 50's and 60's. It is very dry, so bring chapstick and hand lotion, if such conditions bother you.
"You may think you're invincible, a 'God's Gift' to cardiopulmonary conditioning, but I've been with some persons in terrific shape climbing this thing that have been utterly miserable because of altitude sickness, and unaccustomed (though track runners at low elevation) to breathing rarefied air. (Beware that about half of Earth's atmosphere lies BELOW you as you stand atop Whitney). BE PREPARED FOR ALTITUDE SICKNESS! Inquire with your family physician or friends who might know how to prepare for this ailment. My information is probably not complete; I find I fare best though if I keep plenty of fluid in my body and eat as little as I need. (You don't feel much like eating anyway most of the time on this trip). Other potential hazards of the trail include lightning strike and pulmonary edema. In the summer months, especially, thunderheads can build up fast in the western Sierra, then drift east to lodge at the crest of the range - including the Whitney summit. If you see a thunderhead approaching, beware that it will travel much faster than you might think. Warning signs of lightning risk include nearby lightning flashes, thunder, or a tingling sensation in the skin - including raised hair on the arms. Your best bet is to find a low spot and take shelter beneath a rock. DO NOT TAKE SHELTER IN THE SUMMIT CABIN! In 1993 several hikers were electrocuted to death having done so during a sudden storm. As for pulmonary edema (which has also taken lives in recent times), just don't push it. You're a fool if you race to the top. Find a pace that is comfortable and satisfying for YOU."
Edited by (in order): OTL Staff
Last updated: 05/22/2009