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  • CJ Wolf

Mt. Whitney: Highest Peak in the Continental U.S.

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Fast Facts:

Base Elevation: 8,374

Summit Elevation: 14,508 (or 14,505 depending on your source)

Elevation Gain: 6,134

Distance: 23 miles (actual trial is 22 miles)

Moving Time: 12:11

Date: August 21, 2020

Mt. Whitney, the tallest and most prominent peak in the contiguous U.S., has been on my bucket list for over 20 years but it faded off my radar until two years ago when my good friend, David Fox, flew to Utah to summit Mt. Timpanogos with me. We made a pact to hike Whitney ASAP and we recruited another buddy, Charles Hailstones. The three of us entered the 2020 permit lottery for an overnight pass and to our surprise - we "won" the lottery. About 2 weeks before our departure, my main summiting partner, Sean, expressed interest in joining us but he didn’t have a permit. As such, I started looking for a permit on the Mt. Whitney Facebook page and I got super lucky when someone with the same dates as us had to cancel.

Sean and I departed from Park City on August 17 and we summited the highest peak in Nevada, Boundary Mountain, on the morning of the 18th as a “warm-up” for Whitney. We then met David and Charles at the Four Jeffrey’s campsite where we spent the night. The following morning we drove to the Whitney Portal and the four of us commenced on our journey up Mt. Whitney around 1:00 with the intent of staying the night at Outpost.

The start of the hike was on the hotter side as the entire west coast was suffering through a heat wave. In fact, Death Valley set a 100+ year record as the hottest temp recorded on planet earth at 130 degrees the day before. The bottom part of the Mt. Whitney trail is very pleasant with the tall pines offering a canopy of shade and the path is very smooth with limited amounts of rocks and steps for the first 2-3 miles. As you are hiking, you notice the magnificent and imposing granite walls and you realize that you have a long way to go to climb above those walls before you reach Lone Pine Lake.

Everyone is energized at the start of the hike so we take very few breaks despite carrying 30-45 pounds of gear on our backs. Within an hour and a half - we reach Lone Pine Lake which is just less than 3 miles from the Whitney Portal Trailhead. This campground looked quite inviting given the picturesque location and I suggested to the group that we stay here as I would rather hike longer without the heavy pack. But I was unanimously overruled given that we had only been hiking for a short while which was very understandable and Outpost was just about 10-15 minutes up the trail. Once you leave Lone Pine Lake, you enter the “Whitney Zone” which requires a permit (don't venture without a permit or you will subjected to a fine and risk having to turn around).

Now that you are in the Zone, the trail becomes much rocker and you encounter a few switchbacks before dropping down to Outpost Camp. Outpost is 3.8 miles from the start and it sits at 10,400. This camp site is a lush oasis with trees and vegetation and the stream that runs through it provides an excellent water source.

Outpost Camp

There are numerous pre-established camps sites designated by circles of rocks. This is the last stop if you are looking for shade and protection as the remaining camping areas are above tree line and are very barren. Despite this being our chosen camping destination, the group elected to march on with the hope of staying at Mirror Lake which was only about a ¼ mile up the trail.

As you leave Outpost, you encounter more switchbacks and this is where I really started appreciating the craftsmanship of this trail. The designers of this trail used dynamite to blast through the steep granite and then meticulously established perfectly spaced steps where each rock was preciously placed. After marveling at the creators work, we quickly came upon Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake

This lake is rather small (pictured from above) and to our disappointment, no camping is allowed around the lake. At this point of our journey, it started raining fairly hard so we pulled off the trail in search of shelter. We debated our camping strategy and as the rain tapered off – we elected to push onward. The section after Mirror Lake again has more switchbacks and is fairly steep. Once leaving the Mirror Lake area, you emerge from the trees and are now above tree line for the rest of the hike. Almost on cue- the rain and the wind picked up so we once again sought shelter under some rock formations. It had now been raining for about 30 minutes and we were pretty soaked. As we huddled below a rock outcrop, a descending hiker said the winds were blowing about 40 mph at Trail Camp and it was about 45 degrees. I forgot to bring pants and my jacket was no match for this weather so needless to say- my moral was pretty low. We debating dropping back down to Outpost Camp but retreating was not an option and we gambled that the afternoon showers would soon pass. The rain soon tapered to a drizzle and left our little cave with the goal of pitching camp near Consultation Lake which was about another mile away.

Consultation Lake is a gorgeous high Sierra lake that is tucked off the main trail. In fact, you don’t really see the lake until you are above/beyond it. We were diligently following our progress in the AllTrails app so when were parallel with the lake - we climbed up about 10 feet off the trial to view the lake. From this vantage point, we could see a few camp spots down at the base of the lake and a few tucked into the various granite shelves. The wind was still blowing pretty hard so I put down my pack and scrambled down to the base of the lake to see if those spots were more sheltered but the wind was still swirling at lake level. So instead of hauling our packs down to the lake, we elected to stay in one of the few campsites above the lake along the granite shelves.

Can you spot the campsite?

The late afternoon thundershower that had been dousing us for the last hour finally broke and the sun started to emerge. At this juncture, we had traveled just under 6 miles and climbed 3,500 feet to just under 12,000. As I mentioned above, I was woefully under prepared for the rain/wind/cold so I just wanted to eat and go to bed. However, the dry Sierra air and the sun quickly dried our clothes and after getting some much needed calories into my body- my spirits lifted and I was able to enjoy some of the most amazing star gazing before heading to bed.

Between sleeping at 12,000 feet and the adrenaline from the anticipated summit, our group didn't get much sleep that evening. We rose around 5 AM, fixed some breakfast and departure shortly after 6:00 AM for the highest point in the continental U.S.. As we exited our campsite, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise with the sun rising perfectly between a V in the rocks.

We quickly came upon Trail Camp which was crowded and very exposed. I am sure the wind was blowing twice as hard as it was at our campsite since we were somewhat protected from the westerly winds. As we crossed through Trail Camp, I spotted one of the most rotund marmots that I have ever seen. This jolly animal must live on a steady diet of camp’s leftovers.

After leaving Trail Camp, the real “fun” begins with the infamous 99 switchbacks. This switchback section is about 2 miles and you gain 1,7000 feet. The 99 switchbacks sounded very intimidating but I found the constant changing of direction to be a pleasant distraction. Furthermore, I was in absolute awe of how the early trail pioneers of 1904 blasted and carved a precious trail through this steep granite patch of rock. If it wasn’t for their hard work and ingenuity, only the most experienced mountaineers would be able to scale this peak.

When you look up at the imposing spires around Mt. Whitney from the east, you think to yourself- how the hell are we going to get up that peak given the incredibly steep face. Fortunately, after completing the 99 switchbacks, the trail takes you to the west side of Mt. Whitney which offers a much more gradual ascent to the summit. At the top for the switchbacks, the trail merges with the Trail Crest and descends about 300 feet (pictured below)

and then it intersects with the John Muir Trail.

At this point, you have 1.9 miles to go and 1,000 more feet of climbing. Much like most of the Whitney Trail, this section is very well “groomed” but it does have some steep drop-offs down to the Guitar Lake area.

The hut on top of Mt. Whitney now comes into view off in the far distance and the summit seems like an eternity.

But remain optimistic as the the hardest part is behind you and you just have to remind yourself to put one foot in front of the other. As you trek towards the summit, you pass under several other 14ers: Mt. Muir (14,019), Third Needle (14,080), Crooks Needle (14,206) and Keeler Needle (14,271) which offer impressive views through the “windows”. We discussed bagging some of these peaks after Whitney to check off a few other 14ers but on the way down- our motivation seemed to wane and the burger at the Whitney Portal was calling our name. The final approach up the apron of Whitney is a massive rock field but the trail designers cleared an easy to follow path right to the hut and the summit.

At the summit we meet a few interesting characters. One was Debbie Leong who just set a PR of 5:25 from the Whitney Portal to the summit and it was her 22nd time summiting Whitney. Then we had the pleasure of meeting “Crazy Jack” who is 73 and has summited Whitney 197 times (not a typo) and will be hitting his 200th in September. Way to go Jack!

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