Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mount Whitney Revisited As A Day Hike

Dale Matson

Time marches on. I hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney in 2004. It was the 100th anniversary of the building of the trail. Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S.  The bad news is it took me 15 hours (three more hours) this year to complete the 22 mile out and back hike. The good news is that I didn't have altitude sickness this year.  I suppose it IS taller at 14,505’ than it was in 2004 (14,494’). Maybe that’s why it took longer.  Mt. Whitney is an impressive and imposing sight from the Inyo County permit station on the east side of highway 395. Whitney rises over two miles above the town of Lone Pine.

Mt. Whitney Viewed From Lone Pine, CA

A day hike is still a three day hike, if you don’t live in the vicinity of Lone Pine. The Whitney trail requires a specific permit and is obtained through a reservation lottery. You need to pick up the permit in Lone Pine by noon the day before the hike. If you pick up the permit as a same day “walk in”, there is already a problem. You won’t be on the trail until after 9am. The average hiker takes about eight hours to summit. When storms come in, they generally come in the afternoon. Hikers want to be on their way down before noon. When you are done with the hike on day two, you will need to spend the night in Lone Pine unless you live in Bishop.

There are generally lots of pilgrims on the Whitney trail since the folks on the John Muir Trail are either beginning or ending their hike at Whitney too. When you get to "Trail Crest" (13,600’) there are quite a few backpacks stacked around the area. The JMT folks leave them there to top out at Whitney which is the southern terminus or beginning of the JMT depending on whether you hike the JMT N-S or S-N. The trail-head at Whitney Portal is at 8,000’ but it is not a true measure of the climate and conditions on top of Whitney. It can be more than twenty degrees colder than Whitney Portal on top of Whitney. The wind chill will make it feel even colder. Once the trail enters Sequoia Park at trail crest, the wind increases and another layer of clothing is required.

Unfortunately, it is near this area that the trail narrows to a knife edge in a few places making it especially dangerous. People have been blown off the trail. Some have probably fallen from sheer fatigue or died from hypothermia. Anyway, the trail claims at least one person every year. I was a part of the search team helicoptered in to look for Kenneth Wade Brunette in 2009, who fell off the trail to his death. It may have been storm related. If you have balance issues, stay off this trail.

Knife Edge On Mt. Whitney Trail
People are not really afraid of heights. They are afraid of edges. No one is afraid of falling off of Denver. There are plenty of edges on the Whitney trail. There is one short section of guard posts with cables along the 99 switchbacks. There is a problem with ice buildup on this section and a very steep drop off along the fence.

The stone shelter on top of Whitney was constructed in 1909 to protect people from lightning strikes and has a wooden floor for the same purpose. The hut used to have a toilet but it was removed by order of the head ranger J.D. Swed. He told me he was quite proud of this action.

There used to be a solar toilet available at trail camp. It was there in 2004 but has been removed since that time. Now the policy is pack it in and pack it out. When you pick up your trail permit, you also receive a human waste bag to pack out. I noticed some bags used and left along the trail. Maybe those individuals were waiting for their mother to pick up after them. 

My friend John Shehadey ran the Badwater ultramarathon (135 miles) from Death Valley to Whitney Portal. It is the custom for the finishers to hike to the top of Whitney AFTER this. John loves to tell the story to anyone who will listen that he had to stay the night in the stone hut and saw a Buddhist monk appear off and on during the night. I believe you John since I once saw a bunch of Scottie Dogs on the trail at about mile 75 while running the Western States 100 mile endurance run.

I have a youtube video of this hike available here:  .        


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