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Mt. Whitney In Center Along Whitney Portal Road
Even with a 2am start this year, this hike dragged on much further into the day than I had imagined. Finishing at 6:30pm I didn't have much left in my 70 year old ‘day hike’ legs and confirmed my prior resolve not to do this hike as a single day hike again. I don't know what percentage of folks hike Mt. Whitney from the east as a day hike versus those who do it as a two or three day hike. However, if and when I hike Mt. Whitney the next time it will be at least one and perhaps two nights on the trail. Most folks use trekking poles. I needed to put on MICROspikes because of snowy and ice trail conditions.
From Fresno, even a Whitney day hike amounts to a two-night, three-day commitment. You are required to pick up the trail permit before noon on the day before the hike. This means an overnight in Lone Pine before the hike and another overnight following the hike even starting well before daylight the day of the hike. It is reasonable to believe the 21-mile hike with over 6,000’ of elevation gain will take between 12 and 16 hours for a young fit person.
The next question then is, “Where should I camp out along the trail the night before the hike?” There are two spots that folks generally choose. The first area with established campsites and access to water (Lone Pine Creek) is “Outpost Camp” at about 10,000’ and four miles from the 8,300’ trailhead at Whitney Portal. While this does not give one a huge jump toward the top, it has certain advantages over “Trail Camp” which is six miles from the trailhead and 12,000’. Generally, one is less likely to suffer from altitude problems at Outpost Camp as an overnight. Additionally, the trip back is closer to the trailhead before you have to break camp and pack out your overnight gear if you decide to hike all the way out after summiting Mt. Whitney. This is probably the place I would camp if I were to do Mt. Whitney again. There is no camping allowed near Mirror Lake.
Plan B would be to pack all the way to Trail Camp. My conversations with folks who spent the night there was that it was windy and colder than further down. There are stone enclosures around the campsites to help block the wind. I have talked to several people at Trail Camp on my three trips up and down Whitney and more than a few have complained of headaches loss of appetite and nausea. You do not acclimate to altitude in 24 hours. Those are symptoms of altitude sickness and I guarantee that sleeping is difficult under those circumstances. Aspirin or Ibuprofen may help the headache. Trail Camp is the last place for water resupply along the trail climbing up to the Whitney summit.
Some folks get a prescription for Diamox to help deal with the altitude and the results are mixed. Check the side effects before you decide to use it. It is a diuretic and one danger of climbing at altitude is dehydration. The effort also requires you to breathe through your mouth a lot.
If sleeping at 12,000’ at Trail Camp is not a problem then it is only a 4.5 mile 2,500’ climb to the top in the morning. You could even start at daybreak from this spot. Remember though that you will have a six-mile backpack out if you chose not to stay another night at Trail Camp. I suppose plan B1 would be to camp down at Outpost Camp on the way down.
My first day hike to the top of Whitney was in 2004 and I developed a headache at about 13,000’. It was a long climb to the top and I didn't stay long knowing that the only way the altitude sickness would diminish was to get down. My headache didn’t go away until I got back to Whitney Portal and drove down to Lone Pine (4,000’). This is an out and back hike, which means that you can turn around and head back down at any point. My final caution is, do not do this hike if you are not fit and sound.
Hut On Top Of Mt. Whitney