Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mt. Whitney Day Hike 2014 Part I

Dale Matson

Click On Photographs To Enlarge
Partial Map Of Route With Odd Triangle Leading From Trail?

I decided last year after day hiking Mt. Whitney that I would do it one last time after turning 70. This time of year trail permits for single day hikers are usually available and the weather forecast for the Lone Pine area indicated sunny for the entire week. We did have rain in Fresno on Sunday and I worried what would happen to the trail. Whitney is not just about the weather the day of the hike. It is also about trail conditions the day of the hike. This is a very difficult day hike of 21 miles round trip with over 6,000' of elevation gain.

When I picked up my trail permit Wednesday morning, the rangers did not know the trail conditions, which is par for the course. They said something about maybe needing microspikes, which immediately made my palms sweat knowing the trail from two previous hikes. It was also very windy in Lone Pine on Wednesday.

Mt. Whitney Center From The Alabama Hills

I drove up to the Whitney Portal store and one of the clerks did not offer much encouragement either. As I was pulling out of the parking area, I was thinking of plan “B” which would be a day hike to Lake 5 at Cottonwood Lakes to see if I could spot some Bighorn Sheep. Just then two folks came down the trail and I asked if they had been up to the top. They said yes and the trail was not bad. That was comforting enough to make the decision to go but I wanted to talk to some folks about getting microspikes. This of course breaks the old rule not to change something the day of a race, hike, whatever.

Sony Cybershot X30 Cropped Showing Folks On Top Of Whitney From Portal Road

I went to the Elevation Hiking and Backpacking store on Main Street and he showed me some microspikes. They looked good but he did not have any in a “Large”. There had been quite a run on them lately, which told me more about the trail conditions than I really wanted to know. He said they might have my size at The Whitney Portal Hostel and Store. They did and the salesman showed me how to put them on my trail shoes. Thank You! I bought a carabineer at Elevations and hung them off the back of my daypack.

I thought I'd get a bigger jump on the clock than last year by starting out at 2am on Thursday instead of 3am. [It was a good choice because for some reason, I was an hour and a half slower than last year.] It’s not like I didn't have the trail miles under my belt with 280 miles of hiking and backpacking this summer.

I pulled up at Whitney Portal and had my choice of good parking spots. I took care of business and was glad I wouldn’t have to use the “pack it out” bag. The trail can be somewhat sketchy in the dark but the worst place for me is always where the trail passes through Outpost Camp. Some young guys, Rubin and Alex pointed to the trail with their headlamps and I continued on. They were just getting ready to set out from there, having camped out overnight.

I didn't have daylight until I began climbing out of Trail Camp on the switchbacks. I walked up through the snow on a few switchbacks and decided it was time to put my microspikes on over my Speedcross III trail shoes. They really dug into the snow and had great traction on the icy spots too. After about a half an hour, I realized I had the right shoe spikes on backwards. I fixed that and continued on. In the meantime Rubin and his hiking friend passed me on the way to Trail Crest (13,600’) the highest pass on the JMT.

 Guitar Lake

I was doing OK to this point and climbed past the cable railing area, which seems to always have some snow and or ice. I had forgotten that after Trail Crest, the trail actually begins to drop down again for a time. I made a note of that for the return trip knowing that mentally, it would be a bad patch. Some folks had told me I wouldn't need my spikes after Trail Crest, so I took them off and hung them back on my pack. The section from Trail Crest to the top of Whitney is 2.0 miles and it took me 2 hours. I had to sit a few times to rest.

 One Of The Knife Edges

I got to the top about 10:30 am and signed the register. I rested and realized that I had used up all my water. I asked if anyone had extra water and a young man mercifully filled up my water bottle. It was a rookie mistake for me and I should have known to take two bottles up from the last water supply area at Trail Camp. The weather was perfect and the wind negligible. The air was clear also.

Getting back down was slower than expected too and I rested again at trail camp where I got more water and had some food. One guy from Grand Rapids who had walked with me for a while and eventually passed me was beginning to break camp but I never saw him again. Rubin and his friend Alex were still behind me and caught me at Mirror Lake where I rested, ate and resupplied water. My legs were holding up and my lungs were working better below 11,000’.

 Owens Valley With Inyo Mountains To The East

 Mirror Lake
Lone Pine Lake

I passed them at Outpost Camp and never saw them again. The last 2 miles reminds me of heading to Onion Valley from Kearsarge Pass. You can see where you have to go but it doesn't seem to be getting any closer. I arrived back at Whitney Portal and 6:30 pm. This was too long to be out on the trail for a day hike. It’s time for another plan if I ever do Whitney again. The $64.00 I spent on microspikes was money well spent.    



  1. Dale,

    I enjoyed reading your various posts. I realize this is almost three years after the fact, but my wife and I would like to climb Mt. Whitney within the next year. Call it a bucket list, we are both in decent shape for our mid fifties, but will use the months ahead to get in better shape and practice hiking before doing anything as serious as Mt. Whitney. Actually the strenuous nature of the climb is not what is disconcerting to me, it is my fear of "edges" as you perfectly put it. Which brings me to my main question, how narrow does the path get in those knife edge places on the trail? The thought of climbing on Mt. Whitney on a path only a few feet wide scares the daylights out of me. Ron Moore

  2. Hi Ron,
    I would guess there are about two knife edges that are about 5-6 feet wide. The trail has narrower sections but they don't have a sheer drop on both sides. I think that is what can make it difficult psychologically. In the three times I have done Whitney, it has not been real windy which can be a real problem. One possibility is to have someone hike in front of you and look at their back as you walk these sections or even put your hands on their back as you walk. Another less glamorous idea is to crawl over the sections. I have seen folks do both. Hope things go well for you.