Solo Summit of Mt. Whitney
Thanks to a successful trail lottery, I had a chance to climb 14,505′ to the top of Mt. Whitney – the highest spot in the Lower 48 states – in a single exhausting day, via the Main trail, on June 20, 2011. See my video here. Due to the recent Spring storms and relatively early permit date, I didn’t quite know how much lingering winter to expect. The Ranger at the Station in Lone Pine (“Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center”) confirmed some places had as much as 200% of normal snow pack.
Out of Lone Pine on the way up to Whitney Portal you pass through the Alabama Hills containing interesting rock formations that have served as the backdrop for many Hollywood movies. The hot high desert of the Owens Valley contrasts with Mt Whitney far in the distance.
A half-hour drive up Whitney Portal Road puts you at Whitney Portal trailhead, where there are campgrounds and a store that sells souvenirs, supplies, and food from a short grill menu. The trailhead has an interesting interpretive structure that included a pack scale. I weighed in at 22 lbs, including 3 liters of water, food, crampons, ice axe, cameras, etc.
I camped at the Whitney Portal the evening before and after my single-day climb. The entire area was “Bear Aware” and included bear-proof lockers for anything scented. A neighboring camper told me a resident bear traveled through the campground the night after my summit. I slept through the episode.
A permit is required to climb Mt Whitney. I had entered the permit lottery last year with no luck. This year I had a 50% chance and was successful. Also required is a Wag Bag since human waste does not breakdown quickly in the alpine environment of Mt Whitney. Fortunately I didn’t need to use the bag. I did come across a Ranger and was asked to produce my permit – seems I’m lucky that way and regularly have to show my permits.
After 6 hours of sleep, I woke at 1am and started my climb up at 2:30am. When I reached this first water crossing, I realized I had left my trekking poles behind at the trailhead when I weighed my pack. Back down I ran and started over at 3:00am. The creek had heavy flow and required careful navigating, especially at night.
I entered the John Muir Wilderness at 3:30am by headlamp. I did have a half a moon of light to help, and after a while I could see other headlamps on the trail below me. Still, I had a great sense of isolation, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Eventually, as I climbed up, the sky lightened and treated me to perhaps the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. Up to this point several hours in, I hadn’t passed a soul. Yet the Ranger Station had told me 100 permits had been issued for this day. I would later see evidence of fellow climbers with tents tucked away among the rocks and trees.
I was also treated to my first Alpenglow. Now I know why they have a special name for this phenomenon, which I found extraordinary.
I had read online, and had confirmed at the Ranger Station, that I would want to climb up “The Chute”, the far low spot in the middle of the above picture, which bypassed the 97 Switchbacks currently covered in snow and ice. I had come prepared with snowshoes, but was told by the Ranger I probably would not need them. While you could get away without them, It turned out that as the snow softened in the heat of the day, snowshoes would have prevented postholing (sinking deep into the snow).
Between Mirror and Consolation Lakes, about 5 miles in, the route I followed left the actual Main Trail and traveled almost exclusively over snow until I reached Trail Crest. Up to that point short snowy patches were not uncommon. Most of the snow was well-tracked like this and passable in just boots.
After stopping for an hour at Trail Camp to fill my Camelback with filtered water and my belly with Trail Mix, I put away my trekking poles and pulled out my crampons and ice axe. The Chute, on the left from just above Trail Camp, was getting closer. It was 7:30am when I left Trail Camp and I was early enough in the day where the snow was still firm. I had read and heard from several people that an early start was a very good idea. It did get warm, easily in the high 70s or low 80s, and remained so the rest of the day.
At around 12,000′ I could feel the altitude slow me and force frequent (but brief) rests. One of the big issues with climbing Mt Whitney is the altitude and preventing Acute Mountain Sickness. I later met multiple people who could not summit due to the altitude. I remembered in college feeling strong effects of altitude while climbing Mt Hood and was a little wary.
Half way up The Chute you could see Trail Camp below. The incline reminded me of the North Face of San Gorgonio that I had recently done twice, once with son Sander.
It always looks steeper when you look down. I debated whether I would walk or glissade (sliding on your backside using your ice axe as a brake) down the Chute on my descent. I ended up glissading, with the goal of avoiding the rocks on the left. Some of the warnings I read told of people sliding uncontrolled into these rock and to their death.
The cables on the 97 Switchbacks are what one would typically use later in the Summer when they are not covered in snow. I’m not sure which is faster – the more direct but steeper and technical Chute, or the longer but easier Switchbacks. The Chute took me about 2 hours.
Looking up The Chute from its midpoint you could see series of climbers’ tracks from earlier in the morning. These tracks were sometimes helpful, sometimes not, depending on the spacing. I often swore a giant with a huge gait was ahead of me.
While I climbed up from Trail Camp, I could make out two groups of climbers ahead of me on the Chute. You can see little tiny specks of climbers traversing the snowfield on the left. Still, I would not pass anyone until I was up past Trail Crest in the final few miles.
Upon reaching the top of The Chute at Trail Crest, a breathtaking view of the Sequoia National Park awaited. Elevation: 13,777′, time: 9:30am. And still almost 3 more miles to the summit.
Past Trail Crest on the West side of the ridge line the trail was unique due to the extreme alpine environment and offered spectacular scenery. Most of this part was free of snow due to its sunny exposure, requiring crampons only while previously ascending The Chute. But still there were patches of snow and ice, one of which put me on my backside when I slipped. Careful!
I was armed with both still and video cameras, but as a solo climber, it was challenging to capture myself, and as the day wore on, I had less motivation to do so. Thanks to a PCT hiker on a slight detour, I did get this shot midway between Trail Crest and the Summit. Up until this point I still hadn’t passed anyone. After 7 hours I finally did.
I reached the top of Mt. Whitney, with dozens of climbers at or near the summit, at 12:00pm. I tried to make a check-in call, but couldn’t get cell phone service. I rested, drank, and eat for a half-hour and then headed back down.
The Summit Shelter built in 1909 for astrological observations. As they remind you at the trailhead, the Summit is only half way. Eleven miles back down. Ugh.
The valley around Outpost Camp was dark during my ascent, so I got another visual treat on the way back down. My watch said the descent went much quicker, but it felt sooo much slower. Ascent: 9 hours, including 2 hours of total rest. Descent: 5.5 hours, no rest. Roundtrip: 14.5 hours covering some 22 miles and over 6000′ of elevation gain.
After a $3 shower and a 10-hour night of sleep, I headed back down Whitney Portal Rd and stopped for one last photo with the peak I climbed in the far distance. Then on to Lone Pine for a fitting end: blueberry pancakes.
(I also did a 3 minute video of this Mt Whitney climb available here.)