Words can’t even begin to describe the experience of climbing Mount Whitney. My most vivid memory is waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning on Sunday, August 25th, layering on every piece of clothing we had in our packs, bringing the rest of our food, along with 3-liters of water each, and our camera.
As the sun began to rise, the horizon lit up in neon orange, causing the iridescent rocks that surrounded us to glow; it was the first bit of warmth I had felt since hiking up to Trail Camp the day before. With 2,500 feet in elevation to go, I just knew that we were right where we needed to be.
The best months for climbing Mount Whitney are July, August and September due to the fact that the other months of the year are more likely to have snow, ice or other unfavorable weather conditions. Because of this it is extremely difficult to get a permit during these months, we hiked in late August and there was still ice along certain areas of the trail!
So how do you get a permit you ask? Well, in order to hike from May 1st- November 1st there is a quota and so you must apply for a permit though the lottery system, which begins on at 12:01am on February 1st- April 15th. We recommend setting your alarm for 12:01 on that first day and choosing to make the trip on a week day if possible, this will increase your chances of getting your permit approved.
During this quota period, only 195 hikers are allowed on the trail each day= 60 backpackers, 100 day-hikers and 25 hikers coming in from other trails or ending their long-distance treks on the John Muir Trail. During the non-quota period, November 2nd- the end of April, you still need a permit but, because it is not as popular to hike during this time, you can easily pick one up at the Eastern Sierra Visitor’s Center the day of. We were lucky enough to find a MeetUp group that had a permit for 5 people on August 24-25th and we snagged the last 2 spots! Pictured below is our mighty group of mountaineers at the start of the trail:
On March 23rd, all email lottery results are mailed out – it’s like your college acceptance letter all over again! If you receive the “thumbs up” for your permit, you will pick it up on or before the start of your trip at the Eastern Sierra Visitor’s Center, just 1 mile south of Lone Pine. If you haven’t snagged a permit, this is also where you can go in the morning to be entered into their day-of lottery (in case anyone cancels or doesn’t show up to pick up their paperwork). If that doesn’t work out, you can also try to find someone with a permit who’s looking to fill a hole in their group. Be sure to check out the Whitney Portal Store’s excellent message board to see if anyone’s trying to trade.
Oh right, another thing to note. Once you’re in the “Whitney Zone,” you will need to carry a WAG Bag with you at all times… WAG stands for “Waste Alleviation and Gelling.” Without going into much detail, each kit includes one large waste bag, a resealable disposal bag, a small fold of tp, hand sanitizer and a waste-treatment powder mix. Each camper is given 1 kit at the Visitor’s Center mentioned above, they are free of cost (so kind lol) but with over 20,000 campers and hikers each year, WAG bags are a huge reason why Whitney remains as beautiful as it is… so I guess it outweighs the embarrassment of carrying around your… “stuff,” moving on.
One more thing you are required to have is a Bear Canister, which you must remember to pick up at the Whitney Portal Store – $2 per day. Make sure to leave room in your pack for this, as it is large and heavy (see above). At first we thought this was such a hassle, until we saw a marmot scurry down the mountain with a full bag of someone’s food – true story! We had a new sense of gratitude for our Bear Canister after that.
Phew! So many steps to take before stepping on the actual trail! Here’s some relief though, you don’t need an Adventure Pass to park in the Inyo National Forest 🙂
Training– This hike is for seriously experienced hikers ONLY. The weekend before our trip, we summited San Gorgonio Mountain, the tallest mountain in Southern California at 11,502 feet, and we were VERY grateful we did. Check out our post on summiting San Gorgonio for more info, we highly recommend exposing yourself to high altitude hikes prior to summiting Whitney.
Food– Make sure to bring easy-to-eat, compact, high energy/calorie foods. One of our favorite items that we brought to eat, not photographed here, were bagels. If you want to bring freeze dried foods and a boiler I would recommend it, we didn’t end up bringing ours but we mentioned how nice it would have been to have hot cocoa in the morning and a hot meal at night. Just be sure to eat enough and often to prevent altitude sickness. Check out the following link for more great tips on “Mountaineering Nutrition.”
Bonus! Stop at the Whitney Portal Store for an epic breakfast prior to starting on the trail – their pancakes require 2 plates! Drew asked them for foil so he could take the rest to go, perfect mid-morning snack on the trail.
Water!– We brought our Camelbaks (I have a 3-liter blatter) plus another 2-liter bottle each, that we purchased prior to the trip. You are supposed to drink about every 15 seconds to stay hydrated on your way to the summit – if you’re not thirsty, drink anyway. We also brought along “nuun,” electrolyte tablets that helped us rehydrate quicker, allowing us to acclimate to the elevation more easily.
Gear– Trail map (you can pick up a detailed map at the Portal store, or check out the map here), hiking poles (they lessen the impact on your knees by 25%), a legit hiking pack (I have a JanSport BigBear 80 and Drew has a NorthFace Terra 60), a lightweight tent with serious wind protection (we chose Big Agnes), warm sleeping bag (I was still absolutely freezing at Trail Camp in my Eureka 20 degree sleeping bag), sleeping mat to put under your sleeping bag (makes it much warmer and way more comfortable), “Heat Treat” hand and foot warmers (I swear these saved my life, I had them in my socks at night and in my gloves as we hiked to the summit), headlamp, earplugs, CHAPSTICK (I think we used this every 5 minutes), bandana to protect your nose and face from being chapped from wind burn, tape (at one point Drew’s hiking pole would no longer lock so he had to tape it in place, you just never know), sunscreen (50 SPF), a hat (and I am not usually a hat person), tissues (our noses were constantly running), rain cover for your pack and sun glasses.
Clothing– Hearty hiking socks, hiking boots or sneakers (make sure they are broken in whatever they are), t-shirt for hiking up to Trail Camp, lightweight hiking pants to wear both days (unfortunately I had only packed shorts, so I ended up wearing mom’s heart-patterned long John’s from the 80’s to summit), your warmest sleeping gear (I think I had about 8 layers on, including a rain coat and I was too cold to sleep (even Drew, who’s a human heater was cold!), 2 pairs of ski socks to wear at night (both at the same time), a t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, hoodie and wind breaker to wear on summiting day (trust me), gloves (Drew forgot his and had to wear my used socks as gloves, no fun having to smell these every time he went to drink from his Camelbak lol), and a beanie! (I found a new best friend on this trip, I will never go on another trip without one).
Can you spot the sock puppet hands below?
We can’t stress the importance of having the right gear, it will determine how enjoyable of a trip climbing Mount Whitney will be for you and your group. Remember, pack enough warm clothes and drink A LOT of water, this especially pertains to summit day.
Our Trip, Day 1:
Left LA at 9am, arrived at the Eastern Sierra Visitor’s Center at 12 to pick up our permit and WAG bags
Lunch at the Deli next to Subway in Lone Pine, delicious, affordable and highly recommended!
We set up camp at Horseshoe Meadows, 10,000 feet in elevation, and went on a 7-mile hike to Cottonwood Pass, which reaches 11,200 feet. This helped us, and our lungs, acclimate to the high altitudes that we would be experiencing for the next 2 days hiking Mount Whitney. This trail was absolutely breathtaking and we highly recommend doing this prior to Whitney. A wilderness permit is required here for all over night stays and can also be obtained at Eastern Sierra Visitor’s Center. Click here for more detailed info.
Above is a photo of us at the peak of Cottonwood Pass (11,200′).
Instead of walking back to camp on the same trail, we decided to veer off course and walk through the meadow, well worth the detour.
7am wake up call, we packed up our gear, refilled all our water bottles, unpacked anything we did not need for hiking up Mount Whitney and started our drive along Whitney Portal Road, we even passed a rock monster!
This rock monster was clearly a KISS fan.
The stunning view of Whitney from the Portal Road.
At 9:30am we arrived to the Portal Store, got our Bear Canisters, the guys ordered their unimaginably large pancakes (build in an additional hour for this activity), we all used the restroom one final time and by 11:30 we were on the trail!
Note: There’s a hanging scale that you can weigh your pack on right at the start of the trail, mine was 26 pounds and Drew’s was a whopping 38 pounds (he was the bearer of the Bear Canister).
The Whitney Portal sits just below 8,000′ elevation, and the 6 mile hike up to Trail Camp (also known as High Camp) brought us to 12,000′ in elevation, that’s over 4,000′ in elevation gain in a day..! We took our time and arrived by 6pm. There was plenty of water along the way and an endless supply of unforgettable views, scroll down to see 🙂
Above is “Constellation Lake,” at this point we were well beyond the tree line and still had 500 more feet to go before reaching Trail Camp.
Can you spot our tent in the photo above? It’s smack dab in the middle.
Eating dinner in our tent, trying to keep warm.
Day 3, summit day:
After one of the longest, coldest, windiest nights, 5am finally arrived. We left on all the clothes we slept in and layered on everything else we had. We left our tents where they were so we could summit without the extra weight and refilled all our water bottles to the rim. By 6am everyone was ready to go and we started our final 5-mile, 2,500′ trek up the famous, and brutal, 97 switchbacks of Mount Whitney, pictured below.
We met all sorts of people along the way and noted that we were some of the youngest mountaineers on the trail. We saw quite a few of people in their 60’s, a handful of runners trying to complete the entire 22-mile roundtrip trail in 6 hours or less (I didn’t know that was humanly possible!), we even saw someone hiking to the summit in flip flops! He said he had forgotten his hiking boots, ouch.
Once we conquered the switchbacks, the trail took us behind the mountain range to the Trail Crest, where we were bombarded by piercing winds, reaching well below 30 degrees. As cold as we were, we still managed to enjoy the sweeping views and anticipation that accompanied us to the summit.
It took us 2 more hours to complete the final 1.9 miles. With air becoming less and less available, it was important to take it slow, drink water and make sure everyone was feeling ok. As we neared the end, the trail smoothed out and we could see the tops of Keeler Needle, Crooks Peak and lastly, sitting at 14,496 feet, we could see the little shack atop Mount Whitney.
At 10:30am, 4.5 hours later, we had finally arrived. Standing atop the large flat granite stones that cover Whitney, admiring the incredible 360 degree view… in this moment we were reminded of why we do what we do.
We snapped some photos, refueled on snacks, signed the log book at 11:11 and hung out to enjoy life on the highest peak in the contiguous US.
We stayed on the summit over 40 minutes, and while it was an incredibly beautiful, clear, blue day and I wish we could have stayed even longer, I could no longer survive the conditions on the summit. Yes, that is me in the orange hiding for dear life from the relentlessly, cold winds.
We began our 11-mile, 6,496′ downhill trek back to the Portal, and after a total of 16 miles for the day, by 7pm we had all made it down to where it all began. As we drove back to LA, Drew and I both knew that this trip was going to be the start of something new… summit series anyone?