Adventures California mountains United States

I’m on Top of the World – Mt. Whitney Summit (May 2014)

By on January 30, 2015

I’ve had the highest mountains
I’ve had the deepest rivers
You can have it all but life keeps movin’

“I’m on Top of the World”, Imagine Dragons

For some reason, epic trip reports always seem to make me think of songs. The trip to the top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States was no different. In fact, I may have even broken into song with “I’m on Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons a couple times. The link for the video is here and if you haven’t heard the song I recommend you listen to it (or at least read the lyrics) before continuing on. One last bit of information before I get into the actual trip report, I’m going back and filling in the blanks from the epic trip Jason and I took last year. After talking to some people who are thinking of doing all or part of our trip, I decided it was important to go into more details about the big parts of the trip (the Subway in Zion National Park, Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, and Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park/Inyo National Forest). If you want more information about any other part of the trip, feel free to contact me. I love talking about our adventures and am happy to answer any questions. Finally, I apologize for the quality and size of the photos. I broke my camera at the start of our trip and had to make a stop at Costco to pick up another one. This was the best they had (in my price range) and it was terrible so I returned it the next time we were near a Costco (which was at the end of the trip).

NOTE: During peak season permits are required to summit Mount Whitney (for all routes). I highly recommend applying for a permit before going to Lone Pine so that you can plan every aspect of your trip. If, however, you just happen to be in Lone Pine and want to summit Mount Whitney, the Interagency Visitor Center occasionally has first-come, first-served permits but you run the risk of only having day tickets available when general consensus is a 2-day trip is ideal.

Since I’m a prolific runner and Jason is pretty good hiking shape (thanks to me!) we decided to summit Mount Whitney in one long day hike, instead of camping at one of the campgrounds along the trail. This was a strategic decision and for most people I would recommend splitting the hike into two days. For information on doing the trip in two days, I recommend visiting Modern Hiker’s blog post. Anyways, since we were doing the hike in one day, it was really important to us that we sleep at the Whitney Portals campground, less than a 1/10th of a mile from the trailhead, to ensure we could get as much sleep as possible. I cannot say enough wonderful things about the Whitney Portals campground. The campground hosts last year did an excellent job at keeping the campsite (and bathrooms) tidy and were some of the most friendly people we met on our whole trip.

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After packing up everything we would need for the trip including 3L of water each, almond butter and peach jam sandwiches, clif bars, clif shot bloks, water filtration tablets, and first aid kit, we went to bed before the sun set. When the alarm went off at 3:30 am I was immediately awake, Jason needed some convincing though (and judging from how little he remembers of the beginning of the hike I don’t think he was actually awake until around sunrise). After layering up our clothes and throwing our backpacks on, we were off. The first mile or so of the trail is visible from Whitney Portals, so when we arrived at the trailhead, we could see the headlamps of the people who had started before us. As a competitive person, I immediately was trying to determine how many of them we would pass on the way up (we ended up passing every single person who was summitting in a day, including those who started 2 whole hours before us).

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Although the hike is long (22 miles roundtrip) and has significant elevation gain (about 7,000 ft roundtrip), the grade is never very steep. In fact the entire time we were hiking, I kept thinking that I could definitely run up the trail. But don’t get me wrong, the trail definitely goes up and it starts right from the beginning. Since Jason was still pretty much asleep, I led the way in the dark. I knew he was following me because I could hear his trekking poles striking the ground with each step and the one time I stopped hearing them, I turned around to find Jason digging through his pack for a snack (luckily he wasn’t eaten by a bear!). As we approached Lone Pine lake and the boundary of the permit area, the sky was just beginning to lighten. I have seen many sunrises in my life and this was one of the best. The sky was a perfect rainbow of colors, Lone Pine lake sparkled 500 feet below us, and the rocks were transformed into fiery pinnacles as the sun struck them.

Photo Credit: NinetySeventy

Photo Credit: NinetySeventy

After a short descent, the trail passes through Bighorn Park. When we were there in early June, the meadow was more of a marsh, filled with wet green grass but it was snow-free. This was the last major section of trail that was snow-free though. This meadow is also one of the two main places to camp (Outpost Camp) along the trail but does require overnight permits (you can specify whether you want a day or overnight permit when you apply on recreation.gov). Although the campsites here seemed much nicer than at the higher campground, it will make for a longer summit trek since this only shaves about 4 miles off the one-way trip and most of the elevation gain is still ahead of you.

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The trail switchbacks out of Bighorn Park and this where we encountered our first major snowfield. Jason and I both made a stupid mistake and did not do a lot of research on the trail before embarking on our trip, so we found it difficult to tell where the actual trail was because there were multiple off-shoots that led to Mirror Lake and dead-ends. We did know we had to continue to go upwards, so we decided to continue up the narrow valley, which turned out to be the correct decision and were able to find the correct trail again near the second camping area along the trail (appropriately named Trail Camp). Trail Camp was pretty snowy when we were there, but looked like it would be rocky in the summer and at 12,000+ ft may give you altitude sickness. The views, however, are amazing since this is the first time you can actually see the Whitney formation (and maybe the summit?) and there are a couple of crystal clear lakes that you can use to filter water.

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From Trail Camp, the trail begins the true climb up the 99 switchbacks. Although I didn’t do very much research, I did read about the 99 switchbacks. How steep they are depends on what you’re used to and how the altitude affects you, but I didn’t find them steep at allThey are every bit as monotonous as every other trip report claims but in the late spring/early summer you get the added interest of snow! The snow made the going particularly slow, especially as we watched people who had proper tools (ice axes and crampons) climb the couloir to the north of the switchbacks. Jason and I only had trail running shoes so climbing a steep, snowy couloir was not an option for us, but I would like to go back and try it. The only redeeming factor of the 99 switchbacks, besides the fact that they get you closer to the summit, is that the views get better and better. The trail crosses the 13,000 ft mark on the switchbacks but it’s still a long way to 14,490 ft.

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At the top of the 99 switchbacks, the trail crosses over to the western side of the ridge via the Trail Crest and drops slightly in elevation (about 400-500 feet) before meeting up with the John Muir Trail and starting the final climb to the summit. The western side of the ridge still had significant patches of snow but they were easily navigable in trail running shoes. The trail also passes through the Whitney windows, which are the spires on the iconic pictures of Mount Whitney, offering stunning views back towards the east and Lone Pine, CA. The final push for the summit is very mellow compared to some other 14ers I’ve done, gradually rising along a humpback ridge to the true summit, which is clearly marked by the Smithsonian hut.

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When we got to the top, Jason immediately laid down (the altitude was affecting him – not enough water!) but I had a great time exploring. After talking to the other people on the summit, I found out that we were the first people to summit that had not camped at Outpost Camp or Trail Camp the night before! From trailhead to summit, it took Jason and I 6 hours and 26 minutes, but only 2 hours and 41 minutes of that time was actual “moving time”. The rest was taking pictures and actually resting. Just for comparison, a couple months after we summitted Mount Whitney, Andy Anderson recorded a fastest known time (FKT) of 1:49:10 for the ascent and 3:03:05 for the roundtrip via the Mountaineers route, which is arguably quicker but more physically challenging. His trip report can be found here.

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After taking some pictures, Jason finally felt alive enough to look around and take some pictures. The views from the top of Mount Whitney are unparalleled (as long as you’re lucky and it’s a clear, haze-free day). To the east you can see the little town of Lone Pine, the White Mountains (which also contain a 14er and some of the oldest trees on the planet) and Death Valley (which contains the lowest point in Americas – Badwater at -248 ft below sea level). To the north and south you can see the spine of the High Sierras which contains a chain of 14ers and 13ers that I’d like to summit one day. To the west you can see into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. We didn’t stick around too long on the summit though because we wanted to get down before the “crowds” reached the summit (and by crowds I mean about 20-30 other people who were still making a summit bid, which is empty compared to summer crowds).

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The trail is the exact same as it was on the way up, since there’s only one way down (unless you want to go down the mountaineer’s route but even most of them come down the traditional trail). Between the summit and Trail Crest we passed almost everyone else who would summit Mount Whitney that day and had to frequently stop to let the uphill traffic pass. Once we got back to the 99 switchbacks, the trails cleared enough for me to play the hurry up and wait game by running down, waiting for Jason to catch, and running down some more. When we made it to Trail Camp, we decided to stop at Consultation Lake to take some pictures and for me to filter some water. On the way out of trail camp, we were able to find the actual trail (instead of just guessing like we did on the way up). From there it’s a really nice hike back down to Whitney Portals. We did make two more stops along the way, at Mirror Lake and Lone Pine Lake for some pictures, and were stopped on the trail by two forest rangers asking to see our permit (luckily I had mine but a guy that happened to hiking near us didn’t have one and probably ended up with a nice fine). The trail from Lone Pine Lake to the trailhead seemed to take way longer coming down than it did coming up, probably because we had been hiking up in the dark. When we finally made it to the trailhead, Jason and I took the obligatory trail sign photo and headed back to our campsite.

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After recounting the days adventures with the trail hosts, who were both very impressed that we had summitted in a day (apparently less than 1/3 of all summit attempts are successful and even fewer are successful in a day trip), we settled down for some much needed “real food”. Although real food is an exaggeration since Jason ate chili mac and I had almond butter and peach jam sandwiches. We were back in our tent asleep before the sun set on the last big adventure of our grand vacation.

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