Mt. Whitney Above All

Mt. Whitney is not only the highest peak in the continental US, it’s also auspiciously situated near the Southern terminus of the John Muir Trail. A true gem of the Sierra Nevada, and one that is no doubt on many bucket lists. It’s also notoriously difficult to get the necessary permits to hike Mt. Whitney because of the amount of interest it, and the JMT, draw from across the US and all over the world. It is possible to make the trip up and down in a day and that opens up more options/possibilities for obtaining permits. This post will illuminate the details of acquiring permits, as well as talk about some logistics for would-be day hikers.

photo: Matt Budesa

The Particulars

Destination: Mt. Whitney
Trail Head: Mt. Whitney Trail
Distance: ~23 miles (total) out and back, ~7,000 ft gained/lost (avg 584 ft delta / mile)
Remoteness: Expect quite a few other hikers.
Motivation: Stand at the highest peak in the continental US
Notes: Permits must be obtained in advance, even for a day hike. This is a strenuous route with quite a bit of time spent above 10,000 feet elevation.

Elevation Profile

About Permits

The permit situation is a little convoluted… the info contained here will touch on permits for ALL trip types, even though this post is generally about day hiking Whitney.

The area around Mt. Whitney is deemed the “Mount Whitney Zone” (see map below) and any trips which pass through the Mount Whitney Zone, regardless of whether entering or exiting, and regardless of whether day hiking or camping overnight, will require one of several possible permits. The ONLY exceptions to this are if your trip originated in another jurisdiction (Sequoia Kings and Yosemite being the most likely examples) and for those you must specify Whitney Portal as your exit when obtaining your permit from the respective Ranger station. As far as the various permit types for Mt. Whitney here is a list…

  • “Exiting Mt. Whitney” (via the portal)
  • “Visiting Mt. Whitney” (not exiting via the portal)
  • “Overnight” (starting at the portal) << this is a lottery permit
  • “Day Use” (all routes) << this is a lottery permit
Mt. Whitney Zone
Mt. Whitney Zone – US Forest Service

It’s worth repeating – overnight and day use permits are acquired through the lottery. Lottery entries are usual accepted from Feb 1st to mid March (check here for the exact dates). The lottery takes place promptly after the submission window closes. You will provide first and second choice of date(s) when applying to the lottery, if luck is on your side you’ll be notified that a permit is waiting for you. It’s very important to claim (pay for) the permit in time! You can verify that date on the Inyo NP website as well. After the cutoff date for claiming permits, the dates of any unclaimed permits are released back for open reservations – and they’ll go quick. This is your last chance to get a permit in advance. When all dates have full quotas you’d have to try for a walk up permit and unlike other trails with quotas, none of the quota spaces are reserved for walk up’s. The only way to get one is if someone else is a no show. If you happen to be in the area it’s worth a try… but making the journey from afar in hopes of getting a permit would be a desperate and risky proposition! Lastly, the data on the lottery outcome is always made public. In 2015 over 11,600 permits were requested, about 5000 were issued. The most requested dates are from mid July to early August. That should give a little perspective on the situation. Ok, enough about permits. Let’s get on with the report…

The Report From our Trip :: September 27, 2015

I was fortunate to be invited along by a few of my running friends – Andy, Matt, and Russell. Russell had scored permits in the lottery and they had one open space, which I promptly jumped on! We left the Bay Area early and arrived at Mt. Whitney Campground about 8 hours later. It’s a long drive, but passing through Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows makes it a nice trip. In September the aspens are changing color and the high Sierra is that much more beautiful.

Straight Ahead
Straight Ahead…

Our home for the night would be the Mount Whitney Portal Campground, where we’d meet up with Tom to round out the group. This is a nice campground with running water and outhouses. Staying here puts you a short walk from the trailhead and Whitney Portal Store, or as many people remember it, the first place to get a cheeseburger after wrapping up their JMT hike. The Mt. Whitney Trailhead is only steps from the store; some parking is available up there, or do as we did and just walk from camp. It adds about a half mile to the hike. No big. To “do Whitney in a day” requires an early start and so our night in camp was quiet and mostly consisted of dinner followed by a quick gear check and off to bed…

2:30 AM came early… very early. We made our way along the winding road in the darkness up to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead. Temperatures were cold and the start at ~8500 ft throws you right into the mix without so much as a gentle breaking in… to be fair, on this hike the reaching the 10,000 ft mark is only the beginning. We moved hastily, trying to keep warm. Several hours later the first sights of sunrise appeared.

The Inevitable Dark-Start
The Inevitable Dark-Start
Sunrise Above 10,000 Feet
Sunrise Above 10,000 Feet

Hiking in the dark is ok, but when you’re in such a dramatic place it’s nice to have a look at it. The day progressed, as did we. Somewhere among the 99 switchbacks up to Trail Crest I started feeling wonky. Some people handle altitude really well, others take a bad turn south. I’m in the middle somewhere. Trail Crest pokes up above 13,500 feet. By the time I reached it, I was very spaced out and slightly nauseous. A short break helped but if you have made it this far, then you’re either feeling it, or you’re not.

Jacob D
Jacob D… Not Feelin’ It
photo: Matt Budesa

Yup. Pretty much not feeling it, and so I trudged on slowly – but fatigue and spaciness were the worst of it for me. No puking! Silver linings are great. The trail around the backside of the crest is cool in an unnerving/sketchy kind of way, with some steep drop offs and loose rocks sprinkled about to keep things frosty. The views into Sequoia NP are excellent with Hitchcock Lakes and Guitar Lake front and center. As I walked along I passed several hikers who were doing the zombie walk. (To put it in perspective, one of these guys I later found on Strava (he tracked his hike, as did I) and I now “follow” him. It turns out he’s a beastly trail runner but on this day the altitude reduced him to a mere mortal. Although he was barely moving on the way up, he pranced right by me on the return trip once we were below Trail Crest. Moral of the story – never underestimate the altitude!)

First View Into Sequoia NP
First View Into Sequoia NP
Sequoia NP X Mordor
Sequoia NP X Mordor

With the summit hut finally in sight I pulled myself upright and proudly walked up to take in the view. Andy, Matt, and Tom were already there, Russell was with me. We had all made it in decent time. It was a little before noon, the weather was looking good so we just chilled for a while against one of the many large boulders. Some brazen marmots investigated our gear but didn’t find anything interesting. Finally it was time to sign the log book and descend.

Summit Hut
Summit Hut
Checking In
Checking In
Thanks for the Trail!
Thanks for the Trail!

Descent was much easier of course, and by the time I had reached 10,000 ft I was feeling great again. Running most of the way down I eventually caught up to Tom, the other guys had taken off with an urgency fueled by thoughts of real food and cold IPA’s. At the end of the day we reconvened at the Whitney Store for just that. High fives for a solid day hike as the sun started to dip behind the crest of the Sierra and the temperatures approached nipply.

Time to Head Down
Time to Head Down

An side note about this trip with a little history… The Summit Hut (built 1904) was used in 1909 by the Smithsonian Institute for observation of Mars, specifically to study the planet for any clues as to the existence of water. The day we returned from our hike was the day NASA made the announcement that water had been discovered on Mars, a little over 100 years after the Smithsonian’s efforts began. Just one of life’s great little coincidences.

Sexy Beasts
Sexy Beasts

What Worked and What Didn’t

I didn’t have any notable gear issues on this trip. I opted to show up for a hike, although a couple of these berserkers were geared for running and carried minimal gear. I kept it light and was able to do it a bit of running on the way down. Although my setup was not optimal, cheeseburgers and beer are good motivation. Anyway, here’s the gear list…

Backpack – Gossamer Gear Gorilla (2014 version)
Hydration – 2x 1L bottles
Shoes – Salomon Sense Mantra III
Socks – Injinji lightweight runners
Gaiters – Dirty Girl
Pants – Craghoppers
Shirt – Smartwool Tee
Wind Shirt – Patagonia Houdini
Vest – Patagonia Nano Puff
Down Jacket – Eddie Bauer First Ascent Downlight (didn’t really need)
Hat – An old Columbia sunhat that I’ve had forever
Gloves- none
Rain Shell – Didn’t bring one
Other – Sawyer Mini water filter, Black Diamond Z Poles, Bosavi Headlamp, Benchmade 707 pocket knife, Sony RX100 camera, Goal Zero Scout 10, Lightweight first aid kit, mylar blanket

In Summary

This was a killer hike! It takes a combination of being in good shape and an early start to get it done in a day but it’s well worth the effort. Going with friends is always a plus, as was once famously written, “Happiness only real when shared”. If the opportunity arises, strike while the iron’s hot… Whitney awaits! -JD

Jacob D Written by:

Dad, Runner, Student, Berserker, Questionable Partner... on my path to living an exceptional and real life.