by Peter Holleran
“The heavens declare the glory of God: The skies proclaim the work of his hands”     - Psalm 19:1
As part of my training for the Pike's Peak Marathon in August 2002 I first made the long drive down route 395 to Lone Pine to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States (14,496'). The dense smoke from the massive Sequoia fire was irritating to the eyes and throat and also made the towering escarpment of the eastern Sierras nearly invisible, but fortunately it cleared over the next two days allowing for a beautiful climb. It had been a blistering 106 degrees in Lone Pine (4000') but dropped to a comfortable 75-80 at Whitney Portal campground (8000'), where I first spent two nights adapting to altitude. Whitney Portal is a fourteen mile drive up from Lone Pine, during which you pass by the famous Alabama Hills, site of many western movies. The desolate foothills leading to great snowy peaks beyond beckoned me to ride off into the sunset away from civilization much like Alan Ladd in Shane.
Thw town of Lone Pine itself is nothing special, although a film festival is held every year and there are plans to build a movie museum to justify its reknown status. Campsites at Whitney Portal are popular and should be reserved months in advance. Lower elevation campgrounds and motels are available, but staying at the Portal is desirable for acclimation in order to make the hike easier and reduce ones chances of succumbing to altitude sickness or, even worse, pulmonary or cerebral edema. Official statistics say that only 30% of those making for the summit succeed, but my feeling is that most should be able to do it with adequate preparation. Hiking or, as in my case, running the eleven-mile Mt. Whitney trail is by permit only, reservable by lottery beginning in February and limited to only 150 per day. A few cancelled permits are available on a walk-in basis at the ranger station in Lone Pine, after 11 A.M. for next day or 8 A.M. for same day hikes. Trying to get one on the day of a hike, however, makes the necesary pre-dawn start difficult. For those running, however, time is not as much of a problem. (If all else fails one can make it to the summit by the more isolated Circumnavigation Route, which does not require a Whitney permit, going around the back side of the mountain via Whitney-Russell Col but adding several thousand feet of climbing and five miles to an already long roundtrip).
On the first morning I did what many people do, taking the three-mile hike up to pretty Lone Pine Lake at 9900 feet as a warm-up for the next day's summit assault. A permit is not necessary to this point. In the afternoon I drove back down to Lone Pine to pick up my permit, then made dinner, put in earplugs and turned in early. (Whitney Portal is relatively subdued as campgrounds go, since most people plan on climbing the mountain in the morning, but there always seem to be a few jerks who arrive after midnight, set-up tents, start a campfire and clang their pots and pans well past quiet hours).
On the allocated day I broke camp at dawn, hitting the Whitney trail by seven-thirty. Most start between two and five in order to be down by dinner time. Total vertical, including two downhill sections, is 6300 feet. (By starting at the bottom of the Whitney Portal trail, which leads up to Whitney Portal itself, another four miles and 2700 feet is possible, for a monster climb of 9000 feet! That would rival the Cactus to Clouds trail on Mt. San Jacinto. As usual I traveled light with just a single bottle fanny pack and one hand-held filter bottle, planning for a six-hour roundtrip. The first miles of the Whitney Trail are hard-packed, well marked and very runnable, with an average grade of 600' per mile, a couple of short level sections and a brief downhill. It passes several small alpine lakes before reaching timberline and Trail Camp at 12000'. This is the major overnight stop for those planning a two day climb. I ran comfortably to this point, but then began to notice the effects of altitude, developed a headache, felt dizzy, and continued cautiously, jog/walking the final miles, unsure what 14,496 feet was going to feel like. The upper slopes of Whitney are harrowing, starting above Trail Camp with the infamous ninety-seven switchbacks that gain 1700 feet in less than two miles. A cable is placed around one of them to protect against slipping on ice or snow, although overall this section of the trail is fine and not that difficult at all - nothing as harrowing as the cables on Half-Dome. (Some hikers choose to bypass the switchbacks on the descent by glissading down an adjacent snow chute in as little as fifteen minutes, but serious accidents occur with this method on a regular basis. One hiker died when snow unexpectedly turned to ice and he reached uncontrolled speeds of over 50 miles an hour on the 45 degree slope before hitting a boulder in October, 2005). Finally, at 13,700 feet Trail Crest is reached and soon after a junction with the John Muir Trail, where one continues climbing behind the main east wall of Mt. Whitney. The trail narrows and passes several intimidating "windows" opening to the east that invite you you to plunge thousands of feet to the valley floor. The drop-off to the west is not quite as precipitous but the overall sensation is overwhelming, especially if it is windy, which it often is. At first the view of the summit is hidden by Mt. Muir while one manuveurs along a tricky downhill losing 200 feet. This is a welcome relief after the long climb, but payback comes on the return trip when you must climb back uphill, dog-tired.
The final two-mile trek along the narrow, rocky, exposed ridge to the summit grinds on and on (you will swear it looks and feels more like five miles), but once there, the grandeur and satisfaction of achieving ones quest are the reward. This last section took me over an hour. I arrived at noon with an elapsed time of 4:25 (3:45 pace before succumbing to altitude), including a twenty-five minute stop at Trail Camp to filter water and use the solar privy, the last such facility on the mountain. This is an adventure and an achievement in itself. A sign strictly warns, "Do not urinate in the toilet, it is for solid waste only." It has something to do with biodegradability or the proper functioning of the chemicals. Now, just try to imagine yourself out of breath, trying to keep one sphincter closed and the other open, at the same time feeling pressure from those outside waiting in line. This is no easy task! Not only that, but above timberline at Trail Camp if you manage to accomplish number two, there is no hiding place for at least a half mile in which to do number one. (A philosophical dilemma arises as well: what if one has the runs, is that liquid or solid? What to do in that case? Does that mean a LITTLE liquid is O.K.?. I found myself reduced to laughter at the absurdity of the entire situation, and, well, you know what that does to your self-control).
When I arrived at the top twenty or thirty others were resting near the summit house, many who began climbing at three or four in the morning and others who spent the night at Trail Camp and made a leisurely mid-morning start. The temperature was about 50 degrees, quite a contrast to the 105 in Lone Pine the day before. Not surprisingly I was the only runner and felt somewhat naked in Trailrunner shorts and T-shirt. A sign warns hikers not to enter the building if a storm threatens, for people on the inside have been killed by lightning. In such a situation it isn't much good to stay OUTSIDE either, which is why it is recommended one depart from the summit no later than noon to reach protection below and avoid being caught on exposed terrain during the frequent afternoon thundershowers. Rain is less of a threat in the early fall, which is cooler and has some of the best hiking weather. After signing the summit register I started back down, anxious to reach more breathable air. First, however, I had to beg some water off of a hiker because I had underestimated how much I would need from Trail Camp to the top and back, (nine difficult miles and several hours time). I probably should have taken my Camelback or scooped additional water during the ascent from one of the seasonal rivulets that cross some of the upper switchbacks.
At fourteen thousand feet there is sixty percent of sea level oxygen. Life slows down in this rarified atmosphere. Feeling tipsy - and wanting to survive - I was fairly careful on the descent, particularly along the technical rocky summit ridge, before gradually increasing speed (55 minutes for the first 2.5 unnerving miles while recovering my bearings and allowing the dizziness to subside, an hour and fifty for the remaining 8.5 including ten minutes at Trail Camp to fill water, and 28 for the final three not counting time lost getting stopped by a ranger because my permit had fallen off. There is a hefty fine ($200) for being on the Whitney Trail without a permit, and rangers patrol it regularly above Lone Pine Lake. Fortunately the park computer still held my reservation or I might have been out of luck. While slower than expected my total running time of 6:30 left me feeling satisfied with my overall performance, until a wise guy I met in the parking lot mentioned that the record for roundtrip on the Whitney Trail (22 miles) is a phenomenal three hours and ten minutes! The prerequisites necessary to run that fast, however, in my opinion are as follows. One must: risk death on the downhill, go totally all out, be absolutely familiar with every footstep of the trail, be completely adapted to altitude, be in his prime, be great, and last but not least, be CRAZY. Personally, I have my doubts about this unconfirmed time. Due to the rocky technical nature of much of the trail it is doubtful that the one hour descent required to achieve 3:10 is possible. That would mean five-minute mile pace, an incredible feat - and to average that you would have to go at FOUR-minute mile pace whenever possible because of all the switchbacks, rocks and boulder hopping that slow you down! I was told by a hiker that a race held years ago was discontinued after one runner went too fast and flew over a switchback to his death on the upper mountain. The official record on the shorter but much steeper Mountaineers route is 3:08, but that, while still amazing, is only 4 miles each way.
The next day I climbed 13000' Mt. Dana on Tioga Pass in Yosemite and felt much better in the thin air. Based on that experience I estimate that with three or four nights at altitude instead of just two I could probably cut 30 minutes off my Whitney time, and with a week or two of acclimation even more.
The first night at Whitney Portal campground the biggest bear I ever saw walked past my tent no more than 15 feet away just after dusk. It was obviously in search of food as it made its rounds following the line of garbage bins and food storage lockers. I mentioned this to a camper who was planning on sleeping in his bivy sack without benefit of tent the following night right in the line of the bear's predictable route. Indeed a bear or two came through again as campers in the next site woke me with startling yells and screams on several occasions. (I took some perverse pleasure in this as they were the same jerks who had made an obnoxious racket the night before). I stayed inside my tent for the duration and considered peeing in a water bottle instead of walking in the dark to the restrooms. (The tent only offered a false sense of security - I'm sure it would be nothing more than a candy wrapper for a bear serious about finding some food). You see, I'm not exactly your fearless camper. Ah, but come race day.......
That year I acclimated for three nights instead of two, spending the first night at June Lake, the second at Whitney Portal, and the third at Horseshoe Meadows campground (10,000') on the south side of Mt. Whitney, to better prepare for the climb. It paid off, as I took 12 minutes off my time on the section of the Whitney trail above Trail Camp and felt comfortable all the way to the top with no headache or dizziness at all. (Of course, preemptively took some ibuprofin, which I didn't do last year, as well as Jagulana, an herbal formula (marketed as Alpine Energy) which is claimed to enhance endurance at high altitudes by increasing heart stroke volume). Besides hiking to Lone Pine Lake on day two, I also trekked nine-miles the afternoon before Whitney on a roundtrip to Cottonwood Pass at 11,200'. This was a mistake. I should have rested, as my legs felt sluggish starting out on the big day and I struggled up to Trail Camp before finally getting the kinks out, reaching it in the same time as last year (2 hours) despite better conditioning. My time to the summit, however, improved to 3:48. By late morning it had warmed up significantly and I lacked the will to try for sub-six hours, so I went moderately on the descent, taking approximately the same time as last year (2:32). (It hadn't helped that on the uphill I missed a turn after Trailcrest and went a half mile down the John Muir trail on the back side of Whitney before realizing my mistake and backtracking, something you don't want to do at 13,000 feet. A large group of hikers had placed their packs in a heap partially obscuring an important trail junction).
I highly recommend staying at Horseshoe Meadows, if even for only one night, as the extra altitude makes a big difference. Two or three nights there would be excellent. There are 12 sites, and no reservations are required. I drove up early on a weekday to secure a spot and only a few people were there. It is primitive (no water), but quiet, and only $6. The drawback is that getting there requires a harrowing 20 mile uphill drive that makes the Whitney Portal Road look flat. On the other hand, when you drive down in the dark on the morning you climb Mt. Whitney, you won't see the drop-offs.
Another even more promising acclimation strategy might be to spend day three hiking up White Mountain Peak, located one hour east of Bishop. Drivable all the way to 12,000 feet, the climb from there to the 14,246 foot summit is only seven easy miles on dirt road (no water). Following that up with a night at Cottonwood Camp should put one in great shape for Mt. Whitney. (Here is a nice photo report).
I followed the same prep as the previous year, but only managed a 3:55 ascent, not sleeping well the night before. However, I got down in 2:24, 10 minutes faster from Trail Camp to the bottom, and only 24 from Lone Pine Lake. I literally blew by a ranger checking for permits, who undoubtedly realized it was futile to try to stop me!
On the way past Mammoth I stopped at Convict Lake, purportedly the setting for a movie by the same name with Glenn Ford. Further on is Mono Lake, site of High Plains Drifter with Clint Eastwood. Before driving over Tioga Pass and proceding home I took a forty-mile side trip to the ghost town of Bodie, frequently listed as the coldest place in the nation. 14 miles from Highway 395, and even then in the middle of nowhere, Bodie was once a thriving mining town of 10,000 people. Wood was at a premium, however, as is evidenced by the small coffins on display in the town morgue. Apparently the morticians folded people's legs over to fit them in the boxes. I guess it really doesn't matter, when you're dead you're dead as they say.
Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Hiking Guide, by Paul Richins Jr., is one of the best books on hiking the Whitney area. Includes thirteen different routes with mile by mile descriptions.
For logistics and permit information, see the Mt. Whitney Dayhike and Backpacking Page.