Treadmill Rating (out of 10): 9 of 10
Distance: 22 miles
Max Elevation: 14,500
Suggested Gear: Special Whitney Gear List
Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the lower 48 US states. It stands just under 14,500 tall at the summit. While this hike is not technically challenging it presents hikers with the mental and physical challenge of the high altitude. It is what I refer to as an Adventure Hike. Meaning, it isn’t one you will enjoy during, but after you will have many tales to tell. Take into consideration that the total round trip from Whitney Portal is 22 miles and the altitude, it makes this hike very strenuous on the body. While I have made the journey in a single day (just over 11 hours), I would never recommend a day trip to a first time hiker to the mountain.
HOW TECHNICAL IS THE HIKE?
As I mentioned before, this mountain is not technical. The trail is very well maintained and doesn’t involve any serious steep climbs. But, because of the distance and altitude factors, this hike receives a 9 on the Ready Hiker Treadmill Scale. You do not need special equipment for this hike as long as you are hiking in the summer months (June/July/August/Early September). In the winter months you will need some serious climbing gear and experience. But, at Ready Hiker, we won’t be discussing that.
WHO CAN DO THIS HIKE?
This is a hike that most everyone can do, however, you will need proper physical and mental training (even for the overnight trips). I have seen people of all ages get to the top and back down (over 70 and under 12). But, they were all well prepared for the adventure. You need to make sure you are capable of very strenuous activity before attempting this hike. Three words, prepare, train, and prepare. You need to be ready for what this mountain can throw at you. I have seen grown men crying on the way down this mountain because they were not physically and mentally prepared. Although it is not a super tall mega-mountain you can still be affected by the altitude. Headaches, racing heartbeat, nausia, and other symptoms are common. The trick on this hike is to take it one step at a time.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
The best time to go for a first timer is in the summer months. I have made all of my hikes on Whitney during the July and August months. Any earlier or later you can risk too much snow. A permit is required for all hikers entering the Mount Whitney Zone. Basically, if you want to hike Mount Whitney you need a permit. Don’t think you will be able to walk-in and get a permit. There is a lottery held in February for permits. The Forrest Service severely limits the number of hikers up on the mountain each day. Click here for permit lottery information.
HOW MANY DAYS SHOULD IT TAKE?
Usually 2-3 days is the best. This will depend on your physical abilities both personally and the group you are with. Remember, you are only as fast as your slowest hiker. ReadyHiker.com always recommends using the buddy system on any hike you undertake. That buddy remains with you. I have come short of several summits because my buddy did not feel comfortable pushing to the top. I am there for the adventure, not necessarily for the summit. The mountain will be there next year.
The amount of time will also depend on the route you decide to take. There are 2 basic routes to the summit for the novice hiker. The East-Side and the West-Side. The East-Side can easily be done in 2 days (or 1 if you are super fit) whereas the West-Side will be a 4-7 day adventure to the top (50+ miles).
I usually begin training for Whitney at least 4 months in advance. Luckily I live in an area with an abundance of training mountains less than 20-30 minutes away. However, if you don’t have ample training hikes nearby you can always do what my Dad usually does. He will go to the local high school and walk the bleachers for several hours at a time. But, he will walk the bleacher seats. This will help train your legs for the steps on Whitney and help build up your knees for the downhill (which is the worst part of the hike).
Try to do as much downhill training as possible. Too many people get injured on the way down (11 mile downhill). It is wise to train your body to deal with the downhill part of the hike.
GEAR CHECK – take a look at what I typically bring with me for a multi-day hike up Whitney.
3-DAY EAST SIDE APPROACH (FROM WHITNEY PORTAL) AUGUST 2009 – LONE PINE LAKE BASE CAMP:
This last summer we made a quick (3 day) trip to the summit. There was a total of 6 people in our party and only 2 of us had been to the top before. So, we had 4 green-horns on the trail.
- Day 1: We began our trip at the parking area across from the Whitney Portal Store (at Whitney Portal). The elevation at the Portal is above 8,000 feet, so if you are new to high elevations you will feel a little different at this altitude. After gathering our items and putting our packs on we took some pictures and weighed our packs at the trail-head. This isn’t mandatory, but it is fun to see how much weight you are carrying with you. On this particular trip I was carrying about 45 pounds (way too much for a trip this short, but I like a challenge). We headed 3 miles in and camped just off the main trail at the beautiful Lone Pine Lake. The 3 miles only took us 1.5 hours. I highly recommend camping here if you have the time, it is a quiet and beautiful place to stay. After arriving at camp we setup our tents and filtered some water and began to explore. The fish in the lake were jumping that evening. The temperature was in the low 50’s. We had a nice quiet evening together.
- Please note, there are other places to make your first night before summiting. But, they are higher in elevation, thus, if you want a comfortable night sleep you may want to consider Lone Pine Lake. However, if you want to hike a little further in you can camp at Outpost Camp (4 miles from the trail head). Or, if you really want to carry your heavy pack a long way, you can camp at Trail Camp (6 miles in). However, the day we arrived we had people telling us about how cold it was at 12,000 feet which is where Trail Camp is. I have personally camped at Trail Camp and at Lone Pine Lake. I will almost always choose Lone Pine Lake mainly because it means less time of having the heavy pack on my back.
- Day 2:We hit the trail at 3:30am (yes, 3:30am). Since we decided to stay lower than the traditional camps we had to get on trail earlier to get a good start. If you were to stay at Trail Camp you could get on the trail at 5am. It was the coldest hike I have experienced on Whitney. The low that night was in the low 20’s or even teens. There was plenty of ice and frozen streams above 12,000 feet that morning. Fortunately, we had prepared for hot or cold weather (which is why my pack was so heavy), so we were well dressed for the cold (Be Ready Hiker). We arrived at Trail Crest a little after 8am. We were making fairly slow progress, but remember, it isn’t a race. The rabbits in our party made the summit around 10am while the rest of us arrived between 10:30 and 11am. The weather at the summit was absolutely fantastic. Not a cloud in the sky with a crispness in the air. We lingered at the summit for about 10 minutes, signed the guestbook, and headed down. We arrived back at camp a little after 6pm. Now, this is the downside to staying at Lone Pine Lake. It means early to rise and late to get back.
- Day 3: We woke at sunrise and packed up our gear and got on trail around 7am. The 3 mile hike down the mountain to the Portal only took an hour or so. Upon arrival at the Portal we shoved our packs in the car and headed straight for the Portal Store for their legendary pancaked. This is a must-have reward for those who have completed the hike. You will talk about the pancakes for years!!!