Mount Whitney and the Sierra Crest tower above the rest of the Eastern Sierra in California like a set of jagged teeth. The 14,508-foot peak attracts 30,000 hikers to the summit every year, but only 10,000 of those intrepid climbers make it the 11 miles up to the summit. Many hikers try to hike the summit in one day (starting around 2 or 3 a.m.), while others make their way up and down the 22-mile roundtrip trail in the course of two or three days.
The author triumphant at the summit of Mount Whitney. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann
The mountain sits at the southern part of the Sierra Nevada right in the middle of the trifecta of California's national parks: Yosemite to the north, Sequoia National Park to the west and Death Valley (with the lowest point in the U.S.) to the east. The trail to the summit was built in 1904, and a stone hut at the top was completed in 1909. The trail is known for sections with names like the 99 Switchbacks and the Crazy Cables, and the mountain is notorious for its unpredictable weather that includes snowstorms, freezing winds, lightning and temps in the 20s. And that's in the summer.
Dawn on Mount Whitney from the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann/Nancy James
Know the Risks
After a summer of hiking Lake Tahoe's tallest peaks, my husband, two of our good friends and I decided we wanted to attack this formidable beast. We are all good hikers, but were anxious about the nearly 6,200-foot climb and the lack of oxygen at the summit. What sends most people back down the mountain unfinished is altitude sickness, which can start as low as 8,000 feet. Headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of altitude sickness and can best be stopped by heading back down right away.
Hikers and backpackers are required to have permits on Mount Whitney. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann/Nancy James
Plan your Attack
We decided to acclimate by doing the hike in two days, with an overnight stop at Trail Camp at nearly 12,000 feet, just below the stunning Sierra Crest. Our hike began at the Whitney Portal, and the first three miles (with 30-plus-pound backpacks) were switchbacks in the pine trees and creeks in the beautiful valleys of the lower portion of the mountain. We passed Lone Pine Lake, Mirror Lake and the pretty Outpost Camp with its tumbling waterfall, and we ran into some wildlife: sage grouse, marmots and the elusive pika.
After Outpost Camp, the hike got serious. We named this area "The Stairmaster." It was nothing but granite boulders, rocks and "staircases" made for people 8 feet tall. Several sections of the hike took us two to three hours to complete.
The "Stairmaster" before reaching Trail Camp. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann/Nancy James
We made it up to Trail Camp in about six hours and set up our tents and tarps. Water is more scarce up in this zone of rock and tallus. Two small lakes – Trail Camp Lake and Consultation Lake – are available for water filtering. After a fitful night full of bright stars, we hit the next part of the trail (with lighter day packs) at first light.
Just above Trail Camp are the infamous 99 Switchbacks. Yes, there are 99 of them. These switchbacks snake up the mountain to the incredible views of Trail Crest, where we could see both the east and west side of the Sierra Nevada. After nearly 90-degree temperatures at the bottom of the mountain, the 25-degree temperature and howling winds at the top were a shock.
The 99 Switchbacks and the Sierra Crest at dawn. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann
Fear and Reward
The steep and scary Trail Crest goes behind the jagged points seen on Mount Whitney postcards. The trail is mostly rocks and boulders, and you can peek through the "windows" down into the valley below and out toward the small town of Lone Pine, California. This section required a lot of maneuvering, good trekking poles and a healthy fear of heights. Behind the crest, we could see straight down into the Sequoia National Forest, as well as part of the famous John Muir Trail. This is another way to hike up to Mount Whitney. Known as the Mountaineer's Route, this spur of the John Muir goes up the back part of the mountain and is officially the end of the 215-mile hike from Yosemite.
Where the Whitney Trail meets the John Muir Trail. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann
Because of the incredible views, Trail Crest was my favorite part of the trail. However, it and the last push to the summit took us another three hours. In fact, from Trail Camp up the summit and back took us about eight hours total.
Seeing the summit for the first time was a sight for sore eyes and feet. We spent some time at the top taking photos, signing the hut's register and pushing the "easy" button someone left in the register box. At this time, my husband began to feel like he was having a hard time breathing and his hands were turning numb. We decided to head down quickly.
The Mount Whitney register at the summit. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann
The hike down was 11 miles and my knees and feet felt every step. Going up may seem daunting to people, but I felt that coming down was the hardest part of the trail. It took me about three hours just to do the last three miles. I kissed my trekking poles and limped up to the restaurant at the trailhead, where the rest of my crew had already ordered me a cheeseburger and soda.
Note: Permits to hike Mount Whitney are required year-round. A limited number of permits are issued by the U.S. Forest Service between May 1 and Nov. 1 during an annual lottery held in February.
Permits and WAG Bags are required on Mount Whitney. — Photo courtesy of Christina Nellemann/Nancy James
View the video of us trying to decide how much farther we have to go.
Things to Know Before Hiking Mount Whitney
1. Don't take this mountain lightly.
People have died on Mount Whitney from injuries, falls and weather exposure. Several of the hikers we ran into on the trail who didn't make it to the top came directly from sea level and tried to tackle the heights without acclimating or preparing for the extreme terrain and temperatures.
2. Be prepared for anything.
Come to Whitney with good clothing and hiking gear and be prepared for any weather. If the weather forecast calls for lightning, rain or snow, do not attempt to summit.
3. Do some training.
You will need a couple of 10- to 15-mile trails under your belt before starting this hike. It also helps to hike a few trails higher than 10,000 feet to see how your body reacts to high elevations.
4. Don't forget your WAG Bag.
There are no toilets on Mount Whitney. Human waste is kept off the mountain by using a WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) Bag. This small, plastic bag with a urine-activated powder is given to hikers along with their permit. Whatever you pack in, you must pack out.