Hiking Mt Whitney in the Spring
It’s been a few months since I’ve climbed a mountain, and I’d been getting stir crazy in the house. I got a text from my friend Apple (@Apple_tini23 on Instagram) saying she wants to organize a trip to Mt Whitney, and since I’ve been there many times, she wanted me to lead the group. Of course, all the times I’ve gone were in the summertime with ideal conditions, but I was up to the task of leading a group of 12 to the top of the highest mountain in the continental USA.
Apple and I agreed on the dates May 2-4 for the trip, which was only a month away. Since the lottery process ended in April 1, we could make reservations online. This was also when there would be a full moon, which is an amazing thing to see from the mountain top. In the meantime, we had put together a DM on Instagram to communicate with everyone in the group (since most everyone were friends from Instagram). I’d made a brief list of things to expect, and had been checking the weather. It seems like it was going to be cold at night (20° – 30°F / -7° – 0°C), and sunny during the day with a small chance of snow. I checked the weather on http://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Mount-Whitney/forecasts/4418
I’ve learned from many trips before, I need to prep my food several days in advance. Since I use the dehydrator extensively to make food for my trips, it can take time in preparation and drying. And since this was going to be an overnight trip (rather than a day hike), the dehydrated food helps out even more. (I also ordered a few items from Amazon, like a mini external microphone to get better audio quality for my videos and Snapchat videos.)
I carpooled up with another friend Anna (@acey_loves2_explore on Instagram), who picked me up at about 4am. We needed to be at the Lone Pine Visitor Center to pick up our permits for Mt Whitney and we had a 4 hour drive ahead of us (they’re usually open from 8-4:30, but I’ve done an afterhours pickup before, which is easy). Plus we had to get a walk-in campsite at the Whitney Portal. They usually set aside campsites specifically for walk-ins, though we could have reserved online had we done it in time. We ended up getting two very awesome corner campsites with plenty of parking and spots for tents.
The first night, we just hung out at the campsite and explored the area, checking out the Portal Restaurant and waterfalls. The Restaurant had free wifi, so of course we jumped on to give updates to our friends as to what campsites we got (and post a few photos on Instagram). A few more friends joined us later in the afternoon, and we ended up going to Lone Pine for some pizza.
Having been on long mountain hikes before, I know I need plenty of sleep–especially considering I only got an hour of sleep the night before. I took a few naps throughout the day, and really just relaxed and enjoyed my time in the mountains. At night, I stayed up a little with everyone and had a few laughs, then went to bed around 9pm. The rest of the group still haven’t showed up (and we think it was because of the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight).
Around 1:30am, I wake up to headlights and whispering, and knew the rest of the group had just showed up. Yikes! We were going to wake up in a few hours to start our hike! I got up and helped them get set up and went back to sleep. We ended up leaving the campsite around 6:30am, and officially started our hike just after 7am. That is a late start! Only because the sun can get hot on the mountain and really zap the energy out of you–especially when backpacking (using the scale at the trailhead, my backpack weighed in at a heavy 48lbs).
I try and remember all the different little markers as we go along the trail, and how far along the way. It was interesting to see the landscape different this time of year compared to late summer. Here’s a quick little breakdown:
|Whitney Portal||8,360 Ft||0.0 mi|
|Lone Pine Lake||9,900 Ft||2.8 mi|
|Outpost Camp||10,400 Ft||3.8 mi|
|Mirror Lake||10,640 Ft||4.0 mi|
|Trailside Meadow||11,400 Ft||5.0 mi|
|Trail Camp||12,000 Ft||6.0 mi|
|Trail Crest||13,600 Ft||8.2 mi|
|Muir Trail Jct||13,480 Ft||8.7 mi|
|Summit||14,505 Ft||11.0 mi|
The plant life had not yet grown and there wasn’t a lot of shade. In fact, it was pretty hot to start, and I ended up hiking in flip flops, shorts, and a t-shirt all the way to Trail Camp. There were some patches of snow along the way where I would cool my feet off, and my hands had already begun to swell (usually cause by not enough hydration or electrolytes. This is why I usually bring coconut water or a small pinch of Himalayan rock salt to put in my water).
We stopped by Lone Pine Lake, which is about 2.8 miles from the trail head for some photos. It’s barely .5 miles off the trail, and is definitely worth stopping to check out. In the winter time, this lake is frozen, but it was well thawed and refreshing to put my feet in.
Since we were all friends from Instagram, and keeping in mind Instagram is a photo-based social media platform, it was to be expected to have some stops to take photos—especially given how beautiful the mountain was. But we had been going a little too slow on the hike, and the sun was taking a toll on us. Many of us were tired and exhausted. We finally ended up finishing the 6 mile hike / 4,000ft elevation gain to Trail Camp at about 3pm (about an 8 hour hike). Granted, we did have several photo stops, some breaks, and we filled water up, which took some time.
It had just started to snow as we approached Trail Camp, and I was still wearing flip flops and shorts. So we set up camp, I put on some layers, and we enjoyed the area. Some of us were feeling a little weak from the hike and the altitude, but it’s a good idea to keep fairly active and mobile, because laying down and sleeping can make the effects worse (they say sleeping at elevation is like being active at 2,000ft higher elevation).
At this point, the winds started to pick up a little bit (not too much), and the snow started falling. The sun had gone and now it was cloudy. Though the snow wasn’t heavy; it literally looked like styrofoam. Just small, dry snow falling. On the way up, I had asked several people about the conditions on the mountain and on the summit, just to get an idea of what to expect (questions like “how was the weather?” “how was the summit?” “what time were they on the summit?” “did they take the switchbacks up or the chute?”). To my surprise, almost everyone said they didn’t summit because they, or a friend, got altitude sickness. In the late summertime, I usually don’t hear of so many people like this. I finally met some people who summitted, and they told me they took the chute up, that the switchbacks were too snowed in towards the top, and they took the chute down. They also said they had to leave very early because later in the morning, the sunlight was making the snow on the chute turn to slush, so it would be a little more difficult to glissade down.
After a long morning of organizing our breakfast, finding our gear, and packing for the hike, we finally ended up starting our hike around 5:30am. Not very early, but it was early enough. Three in our group of 9 were not feeling well, so they stayed back, and the rest of us (6 total) got ready to go. The full moon was starting to set, so we put on our headlamps and made our way to the trail. We started up 99 switchbacks, until we got to a point where we could cut across and hike up the chute. This is where we put on our crampons and microspikes. For the first 30 minutes, we were making great time, but later on, the chute became very steep, and there were not many pockets to step in, so it was like hiking up a very steep ramp (rather than climbing steep stairs–which would have been easier). Finally after about two hours we made it to Trail Crest, and enjoyed the incredible sunrise. What a sight to see from 13,600ft! I was feeling a bit winded and light from the altitude, so I decided to sit down for a few minutes to catch my breath. The rest of the group caught up to us. We also ran into two other small groups during our break on Trail Crest.
After a very brief nap warming up in the rising sun, I continued on. This back section of the Whitney Trail is now the Sequoia National Park (the start is Inyo National Forest), and this section is very rocky. It’s actually one of my favorite sections of the trail for how adventurous it seems. Up and down, climbing over large granite boulders walking along a steep drop. Once you get to Muir Trail Junction (about 0.5 miles from Trail Crest), you’ll see a sign that says 1.9 miles to the summit. This is where the John Muir Trail and the Whitney Trail connect. You can see the JMT extend and travel down and along the mountain and valley floor, running alongside guitar lake and beyond. It’s cool to see when you know what it is. Oftentimes when passing this junction, I’ve seen Boyscout groups, or other groups taking a rest here. I’ve also frequently seen people’s backpacks left here. These are the backpackers that came from the JMT, and left their packs to go summit and come back. I’ve left my pack behind many times when summitting, because it’s easier without the weight, and hikers usually aren’t going to steal anything (especially a heavy pack from the top of a mountain).
This is where the trail gets difficult. Not because of it being steep, or difficult terrain (there’s not a lot of elevation gain at this point, and the rocky terrain is very passable); it’s the altitude that gets you. From 13,600 to 14,505, the air is thin, you feel your heart pounding so hard working to get oxygen to your blood. You feel light-headed and tingly, and your pace has slowed significantly. It’s kind of interesting to notice. Now, it’s very important to keep hydrated and fueled. You won’t feel hungry or thirst much, but you need to consciously keep it going. You’ll feel a lot better, and the altitude won’t affect you as much. Of course, this time I had left my water bottle at the Trail Crest where I had taken a brief nap. Anna was kind enough to share her water with me in the meantime.
We stopped to take a lot of photos through what’s called the Windows (small openings in between the iconic spires along the summit ridgeline), and photos of the lakes and valley below. The snowcapped mountain range of the Eastern Sierras was incredible to see; and we lucked out with beautiful weather conditions.
Walking ever so sluggishly, and taking breaks after a dozen steps, we finally see the Summit Hut and made it to the top! Signing the register box, and taking photos of the views, we stayed at the top for about 30 minutes before heading down. Oftentimes I’ve made friends on the summit-from different groups, and a few times they found me on Instagram! Kinda fun how that works out. Over the last few days, I had been posting videos on Snapchat of all the cool things along the hike (if you’re not following me on Snapchat, it’s okay. You can make up for it by following me. @AwesomelyHumble). The problem was there was very spotty receiption on the mountain (duh, it’s up in the mountain, in the Eastern Sierra, just outside a small town). But I did manage to upload a few Snaps, though as soon as I got to the summit, I tried uploading the 14 or so Snaps that had failed, but I had 1% battery, then it died. I did bring a USB charger with me, but the overnight cold depleted the charger battery (along with my phone battery). Next time I’ll keep them warm in the sleeping bag with me.
Now that we summitted, we gotta head back down. And it seems almost as hard as the climb! Once you get to Trail Crest, the normal route is to take 99 Switchbacks down, but it was heavy with snow, and the trail is too narrow, so I opted to glissade down the chute. If I thought the chute was steep coming up, it was steeper going down! I wish I had taken a video of this experience–it was so exciting!! At times I was going too fast, and tried to control my speed and direction with the ice axe. Then I found I had better control if I layed back, toes pointed down, knees slightly bent, and used my elbows to steer, the ride was much smoother. I’ll definitely have to come back next time in the snow.
Since I took the chute down, I save about an hour and a half of hiking down 99 Switchbacks, so while waiting for the others, I took a nap in the tent. Part of the group made it down before me, so we chatted through the tents, as the weather started to pick up. It was getting windy with some snowfall.
Here is a video my friend Lorenzo (@Castigos on Instagram) took while going down the chute
Once the rest of the group met up with us, they took a break, and we eventually packed up and out. Now the hardest part of the hike is backpacking out on summit day. I did the same thing when hiking Mt Langley, and it was a long and exhausting day. 5 miles to summit, 5 miles back to camp, and 6 miles back to the car. Then there was a 4 hour drive. It is too long of a day to do this, and we were falling asleep at the wheel by the time we were on the road. We had left around 11pm, and the only reason we drove back–instead of staying another night (which would have been the smart decision)– was because some people in our group had to be at work the next day. But it was dangerous driving back. Just leaving the mountain, people sometimes joke or exaggerate about this, but a deer literally jumped out of nowhere right in front of the car and ran down the road. I was able to slow down and avoid hitting it, but it was so close. Too close!! Then the long drive home at night, and we finally made it back home. I won’t be driving back like that again. Once back at the house, I was greeted with such enthusiasm by my dog (even at 4am), I took a shower, and went straight to sleep. The next day, I could not stop eating I was so hungry!! Funny how your body kind of shuts down when on a big hike like that (even the digestion can slow, which I often find I don’t go to the bathroom for a few days when backpacking. TMI, I know, but hey.).
All the other times I’ve hiked Whitney was in perfect summer weather conditions, and this time was in the snow–with still perfect weather conditions. Just my luck. I’m definitely going to go back next year for some more snow on the mountain. I still need to go back to do the Mountaineer’s Route and East Face Route. Mountaineer’s Route is best in the snow, or late summer. In between, the snow can melt and there could be too much debris to climb (it’s a very steep hike). East Face is technical class 5 climbing, which I would love to do on the mountain. I usually do this at the local indoor gym or places like Joshua Tree, but never on a mountain.
Leave a comment below and let me know what you think about the trip. A lot of people ask me for advice on hiking Whitney, so I put this post together. Hope it helps!