Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the continental U.S., cradled in the boundary between California’s Inyo and Tulare counties, yet it is 84.6 miles west-northwest of the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.
1 – The Challenge
Conquer the highest point in the lower 48 during the most difficult time of year. The two main trails are the Mountaineers route and the Whitney Trail. Both offer unique challenges this time of year. When you climb Whitney in winter, you are working for it using winter climbing techniques making the summit that much more special.
2 – The Photography
Capture amazing shots of the snow covered Sierras, especially during sunrise and sunset. The light of the Alpenglow as it strikes the mountains is breathtaking. The snow that covers the mountains adds amazing depth and contrast to your shots. Frozen lakes, and waterfalls add to the beauty of the area.
3 – Better Yourself
Hone your mountaineering skills with ice axe, snowshoe, and crampon use. Stop buying gear just to take cool photos with on snowy hills you can walk up in flip flops and boardshorts. Take a course, or teach yourself, and get up on a real mountain that challenges you to use the tools you have. Using crampons and an ice axe is pretty much common sense with a little practice. The trails have every condition to practice your skills. The trail has deep snow, long sections of ice and steep uphill grades, which are all near death defying cliffs.
4 – The Isolation
Avoid the annoying crowds of summer. Everyone can walk up a paved, pre-built trail, but only the brave few can climb up a mountain without a trail. Get out there this time of year when the trail disappears under snow and make your own route. You will have the mountain nearly entirely to yourself.
5 – The Night Sky
Camp under an amazing endless starry sky. The Sierras offer some of the most beautiful night skies. With so many major cities just hours away from Mt. Whitney, seeing the stars seems rare these days. Leave the city behind and fall asleep looking up at the TRUE night sky.
6 – Learn New Skills
Learn to camp In the snow. Anyone can camp in an RV or in the middle of summer, but what about winter? Bring a snow shovel to dig in for protection from wind, learn how to properly melt snow for water, learn how to keep your stove working, how to stay warm in frigid weather, and learn how to keep your wet wipes from freezing when nature calls.
7 – No More Excuses
Self Issue Permit means you won’t be able to use the excuse, “I wasn’t able to get a lottery permit to climb Mt. Whitney,” that I have heard a million times. (Because we all know the truth is you’re really just scared!) Everyone says how they want to climb Mt. Whitney, then always finds a reason to blame the Park Service for stopping them. Well if you really wanted to climb Mt. Whitney, then half the year is totally in your control. You can also probably get a walk in permit during the other 6 months of the year. Stop making excuses to friends and family on Instagram or Facebook, and leave now for the mountain. Just get up, get outside and do it! No more excuses. You have until April 30 to make it happen.
The Trip Details
Day 1: We arrived at the Lone Pine Visitors Center at the intersection of HWY 395 and HWY 136 just south of Lone Pine, CA. We issued ourselves our overnight permits to climb Mt. Whitney and picked up our Wag Bags. You can self issue yourself the free permit Nov. 2 through Apr 30. Climbing during this time of year allows you to avoid all the crowds and the lottery system for permits in the summer. After retrieving our permits we drove 2 miles North on HWY 395 to Lone Pine, CA and turned left/West onto Whitney Portal Rd. From here we drove 7.1 to the Lone Pine Campground at an elevation of 6,000 feet to get acclimated. The Campground is 20 dollars a night and you can self issue yourself a campsite. The campground provides water and restrooms. The campground offers a clear view of Mt. Whitney and the challenge that lies ahead.
Day 2: We drove 6 miles from the Lone Pine Campground to Whitney Portal at 8,300 feet, where the Whitney Trail starts. The Whitney Portal Campsite, Store and even the road can be closed this time of year. We were able to park right at the clearly marked trailhead free of snow. We threw on our 45 pound packs and headed for the summit. The First 1.5 miles of the trail was free of snow. The trail gains elevation quickly as it switchbacks towards Lone Pine Lake. About a mile before the lake, the trail disappears under the snow and foot prints go off in every direction. This is where a good map study and GPS come in handy. If you don’t want to work up a sweat or post hole your way through the snow, this is a good time to put on your snowshoes. You may only need them for a short time. You can follow the blaze marking on the trees and slowly make your way up the mountain, or you can cut straight up and save some time. Once you make it to Mirror Lake just.5 miles past Outpost Camp, you will want to fill up on as much water as you can, since this will be the last water you can get to before you have to melt snow. You will also want to put on your crampons for the next steep section and keep them on until you reach Trail Camp. Continue up through the trees to the south of Mirror Lake. After you break out of the tree line at around 10,200 feet, head west and stay to the left near the frozen Consolation Lake, at the 6 mile mark in your journey. Continue.3 miles to Trail Camp at 11,800 feet and find a nice spot out of the wind for the night. The sunset is incredible and offers an opportunity to capture a great photo.
Overall: 6 hours, 6.3 miles and 3,700 feet of elevation gain.
Day 3: I recommend waking up early at 530 or 6 and starting your climb. The snow will be firm, which is good for climbing. You will also be able to capture amazing sunrise photos. This will also help you beat any late evening storms that may roll in. I recommend bringing two, full 32 ounce bottles of water for the climb. From Trail Camp, you need to make your way up the steepest portion of the trail. Head west up the slightly steep snow chute towards the Trail Crest at 13,650. You will need to understand how to properly use crampons, an ice axe and the proper way to self arrest in case of a fall. A fall during this portion of the trail could be deadly. Once you have reached the crest, take a moment to soak in the majestic views of the snow covered western Sierras as far as the eye can see. Make sure you have wind and sun protection for this section of the trail. Continue your climb towards the North as the trail enters Sequoia National Park and descends 150 feet to link up with the John Muir Trail. Although there may be long sections of trail with zero snow, keep your crampons on! Certain sections along this 1.9 mile stretch towards the summit are very icy and on the edge of fatal cliffs. After about.5 miles on the trail you will see the first glimpse of the stone hut at the summit. Continue past the Needles and Mt Muir for the summit. Take a rest at the summit hut, sign the log, and cautiously make your way back down. If you understand how, you can glissade certain sections on the way down to make your descent faster. Once we were safely down to Trail Camp, we took off our crampons and quickly made it to the Whitney Portal trail head in 2 and a half hours. We stayed at Portagee Joe Campground the final night. It is a very easy self issue campground for only 14 dollars. It is only one mile from Lone Pine, so it was easy to eat dinner that night and breakfast the next morning in town.
Overall: 8 hours from Trail Camp to Summit Round Trip, 9.4 miles and 2,800 feet of elevation gain.
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