Hiking Mount Whitney
Standing at 14,497 feet, Mount Whitney is something that is sought after by many, but only a handful can achieve every year because of a necessary and well done permit system. Something to note is that there is multiple ways to reach the summit of Whitney some reaching nearly 60+ miles, but here I’m going to talk about the most popular trail through the Inyo National Forest. This trail is by far the easiest, and should be the preferred way by any first timer attempting to make the climb to the summit.
The Permit System
I say necessary permit system because this ensures that everyone climbing Whitney can have a better backcountry experience unlike places like Havasupai that allows 300 visitors per day on the reservation. On the Mount Whitney Trail between May 1 and November 1 the Inyo National Forest only allows 160 people with a maximum of 15 people per group on the trail per day. Essentially, permits are needed for anywhere within what the Inyo National Forest considers the Mount Whitney Zone. While there are multiple ways to get a permit I found the best way is to wait for the unclaimed permits to be posted.
Basically, the lottery for the permits usually opens at the beginning February and closes around the middle of March, but check the official website to be sure. It’s not like Havasupai where you need to be on your computer at a certain time, but just apply sometime within the given time frame. Once it closes the Inyo National Forest takes about a week and a half to publish the results which you will get an email for if you were successful or even if you weren’t. In my case I wasn’t successful. From here the successful applicants have about 2 weeks to pay for their permits or else if they don’t the Inyo National Forest will post the unclaimed / unpaid permits at the end of April; I believe in my case it was right on April 30th. This is how I got my permit. On April 30th I just happened to be lucky enough to check the website right as they posted them, and because of this every single day in the summer had about 15-20 permits available that I could choose from.
The last and least recommended way of getting a permit is to show up in person to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to claim permits that others failed to show up for on their applied for date and claim their permit instead. Although you risk driving out to Lone Pine and not being successful, I have heard of good results using this method so I’d say it’s worth a shot.
If you are successful and plan to do the hike the most important thing of all is to pick up your permit on time at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine or you will be hiking illegally without proper tags and a permit in hand. The best way to do this is to show up during their regular operating hours one or two days before, or if you cannot make those times then call to make arrangements to pick up your permit outside of their normal business hours.
Most importantly DON’T risk hiking without a permit. I can speak for the National Forest Service in the the fine is well over $300 dollars because a ranger told me once a while back. I can also tell you that I risked hiking without a permit on Kaua’i and was caught which cost me $375, a court appearance, and 6 months probation after my court date. Just DON’T risk it. It’s not worth it!
What type of permit should I choose?
When you apply you can either choose a day hike or an overnight permit. I HIGHLY recommend an overnight permit which is what we did. For a couple of reasons, I truly believe we had a better experience spending the night. If you day hike you will be hiking roughly 22 miles round trip where you will most likely be exposed to the hot sun under little shade for 10-14 hours depending on your pace. When I actually got my permit I applied for 2 days just incase we would want one more, but after successfully summiting Whitney and making it back to Trail Camp, there was nothing more that my friend Jesse and I wanted to do than to get off the mountain. This is why I recommend one overnight rather than a day hike or anything longer.
What is the best time of year?
The best rule of thumb is the later the better. When my friend and I hiked mid June we were dealing with the Sierras record snowpack that hasn’t been seen since the summer of 2001. In May you should almost always expect snow, but as the months go on the snowpack should melt considerably. Obviously it varies from year to year what the conditions will be as we saw first hand, but generally the later in the season the more summiting Whitney turns into a hike rather than a climb.
If you are unfamiliar, the problem with a heavy snowpack lingering around in the summer is that even toward the summit the temperature midday can reach well above freezing into the 50s making what would be walking on normal hard snow into slush which can become dangerous very quick. The snow starts turning into slush almost immediately after the sun hits it which is why if you know ahead of time that you will be hiking with a heavy snowpack to get as early a start as possible.
If you choose one overnight as I recommend, then your first day I would also recommend camping at trail camp. There are two designated campsites along the trail either Outpost Camp or Trail Camp, but Trail Camp is much closer to the summit which is why I recommend it. If you did one night you could either summit immediately and then camp or hike up, camp, then summit and then cruise down after your summit day. This is what we did, and I would repeat this method 10 out of 10 times because this way we got to watch the sunrise from the summit, and also didn’t deal with any extra direct sun exposure. Most importantly we went with this plan so we could summit on solid snow before it turned to slush, but I would also do this same method late in the season if the snowpack had already melted.
After hiking the nearly 6 miles and 3,700 feet of elevation gain to Trail Camp we ate, set up camp, and prepped our bags for the next morning so we could grab and go. In June of 2019 when we climbed the normal trail up the switchbacks to the Trail Crest was nearly covered in snow, but just exposed enough that we made this our path in the dark. If there is a heavy snowpack your other option is is the chute. It’s hard to imagine what I mean unless you’ve seen it, but the chute is an extremely steep slope that leads to the Trail Crest just to the right of the switchbacks. When we first arrived at trail camp we saw people skiing down the slope if that might give you an idea of how steep it really is. Being the case, we went with the barely exposed switchbacks which proved to be much easier than the chute would have been.
We left Trail Camp at 2:30 with a 5:30 A.M. sunrise and barely made it to the top in time. Normally if we weren’t dealing with so much snow the final push would have been much easier, but that’s completely situational every year, and time of year. From Trail Camp to the Trail Crest we got off the switchbacks at 4:26 A.M. and then made it to the top right at 5:30 for sunrise. If I would have known how difficult it was going to be with the snow, even leaving when it was still frozen, I would have left a half an hour earlier. Obviously, if I was hiking in late August I might choose to leave a little later, but still shoot for sunrise at the summit.
If you’re not dealing with snow the hike out should be very basic, and you should cruise out in a couple of hours. If you are dealing with snow after watching sunrise, the hike down might get very dangerous as it did for us. Essentially, the switchbacks became a slippery death trap so our best decent was glacading down the chute. This was also extremely dangerous and scary! If you start sliding too fast there might be no way to stop and catching on a rock and tumbling could very easily mean broken bones.
For me I inched down every step making sure of my footing, but even then the slushy snow hardly held my weight. Once back to trail camp and packed up hiking out took us exactly 2 hours and 40 minutes. The entire hike out for us was very annoying because the slush soaked most of our clothes so we were more than ready to be done after making it back to trail camp.
What should I pack?
Here’s a basic packing list for an overnight trip of the basic items I had in my bag.
Camping Pillow (I don’t recommend the inflate style I had mine pop on me in the past)
Lightweight propane burner
3 Liter water bladder (I recommend the Osprey one)
Warm clothes / hiking clothes for season and also sleeping
Mountain House Meals / Starbucks Instant Coffee Packets
Camera / Phone
Bear Canister (Yes it is required!)
Sunglasses (I forgot mine and was hurting from it the entire time!)
Wag bag (It will be provided when you pick up your permit, and please be a responsible hiker to bring it all back out with you! Seriously just suck it up!)
Spikes (If you will be hiking on snow)
Ice axe (Read trail reports if there is snow to see if it is recommended)
It is important when you leave your tent at anytime to leave it wide open! if marmots think there might be food in your tent or there is they will chew a hole in your tent in seconds and your few hundred dollar tent will be ruined just like that. Be sure food isn’t easily accessible or you will quickly regret it because they are everywhere.
The day we started hiking news everywhere started going viral of a missing hiker that hadn’t been seen since summiting Whitney which at the time my best guess was that he unfortunately fell to his death, and later reports showed that he did. There’s nothing more that can be said than to just be careful. You will be on many exposed cliffs once you reach the Trail Crest. Overall, the snow for us was the biggest hazard. It was fine when it was frozen, but it was a nightmare once it turned to slush. If this looks like your situation, look at every option before choosing the switchbacks or the chute. Lastly, be prepared for the wildlife. Bears are present at the lower elevations so please take bear canisters seriously, and if not for the bear the marmots will definitely steal your food and may destroy your tent.
The very last thing I have to say is always pack out what you pack in. The trash at Trail Camp was over the top disrespectful, and I squeezed as much of it as I could find into my bag.
This is as much information as I can personally provide, but if you have any other questions be sure to reference the official Inyo National Forest website for Mount Whitey, and do not call the visitor center with trip planning questions. They are explicit that it is not what they are there to help you with.