At just over 14,500 feet above sea level, Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in California. It’s actually the highest point in the continental United States, the only taller mountains in the United States are in Alaska, with Mount Denali standing over 20,000 feet. Mount Whitney is probably the highest place in the North America that I would attempt to hike– everything that’s higher would require crazy mountaineering skills, because the tallest mountains in Alaska are all covered with snow and glaciers year round.
The drive to Mount Whitney is quite long– about six hours from Sacramento. There are a couple of ways to get there– you can either drive south through the central valley and cross over to 395 by going through Yosemite. The other option is to drive to Tahoe and take 89 to hit 395. I chose the Tahoe route and found it to be a pleasant drive. The autumn colors were out in full force.
We arrived at the ranger station a little before 5pm to pick up our permits. We then spent the night at Whitney Portal campground. Our final dinner before switching to dehydrated backpacking food was salmon with grilled potatoes and winter vegetables, potato soup, and grilled bread. The salmon cooked in the cast iron pan came out really well, with a nice crispy skin.
Both of these packs are mine– it kinda shows you the difference between cheap gear and expensive gear. When I first started backpacking I used this blue bag on the right and my pack was always close to 40 pounds. Nowadays I can usually get by on weekend trips with the red bag with my gear in the 20-25 pound range.
For this trip though, my pack came in at 42 pounds.
Start of the hike– the first of many, many, many switchbacks.
This part of the hike was quite nice. The fall colors definitely add to the atmosphere.
Mirror Lake. This area reminds me of the Yosemite Valley, which also has a Mirror Lake. The one in Yosemite is cooler, in my opinion, since it reflects Half Dome.
I was actually a little surprised when Jamie agreed to hike Mount Whitney with me. I had sent her a bunch of information about the hike, so she’d at least know what she’d be getting into… It turned out that she agreed to go without even reading all the stuff I sent. So at this point, I was wondering if she had started to regret coming. By now we had hiked uphill for several miles and climbed a couple of thousand feet, but Mount Whitney was still far off in the distance, and the hardest part of the trail was yet to come.
We spent the night at trail camp, which is right at 12,000 feet above sea level. The trailhead was at about 8,400 feet, so we had climbed about 3,600 feet during the day. The mountains surrounding Whitney still towered far above us. It makes you feel tiny in comparison.
Our campsite was pretty nice. It was a bit off the trail, so it was secluded and quiet, and it had rock walls on two sides which blocked the wind pretty well. It also had a nice little sitting area that we used as our camp kitchen.
One thing I learned– backpacking with a girl means a bear canister full of girly stuff like lotion and eye creams and face wipes. All that stuff had pretty strong scents, which would surely attract all the bears in the area…
The skies over the Whitney summit area were beautiful. There was absolutely no light pollution, so the Milky Way was clearly visible. It was actually bright enough to capture with my old camera, although there’s still a lot of sensor noise visible. I definitely need to upgrade my SLR body soon– these newfangled ones have much better high ISO noise performance.
It was cold at night. Very, very cold. The water source that we had filtered water from had frozen over during the night.
The trail continues onward and upward from trail camp. It had snowed here a week before. While the snow had melted on most of the mountain, because the trail was on the shaded northern face of the mountain, the trail was still covered in snow here.
This section of the trail was one of the scariest sections. It was steep and icy. There were cables to grab onto, but they weren’t of much help. Some of the poles were bent out too far to reach. Still, going up wasn’t too bad. Coming down from it later though, was quite scary. We had a close call– Jamie had slipped near the top, and it looked like she was going to slide underneath the cables.
This part was pretty scary too. Icy, with a sheer drop to the right.
This part of the trail tops out at this section called trail crest. From here the trail descends for a bit, then drops behind Mount Whitney. The final approach to the summit is from the backside.
We made it to an area called the Keeler Needle. It was less than a mile from the summit, but we made the difficult decision to turn back here. Our progress up the mountain had been slow because of the snow and ice, and it would take us several hours to get back down to trail camp. Even though the summit was less than a mile away, it would probably take us an hour to reach it– the thin air made climbing very slow. If we went to the summit we would be in danger of having to descend the icy part of the trail in the dark.
So we started our descent down the trail. From here you can see the snow covered trail a little below the top ridge line. If we descended this part later in the day, there was the possibility of the trail freezing over and becoming even icier than it already was. We didn’t have crampons, so we decided the safest bet would be to descend earlier.
We got back to trail camp right around sunset. We had made the right choice to descend before making it to the summit. We had left our headlamps in the tent, so there’s no way we would’ve made it down safely.
We packed up our gear and started our hike out by the glow of our headlamps.
Thankfully the trail is very well traveled and well marked. I actually enjoyed hiking out in the darkness, but I could tell that towards the end of it Jamie was pretty tired. We had to hike six miles from trail camp to Whitney Portal in the darkness. We made it back to our car safely a little after 10:30pm at night.
On our way down from the mountain we met a couple of Norwegian guys. They had flown in all the way from Norway to summit the mountain. They were like us, descending without crampons. We told them that we decided to turn back before the summit, and I told them that it wasn’t too disappointing, because I could just try again next year. They asked us where we were from, and when they found out we were from Sacramento, they recognized the name because of our famous former Governator. They said that we should be like the Governator, and use his famous line from the movie Terminator, “I’ll be back.”
So yes, Mount Whitney: I’ll be back. I will conquer you.
Things I’m thankful for:
- All the backpacking gear I’ve accumulated over the years. Between Jamie and me we used pretty much all my gear.
- Cool backpacking companions. Jamie definitely was a good sport. It was not an easy hike, and it was her first time backpacking, but she did better than a lot of guys that I’ve taken backpacking for their first trip…