Make no mistake about it, while the 22 mile trail to the top of Mt. Whitney is no Everest, it does take preparation and planning to summit the tallest mountain in the continental United States. One part physical training, two parts logistical preparation, plus drive and determination to taste is the recipe for success on Whitney.
The challenges in climbing the peak are plentiful. Securing a permit takes luck and planning. If you do manage to luck out with a permit its a tough climb and a battle against elevation to reach the top even in the high season. A visit early or late will require technical skill with crampons and an ice axe.
It all starts with the Lottery. The fragile ecosystem above the tree line at the crest of the Sierra Nevada simply can’t support, or recover, from the boots of everyone who yearns to check the peak off their bucket list each year. The National Forest Service has therefor implemented a “lottery” system where applications are drawn at random to receive permits. February 2nd-15th marks the opening of the first window to enter the lottery however they continue to accept applications through March. They allow roughly 60 climbers per day on various routes up the mountain. Around April 1st people begin hearing back from the forest service.
Tips for the Lottery
- Smaller Groups have better odds of getting their preferred date.
- Leave yourself open, while the odds of getting a specific date are not very good if you mark down “any 3 days starting on a Saturday between June and September” you’re almost certain to get a date.
The Main Trail – As the name implies the Mt. Whitney Main Trail is the most used trail to the summit. If conditions are good it requires no technical skills. Just determination and a willingness to pace yourself and be persistent. Both a day hike and an overnight trip require a permit and a lottery application on the main trail. The Main Trail begins at Mt. Whitney Portal, it climbs steeply and evenly until Trail Crest where it levels out along a ridge to the summit. Some small stretches of the trail are exposed and the final push to the crest known as the “99 switchbacks”, perhaps the most infamous stretch of trail. (those who have actually tried to count the number of switchbacks tallied 94 of them)
The Back Side – Logistically difficult and long, the back side approach is often a route of “last resort” but has some advantages as well. The longer approach does not require a permit and is better for acclimatization. Because you can reach the summit without a permit many of those rejected by the lottery or who started planning too late end up doing this route. Multiple approaches can bring you there but they all end climbing the gently sloped western side of Mt. Whitney which happens to also be the endpoint of the John Muir Trail.
The Mountaineers Route – Although the Forest Service requires a permit these are available on a first come first served basis and not on a quota system. The Mountaineers route is shorter but steeper and the final few hundred feet are Class III (not technically difficult but exposed scrambling). Route finding can be a challenge especially in the Ebersbacher Ledges. This is great for novice mountaineers and those looking for something a little quieter than the busy main trail but don’t have time for a 5 day backpacking trip.
Early Season (May/June) The weather in June is unpredictable, storms come and go while snow will usually linger along the trail until the end of June. Flooding creeks can create some challenges especially early in the season as the snow first starts to melt off. The climb may require ice axe and crampons to navigate “The Chute” (and early season variant to the 99 switchbacks). Daytime highs can soar into the 80s and nighttime lows dip into the teens, be prepared for anything.
Peak Season (July/August) The weather is usually perfect though some light snow and ice may linger up near the summit the trail is mostly dry. The weather is typically warm but predictable and technical skills or equipment are not usually required on any of the routes.
Late Season (September/October) In Mid-September storms begin frequenting the High Sierra again, lightning is a significant danger especially above Trail Crest when one of these storms is closing in. Light snow often dusts the alpine zone, the storms are not typically powerful multi-day fronts but can move in suddenly. Technical Equipment may be needed.
Regardless of the route taken the most difficult obstacle will always be altitude, most people climb Mt. Whitney because it is the highest peak in the contiguous United States those bragging rights do not come easy. Regardless of fitness level the route is exhausting and entering the climb with a strategy is ideal.
Altitude Sickness is a constant concern near and above the tree line but it almost never comes as a surprise. Your strategy should focus on prevention, unlike muscle soreness, or even exhaustion, AMS cannot be pushed through with hard work and it only gets worse. Descent is the only cure.
- Early to bed, Early to rise – The climb to get in position to make a summit push will take the entire day, plan to start at sunrise at the latest for overnight climbs and for day hikes a 1am start is not a bad idea. Watching the sun rise over the Owens Valley is one of the highlights of this climb anyway.
- Pace Yourself – Rushing to keep up with a group, or just to be speedy will cost you down the line. 80 year old’s have made this climb but only because they kept a consistent and slow pace to the top. A slow but determined approach will yield the best results.
- Drink Lots of Water – You can keep yourself strong and delay the onset of Acute Mountain Sickness by consuming water in large quantities. Try and drown yourself in 5-6 bottles of water a day.
Regardless of what route you take in what season a climb to the top of Mt. Whitney is always a rewarding experience. Even if your summit bid fails, the mountain will always be there next year waiting for you.
About Chris Marks
Chris Marks is a an avid hiker and blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His blog “Backcountry Bliss” discusses landscape photography, and stories from over 400 miles of trails in and outside of California.
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