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, beginners camping tips, and stories from over 400 miles of trails in and outside of California.
Nice piece, Chris. I know some people who are total fitness junkies who made it to the summit in five hours. Crazy.
5 hours from what point?
5 hours is pretty remarkable. It took me almost 11 to make trail camp on the first day (granted I was being smothered under a 40lb pack and trudging through snow).
I've also heard of folks who have done double traverses going up the technical mountaineers route twice and down the easier main trail. I'm sure he ate one heck of a meal when he was done.
Nice piece. I've done the main trail and the backside from Horseshoe Meadows. I preferred the backside much more than the main trail. Its a longer trip, but there are far less people and the scenery is amazing. I'm hoping to do it again soon.
Nice teaser Chris. I've been wanting to do Whitney portal for years, but have never actually put a trip together. My bucket list is a long one.
The Forest service also has a certain amount of unreserved tickets available on a first come, first serve basis, separate from the lottery system, as well as "no shows" from the lottery. I had no trouble getting a solo 2 day permit last August on a Friday.
solo is the key word.
I did it in 5 hours in my early twenties, I was not a fitness junkie by any means. It's very doable unless you are overly sensitive to hypoxia. The record is 2 hrs 10 min, which is quite impressive.
Jeff – I came in from Horseshoe Meadows to climb Mt.Langley a few years ago. A pretty severe storm kept us from getting very far along the trail but it was a remarkably beautiful area one of the best ways to access the high country without having to climb up any steep canyons.
Randy – The real trick is just to start planning for it in January.
Axel – The forest service actually does the entire permit system for Mt. Whitney by lottery. Though cancelations are common and I've known a few people who have had success just showing up and getting a permit for the next day. If you can't it's not like there isn't plenty of other great hiking in the area!
I just got offered a permit to climb Mt. Whitney in August and I'm really excited. This was great information and I might have to pick your brains about more details and gear advice later.
An excellent summary of key tips… particularly for someone like me who hasn't done Whitney yet. Thank you, great info!
Very interesting read…..thanks Chris. Few questions for you. From a photgraphic aspect…which trail is the most scenic? Also, how difficult would it be to do the mountainer trail going up and come down the main trail with camera gear straped on? Not sure what class III means. If it is just climbing only needing/using all 4’s (like Camelback in Phoenix) or if it is more technical.Have been wanting to do a big time hike like Whitney or half dome if we can get permits for either/both. Thanks again, Don
Camel back is a hill :-) Whitney is a mountain. half dome is a fun somewhat easy hike.
Firstly, It’s hard to say which trail is more scenic, once you’re in the alpine zone its all great – really great, its just stupid beautiful everywhere. Sunrise on the main trail was one of the highlights of my life, it really is just unfathomably beautiful. I suspect it was the snow that made it most impressive, so the seasonal differences might make a bigger impact in terms of scenery than the trail choice.
Secondly Class III can describe lots of different terrain. The idea is this – climbing on all 4’s, with some exposure, a fall might not necessarily be deadly, but you’d probably be wise to avoid it. The last 400 feet of the MR have a fair degree of exposure, paired with the altitude that makes it pretty dangerous. Many people rope up but I’m sure a highly competent climber would have no trouble with the last leg. The chute leading to last 400 feet is mostly just really steep but without big exposure. Watch for falling rocks though in the summer, and in the spring it would probably be good to have well developed crampon technique if you’re going to attempt it.
Half-Dome and Whitney are both tough climbs and worthy of any bucket list. I’d rank Whitney over Half-Dome on account of the Altitude in terms of toughness. Half-Dome is probably the nicer hike because the first leg is the mist trail, though Whitney’s views beyond trail crest are pretty tough to beat. To avoid permits, and still work in a monster hike, try Yosemite Falls to North Dome. Camp out in the saddle just a few hundred feet away from the dome and get ready for a spectacular sunset on Half-Dome from the best place to view it in the park. Be sure to keep an eye out in that area too for one of Yosemite’s only natural rock arches.
Whats the odds of getting picked to climb MW…….we will try in 2013 from ohio ..Thanks
Hi Chris, I’m considering hiking the summit with a friend in March during spring break. (The week of the 16th). I would say I’m intermediate to advanced level and have crampons and an axe ready to go but prior knowledge can only help me for a safer hike. What recommendations or suggestions can you make for that time of the year?
so, there are 6 in my group, we have a camp site for 5 nights already, so we try to get 2 or 3 permits for 2 to 3 people? vs 1– we do have a window of a 2 days (we’ll be there for 5 to chill and do some pre-day hikes?
I have a pass for September 10 and 11. What kind of weather should I expect? Suggested clothing?
I have a day hike permit for mt whitney September 1, 2016.my hiking partner and his wife are expecting their first child in August, so he has to cancel. Anybody willing to hike with 66 year old guy?
Sorry to hear about your hiking partner…It’s sad to lose a friend like that lol Does anyone know where to find a map of the back side approach, because I procrastinated the permit too long?