Mt. Whitney First-timer
Updated: Sep 21
Overall Trip Statistics
Date: August 23-25, 2022
Distance: 23.52 miles
Total Elapsed Time: 24h 17m
Total Moving Time: 16h 57m
Highest Elevation: 14,509 feet
Elevation Gain: 6,233 feet
Trailhead: Whitney Portal
Previous Ascent(s): N/A
Notes: This was a 3-Day Backpacking Trip; the numbers above are the combined total of each day's efforts. The daily stats are listed in each section below. This trip report contains a lot of information, driven by the questions people have asked me about my trip. How do you get a permit? What did you bring? What did you eat? How hard was it? etc. My goal is not only to provide useful information for prospective hikers but to share the complete joy I had on this journey. This is the longest trip report I've written, likely approaching short story status 🤣; on the upside, there are lots of pictures and videos 😉 Bookmark and come back to it if you need to; thanks for joining me on the journey; I hope you enjoy it!
I returned to solo hiking, backpacking, and camping with a vengeance in 2020. While the year may be remembered by many for less pleasant things, for me, it was a glory year of returning to the outdoors. I completed several significant hiking challenges, including hiking my first two "Fourteeners," peaks at least 14,000 feet above mean sea level. California has 20 mountains that meet the strict elevation criteria. However, the recognized list of California 14ers adds the additional stipulation that the summit must have 300 feet of topographical prominence which pares the list down to 12.
Think of prominence as a measure of the peak's independence; a low prominence means the peak is likely a lesser summit of a nearby high point, whereas a higher prominence means the peak stands alone. Mount Whitney's prominence is 10,080 feet, while Mount Muir's just squeaks over the limit at 331 feet (some lists don't include Muir as an official 14er). In my view, if the elevation is over 14,000, it's a 14er! 🤷🏻♂️
Mount Whitney is the highest point in the continental United States at 14,505 feet above sea level; as such, it is a much sought-after summit. It lies on the boundary of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest and is within an area identified as the Whitney Zone. Access to the Whitney Zone is controlled by permit, and there is an annual lottery to obtain permits to hike Mount Whitney. There are multiple ways to reach the summit, requiring different permits; it is best to become familiar with all the Forest Service and/or National Park pages regarding permits and establish an account on Recreation.gov (the site that manages the lottery and permits). The most common permits enter and exit from the Whitney Portal.
Day Use or Overnight?
During the quota season, May 1st - November 1st, two types of permits are available to hike Mt. Whitney: Day Use and Overnight. Day use permits are limited to 100 people per day, while the overnight permits cap at 60. The day-use permit is valid from midnight to midnight for all routes in the Mt. Whitney Zone. Many people choose the day-use permit because there are more of them available.
Following the traditional route on Mount Whitney Trail, the Whitney Zone begins at 3.8 miles into the trail; depending on how fast you hike, you could leave the Portal Trailhead as early as 10:00 pm to enter the zone at (or near) midnight on your scheduled permit day. There are two main reasons for doing this; first, if you hike at a slower pace, this maximizes the time you have to complete your summit, and second, it provides the opportunity to make it to Trail Crest to see the sunrise. The only drawback to this schedule is that you are hiking under headlamps and miss many awesome views. For many, this can be a grueling hike as you must cover about 11 miles with more than 6,000 feet of vertical gain, mostly in the dark.
The advantages of an overnight permit are the opportunity to break the hike into smaller sections and to experience the journey from a different perspective. Depending on your available time in the backcountry, several campsites are along the Mount Whitney Trail. Popular options are to stay one or two nights camping at Lone Pine Lake (10,000 ft level), Outpost Camp (10,500 ft level), Consultation Lake (11,000 ft level), or Trail Camp (12,000 ft level). I chose Consultation Lake as our base camp.
Third Time Is The Charm
2020 - Fire Cancellation 🔥
In the late summer of 2020, I hiked White Mountain (14,242 feet) and Mount Langley (14,042 feet); my goal for the year was to hit the trifecta and add one more 14er. Naturally, I wanted to hike Whitney, but when it hit my radar, I was well outside the lottery window and didn't know much about stalking for released permits. Fortunately, someone I knew was hiking on a friend's permit, and they had an extra spot! I prepared to tackle Whitney as a single-day hike in early October. However, the mountain was closed for the season on September 1st due to nearby wildfires and poor air quality. Strike One.
2021 - Injury Cancellation ⛑
I maintained an active hiking calendar in 2021 and entered my first Mt. Whitney lottery. While disappointed that I had not won a permit in the lottery, one of my friends did and invited me to join his team; I was headed to Mt. Whitney on July 26th! Our permit was for a single-day hike, so I continued to train and prep for the adventure. On Memorial Day, I was doing a simple desert hike to look for survey marks and begin heat acclimation training when I slipped on loose gravel on a small grade and completely tore my left Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) and suffered a partial tear of the Medial Meniscus.
Surgery would have benched me for a minimum of 6 months, so after consultation with my surgeon, I opted for a brace and prayed that it would heal enough in the coming two months to keep my date with the mountain. I shouldn't have been surprised that I hadn't healed enough for such an aggressive hike; I had to bail on the team's final training hike and withdrew from the team. Strike Two.
2022 - Success! 👏🏻🥾🏕🏔❤️
I carefully mapped out the 15 date selections for my 2022 lottery submission, splitting them 50/50 between single-day hike requests and overnight permits, grouping many of my dates around my 61st birthday in August. I had hoped to hit my summit last year when I turned 60, but my ACL had other plans. August dates are the second most requested, following closely behind July, and while almost twice as many people request overnight permits, there are fewer of them to go around. I was ecstatic to receive my "congratulations" email notifying me that I had won an overnight permit, entering the Whitney Zone the day after my birthday! I began to plan a weeklong camping vacation in the Sierras. I'd camp at the Whitney Portal campground and hike to Lone Pine Lake to celebrate my birthday, following up with Mt. Whitney a couple of days later! 👏🏻😊
The essential details of the trip centered on the Mount Whitney summit. I had requested a permit for four people to enter the wilderness on August 23rd for three days. Tuesday; hike to Consultation Lake and set up my base camp, summit on Wednesday (returning to base camp), and hike back out to the Whitney Portal on Thursday.
The next steps were to 1) build my team and 2) flesh out the rest of my week in the Sierras. Building the team was easy; I had already assured my hiking friend Sierra that if I won the lottery, she would have one spot, and the remaining two would go on a first-come, first-served basis as people responded to the announcement that I'd won the lottery. Rita, an Instagram friend, was the first to reach out to me about the remaining permit spots, so she and her husband, John, rounded out my adventure team.
With the team formed; I planned my general itinerary and was looking forward to a week of camping, backpacking, and survey mark hunting:
Saturday - Drive to Lone Pine/Independence, visit the Manzanar Historical Site, and search for survey marks. Dispersed camping in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area
Sunday - Hike and look for survey marks in Alabama Hills, and visit the Western Film Museum in Lone Pine. Camp at Whitney Portal Campground.
Monday - Hike to Lone Pine Lake.
Tuesday - Enter the wilderness, hike to Consultation Lake, and set up camp.
Wednesday - Summit day!
Thursday - Hike back to Whitney Portal, camp at Whitney Portal Campground
Friday - Alabama Hills, look for more survey marks. Dispersed camping.
Saturday - Drive home.
This trip report will focus solely on my Mt. Whitney experience, and my companion report: Eastern Sierra SMASH, will cover the rest of my adventures from the week. (a link will be added when that report is finished)
I started getting ready for today's hike a few days before I left home last week. The three-step process involved completing all the trip's administrative aspects, a gear check, and loading my pack. From the administrative perspective, I printed and signed my permit to enter the Whitney Zone, renewed my California Campfire Permit, and pulled out my Whitney Zone paper map.
Visitor Permit - Mt. Whitney
Don't leave home without it! Beginning one week before your permit effective date, you can go to your recreation.gov account and print your permit. The rules dictate the group leader sign the permit and carry it (along with a photo ID) while in the Whitney Zone. Park Rangers can check it anytime.
California Campfire Permit
This is free and expires on December 31st of the current year. Obtaining one is an easy online process; it consists of watching an informational video and taking a short quiz. Wood or charcoal fires are generally only permitted in developed campgrounds, but you need the permit if you use a portable stove.
I can only speculate, but paper maps are the most overlooked essential for hikers. Reliance on smartphones with GPS Apps seems to make paper maps unnecessary; however, electronic devices are not 100 percent reliable. Batteries die, phones drop and break, overheat, and apps can fail. Even on a well-traveled trail such as Mt. Whitney, people can (and do) get lost. Having maps and knowing how to use them is essential.
This was a two-step process involving planning for the entire week I'd be gone and preparing for the three days I'd spend in the backcountry. This section will focus on the backcountry portion. I must add the caveat that I am not an ultralight (UL) backpacker, nor do I have a burning desire to be one. UL aficionados may roll their eyes at my kit, but it works for me 😉 For the days I spent car camping, I had more clothes, food, and comfort items.
Base weight versus the Big Three
You may hear the terms "base weight" and "big three" tossed around among backpackers and thru-hikers; sometimes, they are used interchangeably, but they are different. Base weight includes all your gear except consumable items such as food, water, and fuel. The big three include your pack, shelter, and sleep system (sleeping bag, pad, and pillow). My big three weighed in at 14lbs 5oz:
Osprey Aether Plus 70L pack Medium, 5lbs 10oz
Nemo Forte 20º sleeping bag regular, 2lbs 14oz
Nemo Tensor ultra light insulated sleeping pad long/wide, 1lb 5oz
Sea to Summit Deluxe Aeros Ultralight Pillow, 4.6oz
REI Co-op Passage 2 Tent with Footprint, 4lbs 2oz
I didn't get a true base weight measurement before starting the hike, nor did I weigh my pack at the trailhead when we started, but I estimated it at 40 pounds based on how it felt. I probably should have weighed it to know the exact weight, but I was ready to start hiking and was comfortable; dropping my pack to weigh didn't seem that important at the time. 🤷🏻♂️
Here is the complete shakedown of what was in my pack. I've gone into extreme detail here so later I can tell you what worked, what didn't, and what I would have changed:
Clothing: 1 pair Duluth Trading Co Hike Yeah! pants, two Smartwool ¾ zip base layer tops, two pairs of Darn Tough wool hiking socks, two pairs UA 6" Tech Boxerjocks
Outer layer: Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket, Outdoor Research Versaliner Sensor Gloves w/shell, UA ColdGear Infrared Balaclava, UA Storm Beanie, 99¢ disposable poncho, Half-finger leather rock climbing gloves, Scala All-Season Crushable Hat
Footwear: Xero Shoes Z-Trek Sandals
Knee braces: Don Joy OA Full Force Knee Brace (left knee), FUTURO™ Sport Hinged Knee Brace (right knee)
Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series Hiker Medical Kit, 2-person/2-day (customized)
Backpacking Trowel. I provided the Amazon link to this only because I like the versatility of this trowel. I wouldn't need it to dig catholes on this trip, but I carry this on every trip, regardless of duration or destination.
Two WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) bags. These are free at the trailhead; all human waste must be packed-out and disposed of in the appropriate containers.
Anker Portable Chargers: 10,000 mAh, 28600 mAh PowerCore (having both is overkill, but the 10,000 is lighter and carries easily in my pant pocket, it is generally good for 12 hours of use.
Curious George trail buddy
SPOT X 2-Way Satelite Communicator
Mosquito head net
Nitecore HC 65 1000 Lumen Headlamp w/rechargeable battery
Repair kit: contains miscellaneous parts to repair clothing, tents, inflatables, and trekking poles. It includes duct tape, velcro ties, and a tent pole sleeve. Signal mirror.
Map and Compass
Kestral 2500 Weather Meter
Gossamer Gear Ultralight Umbrella
Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration System
Katadyn BeFree Water Filter
Katadyn Micropur MP1 Water Purification Tablets
Two HydraPak Seeker 3L Collapsible Water Containers (packed empty, used for filtering water at camp), Gatorade Bottle (with electrolyte mix)
Osprey 3L Hydration Bladder
JetBoil MiniMo Cooking System w/100g fuel canister
Sea to Summit X-Bowl, Cool Grip X-Cup, TOAKS Titanium Long Handle Spoon
House of Clouds Sand-free Microfiber Beach Towel
Bear Vault BV 450 Bear Canister, with food for three lunches, two breakfasts, and two dinners (meals detailed below). This also stored all scented items such as toothpaste, soap, lip balm, etc.
Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Quick Lock Cork Trekking Poles (Costco!)
Survey mark recovery kit: liquid chalk and Mr. Clean Magic Eraser pad.
Day 1 - Whitney Portal to Consultation Lake Base Camp
Date: August 23, 2022
Distance: 7.50 miles
Total Elapsed Time: 8h 32m
Total Moving Time: 5h 11m
Highest Elevation: 11,881 feet
Elevation Gain: 3,455 feet
Trailhead: Whitney Portal
Notes: My GAIA GPS App displayed the total distance at 6.08 miles on the summary statistical screen; however, when I traced the actual track, the track length was 7.50 miles. When I analyzed the track in my GPS Editor, it confirmed 7.50 miles. GAIA GPS App tends to be more conservative in summarizing total miles; however, this is the largest variance I've noted.
I was in my tent and asleep by "hiker midnight" (9:00 p.m. for non-hikers 🤣) when I woke to a flashlight beam and someone calling my name sometime later. It took me a moment to get my bearings then I realized it was my friend Phil. This was odd as I had seen him and Kayla on Sunday as they were taking a rest day in Lone Pine. They were headed to hike White Mountain on Monday, which would be their fourth 14er in the last several days. I was still trying to figure out what he was doing at my campsite, presumably in the middle of the night, when he said he was delivering Sierra!
Sierra chimed in with a hello and told me the rest of the story. Her GPS didn't provide accurate directions to the campground, only getting her to Lone Pine (the campground was another 11 miles up the road); while trying to sort it out, she saw Phil was online and messaged him. He and Kayla had returned to Lone Pine after hiking White Mountain, and he offered to guide her to the Portal Campground, which ultimately brought them to my campsite!
The four of us connecting at this time and place may seem oddly random; however, the hiking community can be very small, and in a way, the axiom "the trail provides" always seems to ring true. Earlier this year, Phil, Kayla, Sierra, and I had hiked Palomar Mountain Highpoint together, starting just after midnight on New Year's Eve. Check out Happy Hiking New Year! for that story, but I digress.
I woke well before the first light, as I have every morning this trip, lying in my tent looking at the stars fade as dawn approached and thinking about what I needed to do to get ready for today's hike. John and Rita arrived at the campground Sunday, and we had done a day hike yesterday to Lone Pine Lake, followed by a birthday dinner for me at the Portal Cafe. I had told John and Rita that we'd need to be flexible on our start time based on when Sierra arrived. There wasn't any reason to rush for an early start, as we only had 6 miles to Consultation Lake, where we'd set up camp for the next two nights.
I got up, dressed, and fixed breakfast, my standard two pouches of oatmeal and a cup of coffee. After breakfast, I began to break camp, putting away my sleep system, taking my tent down, and laying out all the gear that would go into my pack for the next three days. I grabbed my pack from the back of the truck and removed the few items that were stored inside; with all my gear on the picnic table, I carefully began repacking. My hydration bladder is always the first thing in, followed by my sleeping bag in its separate compartment at the bottom of the pack. My tent and Full Force Knee brace were next strapped at the bottom of the pack.
I had pre-packed my BV 450 bear canister with all the food for the hike; I removed today's lunch items, then settled the BV 450 into my pack, situating it so it would ride just above my low back. I filled in the spaces on either side with my first aid kit, cooking system, and other small items to balance the load. My clothing cube sat on top of the bear canister. My sleep pad went in one side mesh pocket while my electrolytes in a Gatorade bottle filled the other. Lunch, my permit, poncho, and other essentials were readily available in the detachable top lid, often referred to as the brain.
As I packed, I made some last-minute gear choices, deciding to leave behind my Nemo Moonlight backpacking chair, my hooded rain jacket, and rain pants (instead packing a disposable poncho). I swapped out my Vibram Five-Finger KMD sports shoes for my Xero sandals to wear around the campsite.
Sierra woke, had her breakfast, and got her gear together. We dropped our packs at the trailhead with John and Rita, then moved our vehicles to the overflow parking lot and stored our remaining food and scented items in a bear locker while we were gone.
I brought a large green trash bag, yellow duct tape, and a sharpie to store and identify the stuff we left in the bear locker. I put our two BV 500 canisters and a toiletries kit inside the bag, sealed it with duct tape, then made a label on a strip of tape that had my name and the dates we were going to be in the backcountry. I placed this in the back of the bear locker. You will see people putting pizzas, other leftover food, and individual pieces of unlabeled equipment in the lockers. I didn't think anyone would mess with our stuff, but many people use the lockers, and keeping them as neat and orderly as possible makes sense.
And We're Off!
With the group together, gear check complete, and ready to go, we asked another hiker to capture the moment with a group photo at the trailhead sign.
We started a little before 9:45 a.m., walking through this cool "entryway" to the trail. This is where the scale is located to weigh your pack (on the left) and the dispensers where you can pick up your WAG bags. There are also a few final safety reminders and a note to Leave No Trace (LNT).
Of course, in the excitement to finally get started, I forgot to start my GAIA GPS recorder! 🤦🏻♂️ I realized it about 150 feet down the trail, so no big deal; I knew that I would be adding additional mileage along the way as I stopped to look for survey marks near the trail.
Mount Whitney Trail - Forest Service Trail 34E04
The nice thing about having an overnight permit was that we didn't have to rush. Our goal today was to hike six miles to Consultation Lake, gaining more than 3,400 feet of elevation. The elevation profile for this section was consistent but not horrible, but it was a little different doing it with full packs today. John, Rita, and I hiked to Lone Pine Lake yesterday, the first 3 miles of this trail; however, we did it with much lighter day packs. I felt a lot of déjà vu as I hiked over familiar territory, taking point for our team. Knowing that the first few miles are mixed with the excitement of being underway and adjusting to the weight of a full pack, I maintained a one-mile-per-hour pace and encouraged the others to call out if anyone needed a short break.
We passed by the trail junction to Lone Pine Lake a few minutes before 1:00 p.m. and were maintaining our pace, continuing as we were; I anticipated we'd reach Consultation Lake around 4:00 p.m. We briefly considered having lunch at Lone Pine Lake, but that meant losing a little elevation, so we kept climbing and reached the entrance to the Whitney Zone about 20 minutes later.
I admire the hikers who summit Mount Whitney in a single push; it's as much a mental endeavor as a physical one. My first two opportunities were day-use permits, and before my ACL injury, I had no doubts about my ability to complete them. My endurance, conditioning, and speed are not what they were two years ago, and I believe now it would be a significantly greater challenge. But more importantly, my mindset has shifted.
Nowadays, I am more interested in enjoying my time in the wilderness, taking it all in at my own pace. It seemed I was stopping at every other turn to admire the views, take pictures, or visit with other hikers. The thought of missing any of this because I had to hike at night under headlamps made me grateful that I had won an overnight permit. These pictures were taken between the entrance to the Whitney Zone and before we descended into Bighorn Park.
At 10,380 feet, the trail leveled off as Bighorn Park came into view. This was an unexpected bonus; it was like an oasis in the desert with lush green vegetation and Lone Pine Creek running alongside the trail. With pines separating the meadow from the rock-strewn slopes all around, it was an impressive sight that made me wonder if this had been a lake at some point in history. 🤔
Choosing a spot to break for lunch was easy peasy; we continued on the trail and stopped at the western edge of the park, where we found a large, flat boulder to stop. We still had two and a half miles to reach Consultation Lake with 1,500+ vertical gain. Taking a half-hour to rest and refuel in this cool spot was a much-needed break; except for walking along the edge of the park, we had been continuously climbing. We set off at 2:40 p.m. for the final push. As we climbed up from the meadow, the view looking back over my shoulder was awesome!
The next milestone on the trail was Mirror Lake; the trail passes just feet from the lake's edge, and I made a mental note that I would stop and check it out on my way down on Thursday. We passed by the lake and continued through a series of switchbacks.
Survey Mark Scavenger Hunt (SMASH)
My pre-trip planning included setting waypoints in GAIA for potential survey mark recoveries at the summit and along the trail. The marks at the summit are well documented, so they would be easy to locate. The trailside marks...not so much. These are often only identified by a symbol on the topographical map with their approximate location. I had two waypoints to check along the trail after passing Mirror Lake; each was slightly off the trail, and I expected to find each mounted on a large rock outcropping that would be easy to reach.
I quickly checked for the first marker beyond Mirror Lake but couldn't find it where I'd expect it to be; I passed on bouldering up on a steep outcrop because getting back down looked a lot more difficult than scrambling up. Besides, I had promised my crew that I wouldn't spend an inordinate amount of time searching, just a quick check of the most likely spots; then we'd move on.
Recovered: Benchmark C 72 (PID: GT0224) The second marker was an easy find, literally just off the trail! 👏🏻👍🏻 I dropped my pack, grabbed my survey mark recovery kit, and prepared the mark for photos. The recovery process is simple; I use liquid chalk to highlight the engraved information on the face of the disc, buff it with a magic eraser pad to remove the excess chalk residue, then take photos to document the mark.
Typically, I take a close-up picture of the mark from above, then one or more pictures at eye level with the horizon in the background to give context to where the disc is placed. I keep location services enabled to capture the latitude and longitude for my database. I don't often photograph the mark before prepping it, but this one was in such good condition I couldn't resist 😁. The final image in this gallery is a screenshot of the database entry for this mark; as you can see, I include various identifying information and have space to add comments as needed. Within the database, clicking on the link to the location shows the mark in Google Maps, and the link to the datasheet opens the datasheet on the NGS website. I currently have 1,215 survey marks cataloged in my database, but I digress... 😉
I tried to wrap this up quickly so we could get back on the trail; however, I don't think my crew minded the additional break! 🤣
It was almost 4:00 p.m., and we still had a mile and a half to go, at our pace, that would put us at our campsite by 5:30 pm. We continued the climb with a final glance back to Mirror Lake and Thors Peak. This last section of the trail was the toughest for me mentally in that it always seemed like the lake would be just over the next outcrop; it was very similar to the feeling you get when you reach a false summit, elation that you're almost there, only to realize you're not. 🤷🏻♂️ We did, however, start to see more chipmunks, pikas, and marmots on the trail, so that was a fun distraction 🐿. At 5:26 p..m., I got my first look at Consultation Lake; we were almost there!
We still had to find and claim a campsite; however, the sense of relief at seeing the lake was palpable. My original plan was to camp within an appropriate distance from the lake (no closer than 200 feet to a water source consistent with Leave No Trace principles regarding campsite selection). The trail leveled off, and we stopped near a clearing with three obvious tent sites. The sites were a few feet off the trail but backed up to a rock shelf that provided a good windbreak, I walked over to look down at the lake, and it was easily a 150 descent to reach the campsite I had envisioned. Turning back to the crew, laughing, I claimed the spot where I was standing as my site; I wasn't going any further! 😂. John, Rita, and Sierra agreed and staked out their spots on either side of me; we had found our home for the next two nights. ⛺️
It had been a long day, so it was nice to finally drop our packs and set up camp. Once the tents were pitched and some basic gear organized, we needed to check our water source and filter water for dinner and tomorrow's summit hike. Backtracking on the trail a short distance, a use trail led down to Lone Pine Creek, a great place to filter water.
I packed several filter options; my go-to was my Katadyn BeFree filter used with my HydroPak Seeker 3L collapsable bottles; it would be the fastest way to refill my 3L hydration bladder. I filled the first bottle, screwed the filter on, turned it upside down to push the water into the bladder, and...NOTHING! Despite only using the filter a few times (most recently at Yosemite on my Half Dome hike), it was blocked! I had brought a brand new Sawyer Squeeze system, and several packets of Katadyn Micropur MP1 Water Purification Tablets, but they were in my pack at camp. Sierra let me use her BeFree filter so I could fill my hydration bladder. I filled both Seeker bottles with water and would use the purification tablets rather than fuss around setting up the Sawyer and juggling water between bottles.
Back at camp, I boiled enough water from my Seeker bottle to make dinner, then popped a few Micropur tablets in each big bottle. After reading the warning on the Micropur packaging, I wasn't too keen on using them, but I had to trust in the process. They required a minimum of 4 hours to work, so my water would be ready in the morning.
Tonight's dinner was a new (for me) Alpineaire meal: Creamy Broccoli Cheddar Rice, it sounded amazing, and I couldn't wait to taste it. It was okay, but it didn't live up to my expectations; despite following the preparation directions to the letter, I wasn't quite sure if it was the broccoli or the rice that was still crunchy 🤔 😂. With dinner done, and the sun going down, I set up my sleep system, set out my gear for tomorrow's summit, and got ready for bed.
Late Night Wake-up and a Lost Hiker
I woke up to the headlamps flashing around our campsite and hikers talking; checking my phone, it was a little past 11:00 p.m. I initially thought it was a group hiking past our camp on their way to Trail Camp, but as I focused on their conversation, they noted that there were bear canisters (ours) and that maybe someone had a Garmin InReach device. They switched their headlamps to the red beam when I stuck my head out of my tent and asked what was up.
As you can see in the campsite photo above, my tent opening faced the rock wall; three hikers came around my tent and asked if I had a satellite communicator. I did, but still a little groggy; I asked what was happening. Two guys had left the portal earlier this evening and had encountered a lone hiker (Jim) who was lost. He had summited the day before and was hiking back when he became disoriented and lost his way. He had been up and hiking for more than 24 hours. The two hikers were taking him back to Trail Camp, where they would get him settled down for the night, and he could hike out tomorrow. They were looking for someone with a satellite communicator so Jim could get a message to his family letting them know he was safe and would be delayed getting home. I gave Dean, one of the hikers, my SPOT X, and he entered a text message as Jim dictated what he wanted to say. They stuck around for a few minutes, waiting for confirmation that the message had been transmitted, but it appeared my device was cycling to find the GPS signal. They decided not to wait and continued to Trail Camp; I got up and walked down the trail 100 feet to facilitate getting a signal, 10 minutes later, my SPOT X showed that the message had been sent. With that, I went back to bed.
Camping within feet of this trail, while convenient, was not optimal. The day-use hikers that left the portal between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. ended up hiking past our tents all night. I don't think I ever got used to the parade of headlamps, not-so hushed conversations, crunch of boots on gravel, and the click of trekking poles in the rocks. 😵💫
Relive® 3D Video of Portal to Consultation Lake
Day 2 - Summit Day!
Date: August 24, 2022
Distance: 9.50 miles
Total Elapsed Time: 11h 31m
Total Moving Time: 8h 9m
Highest Elevation: 14,509 feet
Elevation Gain: 2,788 feet
Trailhead: Consultation Lake Base Camp
Notes: My GAIA GPS App displayed the total distance at 8.72 miles on the summary statistical screen; however, when I traced the actual track, the track length was 9.50 miles. When I analyzed the track in my GPS Editor, it confirmed 9.50 miles.
Good Morning Sunshine!
I woke naturally at 4:30 a.m., my usual, and lay there soaking in the quiet. Eventually, stepping out of my tent, the morning chill was bracing and welcome, cold enough to warrant my puffy jacket, UA Storm beanie, and gloves. I walked to a spot where I had a sweeping view of the lake and, ultimately, Alabama Hills and Lone Pine in the distance and watched as the morning sky lightened. In a word, amazing.
After a bit, I went back to make breakfast and found everyone else was up and moving about. Using my purified water, I fixed my "usual" camp breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. After I finished my oatmeal, I noticed a distinct chemical taste - the purifying tablets! I could only drink a few sips of my coffee; the aftertaste from the Micropur tablets was NASTY 🤮. I'll use my Sawyer Squeeze for the rest of the trip; it was a definite "lesson learned" - if you plan on using chemical purification, test it out at home first, so you know what to expect.
After breakfast, we filled our slack packs with the bare essentials for the day and headed out. It's funny, Trail Camp was only 3/10ths of a mile from where we had camped, but while we had our spot to ourselves, Trail Camp was MUCH busier, with many of the sites being right on the trail as ours were. Just before we reached Trail Camp, I looked back to catch the rising sun; a few minutes later, I caught the sun lighting up Mount Muir (to the right of center in the second photo) and the other peaks we'd pass on our way to Mount Whitney; breathtaking.
It took us a half hour to walk the half mile to the start of the 99 Switchbacks. Located on the other side of Trail Camp, it was very easy to get distracted by the sunrise and early morning scenery. I constantly paused to take pictures of Consultation Lake, Trail Camp, the trail ahead, and random piles of rocks. 😂
The 99 Switchbacks
Distance: 2.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,532 feet
Total Elapsed Time: 3h 15m
Call me crazy, but I. LOVE. SWITCHBACKS! 🤣 It's amazing how many people dread this section of the trail; it was one of my favorite parts, and I was so grateful to be hiking it in the full light of day. Of course, we had perfect conditions; the temperatures were cool, no snow or ice on the trail, and the hiker traffic was light. If snow or ice is on any segment of this, it can be a very different hike; depending on the amount and depth; it could be unsafe to pass without proper mountaineering equipment and training.
We hit switchback number one at 6:34 a.m., with the sun at our backs and a light breeze. Of course, I had to get a few photos at the start of the climb (thanks, John, for snapping the first two!) I pressed ahead to take a picture of John and Rita starting the switchbacks with Trail Camp in the background.
As with our hike yesterday, I led and maintained a pace to keep us all together, and anyone could call out "30 seconds" for a rest break if they needed it. Ideally, the goal is to reach the summit between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. so you have time to enjoy the summit and can start back down before afternoon storms can threaten the day. We were a little off that pace, but the morning was clear, so I wasn't too worried.
We saw Ranger Brian on the trail several switchbacks above us; he was doing trail maintenance, clearing loose rocks. We stopped and chatted with him for a while, working in a brief rest break with the social visit. 😉 A few memorable places along the switchbacks include the cables and views where you can look back and see the trail snaking down the mountain. Of course, looking up, you'll be hard-pressed to spot the trail; instead, you look for dots of color to see where the other hikers are, like "Where's Waldo" LOL!
Consultation Lake stayed in view most of the morning, as did Trail Camp Tarn, but we were surprised by the number of other lakes we saw as we continued up. A quick look at my GAIA or a paper map would have shown me all of them, but this trail is so traveled that I didn't need to use my GPS for wayfinding. I preferred to be surprised as new lakes came into view; it added to the sense of discovery. Seven unnamed lakes of varying sizes lie in the valley at the base of Wotans Throne (right side of the first picture) and Pinnacle Ridge (at the far or north end of the valley). The second photo is just another reason why I love switchbacks; they look so cool when you can look down on them and see how you zigged and zagged your way up!
I took the next picture at 13,505 feet elevation; we had about 200 yards to Trail Crest and (and 100 feet of vertical climbing to go.) I had difficulty seeing the hut (formerly called the Mt. Whitney Smithsonian House) with my naked eye, but thanks to the power of zoom, I could see it; and even make out people at the summit. The view is spectacular, but the sky's color and contrast with the mountain still strike me.
People wonder why I hike; it's moments like this.
Trail Crest to Summit
Distance: 2.2 miles
Net Elevation Gain: 873.0 feet
Total Elapsed Time: 2h 44m
This section of the trail runs in the western shadow of the peaks that make the iconic lineup leading to Mount Whitney: Mount Muir, Aiguille Junior, Aiguille du Paquoir, Aiguille Extra, Third Needle, Crooks Peak, Keeler Needle, and Mount Whitney. Mount Russell, another 14er, is north of Whitney.
Trail Crest lies between Discovery Pinnacle and Mount Muir; the entrance/exit of the Whitney Zone also marks the entrance to Sequoia National Park. Less than a quarter mile from Trail Crest, the Mount Whitney Trail connects with the John Muir Trail (JMT). The left fork of the JMT leads to Guitar Lake and, ultimately, to Yosemite National Park; continuing straight for an additional 1.9 miles, the JMT's southern terminus is Mount Whitney. Surprisingly, the JMT is not listed as one of the U.S. National Scenic Trails. Beginning at the Happy Isles Bridge in Yosemite National Park, it goes through Kings Canyon NP and Sequoia NP, covering 213 miles.
I struggle to find the best word to describe this section of the trail; "Dramatic" doesn't seem to do justice. The trail is mostly broken granite rocks of varying sizes, and for the most part, it blends in with the slope above and below it with frustrating regularity. Not that it's hard to follow; on the contrary, the trail is very obvious as you walk it, but if you want to look a few hundred yards ahead, it just disappears into the landscape. 🤷🏻♂️ To the west, the Upper and Lower Hitchcock Lakes, Guitar lake, and the mountains that the High Sierra Trail traverses remained in view all day.
The photo set above includes some of my favorite shots:
I caught John and Rita working up the switchbacks below Mt. Muir; this section was not too far after the trail junction with the JMT.
Guitar Lake is pretty obvious 🎸🤣 and very cool.
Sierra had hiked ahead and found a good spot to rest while I caught up, I took various pictures at different levels of zoom, but this one best captures the severity of the cliffside below her perch. 😳
The group ahead of me in the next photo gives a good perspective on the descending portion of this trail; the net vertical gain from Trail Crest to Whitney summit was less than 1,000 feet, but we had plenty of up and down in between.
The final two pictures are peeking back to the east and Wotans Throne, the first from a spot between Mt. Muir and Aguille Junior.
The second is from a position between Aguille du Parquoir and Aguille Extra. The images don't capture the sheer drop to the valley below, but it'll make your stomach flip-flop when you peer over the edge.
Mount Whitney Summit - 14,505 Feet
I had previously mapped out all the survey marks at the summit and stored the information in my GAIA GPS App. I let my team know that when I was close to the summit, I'd pick up my pace to get there and finish my survey mark recoveries before they arrived. It's funny; I was more excited to find all the survey marks than to stand at the highest point in the Continental United States! 🤷🏻♂️🤣 As the stone house came into view, I felt a renewed sense of energy and covered the ground quickly.
Survey Mark Recoveries
I made eight (ish)* recoveries at the summit; for those new to the process, recovery means that I located and documented the position and condition of the survey mark. I created this graphic to show the relative positions of all the marks at the summit. (* note: see the discussion below about Mt. Whitney Cairn for why I say 8'ish recoveries).
The brass or aluminum discs are the most recognizable survey marks, but at Whitney, the stone house and the plaque mounted on a boulder near the house are also registered survey marks. I dropped my gear at the corner of the hut, grabbed my liquid chalk and magic eraser pad, then set out to find all the markers.
MT WHITNEY SMITHSONIAN HOUSE (PID: GT1808)
Constructed in 1909 with funding from the Smithsonian Institute, it was used to house scientists researching high-altitude phenomena. Its construction was prompted by the death of a U.S. Fisheries employee in 1904 who was struck by lightning.
PLAQUE NEAR WHITNEY (PID: GT1809)
This is an interesting mark, and it is possible that this metal sign is not the original plaque at this site. The NGS Datasheet indicates that in 1962 a Coast and Geodetic Survey team recorded this mark as destroyed. However, the GPS coordinates for this sign are the same as the original plaque. If this were not the original, it should have been classified as a "reset" mark and given a new permanent ID.
14502 (PID: GT1810)
This old U.S. Geological Survey Benchmark disc has seen better days. The datasheet lists the date it was monumented (established) as unknown. Out of 1,215 marks, I have found ten with this design; three of them were pipe caps, and seven were discs. Only two were stamped with a date (both 1905), one of those I found in the picnic area at Whitney Portal Monday. The bottom line is I don't know when it was set, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were 1905.
WHITNEY (PID: GT1811)
This is a traditional U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Triangulation Station disc set in 1950, these are typically paired with two USC&GS Reference Mark discs, but considering all the other survey marks at the summit, it was tied out to those.
WHITNEY (PID: GT1813) & MT WHITNEY CAIRN (PID: GT1812)
This is a USGS Benchmark that is not stamped with any uniquely identifying information, but it ties out with the datasheet. It is also mounted on a rock that is part of MT. WHITNEY CAIRN (PID: GT1812). The datasheet for WHITNEY (PID: 1811) lists the cairn 3 inches from this mark; It's like two for the price of one! 🤷🏻♂️
I took these extracts from the data sheets to show the relationship between the various marks. GT1811 is the Triangulation Station noted above; the marks in the box are listed as reference objects. Note the distance and geodetic azimuth for GT1812 and GT1813; 0.08 meters is about 3 inches, so this disc is mounted on the cairn (or on a rock that was part of the cairn).
BENCHMARK K 72 (PID: GT0238)
This standard USC&GS Benchmark set in 1928 is in excellent condition compared to others at the summit.
BENCHMARK U 43 (PID: GT0239)
Set in 1925, this USC&GS Benchmark shows some signs of wear but is still readable.
CL FWY (PID: N/A)
This California Division of Highways survey mark was a surprise recovery. It was not listed on the map nor registered with the NGS and had me scratching my head why CalTrans would have a survey marker at the summit of Mt. Whitney.
Traditional Summit Celebration
Sierra arrived at the summit right behind me. John and Rita walked up to the hut as I finished my recoveries. We cheered and clapped as they arrived, and I congratulated them. As with many, this can be a very emotional moment, and I was happy to be a part of the experience with them. After everyone signed the register and we got all the summit pictures out of the way, we took a few minutes to eat and savor the moment.
During our final ascent and our time at the summit, the clouds began to roll in, and we could see rain in the distance. We quickly finished lunch and geared up to head back to camp. John and Rita were a little behind us when Sierra and I set off, assuring us they'd be right behind. We agreed to return to the 99 Switchbacks as quickly as possible with the potential storm rolling in.
Back to Camp
The hike back to camp was much quicker than the trip to the summit; Sierra and I covered the 4.6 miles in 3 hours and 44 minutes! (compared to the 6 hours and 35 minutes for our ascent) Of course, downhill is always faster 😉. We had taken plenty of pictures on our way up and were trying to beat the rain, so we were focused on getting back as soon as possible. After passing the JMT junction, we were surprised by light snow, it wasn't consistent enough to be classified as flurries, but it was snowflakes and not rain. Somewhere near switchback 30, we were caught in a surprise hail storm. Pulling on my stylish 99¢ disposable rain poncho, I almost regretted leaving my rain shell in the truck, but the storm ended by the time we finished the switchbacks.
We returned to camp a little after 5:00 p.m.; too tired to heat water and make a hot meal, I lay in my tent and finished all the goodies I had left from the previous two days' lunches. I'm not exactly sure, but I think it was about an hour later when John and Rita got back to camp, they missed the hail storm, but they ran into the snow on Trail Crest. For them, it was enough to melt on the rocks and make the granite slick, so they took it slow and careful through that section.
What a day! With my first summit of Mount Whitney and a bunch of survey mark recoveries as a bonus, I knew I was going to sleep well tonight! 😊
Relive® 3D Video of Consultation Lake to Summit and Back
Day 3 - Consultation Lake to Whitney Portal
Date: August 25, 2022
Distance: 6.52 miles
Total Elapsed Time: 4h 14m
Total Moving Time: 3h 37m
Highest Elevation: 11,866 feet
Elevation Gain: 0 feet
Trailhead: Consultation Lake Base Camp
Notes: My GAIA GPS App displayed the total distance at 5.89 miles on the summary statistical screen; however, when I traced the actual track, the track length was 6.52 miles. When I analyzed the track in my GPS Editor, it confirmed 6.52 miles.
Welcome to Day 3!
Today was an easy day; breakfast, tear down camp, pack gear, then start walking downhill 😉 There was no hard and fast schedule, so I puttered around, enjoying my morning oatmeal and coffee. I did need to filter more water for the day, so I grabbed my Sawyer kit, hydration bladder, and Gatorade bottle for electrolytes and headed down to the creek.
I took time re-packing my gear, emptying my pack, and re-balancing the load. Initially, I strapped my Full-Force brace above my tent on the outside of the pack, but after only a few hundred yards, I had to stop and put it on. Yesterday for the summit, I wore both braces, the Full-Force on my left knee and the FUTURO on the right. I hadn't had any knee issues all day. It only took about 10 minutes of descending without the brace to remind me why I had brought it. In the interest of time, I strapped the brace over my pant leg (I usually wear it underneath to get a better fit on my leg). Instant relief! I think I'll continue to wear it on the outside as it is easier to readjust if needed.
I didn't take that many pictures on the way down, but there were a few views that I either missed or were worth revisiting. These were taken not far from Consultation Lake; I imagine I was tired enough on Tuesday that I was done taking pictures the closer we came to our potential campsite.
Of course, I had to sneak some candid shots of the crew when we stopped for a snack break.
The views of Bighorn Park and its surrounds are always worth a second look...
We arrived back at the Trailhead at about 1:00 p.m., the journey officially complete! Well, it was done except for the Burgers and Fries! We all needed to drop off our packs at our vehicles and agreed to meet back at the store in half an hour. Before everyone headed out, I took our "Finisher" photos. While getting the photos, we saw Ranger Brian again; he was refilling the WAG bag dispensers and couldn't resist hamming it up for a photo with me. 😂
Before leaving the trailhead to stow my gear, I weighed my pack. I thought it was about 40 pounds at the start and should have been close to that at the finish, with a slight variance based on the water I still had. Color me surprised when I put my pack on the scale, which read 48 pounds! I would have guessed the high 30s on the return based on how it felt; perhaps that's a good thing that the weight was easy to carry and didn't bother me!
Going back to my initial gear list, there wasn't much purely extraneous gear. Except for the emergency stuff you hope you never need to use, the only things I brought with me that I didn't use were my Xero® sandals, mosquito net, and trowel. I ate all the food I brought except for one hot meal, and I had extra coffee and electrolytes. Of course, I packed out my WAG bags, disposing of them properly.
Relive® 3D Video of Consultation Lake to Whitney Portal
After dropping my pack off at the truck, I changed into a clean tee shirt and swapped my hiking boots for my trail runners. I headed back to the Portal Store to shop for my Mt. Whitney swag and wait for the others. LOL, I didn't want to jinx my hike by purchasing any Mt. Whitney merchandise before I completed the summit; now I was in shopping heaven, collecting my customer souvenir Benchmark, lots of stickers, patches, pins, and a couple of "I Climbed Mt. Whitney" tees.
As we were ordering our lunch, you could hear a light rain start, quickly turning into a steady torrent! Standing outside waiting for my food, I was getting cold and wet; once my order was up, I ran back into the store and bought a Whitney hoodie. I swear the temperature dropped 10 degrees! John had also gone back into the store to buy four disposable ponchos. We huddled under a leaky umbrella on the patio, eating our lunch. Thanks to Sierra for capturing the second weather event of our trip on video!
My 3-day Mt. Whitney adventure was epic. I had the opportunity to enjoy the hike and summit with good friends at my own pace. We were well suited as a group, and I couldn't think of a much better way to spend my birthday week. I checked off a big item on my bucket list (THE biggest in the lower 48 states 😂) We were all successful, there were no injuries, and we only had a small weather issue to deal with on the trail.
I'll have one more night at the Portal Campground and more exploring in Alabama Hills tomorrow before heading home, wrapping up an incredible week of camping and hiking in the Eastern Sierras. I can't think of a better way to have spent my birthday week. Life is Good. ❤️🏔🥾⛺️😊