Last month when wildfire smoke forced me to abandon my backpacking journey on the John Muir Trail I was pretty heartbroken. There would be no meeting up with my folks at Kearsarge Pass and no celebration on the top of Mount Whitney. I wasn’t ready for one of the most amazing outdoor experiences I’d ever had to be over!
Since I had left the trail at Florence Lake—pretty much the most inconvenient place possible—I headed to Los Angeles with my folks for a few days. My stepmom and I stayed up late the first night chatting about the trip and getting a little teary eyed that we wouldn’t be finishing our adventure. My dad is incredibly fit at 67 but I could tell the backpacking took a toll on him. How many more years would he be able to join me on something like this? Had I missed my chance? It wasn’t the ending we had in mind.
The next day; however, as our moods improved we brainstormed. We had to return to Whitney Portal to get my Jeep, so why not try to snag permits for a Whitney day hike? We mentioned the idea to my dad who thought our odds were incredibly slim. Air quality around Whitney was still poor and it wasn’t like smoke from the Rough Fire would disappear in a few days. And permits? Even with advanced planning Whitney permits are tough to get. With everything fully reserved our only shot would be to walk in and hope for cancellations.
Each day we checked the Whitney web cam and the mountain remained hidden in hazy smoke. Then mid-week we suddenly got the break we hoped for: a forecasted wind shift. I called the Permit Center and a Ranger told me they were seeing cancellations due to the smoke conditions. If we showed up at 2pm we had a shot at getting unclaimed permits for a next day hike. YES!
We packed our gear and hit the road back to the Sierras early on a Thursday morning, fingers crossed that we could get permits for a Friday day hike to the Whitney summit. We arrived at the permit office around 1:30pm and practically jumped from the car. As we neared the entrance my excitement changed to disappointment. A sign taped to the door said “Mount Whitney Walk In Permit Lottery: 11am”.
11am!? They had told us 2pm!
I rushed inside and impatiently waited in line, my heart racing. Had we missed the chance to get permits for tomorrow?
A polite Ranger behind the desk waived me forward after a short wait and I asked her slowly and quietly, “Uhhh… we were hoping to get Whitney day permits for tomorrow? I had called and someone told me unused ones would be available at 2pm?” I held my breathe.
“I’m sorry honey”, she said. “Someone told you wrong. We do the lottery for those at 11am….2pm is when we release the 11am permits not claimed.”
She had knocked the wind out of me.
Before she could continue I let out a big sigh. “I had been hiking the JMT and was supposed to meet my folks near Whitney but had to come out due to the smoke. We really hoped that maybe we’d get lucky and be able to day hike Whitney. You know? As a consolation prize.” I said.
The clerk continued “Well… our computer system has been down all morning so we had to postpone the lottery this morning. Seeing as how our system just came up and all… well… how many permits do you need?”
“3!” I exclaimed.
As she typed I held my breathe, scared the very act of breathing would interrupt her. She asked me for information and it wasn’t until she printed our permits and handed us our wag bags that Diana and I started jumping up and down and dancing right in the middle of the Visitor Center. Somehow by a sheer stroke of luck, we had scored day hike permits for Whitney. We were doing it!
My dad and stepmom were Whitney veterans. They had already hiked to the summit two times, the last time being nearly 13 years ago. Day hiking Whitney is a 22 mile round trip outing that takes on average 11-18 hours to complete. My dad suggested an early 5am start to give us plenty of time AND enjoy what we hoped would be a beautiful sunrise. It’s not every day I get excited for an alpine start, but this was Whitney!
We pulled into the parking lot the next morning at 4:45, hit the trail promptly at 5, and were quickly reminded how amazing it is to hike in the early dawn hours. Sunrises have a completely different stillness than sunsets. Although smoke had cleared from the area, our headlamps still reflected fine particles in the darkness, reminding us the air wasn’t nearly as clear as we had hoped. I crossed my fingers a second time that the winds would be in our favor.
It wasn’t long before the sky brightened and we were treated to a magnificent sunrise. We stopped to enjoy the morning alpenglow, illuminating the surrounding mountains. I’m not a natural morning person but days like this make me want to wake up at 4am every day of my life! There really isn’t anything that tops the peacefulness and beauty of a spectacular mountain sunrise.
I’ve heard the trail to Whitney described as a brutal 11 mile slog to 14k and an even longer 11 mile descent. Most people talk about the 97 switchbacks on the way to the summit and how headphones and music are the only way to deal with the monotony. Well, I certainly don’t know what trail they hiked because I can tell you that although it was certainly long, I found it to be absolutely spectacular! Not once did I stop to think about the switchbacks. Sure, there were a lot of them, but my mind was focused on the beauty around me. I marveled all day at the scenery, the deep blue skies, the stark white granite, and the vertical spires all around. It was like nowhere else I’d ever been.
Once I reached the trail crest I was blasted by strong, cold winds. Thank goodness for lots of warm layers! From the Sierra Crest at 13,600’ the trail offers amazing precipitous views as it descends a bit and winds around the west side of Whitney’s south ridge. This area of trail is rocky, technical, and a bit exposed in places. It was slow going but the views more than made up for it. After a short time the trail turns straight for the summit with much easier, less technical footing. The change is welcome!
I neared the top, spied the summit shelter, and found myself overwhelmed with conflicting emotion. I hiked ahead of my folks and stood on the summit alone for a few minutes to take it all in. On one hand, I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to finish the whole journey. I could only imagine what it must feel like to stand here after experiencing the entire John Muir Trail. What a fantastic ending it must be! But at the same time I felt overwhelming joy. Only a few days ago I was convinced that Whitney wasn’t going to happen but somehow we did it! Somehow we snagged permits and a break in smoke conditions. I almost couldn’t believe it was happening!
I hugged my dad and stepmom when they arrived and we cracked a bottle of champagne to celebrate. We chatted with other folks on the summit and shared hi-fives and hugs. People had come from near and far to climb this mountain and nearly everyone had a story about what drove them to do it. It was a pretty amazing moment of summit camaraderie amongst perfect strangers.
Sitting on the summit of Whitney I realized that despite all your work and all your preparation life rarely unfolds exactly as planned. You can get wrapped up in the things that went wrong or you can fully enjoy yourself in this minute right in front of you. The disappointment over my failed JMT attempt simply faded away. Life is best lived in the present and at this very moment I was fulfilling a big dream: standing on the summit of the highest mountain in the lower 48 with my dad and stepmom. There’s nothing better than the view right in front of you and I gotta tell you, the view from 14,505’ on Mount Whitney is pretty damn amazing!
Want to hike Whitney in a day?
Day hiking Mount Whitney is considered an ambitious, strenuous undertaking. The route is a 22 mile round trip adventure that gains over 6k in elevation. Most people suggest backpacking it over 2-3 days. With the trail starting slightly above 8,000’ and topping out at 14,505’, acclimation to altitude is strongly recommended.
Averaging only 500′ per mile of climbing, the trail isn’t necessarily steep or tough, but the altitude makes it long and strenuous. The Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor’s Center suggests 11-18 hours to complete the roundtrip trek. Our hike took 14 hours including a long stop at the summit and several food breaks along the way. I was in no hurry yet felt as though I was moving a consistently strong pace. My days spent at altitude while backpacking the JMT were hugely beneficial. For me, the descent was the toughest. I’d highly recommend trekking poles to keep your knees happy. It’s a long and rocky 11 miles down.
Getting a permit.
The hardest part of planning a Whitney day hike or backpack is getting the permit. If you’re hiking the trail between May 1 and November 1, quotas limit trail usage to 100 people per day and 60 people overnight. With the prime weather window for Whitney being August and September, dates book up fast. Permits are allocated using a lottery system which opens on February 1 each year. From February 1 – March 15 you can sign up to enter the Whitney lottery on the recreation.gov website. On April 1 any remaining spots are available for reservation online and any lottery reservations not accepted by April 30st are released and available for reservation May 1. You can pick up reserved permits at the Visitor Center in Lone Pine a few miles from Whitney Portal. Visit the Inyo National Forest website for full information about the permit and lottery process.
In 2015 11,662 applications were submitted to the Mt. Whitney Lottery. 43% were awarded the date of their choice and 57% were unsuccessful. If you want to climb Whitney, plan ahead and chose some weekdays to help your lottery chances. You can also show up at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor’s Center in Lone Pine and possibly snag an unclaimed permit like we did. Just make sure you get there before 11am to put your name in for the daily walk-in lottery and give yourself a few days of flexibility. You can also call the Visitor Center for specific questions or information.
There are places on the trail where water is readily available, though some sources can dry up in drought years. I took a small filter and had no trouble getting water on the trail. Most people report drinking anywhere from 2-4 liters of water on the day hike. Keep in mind that you should stay well hydrated at altitude!
August and September are historically the best weather windows to complete a Whitney hike. The days are long, the conditions typically dry, and thunderstorms aren’t quite as common as they are in July. Make sure to pack a reasonable amount of gear though, it’s a long hike and getting caught in inclement weather could be deadly. 14k is no place to realize you didn’t bring extra layers. If thunderstorms are threatening turn around and NEVER enter the summit shelter during lightning. The mountain will be there another day.
If you decide to hike Whitney make sure to get back down in time to visit the Whitney Portal store at the trailhead. Nothing hits the spot like an ice cold beer, a burger, or hot dogs after one long, tough day! in August the store is open until 9pm and in September until 8pm. If you’re staying in Lone Pine to acclimate, the Alabama Hills Cafe is the spot for breakfast. Get there early, they frequently have a line out the door on busy days.
The hike of a lifetime!
If you’re fit, prepared, and lucky enough to get a permit, I guarantee that day hiking Mount Whitney will be one of the highlights of your life! Bring a mini bottle of champagne to celebrate but don’t go overboard: drinking at altitude is a doozy! Remember you have a long way down, but stay a while and fully enjoy those views. Sitting on the summit of the highest peak in the lower 48 sure does give your life a grand new perspective and some mindfulness.