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Hiking Stats as of 11/21/2018
Total Trips:
Total Distance:
Total Elevation Gain:
 325
 3,891.68 miles
 1,060,050 feet

Jun 28, 2013 - Whitney, Mount / Muir, Mount

 

Partners: Kyle Breen

Distance: 22.39 miles

Elevation Gain: 7,433 feet

Trip Time: 12:06

Maps and Stats:
After summiting Tioga Peak on Wednesday and acclimating at Horseshoe Meadows on Thursday, Kyle and I were ready for the Mt. Whitney dayhike Friday. Despite knowing we had something like 15 hours of daylight available to us, we both wanted to get off to an early start in order to allow ourselves enough time to drive back home following the hike. We were staying at the Courthouse Motel in Independence, about a 35 minute drive from the Whitney Portal starting point for the hike. We set the alarm for 3:15 AM and left the hotel less than 25 minutes later. There was little traffic on the way up to the Portal and we started on the trail at about 4:15 AM.

Obviously it was still dark at that time, so we both used headlamps to light the trail. By 5 AM, the first bits of sunlight started showing themselves over the distant mountains and within another 30 minutes we were able to put our headlamps away. The lower portions of the trail are full of vegetation and flowing water and make for an enjoyable hiking experience. The Whitney trail differs from most of our other recent hikes in that it is well graded (there was never a point where we needed to rest our legs) and it offers advantages like elevated log bridges that we don't normally see. One thing we were really surprised with was the lack of people on the trail - this would continue all day. Surely part of this is due to the permit restrictions in the Whitney Zone, where only 100 permits are given each day.

Soon the rising sun illuminated the higher peaks ahead just as we reached our first water fill up location of the day. We had researched the best places to get water on the Whitney Trail, and had learned that this spring which was 3.7 miles into the hike, along with a stream that would be available another 3 miles later on the 98 switchbacks were best. In order to save on pack weight we both carried minimal water - I carried 2 liters in my pack and one in my hand. By always drinking 1 liter fresh from the water sources and then leaving with a full 3 liters, we would have plenty of fluids without having to carry much weight. We also knew that these two water sources were extremely pure - no filtration necessary. After filling up we hit the first of two backpackers camps before the hike would change from shady green areas to a continual pounding up granite rock.

We followed the trail up the granite as it largely followed a drainage that left a streak of green through the otherwise rocky landscape. We soon saw that the drainage was sourced from Consultation Lake. Just past the lake we finally had some great views of the Whitney crest as we made our way into Trail Camp, the other backpackers camp at the base of the switchbacks. We were making excellent time, having only taken about 3 hours to cover the 6 miles and 3,700 feet of elevation gain up to 12,000 feet. We wasted no time in starting up the infamous 97 (98? 99?) switchbacks which would take us from Trail Camp up to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet. Neither one of us was having any issues with the increasing elevation, and had no reason to stop until switchback 23 where the second water source was running.

I drank a full liter of the ice cold water and then packed up 3 liters knowing that this was the last water source available before the summit and it would be a while before we would be back. We were also careful to take the water from the highest switchback crossing - the stream cascades down over several switchbacks so caution is needed to ensure you aren't taking water that has passed over the trail. As we set out again I found the source of our stream which looks like it will provide water for another couple of months. We continued on up and hit the cable around switchback 45. There is still some snow on the trail at this point, but nothing that created any real problems, unlike the snow a few switchbacks higher where the trail becomes quite narrow . The switchbacks are quite monotonous, with the only measure of satisfaction coming as you measure your progress against Wotans Throne, the wonderfully named peak adjacent to Trail Camp and the summits of Mt. Whitney and the Needles, with Whitney being the one furthest left and Keeler Needle the one next to Whitney. More impressive from the switchbacks is the view of Mt. Muir, which rises to an elevation just over 14,000 but is still over 500 feet shorter than Whitney.

We made it to Trail Crest at 8:45 AM, at which point the trail crosses over to the western slopes of the Whitney crest and offers new views to the west. From here the tail descends a couple of hundred feet, much to the hikers dismay. Any ground lost will have to be made back up again. The trail passes by Mt. Muir and several jagged pinnacles along with the so-called Whitney windows, where a gap in the Whitney crest results in massive drops along both sides of the trail. Once passed the 3 or 4 windows, the flat Whitney summit along with its neighboring needles come into view. Although it appears quite close, there is still quite a ways to go. During this stretch we must have passed a dozen people on the trail. And by passed I mean we blew right by them. We both felt that this was probably due to the lack of any really steep sections on the trail so we never had elevated heart rates or breathing needs. We have both become used to less friendly trails and that probably prepped us pretty well for this. For most of the trip we might as well have been at sea level. We worked our way through some ghostly looking snow pinnacles on the final approach before we saw the Smithsonian Shelter marking the summit of Mt. Whitney.

After signing in we did the touristy (it is the highest peak in the lower 48 after all) trip around the Whitney summit, noting the summit plaque, and a couple of summit markers. As you would expect, the views from the top are excellent. Looking east towards the Owens Valley I could see Iceberg Lake, Mt. Russell to the north, some lakes to the northwest, Red and Black Kaweah to the West, and down towards the Whitney Portal and our starting location. To the south was Keeler Needle (zoom) which I had climbed to within 10 feet of the summit last year. Before leaving we made sure to get some good summit photos of Kyle, myself, and one of the two of us and I took a minute for some silly shots before descending after about 40 minutes on the summit.

I had mentioned to Kyle that I wanted to climb up Keeler Needle while we were up here, although I doubted I would attempt the final 10 feet of the insanely exposed summit block. With both of our energy levels very high, we decided to give it a shot. The climb up is not that difficult and only takes about 15 minutes. Although on this section I had my first bits of a headache, as the steepness of the climb elevated my heart rate and shortened my breathing a bit. As we approached the summit I was starting to think that maybe I could get to the top and with my next opportunity likely to be a long time from now I probably should go for it. Until we actually got there. While the large rock leading to the summit doesn't look too bad, the narrow crossing to the rock combined with the 1,000 foot vertical drop below was enough to give me pause. While I paused to enjoy the view of Whitney from about 15 feet below, Kyle made a couple of moves like he might actually try for the summit. First peering at the exposure then stepping close to the ledge before having a quick change of heart and backing away. For my part I got as far as those two small rocks connecting to the final summit block but couldn't help but notice that a slip on that large rock would probably ruin the day. I took a moment to capture the scene on video so I could study it later on in order to help a future attempt. From here I also noticed the slightly lower Crook's Peak (the next needle over) and for a moment thought about heading over there instead but quickly decided that I would just settle for an attempt on Mt. Muir instead. So down we went.

We followed the trail back towards Mt. Muir and then left the trail and scrambled up the rocks towards the base of the summit block. Mt. Muir is a difficult 3rd class climb, beyond anything I had ever done before. But I had come prepared with a fantastic route map that I printed from summitpost.org, and I felt pretty good about my chances. The map really gives scale to the size of the summit boulders, as the climber in the middle of the shot appears quite small in comparison to the size of the blocks. We had intended to follow the blue line on the map, but after spending 10 minutes studying the map and another 10 minutes stuck on one of the rocks and unable to get to the location where the red and blue lines met, Kyle descended to the bottom and started up the red line. He was unable to quite get up to where the two lines met, but after giving up on my route I descended and then followed him where I was able to wedge my foot in one of the cracks and put enough weight on my foot to elevate me up to the top of that tricky boulder. In the shot it looks like I am nearly on the top but in reality that is about halfway up, as seen on the route map. From there I was able to maneuver across the rounded boulder thanks to my long legs and from that point several easy moves had me just underneath the summit block. The last bit was pretty tricky and felt pretty exposed, as I held onto the summit block and swung up my right leg up on the block before crawling safely on top. I think I may have taken the wrong route at the very top but no matter, I made it up to the summit. At this point my head was pounding due to the difficult climbing and probably due to the stress. The summit area was very small and I could only stand for a minute before needing to sit. I stayed on top only long enough to sign the summit register, get a shot of Mt. Whitney and a unique shot of the 98 switchbacks which is only available from this vantage point (The view from Whitney is blocked by the needles and it is too far to see back to this point anyway). After no more than 3 or 4 minutes I was on the descent, somewhat nervous about finding a safe route down. It turned out to be a very easy descent though and I was down very quickly and after a break, was back on the trail.

Thanks to all of our side activities, it had now been three hours since we had summited Mt. Whitney and we were only about a mile down the trail from the summit. Not that we were trying to set any speed records but we did want to be down in time to be able to make the 6 hour drive back home afterword. We quickly started down, myself now particularly enjoying the views of Mt. Muir. We refilled our water supplies at the stream on switchback 23, only this time the stream was practically a river as the warm air was rapidly melting the snow. Rather than simply crossing the trail, the stream actually followed the trail down for several portions of the switchbacks, making the descent a bit trickier. We were making good time, going nearly 3 miles per hour as we passed Consultation Lake and made our way down back into the green slopes of the lower elevations. We enjoyed the forest walk that darkness had hid from us in the morning. As the afternoon clouds set in we reached the bottom, less than 3 1/2 hours after the side trip up Mt. Muir.

This was my second trip up Mt. Whitney and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. I don't know if I can make this an annual trip, but I know I'll be back for more. The Whitney hike covered about 22.5 miles and over 7,400 feet of elevation gain - the gain being a new personal record for me. Despite an hour and a half of side activities on Keeler and Mt. Muir, the entire trip took just a few minutes longer than 12 hours. We left Whitney Portal at about 4:40 and arrived back at my house in Tracy at 10:40. Hmmm, I wonder what Kyle is doing next weekend...Keeler Needle is still calling us!

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