Day Hiking Mt. Whitney

I had a hike in the Angeles Mountains planned with my wife's niece (Jia-Meng) for Saturday July 27, but 3 days before she called me and asked if I was interested in doing Mt. Whitney instead. Her friend Sara had a couple of open spots on a permit. Of course I was interested! It's a significant peak and I had never been up there. The painful permit process, reports of crowds and trash had kept me from making it a priority and put it on my "some day when there is a good opportunity" list. Well, this was the opportunity. Two weeks prior I had climbed Mt. Williamson, California's 2nd highest mountain and caught some good views of Whitney. It also meant that I did not have to worry about being in shape for a 20+mile hike with 6500ft elevation gain up to 14500ft.

The photo gallery for this report can be found here: Whitney Hike Gallery

Day 1: July 26, 2013

We drove to Lone Pine on Friday afternoon arriving at 6pm. On a whim we went up to Whitney Portal to see if we could score an unreserved camp site. According to the campground host we were 10 minutes too late! Oh if we only hadn't stopped for that cool drink along the way. So we drove back down to Lone Pine campground at the foot of the mountains just 6 miles from the Portal and at 6000ft, just high enough to give us a little acclimatization from sea level. As we set up and during the night there were numerous light rain showers and the cloud cover never broke.

Day 2: July 27, 2013

On Saturday we got up at 2 am, broke up camp and headed to the Portal. We hit the trail at 3:19am in light rain. Pretty soon we were sweating under our rain jackets and our pants were soaked. After about 1.5h Sara stopped and voiced her concern about getting too cold. She was shivering and said she felt cold even while walking. Since we did not know if or when the rain would stop and it would clear up for us to dry and warm up, I proposed to turn around. Sara said, she wanted us to continue and that she felt comfortable to return to the trail head by herself. Since we were on a very busy section of the trail even at this hour (we saw light from head lamps above and below us) and since it was a very well maintained trail we considered this split. After a short discussion, by this time Jia-Meng and I where shivering also after standing for a few minutes, we decided to split.

Hike Stats:

  • Distance hiked: 22 miles (19.5 miles per GPS)
  • Elevation gain: 6590 ft (GPS)
  • Time on trail: 14h 52m
  • Time up: 7h 14m
  • Time on peak: 1h 7m
  • Time down: 6h 31m

Now cold, Jia-Meng took the lead and picked up the pace to get warm. From the Lone Pine lake intersection to Trail Camp the trail was flooded or functioning as a creek for significant portions. We had to rock hop or detour quite a bit. Nevertheless we made good time and reached Trail Camp at 7:00am. We took a bathroom beak and I filtered some water. This all took longer than normal due to our cold fingers. We ended up spending 25 minutes here. This was also the time to re-evaluate our situation. It was still raining, we were still cold when not moving, and there was no indication that the weather would improve soon. Both of us had enough dry cloth (long johns, rain pants, fleece/down jacket) in our packs that we figured we could change into mostly dry cloth if needed. So we came up with a plan: If we can continue in our current state and make it to the peak we would change in the hut up there and start the return hike (which would not generate as much heat on the downhill) in a dry state.

Now it was up the 97 switch backs. Jia-Meng again was leading and moving at a very good clip. We passed quite a few people. She was cold and on a mission! We made the crest by 8:54am. From here the trail is a little more tedious since it's rocky and has some up and downs in it. By this time the rain had let up and our pants started to dry. On the final mile we got pounded gain though, this time by a rain-sleet mix and the pants were soaked within moments. Jia-Meng was now mad at the weather. She just put her head down and stomped on. Once at the hut (10:33am) she just went in without even looking back. A moment later when I reached the door she peeked her head out to look for me. Inside the hut I was greeted by about a dozen shivering people. It felt like a sauna coming from the cold, windy outside. Condensation was dripping from the ceiling. It was strictly standing room in this little 8x8ft space. We recovered a little with snacks and after taking our wet jackets off. After some time people started to leave and we had room to change sitting on a little bench. Boy did those dry cloth feel good! Reinvigorated we stepped outside and actually saw the sun. There were some breaks in the clouds and we got glimpses of the views this peak normally offers. Jia-Meng had taken in these views a few weeks before on a backpack to the peak and I had similar views 2 weeks before just a few miles north from Mt. Williamson. So we were not too disappointed.

On the descent (started at 11:40am) there were more opportunities for some views than on the way up since it was not raining and breaks in the clouds became more frequent. We stopped often to take them in, record them or just watch them change right in front of our eyes with the clouds constantly changing the 'sun windows'. As we started down from Trail Crest we heard some thunder in the distance. I topped off my water at Trail Camp again and changed into shorts. From here on we met many backpackers coming in. We must have seen at least half of the daily 60 people quota. Until then the trail was not as crowded as I had feared. The weather of course was the reason and many day hikers turned around even before Trail Camp as we later learned upon our return to Whitney Portal. As for trash I didn't see more than on any other trail with this kind of traffic, but I did see a lot of WAG bags.

On the last 3 miles we got rained on a little again. At this point we didn't care and didn't even bother to put our jackets back on. We just wanted to finish this. Both of us were experiencing some aches. My sciatica let me know who controls the legs and Jia-Meng's knees had about enough downhill for a day. We tended to fall into a rather slow speed so we motivated ourselves with the goal to finish in under 15 h. Which we managed to do with 8 min to spare.

Day 3: July 28, 2013

On Sunday we took it easy with a short drive through the Alabama hills. Early in the morning there was no cloud on the mountains. By the time we left the area though, there were some sizeable thunderstorms moving along the mountains.