California's Sierra Nevada mountains are terrific for hiking and backpacking in the summer months. The weather is warm and dry (i.e. no mosquitoes), especially on the eastern slopes, and there's plenty of fresh water available in its lakes. And the scenery is gorgeous. During the time I lived in California I'd get to the mountains as often as I reasonably could.
The highest peak in the lower 48 states is Mt. Whitney, whose summit can be attained by hiking, not requiring technical mountain climbing gear and experience. This makes Mt. Whitney a very popular destination among both hikers and climbers (especially those collecting peaks).
Mt Whitney's summit stands at 14,505 feet (4420 meters). While it's the tallest peak in the “lower 48,” it's only the 11th tallest peak in the United States (the top ten all found in Alaska). But it is a dramatic mountain that rises more than 10,000 feet (3048 meters) above its closest town, Lone Pine, in the Owens River Valley to the east. The mountain is named in honor of a California geologist who was a contemporary of John Muir.
Approximately 30,000 people try to summit Mt. Whitney every year but only 10,000 succeed, in part because of the high altitude and because it is a fairly steep and challenging trek.
Because of its popularity and to limit traffic up and down the mountain, you need to enter a lottery to get a permit to camp on the mountain. Only 100 day-hikers and 60 backpackers are allowed on the Mt Whitney Trail per day, the season being from May 1st to November 1st. The snow is often not completely off the mountain until late July, and as the trail is quite steep with sheer dropoffs in many places, it's safest to do it when the snow and ice are gone. So August and early September would be ideal times to try to get your permit.
My wife and I planned on doing this trip with our friends, Ray and Carol, and they submitted all of our names into the lottery. We were able to get 4 spots in early September 1994. We were lucky -- among the 25% of lottery entrants who are successful each year. This and my next Friday's blog are a summary of our journey up Mount Whitney:
We did this as a 4 day, three night adventure, including departing and returning to our homes in southern California which was about a 4-5 hour journey by car in each direction.
Day One: Left the Los Angeles area early in the morning. Trip up to the Whitney Portal Trailhead, including the drive from Southern California. Parked and armed with our heavy backpacks we left the 8600 foot altitude trailhead and began an upward march (2.8 miles) to the first lake, Lone Pine Lake at 9,900 feet altitude, where we set up our first camp. We were in reasonable physical condition, but it was hot and the altitude was challenging, so we were glad for the extra night to help us acclimate.
We enjoyed our camp here. We'd arrived relatively early and had time to set up camp and relax. The lake is sheltered, so there wasn't much wind, and the site offers lovely views of the Sierra Nevada range and Owens Valley to the east. The light of the setting sun was memorable and at dusk hundreds of bats emerged and could be seen and heard flying around, grabbing insects out of the air. The night sky was filled with a million stars.
Day Two: The next morning we work to a beautiful scene. As we prepared breakfast we got to enjoy the rising light on Lone Pine Lake.
We broke camp and continued to the main camp further up the trail known as Trail Camp, located at 12,000 feet. From Lone Pine Lake the Mt. Whitney trail continues to climb up along Lone Pine Creek and offers beautiful views of the gray granite spires of the Sierra Nevada range....
Soon we passed Outpost Camp, an option for people who don't want to camp at the busier Trail Camp. But we were determined to get to Trail Camp.
The trail also passes pretty Mirror Lake, a source of drinking water but with no campground nearby.
We arrived at Trail Camp around noon after a fairly leisurely journey, though with the altitude and our heavy packs, we were huffing and puffing. It was to be our home for two nights, as the following day we planned on summiting Mount Whitney and returning to Trail Camp, before heading out on the fourth morning. We had the advantage of leaving all of our camping gear at Trail Camp and doing the summit with only our lighter day packs. Also, we had more time to acclimatize at Trail Camp in the increasingly thin air.
Trail Camp is fairly busy, and it's also quite exposed and windy. It's above the tree line so it's barren and rocky. Prior campers had built stone walls that shelter tents from the winds, and this was appreciated as the wind really howled at night. There's a lake nearby so you have a good source of fresh water, and there were solar toilets (not a joke -- they exist), making our lives a little more civilized.
We spent the remainder of the day resting and reading. One thing I clearly remember about that warm sunny afternoon is that while I was lying on my back, looking up at the sky, my entire field of vision was suddenly filled by a B2 stealth bomber. They are quiet planes. I never heard it until it flew a few thousand feet above me. It startled me and gave me one of my more unique back country moments.
Next week I conclude the tale of this journey. You can read that post at this link.