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Mt. Whitney – One Day Hike

This is a killer hike! - A must for the extreme day hiker. With some careful planning, some conditioning, and the right mental attitude this can be a successful day and an unforgettable experience. Mt. Whitney is a 22 miles round trip hike, has an elevation climb of over 6000 feet, and is one of the most famous extreme day hikes.

The Trail: It averages about 550 feet elevation gain per mile, an easy slope. There are a few shallow stream crossings with a couple of slippery logs and rocks. The trail surface is smooth in most places with some rocks up at the higher elevations. Even in the summer time small patches of snow/ice can often be found on a couple of the 97 switchbacks above Trail Camp.

How Long Does it Take? The ascent time for a day hike up Mt. Whitney is a fast pace of 5 hours, a moderate time of 7-8 hours, and a slow hike of 10 hours.  Going down is about 2-3 hours quicker than going up. Therefore, if you are a beginner and/or not in top physical shape it is easy to spend up to 18 hours on this "day hike." So if you want to return to Whitney Portal before dusk (about 8pm in the summertime), a very early start is recommended if you are in the two slower categories.

Trekking Poles: These are a definite advantage not only for balance on the stream crossings, the ice, and the rocks, but also to take some of load off the legs during the 22 miles marathon. Another advantage of walking sticks is the ability to use a lighter shoe since the poles give stability for ankles and take pressure off the feet.

Acclimatization: In the Himalayas and other high altitudes treks, climbers plan on moving up the peak at the rate of 1000 feet a day, to allow for acclimatization. This is not necessary for Mt Whitney but some acclimatization is recommended. For a one-day hike a reasonable plan is to arrive at the Whitney Portal campground (8600 feet) two days before the hike. For example, for a Saturday summit, arrive Thursday afternoon. Friday, take a leisurely small hike to 10,000 feet (Lone Pine Lake is good) and spend a few hours there relaxing at that elevation.

Weather: July and early August appear to be the best weather periods, with shirtsleeves and shorts the appropriate dress. Even then, wind at the higher levels can produce near freezing cold. Wind pants and 4 layers of upper body clothing including a long sleeved fleece shirt and a windbreaker are necessary. Afternoon thunderstorms are common and lightening is a problem. Watch for clouds and get down below the trail crest before the afternoon. The last place you want to be in a thunderstorm is exposed on the summit. Even worse, don’t even think about getting inside the metal shack on the summit during a thunderstorm.

Water: Carry what you need, or treat or filter stream water. One idea is to stash some water around Mirror Lake on the way up. Why carry it to the top and then back down? Some people have suggested the water coming out of the rocks on the 97 switchbacks is good because it filtered through sand. Ask around. In any event, at least 2-3 liters is needed. However, a nighttime start can reduce water need.

A Moderately Paced Hike: Go to sleep as early as possible and get up at 2:30am. Be on the trail at 3:15am. Yes, this is very early but it is worth losing a couple hours sleep to assure getting off the peak before noon to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.  Here's an article about starting around midnight and arriving at sunrise.

The table below shows the milestones where you need to be to get to the top by 10:30am. This writer developed this data after 3 Mt Whitney day hikes during the early '90's… "your mileage may vary." This 7-hour ascent time is a good mid-range time. During the past ten years my times have been improving to the 5-6 hour ascent range.

You may wish to print out a copy of this time log and record your own times. It would be great to see some other results posted on this forum.

Ascending Mt Whitney in 7 Hours 10 Minutes

Elevation, Distance, and Time by Landmark

Altitude

Leg

Cum.

Mile

Time

Cum.

Time

Whitney Portal

8360

Stream crossing

0.5

0.5

0:15

0:15

N Fork Lone Pine Creek

8810

0.3

0.8

0:10

0:25

Lone Pine creek-25 sb

1.9

2.7

0:55

1:20

Lone Pine Lake

9960

0.1

2.8

0:03

1:23

Bighorn park-16 sb

10340

0.7

3.5

0:22

1:45

Outpost Camp

10360

0.3

3.8

0:10

1:55

Mirror Lake-14 sb

10640

0.5

4.3

0:16

2:11

Whitebark stump-18 sb

0.5

4.8

0:19

2:30

Trailside Meadow

11395

0.5

5.3

0:18

2:48

Camping turnout-18 sb

11890

0.7

6.0

0:28

3:16

Trail Camp

12039

0.3

6.3

0:12

3:28

Switchback cables

12820

1.4

7.7

1:10

4:38

Trail Crest-96 sb

13777

0.8

8.5

0:40

5:18

John Muir Trail

13480

0.5

9.0

0:17

5:36

Mt.Muir

0.3

9.3

0:12

5:49

Keeler Needle

1.2

10.5

0:55

6:44

Summit

14496

0.5

11.0

0:26

7:10

* sb = Switchbacks

 Starting out: It may be a little chilly, but once you are walking the layers will come off. With any moonlight a flashlight may not be necessary. Light sticks are good or a small penlight flashlight also works well. The trail is well established and is easy to see. The trailhead is east of the Portal Store and about a mile up from the Whitney Portal campground. There is parking next to the trailhead but it fills up quickly in the busy summer weekends - another reason for starting out early.

Along the Way: The key to a successful hike is to develop a consistent pace and don’t stop "to rest" too often. The switchbacks can be tough if they are taken too fast, especially the famous "97" above Trail Camp. If you start out as suggested above, you will get a beautiful sunrise somewhere around Mirror Lake. By the time you reach Trail Camp, you will find overnight campers awaking to start out on their ascent, also. The good news, unlike them, is you did not freeze the previous night and you do not have to carry a heavy back down later that day.

On the Top: Sign in, sit down, and relish the moment assuming you have no blisters or altitude sickness. Start down no later than noon and you should be back to Whitney Portal for dinner and a cold beer.

And, it is possible you have not only climbed the highest mountain in the continental U.S. but you may have generated some new neurons to prevent or delay Alzheimer's Disease!

 

Mt Whitney Web References:

Mt Whitney Portal Store

Mt Whitney Web Cam

Mt Whitney Summit Weather

Mt Whitney Portal Campground

Mt Whitney Hiking Permits

Mt Whitney Forum

 

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