Summiting Mt Whitney
Summiting Mt Whitney – We knew we had a real long day ahead of us, not to mention civilization, burgers, and beers, so we had packed up camp and were on trail by 2:15 in the morning. It was our last day on the High Sierra Trail and we didn’t necessarily plan to summit Mt Whitney for sunrise, but we mainly just wanted to make sure we beat the heat coming back down on our way to Whitney Portal.
Hiking under the moonlight, I knew we had made quick work of the 3-miles of switchbacks traversing up the west side of Mount Whitney, but I was in serious disbelief as we topped out at Trail Crest well before sunrise. I had expected so much worse so it just felt way too good to be true. I guess six days and sixty-ish miles on trail does the body well…
Trail Crest is the junction of the High Sierra Trail/John Muir Trail with the Mount Whitney Trail. From that point, it was another 2.1 miles to the summit, but since we had to backtrack after summiting, we were able to drop some unneeded gear to lighten our loads. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the liberating feeling after throwing my pack back on with 20-ish pounds less than I had been carrying for a week. I felt like I could go for a jog…
Which I ended up doing.
The trail to the summit follows and open, rocky route along the west side of the Sierra Crest traversing the ridge below the Keeler Needles. As it was getting it real close to sunrise, a orange and pink glow beginning to light up over the peaks to the south and even though our 2:15 a.m. start hadn’t been designed to summit for sunrise, at that point in my mind, I was too close to not make it. I broke out into a quick trot mixed in with a slow jog, stopping only to grab a shot of some nice colors behind Keeler Needles.
And it was worth every rushed step. I had stood on 14er summits for sunrise before, but there was something different with being on top of Mount Whitney that morning. It wasn’t necessarily that at 14,505 feet it was the tallest point in the contiguous United States (that’s cool though), but more that it was a culmination of the week leading up to it. With another 11 miles to go back out to the car, we were far from done, but watching the sun rise over the Inyo Mountains and Owens Valley to the east before illuminating the peaks of the Great Western Divide, Kaweah Peaks Ridge, and eventually Kern Canyon to the west was simply surreal. Desert to the east, alpine sierra to the west and we had hiked from one to the other.
It was an unmatched sense of accomplishment.
(My only regret was leaving my coffee back at Trail Crest!)
I was able to spend over an hour on the summit, but knowing we still had a long day ahead (11 miles, -6100′), we backtracked to Trail Crest and begrudgingly packed our stuff back up, and begun the trudge down the infamous 99-switchbacks of Mount Whitney.
Back on Day 2, I mentioned that there were two moments on the High Sierra that made my jaw drop – Stepping through the tree line and seeing Hamilton Lake was the first. Cresting over to the top of the infamous Mt Whitney switchbacks and looking north was that second moment for me.
When most people ascent Mount Whitney, they slowly build up the views of Mt Muir, the Keeler Needles, and all the other towering pinnacles as they climb. Coming from the west (and in the dark), this was the first time I saw this view and it was a like a pleasant smack to the face. (Not sure how that works…?)
Not one single person that passed me on their way up the switchbacks had a smile on their face, but for me, it was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
We finally had breakfast at Trail Camp, a flat section of the valley at the bottom of the switchbacks where a lot of people set up base camp for a night before their eventual summit push. It’s been referred to as a ‘tent city’ and it was an absolute mess – tents and trash everywhere. Back to civilization, I guess.
Once again, we begrudgingly (theme of the day?) put our packs back on to continue the descent – Only 6.3 miles to go. Past stunning Consultation Lake, down Lone Pine Creek past Mirror Lake, a beautiful glacial cirque, past Outpost Camp, and finally to the junction for Lone Pine Lake.
Back in familiar territory for me, the final 2.8 miles were a torturous breeze. Torturous because I was just exhausted, but a breeze because I knew how close we were to the burgers and beers we had been thinking about for a week…
Tips for this Section of Trail:
- Make sure to fill up and top-off water before leaving the tarns above Guitar Lake. There was no other reliable water source until Trail Camp Lake, 9.1 miles later.
- I absolutely recommend getting on trail well before dawn – think 2-3 a.m – for three reasons
- Sunrise up top is a surreal feeling so if you can be up there for it, that’s awesome.
Storms were of no concern for us since the weather was too perfect, but if the forecast has them coming in, do not be up high when they do.
- There’s no way to sugar-coat how long of a day this will be. An earlier start gets you off trail earlier as well. Personally, I wouldn’t have wanted to get back to my car at 9 p.m. and then figure out camping/lodging from there.
- If you’re dropping gear at Trail Crest, make sure to either bring all your food with you or store it in a bear canister. We saw some mice working on some packs for breakfast.
And once again, anywhere and everywhere. Highlights for me:
- Sunrise from the summit
- Sunrise behind Keeler Needles.
- Looking west from anywhere along the ridge from Trail Crest to the summit (Overlooking Hitchcock Lakes, Guitar Lake, and Kaweah Peaks.)
- From the top of the switchbacks looking north or towards Owens Valley to the east.
- Trail Camp Pond looking west at Mt Muir
- Consultation Lake… Mirror Lake… Lone Pine Lake… so many lakes!
- And the Alabama Hills on your way into Lone Pine!
General Information & Planning:
- The History of the High Sierra Trail
- Planning for the High Sierra Trail
- Packing List & Tips
- Photography Spots & Tips
- Day 1: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw
- Day 2: Bearpaw to Hamilton Lake
- Day 3 (Part 1): Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap
- Day 3 (Part 2): Kaweah Gap to Moraine Lake
- Day 4: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
- Day 5: Junction Meadow to Crabtree Ranger Station
- Day 6: Crabtree Ranger Station to Guitar Lake
- Mt Whitney: The Tallest Peak in the Lower US
- Day 7: Guitar Lake, up Mount Whitney, and out to Whitney Portal