Whitney or Won't We?

Switchbacks from Hell
  |  Gorp.com
Looking West from Whitney
Looking West from Mt. Whitney trail towards Alabama Hills

Soon the footpath skirts the unimaginatively named Trailside Meadow, at 5.3 miles (don't be fooled by the 5-mile marker stenciled on a nearby boulder). This is a good resting spot, but be careful not to tread on the fragile high-country flowers and grasses. Another mile of climbing in this gorgeously austere world brings you to Trail Camp (12,039 feet), a popular stopping point for campers. A pond here is the last reliable watering hole, so fill up your water bottles. Be sure to use the solar latrine unless you plan on packing it out later.

Beyond Trail Camp lie the infamous 96 (or 98 or 100, depending on who's counting) switchbacks that take you up 1,738 feet in elevation in just over two miles to Trail Crest (13,777 feet). It would seem obvious that these exposed ridges comprise the toughest part of the trek, but many hikers report that the final stretch to the summit beyond Trail Crest is actually more punishing because the peak seems so tantalizingly close in this rarefied air. Beyond Trail Crest, the path actually descends briefly to a junction with the John Muir Trail (9.0 miles, 13,480 feet), then begins an ascent of another 1,015 feet over two miles to the summit. The final segment of the trail requires some boulder hopping and careful footwork, often difficult when your brain is screaming for oxygen.

On a clear day, the views from the peak stretch 100 miles in a 360-degree alpine Nirvana. The High Sierras roll on to the north, with the Great Western Divide visible in the northwest. The Kaweah Peaks lay to the west, and to the east are the 11,000-foot Inyo Mountains, looking like lumps of brown sugar far below. Whitney's little sister, Mt. Langley (14,027 feet), is directly south about five miles.A stone hut standing on Whitney's summit was built in 1909 by the Smithsonian. Camping is allowed on the summit, and while it's a rush to snooze in America's penthouse for the price of a Happy Meal, be prepared for wicked weather and have plenty of water.

Unless you are properly outfitted for a night on the exposed granite, it is important to be off the summit before the Sierra's infamous afternoon thunderheads roll in and to make sure you have plenty of time to get down before nightfall. Unless, that is, you are familiar with hiking down rocky trails by moonlight.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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