Summiting Mount Whitney.

At 14,505 feet, Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48 states.  Last year, several of my co-workers and I decided to hike to the summit of Mt Whitney.  The hike to the top does not required any technical expertise (no rock climbing or scrambling is needed) however it is just really long and steep.  At a round trip of 22 miles and an elevation gain of over 6,100 feet, it would be the longest hike I had ever attempted.  I had been training for months, summiting the highest peaks in Southern California and training every weekend.  I thought I was prepared well for this hike but nothing could adequately prepare me.

Mount Whitney, Alabama Hills

Mount Whitney as viewed from the Alabama Hills.  It is the peak to the left in the background.  The one with several spires.

On October 1st, 2012, Danielle Cvitanovich, Dilion Reyes, and I left from Whitney Portal at 3:52 in the morning.  After we weighed our packs, we began our day long odyssey.  With headlamps on, we began hiking up the switchbacks in a dark and very quiet forest.  I hiked behind Danielle for the first few miles to slow my pace as I have a tendency to rush out the gate at the beginning of any hike.  This section of the hike is fairly benign, you cross a river while balancing on log bridge. I am sure it is beautiful during the day.  We passed through Outpost Camp in the dark and it only began getting light as we hiked from Outpost camp to Trailside Meadow.  This is where the last huge trees stand before the switchbacks bring you above the treeline.  At this point, the trail turns from dirt to granite and it becomes more difficult to follow. 360 degree views of majestic mountain scenery makes it difficult to focus on the trail.  As we hiked through this area, the cliffs began to glow a deep pink color as the sun slowly began to rise.  Trailside Meadow is a lovely green area on the side of the trail with wildflowers and my first GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES of the trip.  I was not too tired to birdwatch (that came later). In high spirits, our group stopped at Trail Camp to pump some water and this is where things started to get cold.  Trail Camp sits at the base of the infamous 97 switchbacks.  There are several campsites that are tucked behind boulders but none provide excellent shelter.  We found the wind here to be devastating.  It ripped down a massive snow sheet just north of the switchbacks and was funneled over Consultation Lake where we were pumping water.  By the time we had finished pumping water we were all thoroughly chilled and standing around eating did nothing to warm us up.  In fact, it was so cold that I did not chase down an AMERICAN DIPPER that I flushed.  We donned our gloves and neck gaiters and started back up the trail.  Soon, we passed a trio of Europeans eating lunch.  The two guys were dressed in skinny jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers with no jackets.  The girl was wearing leggings with flat ballet type shoes and a long sleeve top.  They were eating brie cheese and a baguette and were laughing, oblivious to the cold.  I told Danielle, “there is no way they are making it to the top.”

The 97 switchbacks are where the hike becomes difficult.  They are murderous, never ending, and punishing. The most frustrating part of this section of the trail is that the view never changes and as a result, I felt that I was not making any progress.  Towards the end of the switchbacks, there are some icy parts that are quite dangerous but cables are thoughtfully mounted along the side.

Topping out at trail crest was probably the second most exhilarating portion of this hike.  One can suddenly see the Great Western Divide.  It was also here that a pair of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches sat in the middle of the trail, likely thinking, “What is wrong with these people.”
Click on this link to check out a movie I made at this point in the trail. Listen to the wind!

From here the trail becomes more difficult, it becomes wide enough for one person and instead of a flat surface, you are walking on jumbled rocks.  To add to drama, the wind began whipping sharp beads of ice into our faces.  The only thing to do was to put our heads down and continue plodding along.  While resting in this section of trail, we were overtaken by the three Europeans.  They cheerfully sung, “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Its off to work we go” as they passed.  I was glad to see that the girl was now wearing socks on her hands in a concession to the cold.  As soon as they passed, a man ran by us in the other direction.  He was wearing shoes, shorts, and no shirt.  He held a water bottle in his hand.  This motivated me to keep on walking and stop complaining about the cold.

Along this stretch of the trail, continuous views of the west are punctuated by brief “windows” in the rock to the east. These spots are not difficult to cross but are particularly scenic and breathtaking as the trail abruptly drops off in both sides and you can see for miles in both directions.  The trail is about 5 feet wide at these points so there is no real threat of falling, but it sure does not feel like it as you are standing on a tiny pedestal of rock with a thousand foot drop off on either side.

Just past this point we met up with other hikers from our group.  They had chosen to take three days to summit and were on their way back down.  They cheered us on and I really think that we needed it at this point.  If I ever attempt this hike again, I will likely make it into a three day event.

After the junction with the John Muir trail, we ran into a large snow field and a large flock of Gray-crowned Rosy Finches.   I remember wondering, what do they eat on the snow and how do they survive at these elevations? There are three species of Rosy-Finch and they love snow, cold, and high elevations.  Gray-Crowned Rosy Finches are the most common species in California.  These birds are gorgeous, like a raspberry dipped in chocolate.  And because they are so difficult to see, birders delight in seeing them.  I had seen them before at feeders in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico and although that experience was awesome, it was so much more enjoyable to see them acting natural in a natural setting.  For me, seeing a bird is great, but the experience is so much more meaningful.  The experience takes into account the context and the habitat.  Walking through this flock of Rosy-Finches above 14,000 meant so much more to me than watching them on a feeder outside while I ate a delicious New Mexican Green Chile Burger.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

This Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch was digiscoped in New Mexico

As we neared the summit, the group became strung out with space in between each person.  I could sense that it was close and put on an extra burst of speed, and then I could see the Smithsonian Institute Shelter.  Before I realized it, I was standing at the top of the highest peak in the lower 48.  For several minutes, I had the entire view to myself.

Check out this movie. Note how the camera starts sagging as I get lightheaded when I stand up.

I was so pleased to watch the look of dogged fatigue change to one of awe as each of my trail mates reached the summit.  We signed the register but did not linger long as dark clouds were on the horizon.

When summiting, it is hard to remember that the summit is only half of the hike.  When descending, it is difficult to forget.  The most brutal part of the hike for me was descending the switchbacks.  I remember my feet hurting with every step.  I thank Danielle for putting up with my complaints.  I am sure that I had one for each of the switchbacks.

As we pulled into trail camp, we saw the rest of our group.  They were sleeping at trail camp that night and would all go on to summit successfully the next day.  While they politely asked us questions, I remember rudely thinking, “gotta keep walking”.  It is amazing how my brain and body reacted to a situation like this.  It is almost like a switch was thrown and all that mattered was getting to the bottom of the mountain.

When researching this trip, I read several trip reports of hikers who had lost the trail.  At the time I thought, “how is that even possible”.  As we descended in the dark, over unmarked granite rocks, on the verge of delirium, I could see how easy it would be to loose the trail.  Luckily, Danielle consistently saw the trail markers that I missed and we got down below treeline safely.  The rest of the trip was just a long slog but at least it was warm again.  As we descended, we saw some lights very distant in the horizon.  Both Danielle and I thought that these lights must be Whitney Portal and that we were still a LONG way out.  Unexpectedly the Whitney Portal store popped up out of nowhere. It turns out the lights were from the town of Lone Pine (where we would sleep that night).  That would have been a long walk indeed.

The next morning, I remember thinking that I should feel more sore than I did.  Danielle and I ate breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe and she ate an entire half pound Mountain Man Burger.  For a whole month, we both could not eat enough food.  I am happy to say that everyone in our group successfully sumitted safely.   This hike was probably the most difficult physical and mental challenge of my life.  It was also one of the undisputed highlights of my life.  I am thankful to all my friends who helped me along the way.

Mt Whitney

Mount Whitney

Here is my post on the County Birding Website the day after:

The idea of creating a SUMMIT LIST was developed by Mike Park and me as we
watched an AMERICAN KESTREL jet past us as we sat, out of breath, on the very
top of White Mountain Peak at 14,246 ft on 9.06.11 in MONO county.

Only a week earlier, I had noticed a small flock of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS fly
over-head while at 10, 064 ft on the bald pate of Old Baldy (Mt. San Antonio)
the highest peak in LOS ANGELES COUNTY.   I added another retroactive bird from
much earlier in the summer during a trip to Sequoia (PEREGRINE FALCON, TULARE).
Moro Rock is a very short but amazingly engineered hike.   Sadly, I cannot
recall any birds from my early training hikes in Santa Barbara (Gaviota Peak
2,458 ft, Montecito Peak 3,214 ft). But I do recall seeing HERMIT WARBLER and
OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER from LaCumbre Peak 3,985 ft on 8.13.11.

The majority of my Summit Birds were seen on subsequent peaks that I bagged in
preparation for Mt. Whitney.

On 9.20.11 I embarked on a 2-day backpacking trip with friends to the top of SAN
BERNARDINO Peak (10,649). The trail was gorgeous but the summit gave views
obscured by trees. Happily, I ticked NORTHERN FLICKER, CLARK’s NUTCRACKER and
One week later, I went for the highest peak in SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, SAN
GORGONIO on a day hike up the Vivian Creek trail. On the way up, I added
MOUNTAIN QUAIL and BROWN CREEPER to my county list. At the peak, I lucked out
with a ton of great birds: MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD, ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, and
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW were all excellent birds for 11, 499 ft. COMMON RAVEN on
the other hand was overdue.

Finally, on 10.01.11 (binary for awesome), I destroyed Mt Whitney with Danielle
Cvitanovich and Dilion Reyes. We left Whitney Portal at 3:55 am and returned at
8:45pm and we completed the 22 miles. The highlight of the trip birdwise was
GRAY-CROWNED ROSY-FINCHES from the summit (A large group of about 25 was at a
small snow field in TULARE while pairs were seen along the trail from from
Trailside Meadow up to Trail Crest in INYO.   The only other birds seen on the
which I flushed while pumping water near Trail Camp. I actually saw more
species of mammal than bird on the hike with ALPINE CHIPMUNK, AMERICAN PICA,
YELLOW-BELLIED MARMOT, an unidentified mouse, and abundant humans.

On the way home, 10.02.11 I found my first state RED-EYED VIREO at Cero Coso
Community College in KERN. Sadly, this location is not a topographical high
point on any map.

Noah Gaines
Santa Barbara, CA


If you are planning to summit Whitney, there are several things you should keep in mind.

  1. You will need a permit from the Inyo Forest Service.  Access is by a lottery for the popular months of May through October.  If you are planning to camp, you must keep your food in a bear canister.  If you are planning to poop, you must pack it out in a WAG bag. This is basically two bags with kitty litter in the bottom.  The ranger will supply you with these when you get your permits.
  2. Anyone in good physical shape has a chance at making it to the top.  However you can improve your odds of summiting and surviving by training and being well prepared.
  3. The dangers of altitude sickness, bad weather, and steep cliffs have resulted in death for several hikers.  If you see any signs of lightning and you are above the ridge line, you must turn around.  If it is past your preset turn around time you must turn around.  If you are feeling sick, you must turn back.  Whatever you do,  stay with your group.  Check WhitneyZone for up to date information regarding weather.
  4. Train with several hikes above 10,000 feet to see how your body reacts to altitude.  If you are susceptible to altitude sickness get a prescription for Diamox from you doctor.  Also, it is important to spend some time acclimating to the higher altitude.
  5. You must be prepared and bring the gear that will keep you alive if you get stuck somewhere.  Whenever you are going for a hike into the backcountry, it is important to bring the 10 essentials. For this day hike, I brought the following:
    Clothing: Long underwear (tops and bottoms, wool), wool hiking socks, heavy wool vest, down jacket, pants (softshell fabric), hiking boots (midweight well worn in), waterproof Jacket (Goretex paclite), waterproof Pants, heavy beanie, baseball cap, waterproof gloves, and a wool neck gaiter.
    For the majority of the hike, I wore every single piece of gear that I had with me.  And I was cold.
    Food: The food should be easy to eat and easy to make food.  It should also be lightweight.  I prefer ProBars which are made of really good whole food ingredients.  Remember if you do not want to eat the food at home, you will definitely not want to eat the food on the trail.  Which is strange.  It seems logical that a hiker will want to eat food on the trail but in my experience, that is not the case.  On the trail, I had to choke down every bite.  I only got hungry as I reached Whitney Portal.
    Water:  I brought my 2 L Camelbak and carried two, one liter bottles.  In retrospect, I should have carried less water.  There are plenty of places to fill up on the way up, however, you must remember to top off at Trail camp, as there is often no water along trail ridge.  The water along the trail was some of the best I have ever tasted.  However, I did filter all of my water.
    Gear:  Other gear not mentioned were: Trekking pole, headlamp with fresh batteries, small first aid kit, small light knife, lighter, sunscreen, compass, map of the trail, map of the water sources, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.


About Noah Gaines

I live in Santa Barbara California and I love birding and bird photography.
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