Here's the backpacking Permit Lottery in a nutshell, you have 10,000 people who want the 540 weekend permits available between the 4th of July and Labor Day Weekend. With that said, it is our belief you can stand on Mt. Whitney on the day you want to with just a bit of forethought and planning. We have never utilized the lottery, it was not in existence in 1997 and 1999, but we have made to the summit on every trip we have planned during the permit quota period.
We have a plan that has been tested and
The most obvious goal is to stand on Mt. Whitney and to return to Whitney Portal in one piece but the question is how are you going to get to the summit and back. Most of you are lottery winners who will be heading up the MMWT between the 4th and Labor Day and spending a night or two at Trail Camp. We, on the other hand, neither use the lottery nor advance permit. What we will do is head up to Lone Pine at times when backpacking permits for the MMWT are not under pressure...like mid May, or we will utilize other Inyo trailheads in early fall. Either way, we get a permit and eventually get to The Hostel in Lone Pine for a shower.
Whether you want to take MMWT or start at Happy Isle in Yosemite Valley and travel the entirety of the John Muir Trail with your partners, friends or family had better be on board with your Mt. Whitney dreams.
As a suggestion, before presenting your case to friends and family take a look at our Permit Strategies page and pick up a guide book, we use Paul Richin, Jr.'s guide book because we feel it is the most complete guide book available. Be forewarned, many of Mr. Richin's trips are for the seriously experienced hiker.
The people we backpack with all know one another from various trips and are comfortable with what we do...like going 42 miles in 3 days, 32 miles in two days or climbing up Chute to Trail Crest in May.
If you don't know your partners for this excursion in January we hope you you get to know them well enough to trust them on your trip to Mt. Whitney later in the year. Therefore, it is your best interest to lay it all out for your potential partners in this venture, let them know what you think is the best way to summit and some of the alternatives. All you want are people who are willing to contribute their time and energies to make this a pleasant trip for one and all.
Once you establish the route and the when you hope to head up the mountain it is time to do some of the grunt work to make it easy for the chronically uneducated and uninformed.
Pre Trip Planning
What we usually do before a trip is draw up a map on TOPO! California, many maps exist for a variety of trips to Mt. Whitney at their Map Xchange website, you will need the TOPO! software to utilize these maps. This usually falls to me because one of things I'm the one most anal about is trip planning. I lay out the route, campsites and statistics and forward them to those who have the mapping software for comments, suggestions, corrections and changes. When that is done we are good to go.
We live in SoCal, visit Whitney Portal 3 or 4 times a year and know a great deal about this trip, the Eastern Sierra and the Inyo National Forest, therefore, we do not have to do a great deal of early planning. If you are a nugget, don't have local knowledge or you are coming from east...anything east of the Colorado River, you got a lot of things which will need attention early in the planning process.
Start formulating your plan as soon as you are permitted, or your Plan B as soon as you have received your Dear Backpacker letter. Your plan should be based on your group's gear and the skill level of the weakest in the group, if you end up with a reservation in May, June or early July will have enough time to schedule a snow skills course so, you know how to use that extra weight you will have to carry up the trail. If you don't want to do snow and your reservation in May, June or early July, it is time to cancel and go to Plan B.
Here are some early planning ideas...
November...We are big advocates of getting familiar with High Sierra hiking, Whitney Portal and MMWT. Therefore, if you have your group together at this time head up to the Eastern Sierra and plan to base camp at Whitney Portal and go as high as your skill set and gear allows. We usually go Whitney Portal the weekend after the quota season ends in November and day hike up to Trail Camp, most years you can make this far without ice axe or crampons. We've been threatening a summit visit via the MMWT in November for a couple years now but weather or physical conditioning seem to get in the way of this trip.
This trip does you no good if you can't get beyond Lone Pine Lake so, check conditions before you venture up to the Eastern Sierra. You can day hike to Lone Pine Lake during your acclimatization day. So, why waste time, gas and effort if you can't venture beyond that point.
December...As a leader of the expedition, it is up to you to lead the horses to water and make them drink. Make yourself the expert on this subject and present it to your friends. The rules and regulations, changes in the permitting process are usually posted in December.
January...It's "Show Me The Money Time". It's $15 a head to enter the lottery for MMWT and this little bit of jack will weed out the non serious. If you are a SoCal inquire about seminars on the subject at Adventure 16 because they bring people in who are top notch unlike REI, where it is someone on the staff who may not know the subject matter as well as you.
February...Mail in your permit request, it is mail only in 2007, with your check, Visa or Mastercard account number and pray...or do something useful like come up with a Plan B for your horses needing water. The antsy will be constantly hitting the refresh button on at their credit card provider to see if Inyo has made your day.
March...You is or you ain't time. If you is it's time to put together a mountain conditioning program for your horses; if you ain't you still have plenty of time for a Plan B, C, D...and it ain't the of the world if the Inyo says no...if you have an alternate plan.
Calendar of Events/Website
Do yourself and your group of friends a very big favor and set up a Calendar of Events webpage utilizing the personal space at your ISP. This will make your life a lot easier in the long run. There is no need to micromanage the daily conditioning routine of your friends but do formulate a series of trips which take into consideration the skill levels of all...if you need to acquire snow skills you will need to set it up by May 1st. If your newbies need some help this is the place to put your pearls of wisdom so, they might refer them at their leisure.
We are a pretty savvy bunch when it comes to backpacking and the Mt. Whitney area so, our plan to backpack up the MMWT would be to get in good enough shape to carry a 25 lbs pack 6.3 miles from 8,360' to 12,000' figuring the rest of the trip is a piece of cake. In the beginning, we set up a calendar with every local day hike but now it's just our monthly backpacking trips, it reflect our gains in experience and our trust in one another to be in shape for all of our trips.
Expand Your Knowledge Base
Our group of greybread backpackers know everyone is going to be in shape, know something about the area we are going to be backpacking and have a good sized skill set, therefore, we don't do anything extraordinary for a trip up the MMWT...the MR is another story entirely, we've been working on that one for a couple of years.
We can make some recommendations based on when we were semi-young and stupid and from our experience putting together trips for the uneducated and uninformed...
If you are an experience backpacker putting together a group of mixed experience we suggest your program be one that will give you an idea of the skill level and physical conditioning of those you are not familiar with, then let everyone know what is expected and give the weakest in your group a chance to succeed.
What we use to do is put together seven trip which start 8 or 9 week before the trip up the trail they include 4 day hikes and 3 backpacking trips, one of the backpacking trips is to the High Sierra...because you really, really, want to know if someone has a major problems with Acute Mountain Sickness...like three in our group, early enough to do something about it, all three of us with AMS problems use Diamox to give us the ability to go to 10,000' and above comfortably. This is only possible if you live in the Mountain West where mountains exceed the 10,000' level. The last time we used this formula was 2002 where our trip to the Sierra included a trip to the 14,023' Mt. Langley.
These backpacking trips give the newbies a chance to observe and pick up the skills necessary to have a pleasant trip to Trail Camp and beyond. The goal is a fun trip for everyone but remember you can only do so much and the people in your group have to want to learn. We had one backpacker on our 2002 trip who had AMS the first two days, struggled on the 3rd day to make it 7 miles, had blisters galore on summit day but had a great time overall. We didn't say our plan worked all the time just that it puts people in a position to succeed if they go along with the program.
Eastern Sierra Knowledge
Have you ever been to Whitney Portal? Eastern Sierra? Are you a SoCal? If your answers are no, no and yes and you didn't take up on our November idea. It would be in your best interest to plan a backpacking trip from the Cottonwood Lakes or Onion Valley Trailheads to find out what it's like to be backpacking at high elevation for a couple of days. Also, plan to spend some time at Whitney Portal to get the lay of the land.
The Southern Sierra does not get near the amount of snow the Mammoth Lakes region does so, backpacking trips which originate in Horseshoe Meadow and Onion Valley can be planned for early to mid June even after the harshest winters, we made it over Cottonwood Pass in mid-June 2005 and 2006 after near record and record setting snowfall respectively in the Sierra. If your choice is to head up the Cottonwood Lakes, you can utilize New Army Pass, if open, to summit Mt. Langley. If you decide to spend the weekend at Chicken Spring Lake, you can summit 12,900' Cirque Peak on your in day and Trail Peak on your out day, there was very little snow on trail and cross country route to Cirque Peak in both 2005 and 2006.
While you are in the area it is a great idea to make your way to Whitney Portal to get the lay of the land. This is something we regret not doing prior to our initial trip in 1997. See our guide page for some trip idea for this area.
If you are a newbie, this trip is going to cost you more than you think. However, you can mitigate the pain by stringing out your purchases, utilizing sales at your local outfitter, getting stuff at the Internet discounters, rentals, make do's and mooching from your gear obsessed friends.
Those of you coming from the east will have to work out the airfare, car rental and trailhead shuttle if you are attempting a point to point trip. Make sure the trail conditions meet your abilities before plunking down the jack for your travel. We met a woman from Connecticut on the summit in 2002 who came out in June 1998 and could not backpack further than Lone Pine Lake because of the remnants of an El Niņo winter.
The Trip Plan
As experienced Mt. Whitney people who lives in SoCal, we get our gear together and go, we don't even reserve a permit anymore. The key words here are experienced and SoCal. If you ain't so local you have to plan air transportation as in airfare and airport and car rental this isn't something you want you want to do. Make sure you are permitted before you make all your reservations or be prepared to hike another trail in the Eastern Sierra.
The trip up the trail is really simple. You figure out how many days you want to be on the trail, usually between 2 and 4 days; and where you want to base camp. Plan conservatively, plan for the weakest in you group. Most will do this trip in 2 to 3 days utilizing Trail Camp as a base camp but if you have a couch potato or two in your group who will not expend the effort to get into shape you should plan on a 4 day trip up the mountain with a night spent at Lone Pine Lake...forget Outpost Camp unless you want a 3 AM wake up call from the day hikers, before heading up to Trail Camp.
On day one or two of your trip you will arrive at Trail Camp with 50 or 60 of your nearest and dearest friends. The decision now is what time start the following morning. Let us make the case for being at least to Trail Crest by dawn.
There are two reasons we suggest a very early start, it is absolutely beautiful on the summit at dawn and it minimizes your chances of running into rain, snow, sleet, hail and/or lightning during your descent. We have been really lucky during our Mt. Whitney trips in that we have seen only 1/2 hour of rain and a bit of lightning in about 24 days of hiking and acclimatization for these trips but we have seen the summit shrouded in clouds from lower elevations after summiting. You do not want to get caught up high in these storms. However, if you have people in your group who would prefer not to hike in the dark we suggest you get up early enough to start at dawn and plan to be off the summit by noon. Keep an eye on the western horizon for building storms. People have died on this mountain from being struck by lightning, the latest being in 2005.
If you are an early season backpacker there is the lure of glissading down The Chute from Trail Crest. If you are not equipped with an ice axe do not even think about doing it, as the Inyo National Forest posters say..."People Die Here". They are too kind, the posters should say, "People Die Here Doing Really Foolish Things". That's is, sliding down a 69% slope utilizing trekking poles as a break and to self arrest...they don't work for neither. See our winter Travel on Snow and Ice page for some guidance about glissading here.
There are places where people don't die but do have big cases of anxiety. These are "The Cables" and "The Windows". We get many more questions about these two areas than we do about ice axes and crampons. The anxiety about these locations is much ado about nothing.
The cables are about half way up the 97 Switchback portion of the trail at ~12,850'. This portion of the trail is cut in the north face of a ridge thus in shade most of the day. Even after the snow melts there is usually a bit of ice that hangs around the rest of the summer. The ice can be bypassed without a problem. If there is still snow on the trail you should exercise caution not only here but the entirety of 97 Switchbacks. The Windows are 4 areas along the trail from Trail Crest to the summit which open up to give you views to the east. There are 1,000' sheer faces to the east something less to west. The trail along through these windows is between 5' to 8' wide. The only time they present any kind of problem is when the wind is at a big time howl.
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