Your friends have asked you to join them on a little trip up the Main Trail to Mt. Whitney and, of course, you said yes without a thought. Now, it's time to find out what you really got yourself into. Welcome to the planning process. If you are a couch potato of the first magnitude you have some catching up to do, if you are a marathon runner just remember Acute Mountain Sickness makes cowards of us all and if you are putting toward a large group there is the group dynamics thingy.
The following is what we have learned over the last 10 years running around in the mountains of SoCal and the Eastern Sierra; and putting together many group trips.
You've decided you and your nearest and dearest friends; and family are going to join you in your delusions of hiking Mt. Whitney in a day without knowing a damn thing about what it entails. Since you are the resident expert you are expected to put together a plan for everyone, even though you may not know anything about this mountain, the area, or hiking for that matter.
If you want to be the sage of your group it's time put on your reading glasses. Some good places to start would be this and the Inyo National Forest's Websites, various Mt. Whitney message boards and a guide book or two. As your group's leader, you are expected to be the fountain of knowledge about this place. You will have to figure out what works best for your group, do you enter the lottery or do you wait for left over permits in April and May. You will have to decide if a family campground campsite for a couple of days or just one in the hiker-in area works best for you and yours or does your group think it's in their best interest to stay in town. Then, there is airfare and rentals, vehicles and gear.
Lot'sa stuff to digest that's for sure.
Make sure your partners know what they are getting themselves into. You should share all the sources you find informative with your group but remember you can lead a horse to water... Have a meeting before get your permits to decide exactly what you expect of your friends and family; and find out what kind of trip they want, it may be different than what you envisioned.
Lay out your initial plan to see if any of your partners can improve it. Make these improvements your own, since you will be doing most of the work your partners will give you credit for everything when you are back at the Portal Store eating that cheeseburger and swilling a beer or six, believe me. Make sure everyone believes in the plan, from permitting, campsite/motel, local training, group gear, travel arrangements and sharing of expenses. If your plan is a good one there won't be any big surprises, just a few small ones.
Is this your first trip to the Sierra? First time over 11,500'? First time hiking 22 miles or up 6,100'? If you answer yes to all these questions, especially the last three then we would suggest you make some intermediate goals for your initial trip to Mt. Whitney.
Most folks, if they put any effort into training will be able to reach Trail Camp. This is a worthy goal. The next logical goal is Trail Crest. This will give 90% of the views you would get if you made it to the summit. An 18 mile day with a 5,300' gain to 13,600' is a great accomplishment and no one who gets this far should be ashamed of their effort. Then, there is the summit but don't make it a race. You get there when you get there and you'll get back to the Portal eventually, hopefully your delusion doesn't include doing the round trip in less than 10 hours.
If you've been here before your goal will be the summit and nothing less, and all you Whitney veterans know it.
It's March 15th or May 20th and you got your permit reservation packet in the mail so it's time to get serious about planning. A good place to start is to take a look at our 1999 trip diary. We have our major trips down pat now and we have made no major changes since 1999, other than our major trips are now backpacking trips rather than long day hikes (we still plan a challenging day hike or backpack trip every summer).
In 2006, I changed my training regiment. The result of this change is I am the best shape of my adult life. I utilize a baseline trail with benchmark times out to 9 miles RT, after reaching the benchmark times I mixed in endurance hikes, always returning to the base line trailhead for a time trial. Go here for the details of this plan. My plan would also include a trip to Sierra for some serious high elevation hiking prior to my trip to Mt. Whitney.
Those coming from the east there is airfare, arriving airport and car rentals. You will not need 4 WD to get to Whitney Portal, Onion Valley or Horseshoe Meadows. The easiest airport to fly into and get to Whitney Portal is Ontario, the cheapest is probably Las Vegas and the most scenic drive from the airport would be Reno.
The next big question is where are you going to stay once you get to Lone Pine. There are plenty of motels in Lone Pine at 3,630' and plenty of campsites at Whitney Portal, 7,900' to 8,300', Lone Pine Campground, 5,600' or Horseshoe Meadows, 9,940' to 10,040'. The problem with staying in town is you will be asking your body to go from 3,600' to 14,500' in less than 9 hours. 40% of you will have a problem doing it without some elevation related problems. However, acclimatizing a day or two may not be enough for some people but will be for most. Our opinion is too stay high and hike higher during days of your acclimatization process. You have spent a lot of money it is our feeling you should maximize your chances, especially those coming from the east with all those additional expenses.
What do you know about the area in general and the mountain in particular. It is our opinion you should know a lot about before you get into your car and head towards Lone Pine. There are plenty of Internet sites and books about this mountain and the area around it and you should have more knowledge than Whitney Portal is 13 miles west of Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Rd.
Once you get your permit reservations you should get your maps, Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley 7.5' USGS quads are our maps of choice. Study these map to the point there are no surprises, well maybe a couple of little ones. You can ascertain from these maps where it is going be a pain in the butt and where it is going be easy, yeah there are a couple very easy sections of trail. You need to know where water is available. You need to know where everyone should meet if you want to all hike back together in the dark.
The best local knowledge is gained from experience. If you are a SoCal you do not have any excuses for not having some experience in this area. Any good plan will bring you into this area before your big day.
How much is this going to cost? A bunch, if you are starting from scratch. This mean putting a gear and clothing cache together early. You can mitigate your expenses by utilizing the stuff you have around the house, like a wool sweater and a windbreaker, which can be treated with a DWR. Next, it's on the Internet discounters for the clothing and gear but you must prioritize these things. Boots and a pack is where the bulk of your budget should go.
In 1997 we spent around $400/each getting what we deemed necessary starting with nothing. We didn't know about all wonderful discounters, other than one local outlet. If you look at our current gear list for this trip I can guarantee it cost us a lot more than $400.
Those of you coming from the east have the added expense of airfare and rentals, better you than me :-).
We set up a website so all the participants can easily access all the information concerning the trip at any time. This was after doing it in newsletter format where we would always get at least one, "I didn't get your e-mail". We set up the details of the trip and the commitment dates for permits and their cost. Afterward, we set up our training hikes with details, mileage, distance and gain so there will be no surprises when everyone shows up to a particular Saturday for a walk in the woods.
If we have people who are nuggets and have little or no gear we periodically will put out notes on how to buy various items and if they are not buying the big ticket items where to rent them and the rental rates.
All your training hikes serve as a test bed for all your new gear and ideas. It is better to find out the boots don't work on local high angle descent rather than coming down the 97 Switchbacks and 8.5 miles from the nearest cheeseburger and fries. Your training hikes ar where you determine, for instance, that it is insanity to carry 8 quarts of water up the trail with you, not on the Main Mt. Whitney Trail the day of your hike. All your gear and clothing should be tested in the conditions you expect to see at Mt. Whitney.
Make sure you have the right stuff for the conditions you will see on the mountain. In other words, if you are going in the spring make sure you've tested your crampons, ice axe and recently acquired snow skills rather than on the MMWT.
This means leave yourself a lot of wiggle room. For most of you this is the first time you will have hiked 22 miles, gone up 6,100'+, hiked above a 11,500' and hiked in the dark. So, it makes sense to have a little extra water with you for the round trip from Trail Camp to the summit and back (we usually take 4 quarts/ea.), a little bit more food than you need for the day and some extra clothes. A couple of years ago we had a running e-mail conversation with someone who was proud they got through this hike on 55 oz. of water and felt you should not take more that 2 quarts to the summit. If you figure your body needs 16 to 24 oz. of water/hr. to stay hydrated during physical activity this amount was way too low even for the fastest hikers. Intermingled in this conversation was you didn't need anywhere near the clothing we suggest for this trip. The conversation ended when we stated, yes this is a day hike but what happens if you blow out a knee at 14,000' and you are stuck up on the west side of the mountain overnight in your cotton tee-shirt and shorts? BTW, during our August 2002 trip the temperature at on Sierra Crest was approaching single digit at dawn. So, the question you should be asking yourself when you are putting together your plan, can I survive the night at over 14,000' if something happens to me, or my son or daughter.
REMEMBER THE MOUNTAIN WILL BE THERE NEXT YEAR!!!!
If you stay at the Dow Villa, you just get up and go and let the maid clean up the mess. However, if you are in the family campground or have a hiker-in campsite you have to clean up the mess, if this is your last day camping. Leave yourself enough time eat, do the last minute things to get ready and strike camp, if applicable. This will take you between 90 minutes and 2 hours. The first time we did it we thought and we would take a leisurely hour to get ready. Since this time we have consistently gotten ready in the time frame mentioned above.
Ok, so how do you get ready quicker? Get as much of the stuff you can get done the might before so you don't have to do it in the morning in the dark. Have your pack ready to go, except food. Prepare your food the night before and leave in the bear box until you are just about to leave, we have heard tales of bears taking off with food laden packs at 3 AM. Make sure you put everything you deem valuable into the car before you go, this means your $400 sleeping bag if you think it is at risk of being stolen. The backcountry ethic of leaving everyone's stuff alone does not apply at Whitney Portal, unfortunately. Leave the cooler in the bear box and mark it with the date you will return for it, remember not everyone is schooled on the proper campground etiquette, do not put this bad boy in the car. What costs more the cooler or the auto glass and a ticket? Check and double check each other's gear, make yourself a nuisance, and hope someone does the same for you. Do not hurry to the trailhead.
One more thing...if you can't sleep; go! A lot of you will be up with angst and anxiety, don't fight it. The advantages of leaving earlier far outweigh the disadvantages of tossing and turning most of the night. Just make sure everyone is in the same boat, or they don't mind you starting earlier than them.
This is worth repeating, so
we will. If the weather is marginal at Trail Camp or Trail Crest turn around.
It is not worth being caught up high in an electrical storm.
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Date of Last Change: 12/23/09