Finding a Wilderness Experience

How to find a wilderness experience where none usually exists



Is a wilderness experience possible in the Mt. Whitney area? You bet'cha but you have to pick your time and place. My friends and I have been the only people on the peak for more than a half hour at noon one day. We have had a hiking day when the score was Deer 20 People 7.  We've had a day where we hiked 10 miles without seeing a soul. We've had Trail Camp to ourselves, we've had the lower part of the Mountaineer Route to ourselves and, heck, we have even had Whitney Portal to ourselves. We saw a total of 3 people in mid September along the Meysan Trail in 3 days between Whitney Portal and Lone Pine Peak. As a group, we have had more fun and challenges without ever seeing the Smithsonian Hut up close and personal. How did we do all this? Picking our time of year, day of the week, route and we've have had a lot of luck with the being both good and bad, and bad weather isn't necessarily a bad thing.


I hope you have figured out we do not start up the Main Mt. Whitney Trail at all between the time the snow has melted and snow comes back in the fall. There are just too many folks around here for our tastes. The most obvious way to avoid the crowds is to enter at another trailhead; such as, Cottonwood, New Army or Kearsarge Pass Trailheads. But, if you go from July 1st through mid-September you will run into a bunch of folks at all the places backpackers congregate.  Therefore, it is best go in late September until it snows. In 2004, we saw a few people before we crossed New Army Pass and 2 other folks until we reached Lower Trail Crest. In three days, we saw about 20 deer. A great time was had by one and all. During this late September trip we spend most of the trip is short sleeves and shorts...the notable exception was the midnight trip to the summit from the Guitar Lake area.


In 2007, we decided we were going to use the snow skills we have be honing in SoCal and headed to Mt. Whitney in May. We started up the trail on a Friday and ended up seeing but one group along the way and two other at Trail Camp. When we returned from the summit Saturday afternoon, where we were alone the entire time, Trail Camp had about a dozen groups, nothing like a weekend in July, August or September. If we were looking for total solitude we could have started on Wednesday and exited Friday.


I do not know how many times we have had Trail Camp to ourselves. All you need is a bit of bad weather, cold or snow. We've reached an empty Trail Camp in November, February and March. Once, we headed up the trail and the weather turned very cold and windy as a storm front started to move through, another trip required a bit of snowshoeing and crampon work and, yet, another snowshoe trip was breaking trail on a very direct route to Trail Camp. In February 2007, we arrived on a crystal clear semi-warm day where we lounged around on our foam mattresses while we discussed what we thought the route would be up the chute. No trash, no WAG bags, no marmots and no people. In November 2005, we walked on the water of Lone Pine was solid, and had no company.


We have used the picnic area of Whitney Portal as a base camp while snow camping in the middle of the winter and did not see a soul for two days. If you are new to snow camping Whitney Portal is a great place to get started. You can dig out a picnic table for your food preparation, the North Fork usually flows so you do not have to melt snow for water and the bathrooms are open. The one problem in the late fall through early spring is where you end up parking. We have driven past the move ignored road closure sign in North America to Whitney Portal in February in 2007 but could not get beyond the first switchback in March 2005 because the road was block by significant debris flows but most trips we reach the Meysan Trailhead parking area...about a mile short of Main Mt. Whitney Trailhead.


We have gone up the Meysan Lake Trail in a blizzard a few times not seeing anyone. As noted above, we headed up the trail to Lone Pine Peak in mid September 2007 where we saw one day hiker on the way in...we were both surprised to see one another, and a couple on the way out on Sunday. In between it was us and the wilderness.


In February 2006 we decided to explore the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. During our round trip of Lower Boy Scout Lake we did not see a soul all day.


The trips mentioned above could not be done when we were newbies in 1997 and we are not suggesting you do any of these trips without gaining some experience first. The Mt. Whitney area is our oyster because we have a lot of experience and have spent way too much coin on the semi-latest and greatest to enable us to do things that many of you will consider foolish...or exciting.

Trail Notes

If I've whetted you appetite to do something that up to now is outside your comfort zone let me make and another couple recommendations. If it is the winter experience you are craving get thee to a snow camping clinic like the one's given by Adventure 16 or REI in SoCal...I prefer the former. This will give an idea of what this experience is going to cost you new gear or in rental fees.


Next, head to Bishop, CA...if you are a SoCal; elsewhere if you are not, and take a Basic Snow Skills Course given by Sierra Mountaineering International or Sierra Mountain Center and while you are at it purchase a copy of Freedom of the Hills. I have done stupid things with winter gear when I first started out and have seen an out and out disaster in a SoCal canyon.  A weekend in the Sierra and ~$100 is a small price to pay for your health, safety and your family's semi-peace of mind.

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Date of Last Change: 12/1/07