Which way to Whitney's summit?

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of October 17-23, 1996
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Which way to Whitney's summit?
Question: Any suggestions on the best hiking route when climbing Mount Whitney? Thanks.

Gerry Widmer
San Diego, CA
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: From the hiking-made-simple department: The best route to the top of 14,494-foot Whitney is the only route to the top. The rigorous, 11-mile one-way slog to the summit goes via the Whitney Trail and, for the final two miles, the John Muir. Simple, but far from easy. The motto here is "Torture by Switchback," and it's no joke. You'll zig-zag your way through a good 100-plus turns as the trail ascends about 9,000 feet through pine forests and gigantic boulder fields to the highest point in the Lower 48. Unless you're in phenomenal physical shape, do not entertain the thought of making this trek in one day. Although the trail doesn't require technical climbing skills, the unrelenting elevation gain, not to mention 22 miles of hard walking, will definitely take its toll. Plan on camping seven miles in on the Whitney Trail at Trail Camp, a strategy that'll get you within two miles of the John Muir Trail and another two miles to the summit. Be on the lookout for symptoms of mountain sickness--nausea, confusion, worse-than-normal clumsiness, and severe headaches. If you or anyone in your party starts showing signs of altitude-induced angst, begin your descent immediately and things should improve.

Before you go, you'll need to reserve a backcountry permit from the Forest Service, which can prove to be the most challenging part of the whole outing. Applications are only accepted by mail (Mount Whitney Ranger Station, 640 S. Main, Lone Pine, CA 93545; 619-876-5542), and don't forget to include the number of people in your party and the date you want to climb. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record or, worse, that know-it-all guy at your local gear shop: Bring plenty of warm clothes--hat, mittens, fleece, and water- and wind-resistant outer shells in case the snow starts to fly. To find the trailhead, take Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine until it dead-ends.

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