The Highest Peak in the United States

Mount WhitneyChris - Last Adventurer

Located in California on the boundary of Inyo and Tulare Counties, Mount Whitney is one of the most iconic mountains in North America. Unfortunately, this also means that it is one of the most popular mountains to climb. At 14,505 feet, it is the highest mountain in the continental United States, and let me be the first to tell you, both its popularity and its place in mountaineering lore are well deserved. Invariably, however, when you talk about Mount Whitney, the permit system arises as a reason not to climb the mountain. Over the years both online and off-line, I’ve heard people bemoan the fact that they cannot get a permit to climb Mount Whitney. While the permit system can be challenging at times, I always shake my head at these comments. When I climb Mount Whitney this year, it will be my fifteenth time on the mountain. The only time I had trouble getting a permit for Mount Whitney was the year where I had a group of twelve people.

Group size aside, the main reason I never have trouble getting a permit is because of the time of year I choose to climb the mountain. Every year, I try to climb the mountain before Memorial Day, meaning that I always climb the mountain in late spring. This, in my opinion, is the best time to climb the mountain. I have about sixty million reasons why this is the best time to climb Mount Whitney, but if I had to pick three, I would say that this time of year offers the most solitude, the best scenery, and also provides a serious mountaineering challenge for any climber. Now, a word about climbing the mountain at this time of year – it is tough. How tough is it? Well, I always say there are two ways to climb Mount Whitney – hard – and harder. This is not a climb that is for everyone, as it requires ice axes, crampons, helmets, and most importantly, the knowledge of how to use these items. If a technical mountaineering climb is not for you, I applaud you for knowing your limits, and wish you the best of luck getting your permit for mid-summer when the snow has melted off and the mountain is bare.

Snow capped Mount WhitneyChris - Last Adventurer

But for mountaineers and aspiring mountaineers, this route is a great climb, and what makes it harder than the normal route is the climbing up the large snow fields that cover the mountain’s eastern side at this time of year. On the positive side, this route is slightly shorter than the twenty-two mile roundtrip total distance that the dry, summer route takes. Both routes leave from the same spot – the Whitney Portal, and depending on snow cover, the route follows part of the Mount Whitney Trail. The last time I climbed this route, the first three miles of the Mount Whitney Trail were free of snow, which allowed me time to warm up as I passed under trees and spectacular constellations. That’s right: if you are attempting to do this route in one day – which again, I highly recommend, as it requires less gear – you will have to leave before the sun rises. 

On that day, I was lucky enough to watch the sun rise from the three mile mark on the Mount Whitney Trail, which was a spectacular sight. The sunrise was but one of many spectacular sights I was about to see on that climb. As I passed Outpost Camp at the four mile mark, I was able to see alpenglow on the higher mountains; and see some dazzling reflections of the surrounding terrain at Mirror Lake, which is located just past Outpost Camp. From Mirror Lake on, the Mount Whitney Trail was covered in snow, which meant that I was required to travel both over snow and ice, and find my own route up to Trail Camp, and the summit. As I had been on Mount Whitney numerous times before, I was confident in my ability to follow the Consultation Lake drainage to Trail Camp; but even if I had not been confident in my route finding skills, there was a well-worn track made by climbers headed to Trail Camp.

Since I had started early, the snow and ice from Mirror Lake onward was firm, and I was able to traverse my way upward with little difficulty. By the time I reached Trail Camp at 7:45 a.m., I felt like I was in a good position to make the summit, and I was treated to a fantastic view of Mount Whitney and its surrounding peaks. I passed through Trail Camp before ending up at the base of what would be considered the ninety-nine switchbacks of the Mount Whitney Trail in summer. Like the rest of the trail from Mirror Lake, they were covered in snow, so I deviated from the standard route to climb what is known as “the chute”. 

Whitney RiverChris - Last Adventurer

“The chute” is an area that has been carved from the granite of the Sierras by snow and ice, and lies directly in between the face of the mountain and the switchbacks of the trail. In the summer, the area is impassable due to loose rock, and Forest Service regulations, but in the winter, the area is one of the best spots to climb due to its solid snow and ice. At this point, due to the steep and technical terrain that exists in the chute, I strapped on my crampons, and placed my ice axe in my uphill hand, and began to climb. Although the distance of the chute is much shorter than the switchbacks, it is substantially steeper; and takes a great deal of time to climb. By the time I had reached Trail Crest, it was 10:00 a.m. – which meant that I had spent two hours climbing a short part of the route – but, it had been worth it, as I had seen amazing views all around me as I had ascended.

From Trail Crest, I followed the visible portions of the Mount Whitney Trail to the summit – an “easy” hike/climb of three miles through rock, ice and snow. The reward was unquestionably worth it as I found myself on top of the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight states with no one else, and with stunning views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range surrounding me. After a few minutes, I began my descent back down the trail. By the time I reached “the chute” on my descent, the snow was no longer firm, but had warmed to a slushy consistency that precluded glissading. Nevertheless, I was able to descend safely – albeit slower than I would have liked. From there, it was a trek back to my base camp, but trek that was made shorter by the knowledge of a great climb, and a great day.

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