It seems every hiker knows California’s Mount Whitney by name. At 14,505 feet, its summit is the highest place you can stand on in the continental United States, 65 feet higher than Colorado’s Mount Elbert.
In the high season, May 1 to November 1, the Forest Service limits traffic on the summit trail to permit holders only: 100 day hikers and 60 overnight hikers. That’s a limit of 29,600 people per season (not counting the people who will summit via technical routes or the estimated 3,500 who will come from the west side via the John Muir Trail). So it’s popular.
Whitney is recognizable as the high point of the clean granite crest of the Sierra Nevada, John Muir’s “Range of Light.” While it’s the high point of the Lower 48, it’s actually not very identifiable from US-395, the road that traces the east side of the Sierra. Most people looking for Mount Whitney from the highway see the closer Lone Pine Peak, at only 12,944 feet tall, and mistake it for Whitney. If you do a Google Image Search for “Mount Whitney,” you’ll find a number of photos of Lone Pine’s distinct pyramidal summit, with Whitney far back on the right.
With its well-trodden but challenging Class 1 summit trail more than a dozen technical routes to its summit, and the distinction of being the tallest peak many Americans can climb without buying plane tickets, Whitney’s appeal is easy to understand. Getting to the top is not as easy.
The town of Lone Pine, California, sits directly east of the summit of Mount Whitney, separated by 11.5 miles of road, 11 miles of trail and 10,775 feet of elevation. In between the two, mostly in the Alabama Hills that line the base of the Sierra, scenes have been shot for more than 300 feature films. This area continues to be a popular shooting location for Westerns. John Wayne starred in more than a dozen films that featured the Alabama Hills, and the A-list of actors who delivered lines with the Sierra as a backdrop is a who’s who of old and new cinema: Will Rogers, James Coburn, Robert Mitchum, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Spencer Tracy, Gene Autry, Gregory Peck, Robert Downey Jr., Errol Flynn, Jimmy Stewart, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson and others.
Starting with The Roundup in 1920, the area was home to dozens of movie crews, from Westerns to sci-fi. Legendary works like How the West was Won, The Lone Ranger (both the TV series and the movie), Riders of the Purple Sage (both the 1925 and 1941 versions), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Django Unchained, Gladiator, and dozens more utilized the high-desert and alpine environment. In 1941’s High Sierra, Humphrey Bogart leads police on a chase up Whitney Portal Road, into the boulders in the area near the Mount Whitney Trailhead.
The First Ascent
Mount Whitney’s first ascent turned out to be a false summit—not because the first person who climbed it may have lied about it (as in the cases of the Grand Teton and Denali), but because the climber, Clarence King, summited the wrong mountain. King topped out in stormy weather, and looking north, couldn’t see Whitney’s summit, nearly 500 feet taller than the peak he stood atop. For two years, King and the rest of the world believed he had summited Whitney (at that time the highest mountain in the entire United States).
In 1873, two men climbed Mount Langley, a shorter 14,026-foot peak six miles south of Whitney—and found the silver half-dollar King thought he’d left on Whitney two years earlier. The men reported the mistake, and upon hearing the news, King raced across the country to California to try to climb the real Whitney.
But he was too late. His party was the fourth to summit Whitney, only a month after Charles D. Begole, Albert H. Johnson and John Lucas claimed the first ascent on August 18, 1873. Though a California Geological Survey expedition had named the peak “Mount Whitney” in 1864, the men tried to rename the mountain, “Fisherman’s Peak.” Which kind of stuck until 1891, when the USGS decided to go back to the name “Mount Whitney.”
A month after King finally saw the top of the peak, a young man named John Muir made his way over to Whitney to climb it himself and summited a little more than two months after the first ascent, on October 21, 1873. In 1875, he returned to explore a different route, claiming the first ascent of what is now known as the Mountaineers’ Route, a popular 3rd-class couloir. Perhaps forgetting that the “regular” route was fairly challenging itself, Muir later wrote: “For climbers, there is a canyon which comes down from the north shoulder of the Whitney Peak. Well-seasoned limbs will enjoy the climb of 9,000 feet required for this direct route, but soft, succulent people should go the mule way.”
The Classic Route: Mount Whitney Trail
The “mule way” that Muir referred to is the Mount Whitney Trail—and it’s no walk in the park. The altitude alone stops many would-be summiters. There are no official statistics, but common estimates land at a one-third success rate. Given the ratio of day use permits to overnight permits, two-thirds of hikers have to try round-tripping it in a single 22-mile day with 6,130 feet of elevation gain and loss. It’s a scenic (but punishing) trek past clean white granite and clear alpine lakes, the oxygen harder and harder to come by as you climb. And then you hit the infamous 99 Switchbacks, the steepest part of the trail, covering 1,650 vertical feet in just over two miles of trail between Trail Camp (12,000) and Trail Crest (13,650). The final two miles of trail to the summit get a little rockier and feel like forever, but eventually you run out of up and you’re standing next to the Smithsonian Institution Shelter on the summit. And then it’s all downhill, but far from restful, back to your car.
The Classic Climbing Routes
The Mount Whitney Trail navigates hikers around the peak’s technical east face, where, in 1875, John Muir found the next-easiest way up: the now-classic Mountaineers’ Route. This route cuts up a couloir on the far north side of the east face, ascending snow or talus (depending on the season) up to a notch in the north side of the summit block. Commonly guided as a three- or four-day climb, the Mountaineers’ Route is a challenging and much less crowded alternative to the Mount Whitney Trail.
Two moderate multi-pitch rock climbs tackle the steeper rock on the Whitney’s east face: the East Face and East Buttress, both 1,000 feet long and rated 5.7, and put up respectively in 1931 and 1937. Although the East Face is included in Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, the East Buttress is generally regarded as the more aesthetic route.
The Mount Whitney Trail is doable in a single long day, but is much more pleasant as a multi-day climb. If permits allow (and the permit might be the crux of the whole climb), take a day to hike from Whitney Portal to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet, leaving the final 2,500 vertical feet for your summit day. Leave your gear at Trail Camp and get an early start on the morning of Day 2, leaving plenty of time to summit before weather moves in. Stay a second night at Trail Camp and descend back to Whitney Portal on Day 3.
Several guide services offer guided climbs of the Mountaineers Route in the summer and winter, as well as summer climbs of the East Face and East Buttress.
From the Los Angeles area, drive to Lancaster via I-405 and CA-14. From Lancaster, drive 75 miles north on CA-14 and merge onto US-395 North. Drive north on US-395 for 65 miles and in the town of Lone Pine, turn left onto Whitney Portal Road and follow it 11 miles to the trailhead parking.
From Las Vegas, drive north and west on US 95 North to Beatty, Nevada. In Beatty, turn west onto NV-374 South and follow it into Death Valley National Park. After 26 miles, turn left onto Scotty’s Castle Road and drive .6 miles to a right turn onto CA-190 W. Follow CA-190 for 86 miles (it will turn into CA-136) to its intersection with US-395. Turn north onto US-395 and drive 2 miles into the town of Lone Pine. In Lone Pine, turn onto Whitney Portal Road and follow it 11 miles to the trailhead parking.
Photography by Thom Schroeder.