mt. whitney summit

How to Get to the Summit of Mt. Whitney

By Heather

Part of what I love about my hiking adventures is all the planning I get to do. Many people may love to wing it, but I don’t. Not every moment must be planned, but I like having a general idea of what I’m getting into and, most importantly, I like a plan that ensures success.

Mt. Whitney differed in one big way from all of the other hikes I plan for: It’s the highest I’ve ever gone to date.

And because of all the reading I’ve done about Mt. Everest, I know that acute mountain sickness (AMS) is no joke. I do not want to be Green Boots!

So, not only did I get to plan for a really big hike, I got to plan for not dying!

The two most indispensable resources I used to plan were the First Timers’ thread on the Whitney Portal Store message board, and One Best Hike: Mt. Whitney by Elizabeth Wenk. I highly recommend starting with those, then supplementing with other trip reports (including mine here).

I consider my posts on the subject as just adding another personal experience to the canon, so your mileage may vary here!

The keys to success

Everything I read and everything I personally experienced says that making it to the summit of Mt. Whitney is the result of four things:

  1. Training, especially at altitude
  2. Acclimating
  3. Hydrating
  4. Fueling

It’s completely possible to make it to the summit without doing all four things – in the case of our party, my cousin Jessie had done no training at altitude. She does, however, compete in anything that ends in “-thon,” is in the National Guard and is still in her 20s (sob, I’m so old).

1. & 2. Training (especially at altitude) and acclimation

First things first: Because I live at sea level, have a full-time job and a limited amount of vacation time, there was no way I was going to be fully acclimated to go to 14,000 feet and not feel it. All three of our party took Diamox, a medication that increases the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream. The drug is meant to speed up acclimation when you don’t have the proper amount of time to devote to doing it naturally.

Diamox is no substitute for being as prepared as you can, however, so we did all we could: Hiked to high elevations, stayed at the Whitney Portal Campground the night before and ascended Whitney slowly. The rest we left up to Diamox. I highly recommend it. Plus, blind taste-testing fizzy drinks after a dose of the stuff could be hours of fun for the easily amused! It works quickly – 15 minutes or less.

Obviously, if you already live at a high elevation, acclimating won’t be as important or difficult for you.

Gym-based exercise

For roughly eight weeks, I trained really hard to climb Mt. Whitney. The trails aren’t close to where we live, so all of my training during the week was done at the gym.

Because there’s an elevation gain of about 6,900 feet on the ascent and descent, I focused on making sure my thighs were strong enough to crush steel. But I also focused on overall strength and cardiovascular endurance.

My regimen generally was:

  • Cardio (spinning, elliptical): Five days a week, 50 minutes a day
  • Weights: Five days a week, 25 minutes a day, alternate upper/lower body
  • Leg blasters (20 squats, 20 lunges, 20 jumping lunges, 10 jumping squats): Three days a week, add a set each week (this woman demonstrates them well)
  • A training hike each weekend

Besides the training hikes, I’m telling you, those leg blasters are murder! They will get your legs incredibly strong.

Training hikes

The general consensus on training hikes is that your focus needs to be primarily on elevation, followed by steepness. The hike length is not as important.

Mt. San Gorgonio is supposed to be the Whitney training hike around these parts, but the wilderness was closed because of wildfires this summer.

We had to find some alternatives, so we did:

mt. san jacinto summit

Mt. San Jacinto via Deer Springs: This one was like Whitney in that it’s not a very steep hike (aside from the last mile to the summit), and it’s a long hike at 21.3 miles. The elevation is great, too: 10,800 feet.

mt. baden-powell summit

Mt. Baden-Powell via Vincent Gap: I don’t think this one really makes the best Whitney training hike. It’s too short, too low in elevation and not steep enough to feel tough. There are 40 switchbacks, though, which resemble the mental challenge of Whitney’s 99! And the views all the way up are just gorgeous, so there’s that.

cucamonga peak

Cucamonga Peak via Icehouse Canyon: This is just an enjoyable, beautiful hike that’s a challenge all the way through. It’s not impossible, but your legs will be working. The 13 switchbacks from the canyon to the saddle are especially tough.

mt. baldy summit

Mt. Baldy via the Ski Hut Trail and Thunder Mountain: Darren never wants to do Mt. Baldy again, but I love this hike! It’s really, really hard and steep, so it’s perfect for Whitney training. It’s 10,068 feet, so it’s the tallest mountain in the San Gabriels.

I tacked on Thunder Mountain that same day. The peak, which really is just the top of a ski lift, is behind the Top of the Notch lodge. Going up there made the total hike that day 6,000 feet of elevation gain.

The combination of gain and unrelenting steepness will definitely get your legs ready for Whitney.

Another training hike I would recommend, but didn’t do: The Three T’s Trail! I never saw this mentioned as a training hike, but it seems like it would be a fantastic one. The hike up to Timber Mountain alone had my legs aching. I didn’t continue on to Telegraph or Thunder that day, but adding in those two would make up one really difficult day hike.

3. Hydrating

The adage says that you should pee once an hour, and it should be clear-ish. If you’re doing that, consider yourself hydrated. I brought 2L of water and 2L of PowerAde, and stopped to fill up once on the way back at Trail Camp using Jessie’s Platypus 2L Water Filter.

I almost regret buying my water filter, even if it is easy to use. It’s just that the Platypus is not only even easier to use, but it’s practical: First, use it to fill up all of your water bottles, then, fill it up again and use the 2L bag for your campsite. Genius!

We tried to stick to a schedule by hiking for 50 minutes, then stopping for 10 to eat and drink. I also have a bladder, so I could regularly drink some water as we hiked.

There is plenty of water up there. Do not worry about it. But your last chance for fresh water will pretty much be at Trail Camp, so if you need it, you should grab it then. There’s a stream up on the 99 Switchbacks, but it was pretty well frozen even when we went in mid-September.

4. Fueling

Many things I read said that I might lose my appetite at 13,000 feet, which is right around where you hit Trail Crest.

I can’t say I had to force anything down necessarily, but the higher we went, the more food just became something I knew was important to eat for energy. There was zero pleasure in it.

The key is to bring the foods you love on dry land. What do you absolutely go nuts for in real life? Snickers? Cheese? Salami? A loaf of bread? Bring whatever that may be. But do try to make sure that there’s sugar, protein and fat in whatever you’re bringing.

If you merely like something but could easily see yourself moving on with your life if it disappeared tomorrow, such as me with Laughing Cow cheese, I guarantee you’re not going to touch it.

I brought:

  • Peanut Butter M&Ms
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
  • Chocolate-covered espresso beans
  • Laughing Cow Cheese
  • Jolly Ranchers
  • Clif bars

I ate most everything except the Laughing Cow cheese and the chocolate-covered espresso beans. Because while those are things I like all right, I could live without them.

There you have it. Any questions? Ask away!