@May 8, 2019
At 14,505', Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the continental United States. Planning the hike is challenging, especially via the mountaineers route, which requires extra gear. I’ve detailed our group’s schedule and what we brought in this post.
The upper route marked here is known as the “mountaineers route”. It’s shorter, steeper, and requires more technical climbing skills. The lower route is Mt. Whitney Trail. It’s longer and easier, but only passable in summer months when the snow has melted.
Permit pickup is at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center on the south end of Lone Pine. We arrived when the office opened at 8:30am on the day of our hike. If you want to start your hike earlier in the morning, make sure to stop by the office the day before.
There are two campgrounds in the area I’d recommend staying at. The most convenient will be Whitney Portal Campground, which is right next to the trailhead. A close alternative is Lone Pine Campground, which is a couple of miles down the road.
A quick note on dates: we started the hike on May 2, and came down on May 3. This is the very beginning of permit season. There’s snow on the ground for most of the hike, but it’s warm enough to wear a t-shirt while hiking. Temperatures drop below freezing at night. If you can’t get a permit, you might be able to get similar conditions at the end of the non-quota winter season, which runs from November 2 to April 30.
Day 1: Hike to Upper Boy Scout
We started the hike fairly late in the day, around 11am. I recommend starting a couple of hours earlier. The hike begins with a gradual uphill until a river crossing about a mile in. This was where the snow began for us. From then on, it’s a continual climb until Lower Boy Scout Lake. We arrived there around 3pm.
After a quick lunch, we put on snow shoes and skis, and continued the ascent to Upper Boy Scout Lake. While the grade was about the same, this portion was easier, since there were no longer rocks or trees. The snow was easily traversable. We arrived at Upper Boy Scout around 6pm, and set up base camp. We had initially considered going all the way to Iceberg Lake, but chose to do the climb the next day with lighter packs.
Day 2: Summit and Descent
After unloading our packs for the night, we chose to wake up at 4am to start the climb from Upper Boy Scout Lake. We reached the summit at 1pm, which means it took us about 8 hours to go a mile and a half with 3000 feet of elevation gain. Here’s the rough schedule:
- 4am: Wakeup
- 5am: Departure from Upper Boy Scout Lake
- 8am: Arrived at Iceberg Lake, and the bottom of the Chute
- 12pm: Reached the top of the Chute
- 1pm: Summit 🏔️
The descent was grueling. While we took the mountaineering route up to the summit, we tried another path back to the top of the Chute to avoid the steep summit wall descent. This was a mistake, and cost us at least an extra hour, since it meant traversing some soft snow fields where self-arrest wasn’t possible. After reaching the top of the Chute, the skiers strapped in, packed up base camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake, and made it down by 7pm.
The non-skier timeline looked like this:
- 3pm: Top of Chute
- 6pm: Upper Boy Scout
- 7pm: Lower Boy Scout
- 10pm: Arrive at Whitney Portal
While you can divide gear amongst the group, expect your pack to be between 50 and 70 pounds.
- Mountaineering boots. I used the North Face Verto S4K. Make sure your boots are hard enough to attach crampons, normal hiking boots will not work.
- Three pairs of socks. I used SmartWool socks. These should be quick-drying. You will sweat in your socks during the day, and they will freeze at night if they’re still wet. A good trick is to throw all of your socks in your sleeping bag at night to keep them warm and dry.
- Underwear and long underwear. These should also be athletic and quick-drying.
- Hiking pants. These should be lightweight for the hot hike on the first day. I have the Quandary Pants from Patagonia.
- Snow pants. I have an old pair of Oakley snowboarding pants. They have two layers: a tight layer in the inside that wraps over the boot, and a thick outer layer. There’s deep snow, so it’s important that these are water-proof. Also consider how they’ll work with crampons. Pants that are too long will catch on the spikes.
- Long sleeve base layer. I wore an Under Armour ColdGear compression shirt similar to this.
- T-shirt. Also quick-drying. I went with a North Face FlashDry shirt.
- Mid-layer. I have the Marmot Variant jacket.
- Insulating layer. This is preferably a heavier down jacket. I have this down sweater from Patagonia.
- Hard shell. This is a lightweight, water-proof jacket to keep out snow and block the wind. Skiing or snowboarding shells without any liners work well here.
- Buff. These can make a huge difference in keeping you warm and preventing sunburn.
- Gloves. I used a set with built-in liners, but would have preferred a separate liner-glove combo. It’s important that your gloves can stop the wind.
- Beanie. Keeping your head warm makes a huge difference.
Think about how you will layer your clothes ahead of time. The temperature changes dramatically throughout the hike, and you’ll also quickly swing from hot to cold as you start and stop hiking. A friend of mine joked it was like a fashion show: you’ll go through several different outfit combinations throughout the day.
- Day-time (warmest): Underwear, hiking pants, t-shirt
- Night-time and early morning (coldest): underwear, long underwear, snow pants, long-sleeve base layer, t-shirt, mid-layer, insulating layer, hard shell, beanie, gloves. As the sun came up, and I warmed with hiking, I was able to shed the hard shell, mid, and insulating layers. When stopping, I’d put on the insulating layer to conserve heat.
- Ice axe. The ice axe is the most crucial piece of equipment. It’s the only way to stop a fall and get up steep slopes. I used the Black Diamond Raven.
- Crampons. I walked about 10 miles in these on summit and descent day. Make sure they fit tightly. I used the Black Diamond Contact.
- Helmet. Get something rock rated. I have the Black Diamond Vector.
- Avalanche Safety Kit. Includes a beacon, probe, and shovel. Every team member should wear a beacon and carry a probe and shovel. Learn how to operate the beacon, and review avy safety guidelines with your group ahead of time. Black Diamond also sells this as a set.
- Multi-tool. I don’t have a Leatherman, but I’d like one. Something with a knife and a can opener.
- Sunglasses, preferably glacier glasses. Normal sunglasses are often not sufficient. Without sunglasses that wrap, you can burn your corneas and lose vision.
- Sunscreen. I put on sunscreen regularly and still got a bit burned. Essential.
- Spork and collapsible bowl. Sea to Summit makes some great sets.
- Power bank. I have the Goal Zero Venture 30, which is a bit more rugged. Helpful to recharge your camera, phone, or other equipment.
- Sleeping Bag. Rated for at least 20° or lower. I have the North Face Furnace, a 20° bag, and still ended up sleeping with most of my clothing on.
- Sleeping Pad. NEMO makes an awesome, 3-inch thick mountaineering pad. Since you’ll be camping on the snow at night, it’s crucial that you have a thick enough pad.
- 4-season tent. We were warm enough with three people in a 3-season tent, but 4-season is the way to go.
- Head lamp. Black Diamond makes these as well, great for all camping situations.
- Trekking poles with snow baskets. Trekking poles make a huge difference when carrying a heavy pack. Make sure to get the snow basket attachments.
- Fuel and stove. We used the MSR WhisperLite.
- Snow shoes, skis, or a split-board. These worked well for the trek from Lower to Upper Boy Scout, although in the conditions we had, I could’ve likely done the entire hike in crampons. Skiing or split-boarding is the true way to get down. You can get from summit to Whitney Portal in about two hours this way.
- Bear canisters. These are required not for bears, but for marmots. You can rent them at the visitors center when picking up your permit. Unfortunately, they’re pretty big, so they might throw off your packing a bit.
- Gaiters. I didn’t end up needing these, but would recommend bringing them along just in case.
- Climbing gear. I brought a harness, a locking carabiner, an ATC, a PAS, and 30 ft. of rope. Just in case.
- First aid kit. We brought two for a group of five.
- Ice screw and snow pickets. Didn’t need to use these, but just in case.
- Camera equipment. Personal preference. I brought a Sony a6000 and a GoPro.
Food and water
The day before the climb, it’s important to drink a couple of liters of water so you can start the hike hydrated. I carried 2 liters of water with me, one liter in a Nalgene, and another in a flexible HydraPak. At base camp, we boiled snow to have water with dinner, then again to refill up to max capacity for the morning. All in all, I probably drank about 5-6 liters while on the mountain.
Climbing will put you at a massive calorie deficit. It’s helpful eat small meals constantly throughout the day. For snacks, I packed dried mangoes and Larabars. I also had Snickers bar, which I ate at the summit. I made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches wrapped in foil for lunches. Finally, for dinner, we made quesadillas on the Whisperlite, with some Patagonia Provisions soup.
The mountaineers route is challenging, and I was fortunate to find a group with some serious mountaineering experience to learn from. If you’re interested in doing this kind of stuff, feel free to reach out with any questions.