The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 61: Mount Whitney for Beginners

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

The highest mountain in the forty eight contiguous states is actually a popular climb for relative beginners. This week on The WildeBeat, Mount Whitney for Beginners.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number sixty one.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: I'm standing at the bottom of the trail to the summit of Mount Whitney. The summit is almost fourteen thousand five hundred feet above sea level. The trail begins here at Whitney Portal, at eighty three hundred feet. Here's Scott Morrow, just starting up the trail.

SCOTT MORROW: Well, we haven't been here before, and we're going to try to go to second camp... [ScottMorrow.aif; 0:35.5] ...Thank you so much, sir.

STEVE: A few minutes later, Mike Noone starts up the trail.

MIKE NOONE: I'll be out 3 nights and four days... [MikeNoone.aif; 0:51.5] ...Good luck on your trip.

STEVE: Almost twenty thousand people get permits to climb Mount Whitney every year. I've been to the summit a few times myself. But I wanted to hear from someone who's climbed Mount Whitney dozens of times, in prectically every season. Todd Vogel is the wilderness education coordinator for Friends of the Inyo National Forest.

TODD VOGEL: It's an extremely busy trailhead, it's heavily regulated, and it's very competitive to get a wilderness permit. In fact they have a lottery system, and I think something like less than fifty percent of the people who apply actually wind up being successful in getting a wilderness permit.

STEVE: So it's best to plan a few months ahead. The lottery for permits begins in February for the May through November season.

TODD VOGEL: The main season for climbing Mount Whitney via the trail is really summer, and for us that starts typically late-June and goes well through September. In fact I'd say mid-September to early-October are really the prime times just in terms of good weather, fewer people, it's really a fine time, but mainly summer... The trail is a very well-manicured trail... but spring here still starts pretty late in the season, so there still can be a lot of snow well into June, and in the last few heavy snow years even July it's been very snowy. And the trail's really not a dry trail until, in a heavy year, well into July. So it's entirely possible, especially on early season trips, that you'd need an ice axe and crampons. Not just to have them with you but know how to use them.

STEVE: You need to pick a date. You also need to decide how long you want to spend on the mountain.

TODD VOGEL: Probably one of the most important things is that there's sixty five hundred feet of relief from the trailhead to the summit... That's just a big chunk of elevation... Obviously Mount Whitney being the highest peak in the lower forty eight states has plenty of altitude, and it's something that people need to plan for. You need to allow time on the ascent for acclimatization. And that's best done by spending a couple of nights at altitude before the trip... you've really got a couple of main choices when you're trying to decide how to climb Whitney, in terms of whether you want to try to do it as a day hike or as an overnight. They're really completely different strategies, but both based around the same issue, which is elevation. And some secondary issues like, "well, gee, how much time do I have?" ... And so if you're really fit, and you've been at elevation before, you can do it as a day. And it does get done as a day really often. But it's a big day. You can gain, and of course loose, sixty five hundred feet over eleven miles each way, so it's about a twenty two miles round trip, or just under... people will leave at four in the morning and not get back until six o'clock at night... The strategy there is you go fast enough that you avoid getting sick with the elevation... On the other hand, you can do it a little more leisurely and spend a couple of nights out. Typically it's a couple of nights, and not just one. And again the reason is altitude. And it turns out that, statistically, for one reason or another, just if you try and rush it, but still spend the night, just spend one night, by the time you're up all of the way to the top of Whitney on that long second day and back down, a lot of people are really feeling the combination of just being tired and being at elevation. So it's best just to pace yourself out a little bit.

STEVE: So it's a good idea to get to know the signs of altitude sickness.

TODD VOGEL: The typical symptoms that people experience are mainly flu-like symptoms; head ache, nausea, that kind of thing. And fortunately, that's about as bad as it gets for most folks. But it can go on and progress to more serious complications, which include problems with breathing, significant shortage of breath, and pulmonary edema, which is a lung condition from being at altitude too fast... But in terms of dealing with elevation, how your body acclimatizes to the elevation it's not so much an issue of being in shape, interestingly, but just taking your time... but typically we are leaving work late in the day, driving, getting to the Whitney Portal trailhead at eleven o'clock at night or later, not getting enough sleep, and going straight up to either the trail camp, which is twelve thousand, or maybe even doing Whitney as a day trip. So running on very little sleep and spending a whole day at altitude is just kind of a set up to not feel very good.

STEVE: Todd and I agree that the best way to enjoy a high peak like Mount Whitney is to make your climb part of a longer wilderness trip.

TODD VOGEL: The main Whitney Trail is extremely busy, and.... Less than half the people who apply get a wilderness permit... You're going to come all this way and spend all this energy to go climb Mount Whitney. Add a few days to your itinerary, there's all sorts of reasons to do so, not the least of which is you'll feel better with regard to the altitude, but add a couple of days, do one of the alternative routes that aren't traditionally the main way up Whitney. Either go over New Army Pass down into Rock Creek, in Sequoia National Park, or go over Kearsarge Pass and you will have much more of a wilderness experience.'ll run into far fewer people, ...and definitely have a feeling of solitude that you don't get on the Whitney trail. I'm always one for the leisurely approach to these peaks when you can.

STEVE: I ran into Doug Thompson. He's the owner of the Whitney Portal Store and cafe. Doug maintains a web site where hikers and climbers share their Mount Whitney experiences.

DOUG THOMPSON: It's The wealth of information is the person that this is their first hike. Read what they had trouble with, find out how they got the blisters, where they ran out of water, why they carried too much, all those things that affected the first-time user. That's critical. The more experienced people, we don't see the world like the first-time people.

STEVE: So chances are, climbing the highest mountain in the continental U.S. is something you can do. It doesn't take exceptional fitness or years of training, you just have to plan ahead and prepare, and give yourself enough time.

It's toward the end of the day, back at the trailhead. Some hikers are coming back down. Stephanie Schmidt charges down the trail, carrying a light day pack.

STEPHANIE SCHMIDT: Started out at four twenty this morning... [StephanieSchmidt.aif; 0:20.9]'s a long, long day.

STEVE: Dean DeBennedictus, with his large, heavy-looking backpack, has taken his time coming down.

DEAN DEBENNEDICTUS: Well the trip was basically an attempt at the summit... [DeanDeBennedictus.aif; 0:41.2] ...Trail Camp at twelve-four.

STEVE: You can find links to resources about Mount Whitney, dowload a bonus audio segment, and an extended version of this show, on our web site.

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Next time -- packing IT out.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to comments at wildebeat dot net, or leave a message on our toll-free line at 866-590-7373. The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number sixty one. Thank you for listening.

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