1 – The challenge
Conquer the highest point of the Low 48 during the most difficult time of the year. The two main trails are the Mountaineers Trail and the Whitney Trail. Both offer unique challenges at this time of year. When you climb Whitney in the winter, you are working towards it using winter climbing techniques, which makes the summit that much more special.
2 – Photography
Capture incredible shots of the snow-capped mountain ranges, especially during sunrise and sunset. The light from the Alpenglow when it hits the mountains is breathtaking. The snow covering the mountains adds amazing depth and contrast to your shots. The frozen lakes and waterfalls add to the beauty of the area.
3 – Better yourself
Hone your mountaineering skills with the use of ice axes, snowshoes and crampons. Stop buying gear just to take great photos in the snowy hills where you can hike in flip flops and shorts. Take a course, or teach yourself, and climb a real mountain that challenges you to use the tools you have. Using crampons and an ice ax is common sense with a little practice. The trails have all the conditions to practice your skills. The trail has deep snow, long sections of ice, and steep uphill slopes, which are close to death-defying cliffs.
4 – Isolation
Avoid the annoying crowds of the summer. Everyone can hike a pre-built, paved trail, but only a brave few can climb a mountain without a trail. Get out at this time of year when the trail disappears under the snow and make your own route. You will have the mountain almost completely to yourself.
5 – The night sky
Camp under an incredible endless starry sky. The Sierras offer some of the most beautiful night skies. With so many major cities just hours from Mt. Whitney, stargazing seems rare these days. Leave the city behind and sleep staring at the REAL night sky.
6 – Learn new skills
Learn to camp in the snow. Anyone can camp in an RV or in the height of summer, but what about winter? Bring a snow shovel to protect yourself from the wind, learn how to properly melt snow for water, learn how to keep the stove running, stay warm in freezing weather, and prevent your wet wipes from freezing when nature calls.
7 – No more excuses
The self-issue permit means you won’t be able to use the excuse, “I couldn’t get a lottery permit to climb Mt. Whitney,” which I have heard a million times. (Because we all know the truth is that you’re really scared!) They all say they want to climb Mt. Whitney, and then they always find a reason to blame the Park Service for stopping them. Well, if you really wanted to climb Mt. Whitney, then half the year is totally under your control. You can probably also get walk-in leave during the other 6 months of the year. Stop making excuses to your friends and family on Instagram or Facebook, and go to the mountains now. Just get up, get out there and do it! No more excuses. You have until April 30 for this to happen.
The details of the trip
Day 1: We arrived at the Lone Pine Visitor Center at the intersection of HWY 395 and HWY 136 just south of Lone Pine, CA. We issued our overnight permits to climb Mount Whitney and collected our Wag Bags. You can self-issue your permit for free from November 2 to April 30. Climbing during this time of year allows you to avoid the crowds and the lottery system for permits in the summer. After regaining our permits, we drove 2 miles north on HWY 395 to Lone Pine, CA and turned left / west on Whitney Portal Rd. From here we drove 7.1 to Lone Pine Campground at an elevation of 6,000 feet to acclimatize. Camp costs $ 20 a night and you can cast a camp yourself. The camp provides water and toilets. The campground offers a clear view of Mount Whitney and the challenge ahead.
Day 2: We drive 6 miles from Lone Pine Campground to Whitney Portal at 8,300 feet, where the Whitney Trail begins. The Whitney Portal campground, store, and even the road can be closed at this time of year. We were able to park right at the clearly marked trailhead with no snow. We put on our 45 pound packs and headed to the summit. The first 1.5 miles of the trail were clear of snow. The trail gains elevation quickly as it backs up toward Lone Pine Lake. About a mile before the lake the trail disappears under the snow and footprints shoot up in all directions. This is where a good survey of maps and GPS come in handy. If you don’t want to break a sweat or fight your way through the snow, this is a great time to put on your snowshoes. You may only need them for a short time. You can follow the mark of the flames in the trees and slowly climb the mountain, or you can cut up and save some time. Once you get to Mirror Lake, just 5 miles past Outpost Camp, you will want to fill up with as much water as you can as this will be the last water you can get to before you have to melt the snow. You’ll also want to put your crampons on for the next steep section and keep them on until you get to Trail Camp. Continue through the trees to the south of Mirror Lake. After exiting the treeline at about 10,200 feet, head west and keep left near the frozen Consulation Lake, at the 6-mile mark on your journey. Please continue. 3 miles to Trail Camp at 11,800 feet and find a nice place out of the wind to spend the night. The sunset is incredible and offers the opportunity to capture a great photo.
Total: 6 hours, 6.3 miles, and 3,700 feet of elevation gain.
Day 3: I recommend getting up early at 5:30 or 6 and starting your ascent. The snow will be firm, which is good for climbing. You will also be able to capture amazing photos of the sunrise. This will also help you beat night storms that may arise. I recommend bringing two full 32-ounce bottles of water for the climb. From Trail Camp, you have to go up the steepest part of the trail. Head west up the slightly steep snow slide to Trail Crest at 13,650. You will need to understand how to properly use crampons, an ice ax, and the proper form of self-restraint in the event of a fall. A fall during this part of the trail could be fatal. Once you’ve reached the top, take a moment to soak up the majestic views of the snow-capped western mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. Make sure you have protection from the wind and sun for this section of the trail. Continue your ascent north as the trail enters Sequoia National Park and descends 150 feet to connect with the John Muir Trail. Although there may be long stretches of trail without snow, keep your crampons on! Certain sections along this 1.9-mile stretch to the top are very icy and on the edge of fatal cliffs. After about 5 miles on the trail you will see the first glimpse of the stone hut at the top. Continue past Needles and Mt Muir to reach the top. Rest in the summit hut, sign the log, and cautiously return back down. If you understand how, you can glissade certain sections on the way down to make your descent faster. Once we were safe at Trail Camp, we removed our crampons and made it quickly to the Whitney Portal trailhead in 2 1/2 hours. We stayed at Portagee Joe Campground our last night. It’s a very easy self-issue camp for just $ 14. It’s only a mile from Lone Pine, so it was easy to dine that night and have breakfast the next morning in town.
Total: 8 hours from Trail Camp to Summit Round Trip, 9.4 miles and 2,800 feet of elevation gain.