How to Train for (and Hike) Mt. Whitney, the Tallest Peak in the Lower 48
How do you prepare for Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48? At 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney is one of the most ventured peaks in the Eastern Sierra, dominating the skyline of the tiny town of Lone Pine. It’s also ranked as the 11th highest peak in the United States (the remaining ten are in Alaska) and 24th in North America. Mt. Whitney sits among the Sierra Crest surrounded by several other peaks in the Sierra Nevada such as Mt. Russell, Keeler Needle, Crooke Peak, and more. Mt. Whitney is also 84 miles from Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest part of North America – ironic, huh?
When you begin planning your trip, you can prepare it various ways, such as a day hike, an overnight, along the JMT (John Muir Trail), through the backdoor of Onion Valley, or merely bootstrapping up the peak.
Day hiking is accomplished with a single-day permit from the NPS. I only recommend this for those who are in excellent athletic condition and acclimated to high altitudes because this approach has a high failure rate for summiting due to lack of training or experience.
Bootstrapping is as simple as it seems – lace up your hiking boots and hit the Mt. Whitney Trail. This route is 22 miles, starting from Whitney Portal and is the easiest method for summiting Mt. Whitney. Keep in mind that you will need a permit to hike past Lone Pine Lake and camp overnight.
Overnighting is the most popular approach to summiting Mt. Whitney. An overnight pass can be secured by the NPS if you receive one during the lottery and this allows you to get an early start and bag the peak in the morning. On the first day, you can hike six miles to Trail Camp at an altitude of 12,000 feet and test your acclimation. This allows you have to have a more relaxed first day and tackle the second day with an extension if necessary and is overall is a much more easy hike.
Onion Valley requires a different type of permit – a backcountry wilderness permit. This way of approaching Mt. Whitney takes 36 miles on the backside of Mt. Whitney from Guitar Lake.
JMT is an excellent option if you have a month you can take off and are well-versed in backpacking. The JMT is 212 miles and begins at Yosemite National Park.
Once you decide on how you’d like to bag the peak, you need to apply for a permit and decide on a route. If you have technical mountaineering experience, you have the option to choose a more direct way to the summit. The East Face of the mountain is a technical rock climb and rated a 5.4+, but keep in mind that the high altitude and thin air can create a challenge. When choosing the route, there are several to choose from. Here are some of the most popular ways:
The Mountaineer Route: This route is more direct than taking Mt. Whitney Trail, and there is less foot traffic. There may be patches of snow, and you may need gear such as crampons and an ax. This route is 1,500 feet up a loose, steep gully, and then 500 feet up scrambling to the peak. Hopefully, the snow isn’t too soft so you can avoid any postholing or use snowshoes to alleviate the anger that sets in whenever someone faces snow up to their knees.
East Buttress: Similar to the Mountaineer Route, it is a direct route to the peak for the alpine rock climber from Iceberg Lake. It was the second technical climb put up on the East Face of Mt. Whitney. The route involves 20 feet of steep, exposed terrain with narrow ledges between sections. East Buttress is less committing than East Face in the sense that it’s much more straightforward, low, and easier to control your rope management and climbing system.
East Face: The East Face route is the first route on the east side of Mt. Whitney. There is a lot of sun exposure and is much more suitable for those looking for an adventure up the mountain. The route contains much more loose rock than the other routes, and there is rockfall exposure. Even though this route is a few hundred feet shorter than the East Buttress route, and joins the East Buttress to reach the summit, the traverse pitches are intense for the leader and second climber and only suggested for those who are well experienced in climbing.
North Slope: This route seems to be the most neglected of all the paths up to the summit of Mt. Whitney. North Slope is steep and loose, with intermittent cliff bands and slabs of rock. You must be patient when seeking the North Slope route – you can access it by starting at North Fork Lone Pine Creek to Boy Scout Lake, followed by taking the trail to Iceberg Lake through the Whitney Russell Pass and up the North Slope 100 feet to the summit. Crampons and an ax will be necessary for this route.
So, which route is best? This is ultimately up to you based on your skill set and the type of gear you own. Assuming you’ve now scored the lottery and chosen your route, the next step is preparing your body.
1. Distance and Elevation
If you are lucky enough to live in an area where you can pursue mountain hikes, take that opportunity for training with elevation gain. If not, this will take some improvising.
Treadmill: Set the grade to a steep 20 percent and aim for eight to ten miles per week with 5,000 to 6,000 feet elevation gain.
Stairmaster: Strap on a loaded pack (maximum 40 pounds), adding weight and increasing the speed as you progress. This will focus on building leg strength.
Don’t forget about endurance. Incorporate an aerobic activity such as a bike ride or running ten to 14 miles per week.
Here is an alternative list of goals you could work toward:
Hike One: Eight to ten miles with 3,000 feet elevation gain
Hike Two: Ten to 12 miles with 4,000 feet elevation gain
Hike Three: 12-14 miles with 5,000 feet elevation gain
Hike Four: 14-16 miles with 5,500 feet elevation gain
Hike Five: 16-18 miles with 6,000 feet elevation gain
Take a breather and then conquer Whitney’s 22 miles and 6,100 elevation gain.
Southern California has several peaks to gradually prepare you for Mt. Whitney’s steep elevation and distance.
Mt. Baden-Powell at 8.9 miles and 2,788 feet in elevation gain
Mt. Baldy (Mt. San Antonio) has several routes you can take, and I’d suggest the following:
Mt. San Antonio and Mt. Baldy Notch at 9.2 miles and 3,940 feet in elevation gain
Mt. Baldy via Devil’s Backbone Trail at 12.5 miles and 3,956 feet in elevation gain
Mt. Wilson via Chantry Flats at 12.6 miles and 4,274 feet in elevation gain
The area around Icehouse Canyon is great for overnight testing and has several routes you can take. I’d suggest the following:
Camp at Kelly Camp along Ontario Peak Trail, a mile from Icehouse Canyon Trail. Use this time to experiment with your new gear, cooking outdoors, and most importantly, sleeping above 8,000 feet.
This route totals nearly five miles. In the morning, try Icehouse Canyon Trail to Cucamonga Peak at 11.6 miles and 4,314 feet elevation gain, or Bighorn Peak and Ontario Peak at 12.1 miles and 4,242 feet elevation gain.
Lastly, backpacking San Gorgonio Mountain will give you the closest representation to Mt. Whitney. I suggest the 17.1-mile Vivian Creek Trail via San Gorgonio, with an elevation gain of 5,452 feet. You can camp at a variety of sites, including Vivian Creek Camp, Halfway Camp, or High Creek Camp.
Altitude is what commonly defeats hikers who fail to summit Mt. Whitney and this is known as altitude sickness. This occurs when a hiker isn’t getting enough oxygen or suffers from altitude sickness, known as acute mountain sickness, or AMS. This type of ailment can often happen when a hiker reaches elevation above 8,000 feet. However, if you followed the plan above to train at higher altitudes, then AMS shouldn’t affect you as much as someone who didn’t train at all.
Another way to help combat altitude sickness is staying hydrated and drinking a lot of water the day before your hike. Try to avoid alcohol and coffee until after the hike.
A few days before your Whitney hike, visit Lone Pine and stay overnight, either camping at Whitney Portal Campground or Alabama Hills, managed by the BLM.
Next, try hiking to White Mountain Peak, followed by rest and hydration the next day. White Peak Mountain is at 14,250 feet elevation and next best to Whitney. If you feel OK after pursuing this hike and resting, tackle Whitney after your rest day.
During your hike, if you experience symptoms of AMS, take a break and stop. If your symptoms are manageable, like a headache or stomachache, take your time. If your symptoms increase to tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, limbs swelling, inability to walk, fatigue, or an intense headache, then you need to descend.
There are medications and solutions to battle AMS, include: bottled oxygen, ibuprofen, or medication prescribed by your physician such as Diamox or Dexamethasone.
That said, I am not a medical expert and advise you to seek advice from your general practitioner before setting out.
3. High-Intensity Interval Training
Hikers who only use hiking as their primary source of cardio should include an additional workout to help strengthen your lung capacity for the thin air experienced on Mt. Whitney. I recommend including high-intensity interval training (HITT) in tandem with training hikes. A minimum of two HITT training sessions per week and three or more sessions for weeks you’re not able to hike will work.
High intensity is when the athlete puts full effort into shorts bursts of cardio-based or body-weight exercises.
A simple example of a HITT workout:
- 40 squats
- 20 split jumps
- 50 sit-ups
- 15 push-ups
- Ten tricep dips
- 60-second elbow plank
- 60-second burpees
Repeat the listed work out for 20-30 minutes, taking 30 seconds of rest between each workout.
4. Strength Training
Endurance isn’t the only thing you need to work on—you also need to remember that you’ll be carrying a loaded pack for 22 miles. Focus on building leg strength and give yourself time to condition. Estimated time of 12 weeks will help you get in the right shape.
Begin by strengthening your hamstrings (the muscle between your hip and your knee) and your quads (the muscle on the front of your thigh). A strong hamstring will help alleviate hip or pelvis aches by increasing your mobility. Try simple exercises such as squats, backward and forward lunges, step-ups, and leg extensions.
As for your core, try a hanging knee raise. This exercise will help you support the loaded pack and give your back a break. Find a pull-up bar, extend your arms until straight, lift your knees to your chest, and then lower your legs until you’re back in a hanging position. Do this several times and you’ll feel the burn. For other core exercises check out videos on YouTube that will walk you through a series of them.
Hopefully, these tips help you acclimate your body and strengthen your muscles for your conquest of Mt. Whitney. Nothing beats the sense of accomplishment one gets from working hard toward a single goal and completing it. Sign your name in the summit registry, reflect, enjoy the view, and maybe crack a beer. You did it!
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