Looking towards Mt. Whitney from Alabama Hills.
Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in California, at 14,505 feet, and located in the Owens Valley Inyo National Forest. It tops the Sierra Crest, forming the highest point of the Great Western Divide of the Great Basin. From Whitney Portal, the summit is 22 miles long round trip with an elevation gain of 6,100 feet. Access is only available by lottery permit, since the trail is extremely popular and human foot traffic has threatened its fragile environment.
Leaving Whitney Portal and officially entering John Muir Wilderness.
Summiting Mt. Whitney is considered a strenuous hike for experienced climbers, and some mountaineering skills may be required. Altitude sickness is real and often plays a role in the safety and ability of many hikers. However, the lakes and camp posts within the Whitney Zone make for beautiful intermediate-level hiking and overnight camping, and exploration should be encouraged. The John Muir Trail Junction meets the Whitney Trail at 13,480 feet, with Mount Muir just a few hundred feet above.
Following an online forum for Whitney climbers, we were able to receive 4 permits from the lottery to ascend the trail for the first weekend of June. This is still considered very early in the season, and we felt alarmed by the reports we were hearing from the trail.
Other recent hikers were sharing their stories of ascending the mountaineering route (also known as The Chutes) in order to summit-- the switchbacks were still closed due to snowpack. The ill-prepared were routinely calling on SARs (Search and Rescue Units), and unfortunately, one death was reported just two weeks before our scheduled trip. If we were to take the mountaineering route, we would require crampons, an ice axe, and skills in both self-arrest and glissading in order to summit and come back alive.
Traversing one of the many cross-streams along the Whitney Trail.
Given the recent weather conditions, and without having the appropriate mountaineering experience, we decided not to summit, and instead agreed to go and explore the trails and surrounding scenery within the Whitney Zone. We were lucky enough to arrive in beautiful, hot weather, facing none of the challenges reported from The Chutes.
With each of our packs weighing between 25-40 pounds, we made our way from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake for an overnight camp.
Lone Pine Lake
Lone Pine Lake, the first of several lakes within the Whitney Zone, is a moderate-level hike that could be a round-trip destination for intermediate day hikers, or a beautiful overnight rest for summiters, or those connecting to the John Muir Trail.
The small lake sits at 10,050 feet on the top of a ridge overlooking the Owens Valley, surrounded by granite cliffs and rock scramble patched with snow, as well as twisted pines.
Sean, contemplating a dive into the icy lake. He eventually did it, and confirmed that it was, indeed cold!
Lone Pine Lake is a beautiful swimming hole for those brave enough to bear the numbing temperatures of the water. It is wise to pack mosquito repellant, although, despite not using ours, the wasp-sized mosquitos that swarmed us at night did not seem to bite any of us while at the lake.
Dinner time at Lone Pine Lake, 30 ft from our tents.
We were so paranoid still from our bear incident the previous morning, that we made sure to pack every single scented item we had on us into that bear can for our night at Lone Pine Lake. We stored the can, and a few other potentially animal-attracting items, about 30 feet from our tents at the lake.
We also made sure to prepare our dinner away from our tents. We knew it was somewhat inevitable that we'd attract wildlife, but we would do everything in our power to prevent any complications of this cohabitation.
Twilight at Lone Pine Lake, the stars just beginning to twinkle.
Camp was quiet, and we turned in early. Campfires are not permitted, and the mosquitos were intimidating, so it felt good to crawl into our sleeping bags after the long day.
However, each of us suffered a restless night. Apparently, throughout the night, every single one of us shared the same inner debate of whether or not the sounds we heard we the wind, or an animal in our camp! Our tents flapped gently in the breeze all night, but in between there seemed to be the soft sounds of paw pads on the rocky beach.
We laughed nervously about this over breakfast, as Henry shared his morning discovery with us:
Henry had found fresh and quite large paw prints (with very long claws) on the lake’s beach just a few feet from our tents. Bear or mountain lion? (My vote is Bear).
Meanwhile, our food and our trash alike were safe from wildlife while stored in the bear can, and luckily the hungry animals ignored our tents
FYI: Your used WAG Bag is definitely a bear attractant!
On Day 2 we woke with sunrise and watched the sun crawl over the lake. We filtered drinking water right off shore, and filled each bottle and Camelbak bladder, cooked our oatmeal and prepped our bags for our fairly short hike up to Mirror Lake.
For each of us, the No Trace policy of Mt. Whitney offered our first opportunity to utilize the WAG Bags (Waste Alleviating and Gelling)… also known as a Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kit that consists of a couple of plastic bags, some toilet paper, and a moist toilette… also known as a Poop Bag. If it weren’t for these WAG Bags, human waste would be an unavoidable reality in the Whitney Zone! We would see it and smell it wherever we step, for Whitney is incredibly popular, and to many feels like a freeway of hikers. As much as no one wants to poop in a bag and carry it, it is an absolute necessity that we follow the rules and keep Whitney poop-free!
Of course, we mean "Bear Can," not "Poop Can"!
Although, in the end, we stored our WAG Bags inside the Bear Can for convenience.
For all my years of backpacking, I have never carried my organic waste with me! This was definitely an intimidating First, but I managed successful alleviation, and sanitary packing afterward. Overall, it wasn’t as disgusting as I anticipated. The bags are equipped with powdered materials that solidify liquids and deodorize smells.
You better believe, however, that after our group had all used our WAG Bags, we sealed them up and carefully tucked them into our bear can, which masked any lingering smells and kept our hands and packs poop-free! If anything, carrying the empty bear can on the way up was well worth it just to carry our WAG Bags in it on the way down.
Just a tiny glimpse of Bighorn Meadow.
The Whitney Zone
Shortly after embarking from camp, we headed up trail to Outpost Camp and Bighorn Meadow at 10,365 feet. An enormous waterfall filled the soundscape, and light filtered through the trees and alongside Lone Pine Creek, creating a tranquil setting at midday.
Just leaving Lone Pine Lake, and heading up some switchbacks.
Trees grew denser as we climbed up a few switchbacks, managed stream crossings, and arrived at Mirror Lake, where we ate our lunch and enjoyed the shade and the sight of playful rainbow trout. Sitting under Thor Peak, we contemplated on what it would take to continue hiking to Trail Camp, and decided it would require another sandwich or two. So instead of pushing onward, we headed back down the trail, reaching Whitney Portal in just over two hours.
Mt. Whitney offered such a beautiful experience of jaw-dropping landscapes, wild animals, and physical endurance, that I can’t wait for another opportunity to go again and explore a different area of the Whitney Zone.