The great state of California has the honor of many superlatives: home of the tallest and oldest living tree, the tallest waterfall in North America, the hottest place in North America, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, and the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Mount Whitney, at 14,505 ft (4,421 m) holds the latter record and, interestingly, happens to be located just 88 miles from the lowest point as the crow flies. Of all the fourteeners in the lower 48, Whitney is the most approachable, especially in winter. Serious mountaineering skills are not required to get to the summit, but the mountain should not be underestimated.

My friend, Jessica, and I decided to avoid the high season period of May through October, for which permits can only be obtained in advance through a lottery system, and instead chose to climb up in April, when a guaranteed permit can be obtained for free on arrival. The catch is that there is usually still quite a bit of snow on the trail, and as we discovered, the trail often faded into the snowy landscape necessitating much backtracking, adding to the already long trek to the top.

Lone Pine to Trail Camp

We started out permit-in-hand late Saturday morning at the Lone Pine campground with fully loaded packs, crampons, and ice axes, thinking we had plenty of time to hike the 6.3 miles up to Trail Camp at 12,000 ft. Even though in terms of distance it is not far, the elevation gain is substantial — nearly 4,000 feet, which with our hefty packs took a shameful seven hours to ascend.

In the early afternoon we started encountering several extreme outdoorsmen who had begun their trek in the wee hours of the morning and were now making their way down, wearing light backpacks with just the bare essentials: water, snacks, ice axe and crampons. Not burdened with heavy gear, that style seemed physically easier, though their view was that backpacking would be better. The bottom line is: it is no walk in the park either way one looks at it.

Besides the trail head at Lone Pine, there are two places one is allowed to camp. Outpost Camp at 10,000 ft is a nice, sheltered area with a beautiful meadow and easy access to a stream. The other is Trail Camp, an alpine basin at 12,000 feet, surrounded by massifs. Even though it is cold, icy, rocky, and far above any vegetation, we chose to overnight at Trail Camp to give us a head-start the next morning.

A tiny pond just before reaching Trail Camp is the last point where one can find water. Here, Jessica narrowly escaped falling into the frigid water while refilling our bottles, and after mentally recovering from this near crisis, we started unpacking and setting up our tent at twilight, trying not to disturb mountaineers who had already turned in, planning on an early ascent the next day. The thin air had evaporated my appetite, and feeling drained from the physical exertion, I skipped dinner and buried myself into my sleeping bag.

Trail Camp to Ridge Crest and Back to Lone Pine

Overnight, the temperatures dropped into the mid-20s Fahrenheit, while our tent teetered just around freezing as confirmed by our half frozen water bottles in the morning. The sun's rays quickly warmed us, however, and we were in awe of the deep blue, clear sky and the complete silence guarded by the 1,500 ft vertical cliffs towering above us.

Trail Camp marks the start of the infamous 99 switchbacks up to the ridge line at 13,500 ft, connecting the Mount Whitney Trail to the John Muir Trail, which comes up from Sequoia National Park. In April, however, the switchbacks are buried under deep snow and even finding where they start is a difficult task. It is also hard to get a sense of scale for how high up the ridge is, but if one gazes at the snow covered slopes, tiny specks slowly emerge that reveal the magnitude of the task — mountaineers inching up the staggeringly steep terrain, off-trail.

As I lacked crampons, we chose the switchbacks thinking they would offer a gentler ascent, but they actually appeared more dangerous than the straight-up approach as the deep snow essentially forced us to move along the very edge of the trail over unstable rock that could send us tumbling down without warning. Leaning on our ice axes for extra purchase, we huffed and puffed slowly up, often wondering whether we had reached a switchback or whether the trail continued in the same direction.

After many breaks, battling the paucity of oxygen, we reached the ridge crest some three hours later. Here, one has to descend a hundred feet over to the other side and connect with the John Muir trail before continuing the climb up to the summit. We encountered several groups who were on their way back, and another mile and a half in, we became aware of stormy clouds surrounding the peak and realized alarmingly we were the only people still up on the mountain.

The weather forecast had warned of a 30% chance of snow in the afternoon, but from where we were standing, snow looked pretty definite. At 14,000 feet, we felt tantalizingly close to the top but realized we still had a good 45 minutes of climbing left and would be taking a big risk if we continued. As Ed Viesturs says, “getting to the top is optional; getting down is mandatory.” Feeling slightly defeated, we turned around and worked our way back. A few times one of us would stumble over loose rock and see it tumble down into the abyss, sending shivers down our spines.

Back at the ridge junction we made the decision to take the quick way down the hair-raising, near vertical snowy scarp, which would likely save us hours on the descent. We had seen others before us do it and felt it was a good idea. It was almost 3pm, which did not leave much time to make it back to camp, pack up, and carry our heavy packs back to the car in time. A shortcut was welcome.

Jessica, equipped with crampons, went down first, and I tried to follow with my now light but still bulky pack strapped around my front in case I needed to lean back on my bottom. This arrangement severely restricted my visibility, however, and only a few steps in I completely lost my balance and started hurtling down. A spinning blur of sky and slope churned my senses, and I clutched my ice axe trying to get purchase into the slow. Eventually the axe caught, I oriented my stomach over it, and pushed down as hard as I could. The self arrest worked, and somehow I had avoided knocking Jessica over. It was terrifying.

Not wanting to repeat that, I let my backpack slide down on its own and started glissading down, using the ice axe to slow the descent. Jessica followed behind, but not too close so as to avoid crashing into me. There were some boulders sticking out of the snow that necessitated a few course changes, but we managed to make it the rest of the way down without incident, only a bit sore from bruises sustained from bouncing over the uneven snow at probably 20 miles per hour. I have never really seen a reason to use a GoPro camera, but this experience would have made a YouTube hit had I worn one.

Back at camp it started snowing, and we hurried to pack up and descend as fast as possible. Once out of the alpine zone, it warmed up quickly, and we were back at the car by 9pm, exhausted but happy. The only remaining obstacle would be to drive all the way home. Final tally? Whitney: 1, us: 0. In a Yakov Smirnoff twist, we did not conquer the mountain; the mountain conquered us.

The map above traces the route we took and shows how close to the summit we turned around. Notice how much time and distance was saved by glissading down the steep snowy slope.