7 Reasons to Climb Mount Whitney in Winter
1 – The Challenge
Conquer the highest point of the lower 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 winter, you are working towards it using winter climbing techniques that make the summit that much more special.
2 – Photography
Capture incredible shots of the snow-capped Sierras, especially during sunrise and sunset. The light from the Alpenglow when it hits the mountains is impressive. The snow covering the mountains adds incredible depth and contrast to your shots. Frozen lakes and waterfalls add to the beauty of the area.
Hone your mountaineering skills with the use of ice axes, snowshoes, and crampons. Stop buying gear just to take great photos on snowy hills that you can walk around in flip flops and board 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 pretty 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 inclines, which are close to death-defying cliffs.
4 – The isolation
Avoid the annoying summer crowds. Anyone can walk a pre-built, paved trail, but only a brave few can climb a trailless mountain. Head out this time of year when the trail disappears under the snow and make your own route. You will have the mountain almost entirely to yourself.
5 – The night sky
Camp under an amazing 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 fall asleep looking at the REAL night sky.
6 – Learn new skills
Learn to camp in the snow. Anyone can camp in an RV or in the dead of summer, but what about winter? Bring a snow shovel to dig and shelter from the wind, learn how to melt snow for water, learn how to keep your stove running, how to stay warm in cold weather, and learn how to keep your wet wipes from freezing when nature calls. .
7 – No more apologies
The self-issue permit means you won’t be able to use the “I couldn’t get a lottery permit to climb Mount Whitney” excuse, which I’ve heard a million times. (Because we all know the truth is that you really are scared!) They all say they want to climb Mount Whitney, and then always find a reason to blame the Park Service for stopping them. Well, if you really wanted to climb Mount Whitney, then half of the year is totally under your control. You can probably also get an entry permit during the other 6 months of the year. Stop making excuses to friends and family on Instagram or Facebook, and get on the mountain now. Just get up, go out and do it! No more excuses. You have until April 30 to make it happen.
The details of the trip
Day 1: We arrive at the Lone Pine Visitor Center at the intersection of HWY 395 and HWY 136 just south of Lone Pine, CA. We issued our own overnight permits to climb Mount Whitney and collected our Wag bags. You can self-issue the free permit from November 2 to April 30. Climbing during this time of year allows you to avoid all the crowds and the permit lottery system in the summer. After getting our permits back, 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 . The Campground is $20 a night and you can provide a camping spot yourself. The campground provides water and toilets. The camp offers a clear view of Mt. 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 may be closed this time of year. We were able to park right at the clearly marked trailhead with no snow. We put on our 45 pound backpacks and headed for the summit. The first 1.5 miles of the trail was clear of snow. The trail quickly gains elevation as it recedes towards Lone Pine Lake. About a mile before the lake the trail disappears under the snow and the tracks go in all directions. This is where a good map studio and GPS come in handy. If you don’t want to break a sweat or dig holes in the snow, this is a good time to strap on your snowshoes. You may only need them for a short time. You can follow the blaze marks on the trees and slowly climb up the mountain, or you can cut straight ahead and save some time. Once you reach Mirror Lake, just 0.5 miles past Outpost Camp, you’ll want to fill up with as much water as possible, as this will be the last water you can get to before having to melt the snow. You’ll also want to put on your crampons for the next steep section and keep them on until you reach the Trail Camp. Continue up through the trees to the south of Mirror Lake. After coming out of the tree line at about 10,200 feet, head west and keep left near the frozen Consultation Lake, at the 6 mile mark on your trip. Continue 3 miles to Trail Camp at 11,800 feet and find a nice wind-sheltered spot to spend the night. The sunset is incredible and offers the opportunity to capture a great photo.
Total: 6 hours, 6.3 miles and 3700 feet of elevation gain.
Day 3: I recommend getting up early at 530 or 6 and starting your ascent. The snow will be firm which is good for climbing. You will also be able to capture amazing sunrise photos. This will also help you beat any overnight storms that may arrive. I recommend bringing two full 32 ounce bottles of water for the climb. From Trail Camp you have to climb the steepest part of the trail. Head west up the slightly steep snow ramp to Trail Crest at 13,650. You will need to understand how to properly use crampons, an ice ax and the proper way to self-arrest 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 in the majestic views of the snow-capped Western Sierras as far as the eye can see. Make sure you have wind and sun protection 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 can be long stretches of trail without snow, keep your crampons on! Certain sections along this 3 kilometer stretch to the summit are very icy and border on fatal cliffs. After about 0.5 miles on the trail you will see your first glimpse of the stone hut at the top. Continue past the spiers and Mount Muir to reach the summit. Take a break at the summit hut, sign in, and return carefully. If you understand how, you can slide certain sections on the way down to make your descent faster. Once we safely arrived at the Trail Camp, we removed our crampons and quickly made it to the Whitney Portal trailhead in 2 1/2 hours. We stayed at Portagee Joe Campground the last night. It’s a very easy self-publishing camp for only 14 bucks. It’s only a mile from Lone Pine, so it was easy to have dinner that night and 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.