Mount Whitney is a 14,505-foot (4,421-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It is the highest peak in the continental United States, standing tall above its royal surroundings as a fantastic castle of pristine white granite. It was named after Josiah Whitney, the first leader of the California State Geological Survey, although it’s no secret that it should have been named after John Muir, the most influential naturalist of the early days of the Sierra Nevada. Instead, the title of Mount Muir belongs to a subsidiary 14,012-foot (4,271-meter) pinnacle located south along the same ridge as Mount Whitney.
The summit of Mount Whitney is accessed by man-made trails from the west, south, and east sides. After numerous failed attempts by famed mountaineers like Clarence King and other members of the early Geological Survey, the summit was finally reached by a rancher and his family, who mocked King’s dramatization of the mountain in his journals. King’s remarkable, though admittedly melodramatic, side of the story can be found in his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Mount Muir can be climbed from the Whitney summit trail by scrambling up 400 vertical feet of class-3 slabs.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Whitney with Giselle in mid June of the year 2015 during our fifty-day northward romp through the Sierra Nevada with Max. We had climbed Mount Langley and Mount McAdie with Max over the course of the two preceding days, and found ourselves camped at 13,300 feet on Discovery Ridge. In the morning, Max fled to the town of Lone Pine while Giselle and I launched an ascent on the summit of Mount Whitney. We scrambled up and over Discovery Pinnacle, joining the highly popular Whitney summit trail for a distance of two miles. After the two of us tagged the highest summit in the lower 48 states, I scrambled alone to the summit of Mount Muir. Reuniting on the main trail, Giselle and I descended all the way down to Guitar Lake on the west side of the mountain, continuing northward along the Sierra Crest toward the town of Independence.
15 June 2015
It’s a desperate 1,500-foot dash up the scree slope from upper Crabtree Lake to Discovery Ridge as Max, Giselle and I try to make it up before sunset. This will optimize our chances of beating the maddening crowds on the overpopulated Whitney trail in the morning. What we didn’t bank on, however, was misjudging the ascent and ending up on Hitchcock Ridge, more than a mile west of our intended destination.
As the sun dips below the western horizon and paints the landscape in soothing pastel hues, the three of us skip along the ridgeline at top speed. Our desperation increases as we climb up and over each small pinnacle only to find a stark lack of campsites. Just in the nick of time, we reach the sandy 13,300-foot saddle below Discovery Pinnacle and pitch our tents. Max announces his intention to skip the Mount Whitney climb and instead go down to Lone Pine for resupply purposes; we make a plan to reunite on Mount Tyndall several days later.
16 June, 2015
Giselle and I awake by ourselves at sunrise and immediately begin scrambling along the ridgeline toward Discovery Pinnacle. It’s a 450-foot ascent on loose talus with plenty of annoying snowpatches to negotiate.
The two of us share a brief celebration on the 13,753-foot summit of Discovery Pinnacle, reveling in the brilliant High Sierra views all around us while scoping the upcoming trail on the west side of Mount Whitney.
On the north side of Discovery Pinnacle lies Trail Crest, a self-explanatory point on the popular Mount Whitney trail where the trodden path meets the main Whitney crest. Hordes of ill-experienced hikers are clustered here because the trail wraps around to the shaded, snow-covered west side of the mountain and there is much concern over whether it can be navigated or not. We share a quiet laugh to ourselves as sorority girls fumble with cheap micro-spikes and families discuss the safety precautions of travel on snow.
Continuing upward, we pass more than a hundred hikers (at only 8:30 in the morning!) – none of whom seem to be particularly comfortable with their decision to cross this item off their bucket list today. Giselle and I breeze past them, offering advice when asked for, and really just trying to tag the summit and escape this human zoo as quickly as possible. I begin to resent the early pioneers responsible for constructing this trail and thus making the mountain 100% accessible to the general public.
Narrow notches in the ridgeline, between the iconic needles, provide cool viewpoints on the valley below. What incredible topographical relief!
At 10:00 in the morning our slog is over and we land on the 14,505-foot summit of Mount Whitney. In addition to being the highest point in the entire continental United States, its dramatic relief over the Owens Valley makes for superlative views.
On our way down from the crowded summit we decide to count the number of people on their way up. We lose track at 60 people, not even a mile down the trail.
Giselle’s had about enough of the crowds and wants off the mountain, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to scramble to the 14,012-foot summit of Mount Muir via the west face, a class-3 slab of clean granite.
Mount Muir not only lacks the crowds of Mount Whitney, but also offers a unique perspective on the area. The cliffs of Mount Whitney are quite impressive, and the panorama to the south is unobstructed.
I meet Giselle at Trail Crest; we slurp fresh stream water from the mountainside, chat with a seasoned mountaineer, and begin switchbacking down to Hitchcock Basin. At this point we are literally walking into the scene that has been my computer wallpaper for the past six months: the unfathomable silver escarpment of Mount Hitchcock rising above the deep teal Hitchcock Lakes.
Down in the basin, the trail continues westward to the famous Guitar Lake, where scores of hikers (some successful and others unsuccessful in their summit bid, and still others planning their strategy) can be seen relaxing in the soft grass by the shore.
Giselle and I join the relaxing scene at Guitar Lake, taking time to soak our feet, make burritos, and brew instant coffee. With our hardest work of the day already behind us, we relish the pure serenity in the alpine kingdom of the Sierra Nevada.
At 5:00pm we dry ourselves off and continue hiking down to the Pacific Crest Trail, following Whitney Creek in the shadow of Mount Russell.
We can’t help but pause to sit and enjoy the spectacular panorama from the 11,200-foot shore of Timberline Lake. Across the still water, giants like Mount Young, Mount Russell, Mount Whitney, Mount Muir, and Mount Hitchcock present themselves in awesome glory.
In the late afternoon we make it down to Crabtree Meadow, joining the Interstate PCT and finding ourselves in the dismal green tunnel of the forested valley. Only when we reach Bighorn Plateau the following morning do we finally see Mount Whitney once more. We turn to reflect on this massive giant that claims the coveted title of highest peak in the Lower 48. Should’ve called it Mount Muir… but would that solitary naturalist have approved of having his name on such an over-trodden massif?