Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mount Whitney or Bust

Well ... I've decided that I want to climb Mount Whitney next summer.  I don't know much about it.  I don't yet have anyone to go with me.  But, Mount Whitney has been on my list of things I wanted to do for a long time so I think I'm going to see if I can do it.

I've been working on building up my leg and knee strength since my knee surgery almost two months ago and that training has been going pretty well.  My legs are already both stronger than they've probably been in 15 years.  I plan to keep doing strength training on them for a long time, but I feel like I need some sort of longer term goal that I'm working towards.  The marathon training earlier this year was a great goal to work towards.  Knowing there was a fixed date in the future that you had to be ready for really helped to motivate me to get out there and train on days when you just didn't feel like it.  I feel like I need some other goal like that.  I was originally hoping that I'd shoot for another marathon, but it's probably better if I pick something that isn't as hard on my knees.  So, Mount Whitney seemed appropriate.  In order to handle a backpack at altitude on mountains, I'm going to have to really get in the right kind of shape.

From a couple of hours surfing the internet, here's what I've learned so far.  Mount Whitney is 14,497 feet high.   The trailhead is at 8,365 feet which leaves a vertical ascent of 6,132 feet at major altitude.  The hike can be done in one very long day from the trailhead (22 miles round trip, starting at 4am) or you can backpack in part way, set up a camp and do a day hike up to the summit from your camp.  My preference is to backpack in part way and spread the trip out over more days.

The more time you give you body to get used to the altitude, the less your chances are of altitude headaches or sickness and the more prepared your lungs are for processing the thin air.  I will definitely want to spend some time at altitude before the main hike.

No matter which way you go, if you go during July and August (after snow melts, but before most thunderstorms), you have to get a permit.  If you camp, you have to get an overnight, multi-day permit.  If you day hike, you have to get a day-use permit.  Apparently, they severely limit the number of people that they let in to preserve the environment so not everyone who wants to go can get a permit.  To get a permit, you participate in the Mount Whitney lottery in February and you find out if you got a permit by the beginning of April.  So, step one will obviously be getting a permit.  Apparently, there are something like 10,000 people trying to 540 permits for the weekends from July 4th to Labor Day.  I'm hoping it's the kind of thing that if you plan ahead and are flexible on dates (I can go during the week) that you have a much better chance.  Apparently Tue-Thurs is considered "during the week" because lots of people include Monday or Friday in their weekend plan.  I'll have to start planning and training assuming I'm getting one and hopefully it will work out for mid-week.

There are multiple ways to the top and multiple places to start from.  The Mount Whitney Trail is the main way up starting from Whitney Portal.  From what I've read so far, it's not a technical trail at all.  It's just high, long and with a zillion switchbacks.  You can go up from the other side too, but there is some rock climbing involved to get up that way.  This is one of those things that I don't need any extra challenge, so I'm going on the main trail.

Here's a look at two of the different approaches with Mt. Whitney Trail coming in from the east side.  You can click on the map for a larger version.

There are bears to watch out for if hiking in the dark or camping.  All food must be stored in bear-proof containers which you can rent for the trip.

You literally have to bring everything out with you that you take in.  There are seven main points to the "Leave No Trace" policy on the Mount Whitney Trail.  Not only do you pack out all your trash, but you even pack out your human waste.
In 2008, there was a study done on the prevalence of summit success for Whitney and the incidences of Acute Mountain Sickness.  The study found that 81% of hikers reached the summit, but 43% showed symptoms of AMS.

Here's a view of Mount Whitney from Whitney Portal to the east.  Needless to say, I will be bring my camera and hope to take lots of great pictures.

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