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HIKING

Mt. Whitney Trail Provides a Peak Experience

August 29, 1993|JOHN McKINNEY

You can't get any higher in the continental United States than the 14,495-foot summit of Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, a once-in-a-lifetime hiking experience.

Hikers come from around the nation and countries around the world to tackle the popular Mt. Whitney Trail, which climbs the mountain's mellowest slopes. Even Whitney's least steep side requires a vigorous and challenging ascent. However, no technical mountaineering skills are needed to reach the top.

This highest of the High Sierra was named for Yale-trained geologist Dwight Whitney. The California legislature founded and funded the State Geological Survey in 1860 at Whitney's urging and placed him in charge.

The last couple of miles to Whitney's summit are the climax of the John Muir Trail, which begins in Yosemite Valley. This meeting on the map of Muir and Whitney is ironic. Whitney disliked the great naturalist, whose then-revolutionary theory that Yosemite was carved by glaciers he castigated. "A more absurd theory was never advanced," said Whitney, who insisted Yosemite Valley was created by faulting.

Unhappily for the Yale man's place in geologic history, Muir's glaciation theory has proved to be correct. Still, Whitney's name remains at the top, elevation-wise anyway, a few hundred feet higher than adjacent 14,015-foot Mt. Muir.

Answering the call of astronomers and meteorologists, Lone Pine residents financed and constructed the Mt. Whitney Trail in 1904. In 1909, a stone summit hut (which still stands today) was built by the Smithsonian Institute to study Mars.

Over the years, the trail has been rehabilitated and realigned. It stands today--graded switchbacks hewn out of granite walls--as one of the finest examples in America of the trail builder's art.

The fittest hikers, and those least prone to altitude sickness, might want to attempt all 21.4 miles (round trip) in one day. Two or three days on the mountain is more typical--and for most hikers a lot more enjoyable.

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Drive to the trail head and spend the first night getting acclimated at Whitney Portal Camp (7,870 feet). Next, backpack to Trail Camp, six miles from the trail head. The camp, at 12,039 feet, offers pretty good tent sites and the last reliable water before the summit. (Water from the camp's creeks and ponds, as well as elsewhere on the mountain, should be purified before drinking.)

From the camp, get a crack-of-dawn start for the 4.7-mile climb to the top--especially if you intend to return to the trail head the same day.

To ensure a quality hiking experience on Mt. Whitney Trail, the National Forest Service maintains a quota system from May 22 to Oct. 15; permits are issued to 50 hikers a day. Since all 50 permits may be reserved by mail, your chances of getting one by showing up in person on a summer weekend are slim to none. A much better bet is any weekday after the Labor Day holiday weekend.

Or start thinking about next year: Mail reservations must be postmarked between March 1 and May 31, to reserve space for the May 22-Oct. 15 period. The non-refundable reservation charge is $3 per hiker.

Best months for a Whitney trek are July, August and September, when the trail is clear of snow and daytime temperatures are in the 70s.

By some estimates, only about half the Mt. Whitney Trail hikers reach the summit. Do not exceed your ability and level of condition by forcing yourself to make the top. The trail is absolutely stunning the whole way; your day won't be wasted if you turn around short of the summit.

Hikers should take the Forest Service's warnings about the climb and the climate very seriously:

* Bring warm clothing and rain gear. Whitney weather is volatile; don't assume that the morning's good weather will linger into the afternoon.

* Carry and drink plenty of water. Purify any drinking water collected on the mountain.

* If lightning strikes anywhere near the summit, descend immediately.

* Try to avoid altitude sickness (symptomized by headache and lethargy) by first getting acclimated, then walking at a modest, steady pace. Treat with aspirin or aspirin substitute; if you're too uncomfortable, descend.

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Directions to trail head: From California 395 in Lone Pine, turn west on Whitney Portal Road and drive 12 miles. At Whitney Portal you'll find a large parking lot, trail head information board, toilets and drinking water, a walk-in campground, even an overflow parking area a quarter-mile from the trail head.

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The hike: From Whitney Portal, the path climbs open slopes dotted with Jeffrey pine and white fir. Half a mile out, the trail crosses the north fork of Lone Pine Creek and shortly thereafter enters the John Muir Wilderness.

Switchbacks, long and short, ascend two more miles to where a short (200 yards or so) side trail leads to rock-walled Lone Pine Lake. It's perfect for a swim, albeit a very cold one.

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