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#91 - 09/26/09 08:30 PM Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers [Re: VersatileFred]
VersatileFred Offline

Registered: 09/22/09
Posts: 130
Loc: SoCal

Finding weather and road reports

On any given day, the weather can change unexpectedly and storms can roll in while you are on the trail (see Fear on the Top and Storm on July 28).  Although weather reports are no substitute for good planning, you can get area weather information at the sites listed on the WPS weather page or Good area weather links. If you acclimate at the Portal, you can also get last minute reports from hikers hanging out by the WP store in the late afternoon.

If you are driving across the Sierra Nevada from the SF Bay area or the San Joaquin Valley, you can check for road advisories on Route 108 or Route 120 online. You can get advisories for these and other state highways by entering the route number on the CalTrans web page or by calling 1-800-GAS-ROAD (427-7623). If you like interactive maps, you can go to Central California and Eastern Sierra map pages. The condition of Tioga Road is also posted on the Yosemite road condition page.

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Checking snow water content

You can get a rough idea of how much snow is in the Sierra Nevada by checking the California Department of Water Resources Snow Water Content Plot. The third plot is for the Southern Section.

Keep in mind that there still will be patches of snow in the trail area even as the plot approaches zero. In 2005, there was plenty of snow on certain sections of the main trail the beginning of July (when the plot was almost zero).

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Hiking Equipment

Trekking Poles

There are a number of posts on the topic at the following thread on Trekking Poles. It pretty much depends on whether you view hiking as "recreation" or as "work." People who hike for recreation buy trekking poles to make the trip less work.

From my experience, I have hiked the upper trail three times with a single ski pole and once with a pair of adjustable trekking poles. Going uphill it seemed a little easier to walk fast with two poles. At the same time, I had to be careful not to trip on my poles when going downhill (so one pole may be better going downhill). I certainly would not do the upper trail beyond Trail Crest without at least one pole because of the uneven terrain. The pole(s) can also come in handy in a pinch.

My suggestion is to try using a set of old ski poles (or a single ski pole, from a garage sale or a thrift store) before you buy a set of expensive trekking poles. If you like using two ski poles, then consider the alternatives. Collapsible trekking poles are a lot easier to carry on your pack and adjust to fit the slope/terrain. In addition, the more expensive poles are made of lightweight alloys (or carbon) and many come with spring-loaded shock absorbers. As noted in hiking poles, you can even buy mislabeled trekking poles at WalMart at a discounted price. Also check out the discussion on whether to use rubber tips.


It always is a good idea to bring a variety of lightweight clothing since you never know if it is going to be cloudy, sunny, or windy at the top. There also is the possibility that a hail storm or an electrical storm can develop in the afternoon. Wearing polypropylene underwear can help since it has a good dynamic temperature range and it wicks away moisture. You can get it under different brand names such as Capilene by Patagonia at places such as REI. Bring a hat with a chin strap, gloves, and a rain poncho since it can get windy or wet along the way. You also can get tips on what to take with you if you hang out at the Whitney Portal Store before your hike.

Emergency Supplies

The main Mount Whitney Trail is not your typical day hike. Every year there are stories of hikers getting rescued from somewhere on the trail and occasionally you hear stories about fatalities. On my second hike up the trail, one of the people in my group was airlifted out of Trail Camp. As a general rule, day hikers should carry along enough supplies to survive a night on the trail at temperatures near freezing (or worse in the colder months) in the event of an emergency (see 3 ladies survive the night outside). While a post on survival skills is beyond the scope of this thread, it is a good idea to take along either a space blanket or a lightweight bivy sack, an assortment of first-aid supplies, a warning device such as a whistle, and a long lasting LED headlamp. See Other Packing And Hiking Message Boards for additional sources of information.

Bear Canisters/Other Equip.

Day hikers are not required to carry bear canisters as long as they always keep their food with them. Canisters are required for overnight trips and can be rented at either the Visitors Center or the Whitney Portal Store. If you need other hiking gear, the Whitney Portal Store sells some last minute items, and there are four sporting goods stores in downtown Lone Pine. Also check out stove fuel and alcohol for discussions on buying fuel. Elevation and Lone Pine Sporting Goods also have a limited supply of mountaineering gear available for rental.

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Amenity Considerations


As noted in WP Store and Grill, the Whitney Portal Store grill is very convenient for people staying at the Whitney Portal campground. The store also sells cold beverages, energy bars, and snacks. The closest supermarket is Joseph's Bi-Rite market in Lone Pine.

Be sure to use the bear box lockers for any food that you store in the Whitney Portal area. If you are staying in the family campground that should be easy, since each campsite has a bear locker. It is harder for people who park near the trailhead to empty their vehicles, since there are only a limited number of lockers available and the lockers have to be shared with everyone else. See Trailhead Bear Lockers, Theft problems, and Portal theft for storage issues at Whitney Portal. See Food Storage for more information on bear canisters.


Water is available at many places along the main trail up to an elevation of 12,400 feet. (There is a spring by switchback 25 in the 97 switchbacks). Bob R has posted a list of reliable sources in a PDF file at Whitney Water. Here are some links to threads on water conditioning info: Water QualityWater Filters #1Water Filters #2. As a general rule, people should take about 3 liters of water with them above Trail Camp.

Wag Bags

When you pick up you permit at the visitors center, each of the members of your group will be given a wag bag to collect your human waste during your hike. Additional information is posted on Wag Bag. You also can see an illustration of a wag bag at the Phillips Environmental site.


There are no showers at the Whitney Portal Campground. There is a single shower at the Whitney Portal Store that is available for a fee. For more information, see the post on Showers. If you are near Lone Pine, you can also check on the Boulder Creek RV Park south of town.

Cell Phone Coverage

Here are some previous posts made on the subject in 2005 and in 2004.

Service in the area has improved in recent years. Here is some additional history from my experiences. In 1994 somebody in our group with an analog phone could call from the summit. In 1999, I borrowed a Pacific Bell digital phone from a friend and had no coverage, but somebody at the summit was able to make calls with AirTouch (which ironically was once owned by Pac Bell). In 2000 I bought a tri-mode (digital CDMA and analog) phone with a national calling plan from AirTouch right as it was merging with GTE and Bell Atlantic under the new name Verizon. AT&T wireless was also coming out with national plan service (and had an IPO early that year). Pacific Bell eventually merged with Cingular and in 2004 AT&T wireless merged with Cingular. When I upgraded my Verizon tri-mode phone in 2004, the agent was able to show me a map of the digital coverage zones around Lone Pine on his computer.

While I was only able to get analog service from the summit in 2000, I was able to get good digital coverage in 2004 from near the edge of the cliff. Even though I had good signal strength, it still took several attempts to make a short phone call, most likely due to the limited capacity of the circuit.

If you do take a cell phone with you to the summit, please practice good etiquette. Do not turn it on until you need it, and keep your calls short.

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Get acclimated

As noted in Learn more about altitude sickness, it is important for most people to acclimatize at high altitude for at least 24 hours before attempting the Mount Whitney Trail. In the post Develop your acclimatization plan, it is noted that Whitney Portal is not necessarily the most desirable place to acclimatize, but it is very convenient for people who want to hang around the Whitney Portal Store and the trailhead. At Whitney Portal you can also do a warmup hike up to Line Pine Lake (and take pictures during daylight hours) or a warmup hike to Meysan Lake. Regardless of whatever plan you came up with, you should drink plenty of water as you acclimatize to avoid dehydration.

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Plan when to leave

Start time is most critical for day hikers, since their goal is to hike 22 miles in a day while overnight hikers only have to hike 3.8 miles if they stop at Outpost Camp. The best time to leave on a day hike depends on a number of factors, including the amount of time it will take you (and the rest of your group) to hike up to the summit (and back) with all of your breaks included. Certain sections of the trail are relatively smooth while other sections of the trail require some rock hopping and will slow most people down. Some people can handle the altitude above Trail Camp without significant effects while others have adverse effects. Residual snow on the trail may be an additional delay factor in early summer. Also, above Trail Camp it is harder for people in a group to stay together without impeding each other's progress (since you have limited sight of the trail).

As a rule of thumb, you want to plan to be at the summit by noon and leave the summit by 2 PM. That gives you some extra time to play with in case your trip up takes longer than expected (most likely) and hopefully will give you enough time to avoid any afternoon storms that may materialize (especially in July and August). For most people (particularly people in mixed groups), that means leaving the Portal by 4 AM. Although that is before sunrise, there are long lasting LED headlamps on the market that use little power, and a headlamp is a good backup to have in case somebody in your group cannot make it down to the Portal before dark. Also, if you want to be able order a burger at the grill, you will need to leave the summit early enough to be back down before the grill closes (In July 2005, 6:45 PM was the time that the last grill order was taken, but the hours are longer in 2006). See How to Day Hike Mount Whitney and Day hike best time to leave for further discussion on the topic.

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Develop a contingency plan

A contingency plan is easier said than done, since most hikers are focused on making final trip arrangements and packing their gear as the hike date finally approaches. Yet, a lot of things can happen on the Mount Whitney trail, especially with a large group of hikers. It is better to have agreement up front on what everybody's roles and responsibilities are in an unexpected event than to wait until something happens on the mountain. Some basic questions to ask are, "What do we do if we get separated?", "What do we do if somebody is lagging behind the rest of the group?", "What is the turnaround time for our ascent?", "What do we do if somebody gets injured?", and, "When do we turn back if there is a threat of rain?" See Hikers Walking Into Lightning Storm. Someone Tell Me Why!, Family of eight gets separated, Fear on the Top, and What can go wrong on Whitney.   Also see Backcountry Lightning Risk Management

Believe it or not, my first two hikes up the main trail ended later than expected due to people in our groups having problems walking back to Whitney Portal (see report on previous trips). On my first trip, I was the only person in our group to accompany the affected person down from Trail Camp. It turned out that we were the only people in the group who were staying an extra night at Whitney Portal, and the rest of the group split to get to their motel rooms in Lone Pine. Fortunately, a couple of people in the group came back to the campground the next morning to check up on us.

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Entire topic
Subject Posted by Posted
Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:17 PM
Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:22 PM
Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:27 PM
Re: Orientation Notes for Whitney first timers VersatileFred 09/26/09 08:30 PM