Mt Whitney Hike, Day 3 – Mt Whitney Summit Day
Hiking or backpacking to the Mt Whitney summit is a huge achievement! Below, I’ll share my experience to hopefully help you on your adventure. If you’re following my adventure from day 1 and 2, day 3 of our incredible adventure continues below!
If you’re new – welcome! You’ll want to start with day 1 hiking from Horseshoe Meadows campground, and then continue on from there for the full picture.
Day 3 backpacking Mt Whitney was the day we would finally make it to the Mt Whitney summit, but not without a lot of effort to get there. The last 2 days had been excruciatingly long and arduous, and we knew today would be no easier. But this was the purpose of our whole trip – to make it to the Mt Whitney summit!
We made some breakfast, packed up camp, and headed off towards the switchbacks that take you up towards the junction that meets up with the Portal trail. We had been coming from the Cottonwood Lakes area since we didn’t want to worry about having to depend on the Portal lottery. It had turned out to be a much longer trip, but also more beautiful!
Guitar Lake to the Mt Whitney Junction
We woke up the morning of day 3 of backpacking Mt Whitney, and it was cold. We had a long day ahead of us, so we made some breakfast, packed up camp, and headed towards the Mt Whitney summit as the sun was still coming up over the mountains.
There was only one other couple at Guitar Lake with us, and they were just getting up as we set off for the switchbacks to the Junction. From our campsite, it looked like smooth sailing all the way up. However, once we started off backpacking Mt Whitney on day 3, we found more snow and less trail…and we were back to our crampons.
For a short while, we couldn’t find the actual trail because there was so much snow, but eventually our fearless leader got us to where we needed to be. The snow wasn’t terrible, but crampons made it much more comfortable passing a few steep, snow covered hills. Eventually, the couple from Guitar Lake passed us, but we kept our pace slow and steady.
Guitar Lake sits at 11,460 feet of elevation and today we would be heading to the Mt Whitney summit at 14,505 feet – no easy feat. Even the most seasoned climbers and hikers can suffer from altitude sickness if they’re not smart about their hiking, so we knew to keep a healthy pace.
The view backpacking Mt Whitney up the switchbacks is incredible, especially with so much snow cover! However, the trail itself is just a bunch of rocks since you’re well above the treeline now. It’s dry, the switchbacks are long, and you…are…exhausted.
Backpacking Mt Whitney from Guitar Lake to the Mt Whitney summit is a little over 4.5 miles with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain. About 1.9 miles from the summit, with about 1,000 feet to go, you reach the Junction. The Junction is where the trail from Guitar Lake meets up with the Portal route. Most backpackers will take some water and snacks and leave their packs for the final push to the Mt Whitney summit.
That being said – be very cautious of marmots! Those little jerks chewed through the waist pocket of my Osprey pack to get to an empty wrapper. If you’re leaving your pack here, leave all pockets unzipped and make sure there is no food easily accessible. Even if it’s just crumbs, they’ll chew right through. You might think it’s busy enough at the Junction that they won’t bother, but you’ll be wrong. The Mt Whitney Junction marmots are visibly well fed.
The Junction to the Mt Whitney Summit
At the junction, we caught up with the couple from Guitar Lake, and the poor girl was throwing up like crazy – clear signs of altitude sickness. I had started feeling a bit of a headache myself. Knowing we still had to backpack down the Portal route and we had no idea what was in store for us, I was concerned about heading up to the summit. I had no appetite – I knew I needed to eat, but I didn’t feel like I could.
My group was securing their gear and grabbing a day pack and water for the hike to the Mt Whitney summit as I worked myself up about my headache. Finally our leader yelled “drop your crap, let’s go!” and I went into go mode. I managed to take down a few pink lemonade Stingers and I put one foot in front of the other all the way to the Mt Whitney summit. It was tough, I don’t think I even remember much of it – but we made it!! And it was so well worth it. The views are simply amazing. And for this being only my second backpacking trip ever, I was feeling incredibly accomplished.
Below are Mt Whitney photos from my trip described above in July 2011, as well as another trip in August 2016. You can see the contrast of a heavy snow season with a drought season!
Sadly, sitting at the Mt Whitney summit, I was very aware that this was only our half way point. We still had to make it all the way to Outpost Camp – another 5 miles down the Portal route. We posed for standard Mt Whitney photos, ate whatever food our bodies would allow, and we set off for our packs at the junction.
Mt Whitney Summit to Trail Camp
Before backpacking Mt Whitney, our team leader had sent me videos of glissading to prepare me in case it was something we would end up doing. Around the corner from the junction, there’s an area where people will often glissade down if the snow allows, rather than hiking down the infamous 99 switchbacks. It makes the trip MUCH easier and you drop elevation much more quickly which your body appreciates.
On our August 2016 hike, there was no snow, and those 99 switchbacks are exhausting.
As we came around the corner to the glissading spot, all you could see was about 2 feet of snow with a path carved through. I had no idea what the other side held – was it steep? How long was it? We had no idea, but whatever it entailed sounded a LOT better than hiking down 99 switchbacks.
We sent our team mountain goat down first, and the team leader roped himself to the other female and I since we were both terrified. However, as we started to go down, we realized the path was pretty well carved out. Enough that even without an ice axe, we could easily control our speed with our heels and elbows. We also realized we would pull our leader off the path if we kept him roped to us. We untied ourselves, and continued downhill. It actually ended up being a lot of fun!!
At the bottom, you come up to Trail Camp where we stopped to pump water and have a snack. My appetite was back with a vengeance, and I stuffed chewy chips ahoy cookies in my mouth one after the other, barely managing to chew. Before the trip, my friend had told us to bring our absolute favorite foods. When you don’t want to eat at altitude, you sure aren’t going to want to eat anything you don’t love. So, I brought the horrible and delicious chewy chips ahoy cookies!
Backpacking Mt Whitney from the Mt Whitney Summit to Trail Camp it about 4 miles. From Trail Camp Pond, it’s about another 2 miles downhill until Outpost Camp. We were exhausted, but dropping elevation felt great, and although it’s hard on the knees, downhill takes much less exertion.The glissading helped.
When I did this route in August 2016, we were so tired from the 99 switchbacks that we made the smart decision to stay at Trail Camp. We were just too tired to move on safely so we setup camp leaving a short 6 miles for our final day backpacking Mt Whitney.
Trail Camp to Outpost Camp
Under the right conditions backpacking Mt Whitneyy, you can make it from Trail Camp to Outpost Camp relatively quickly. It’s all downhill, a bit rocky on the trail, and beautiful. If you’re tired, there might be some stumbling.
In July 2011, we made it to Outpost Camp fairly late as the sun was starting to go down behind the mountain. We set up camp and made far more food than any of us could eat, and set off for bed. We fell asleep to the sound of the waterfall flowing nearby, too exhausted for anything else.
The next day backpacking Mt Whitney would be a short 4 miles of downhill switchbacks, and then we would get to enjoy the gigantic pancakes at the Whitney Portal store. We were exhausted, and not quite finished with our trek, but we felt incredibly accomplished!!!