We often get asked how a person should get ready to climb up the high peaks of the Eastern Sierra, especially Mount Whitney. This can be a tricky question to answer, because each person has factors which influence how well they will do, and their own judgement on what is comfortable or “acceptable.” Nobody can predict what will happen at elevation where the air is thin. Sometimes fit hikers fail to summit, while less fit hikers do well. Such a difficult endeavor lays open to surprises.
There are things a person can do to plan ahead and prepare, and head off some surprises. Obviously if a hiker has never hiked at elevations over 8000 feet before, and are driving in the day before from sea level after a lazy few weeks or months, there are going to be surprises, and likely failures. These hikers shouldn’t be surprised if they have to abandon their hike relatively quickly. They might summit, but often they do so with extreme discomfort and as a liability to the rest of their team. Search and Rescue may have to become involved. For this reason and others, we strongly recommend making such summits with a guide—especially if you are less-experienced.
While Sierra Mountain Center doesn’t offer a formal training program or coaching, we have prepared quite a bit of advice for you. Please take a careful look at the following and assess yourself carefully:
Planning for Success (PDF)
Fitness and Training (PDF)
If you are less experienced with hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering, there are guided trips we recommend you take before endeavoring on big summits.
Considering Whitney in the Summer?
If you’ve never been backpacking in the Sierra before, and especially if you’ve never backpacked before, come out with us on a weekend Introduction to Backpacking or a 3-day weekend Long Introduction to Backpacking. These trips do not summit Whitney, but can acquaint you with the scenery, the footwork, and expose you to some elevation (without going very high and without big up/downs).
Have the lungs and legs and want to dive right in? Come along with us on a ~60-mile backpacking trip from Cottonwood Pass right into the heart of the Sierra, with an approach to Mount Whitney the way JMT hikers see it: up from Crabtree Meadows. Gorgeous. Even better, a mule will carry your gear! Check out Sierra Mountain Center’s pack-supported Cottonwood-Whitney trip.
Whitney in the Winter
Believe it or not, some people climb Whitney in the snow. And SMC guides trips up Whitney in the snow. Whether you choose to come with us or not, here is some education (experience) we consider requisite:
Not that familiar with snow? We offer a Snow Travel Skills course. Especially if you have never traveled in snow or uneven surfaces in snow and ice, we recommend learning these skills before attempting a winter summit. Another course which we recommend is Winter Mountaineering. Many of our successful sumitteers are happy they took this course before attempting Whitney. If you wish to learn some similar skills but in warmer weather, there is are Mini Mountain Camps mid-year. Coming along on trips like these will give you an idea of skills you will need, as well as alert your fitness (or lack of). Everyone is different, and you’ll find a lot of advice online, but generally we find people who have good aerobic and muscular fitness and some knowledge and experience in winter elements at elevation do best. Overall it’s very important to be fit before attempting a winter trip, because winter trips are more difficult as far as temperatures, carries, and energy expenditure.
Is Whitney Available?
Sometimes you just can’t get permits to climb Whitney, especially the main route from the Portal. Occasionally, there may be fire closures. We have compiled a list of alternative Sierra 14er climbs to make with equally incredible views and much easier-to-obtain permits (or no permits necessary).
The Big Takeaway
Overall we recommend you stay honest with yourself and open-minded. We find the biggest disappointments come when people have their hearts so set on a summit that they fail to at least enjoy the clean air, the enchanting views, and their time away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You might not summit, and that’s OKAY. Be prepared to let go. The biggest risks come when people are unwilling to accept when discomforts have grown into dangers, such as when an elevation sickness headache slips into more serious elevation illness. Study the signs of elevation sickness (HACE, HAPE). Travel with friends who also know the signs, or better-yet, travel with a Wilderness First Aid-trained guide.
Most importantly, understand that once you have reached the summit, you are still only half-way done with your trip. If sunset is near and you are fatigued and/or low on food, warm clothing and a headlamp, you will have a difficult, if not dangerous, return to the car. In recent years, several fatalities have happened to fit hikers after dark: they simply walked off the side of the Mountain. Let me be clear: Search and Rescue will not rush to your aid if you are stranded due to being unprepared or making poor decisions. They prioritize medical emergencies, which cannot be faked. Because of people “taking advantage” of their services, it might be difficult to convince them when you actually are truly having a problem needing assistance. And that’s too bad.
So please: make sure you plan for the entire trip, not just the route to the top. And when in doubt, consider going with a trained guide or truly experienced buddy, who will help keep your summit on the rails.