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In Ice Axe We Trust: Mt. Whitney

iiawtIn Ice Axe We Trust is a bi-monthly podcast hosted by Chris (@last_adventurer) and Matt (@thepeakseeker). I was honored to be a guest on their show, sharing my experience hiking the John Muir Trail and western approach to Mt. Whitney from Crabtree Meadow — something I’ve done twice (so far).

Matt and Chris have a great show (you subscribe, right?), and asked some good questions about the JMT, Mt. Whitney, and the changes since my first Whitney summit in 1980. Here are a few highlights:

Why I started

I started this site because I was planning my second thru-hike of the John Muir Trail. I figured that I had to do the research on training, equipment, permits, resupply points, itinerary and more. Why not document it on the web where others can benefit from it? This labor of love just grew from there.

Permits to Whitney

If you have a permit to thru-hike the JMT from Yosemite, you don’t need a special permit for Whitney. So if you really must hike Mt. Whitney this year, but didn’t get a permit in the lottery, you might have success with this route — as long as you don’t mind the 200 mile prequel.

There is another “back door” possibility. You might be able to get a permit from the Golden Trout Wilderness. It’s about a 20 mile hike from Horseshoe Meadow to Crabtree — making a western approach to Mt. Whitney a good alternative to the Whitney Portal.

Training for the JMT and Mt. Whitney

When I began training for the John Muir Trail, I was also training for Mt. Whitney — the southern terminus of the JMT. In addition to weekly conditioning hikes, I knew I’d have to train for altitude, elevation gain and carrying a fully-loaded backpack. And thus was born the Six-Pack of Peaks — six progressively challenging hikes up great peaks around Southern California: Mt. Wilson, Mt. San Antonio (aka Baldy), Cucamonga Peak, San Bernardino Peak, Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio. These helped build the stamina and endurance I needed. To help build my strength, I carried a loaded backpack. Typically, I’d load my pack with gallon jugs of water for the uphill climb, then dump it for the downhill (easier on the joints).

The Crabtree Route up Mt. Whitney

If you’ve been hiking the JMT, you’ve already covered over 200 miles by the time you reach Guitar Lake on the western side of Mt. Whitney. The hike up is only five miles, and you begin over 3,000 feet higher than Whitney Portal. Both sides are steep, but the shorter mileage and the higher starting point makes the western approach a bit easier (not counting the 200 miles prequel, again).

Both times, I’ve hiked up at midnight in time to see the sunrise. If you ever get a chance to witness the sunrise atop Mt. Whitney, do it. Photos do not do it justice.

Whitney at sunrise

As a JMT thru-hiker, exiting to Whitney Portal is especially brutal, mainly because you’re carrying a backpack. I recommend dropping the pack at the Trail Crest, then slack-packing the last 1,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit. Take your time down the infamous 99 switchbacks, and especially since you’re carrying a backpack, use trekking poles.

What’s changed on Mt. Whitney since 1980? 

In 1980, I was sitting on the summit of Mt. Whitney, soaking in the sun and the views and enjoying the thin air, when I saw a helicopter in the distance. It appeared to be heading straight toward the summit. The helicopter got closer… and closer… until finally it hovered directly over the summit. A guy in an airman suit and helmet climbed out of the bird, hooked up a cable to the trash can latrine, and the chopper flew away, dangling it’s nasty cargo below. Is that the worst job, or the coolest job? It certainly wasn’t the most efficient job.


Wag BagToday, the latrine on the summit is gone, and all hikers are required to bring and use a wag bag — a specially designed bag for storing your poop. Yes, from Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal, you’ll need to carry and use a wag bag, and pack out your own poop.

It was a real pleasure to join @last_adventurer and @thetrailseeker on the IIAWT podcast. I hope you’ll listen in and subscribe. Ice axe optional. 

Listen to In Ice Axe We Trust – Mount Whitney Part II

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