Every year, thousands of hikers and climbers beat down the Mount Whitney Trail. Weighed down by over-stuffed packs and 5-pound boots they trudge up thousands of feet of rock and sand to reach the coveted 14,505-foot summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
The trail has seen millions of boots since July 1904, when engineer Gustave Marsh lit a signal light from the summit, letting the people of Lone Pine know the trail was finished. The tiny town had scraped together $1,750, with bake sales and fundraisers, for the construction of the pathway. The town and Marsh, an immigrant from England, knew the 12-mile trail would bring the tourists and the Sierra Clubbers to climb and gaze at the gothic peak.
Marsh finished the final few, incredibly rugged miles to summit -- construction which the US Cavalry had abandoned during the harsh winter of 1903. Buffalo Soldiers, the 9th Cavalry, Troops I and M, started the trail coming from the west side where they were also building a trail to the summit. The 9th Cavalry was under the direction of Capt. Charles Young, one of only three black officers in the U.S. Army.
Five years later, Marsh spent 47 days on the summit with a dwindling crew to build the stone summit hut for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to look for water on Mars and nocturnal radiation. The iconic hut still stands on the summit. The hut was permanently locked in the 1990s after one person was electrocuted and several others suffered burns when the party ducked into the hut to get out of a rainstorm and was struck by lightning. The corrugated roof acted as a lighting rod.
One of the most epic tales of that summer in 1905 was born from a thunderstorm. A storm hit the summit and Marsh quickly warned his crew to take cover under the rocks, but instead they hightailed it down the trail as fast as they could run. “So I went to bed and covered up my head, like a kid, till the storm passed over. I was alone three days.”
The Whitney Portal Road was built in the 1930s.
Local fishermen, Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas, and Al Johnson were the first white guys to reach the summit on August 18, 1873. Locally the peak was known as Fisherman Peak but the California Geological Society named the peak after Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist.
Local Paiute Indians call the peak, Tumanguya, or “the very old man.”
The Mount Whitney Trail is one of the most popular trails on the planet. It’s so popular the Forest Service holds an annual lottery for coveted camping and hiking permits.
The trailhead starts at the Whitney Portal. There is camping and parking, but the spots go quick in the summer. The Whitney Portal store is home of the plate-size pancake, burgers, and is a good place to get beta about trail conditions. A small pond at the Portal is over-flowing with fish, and there are picnic tables as well as small trails to fit every size.
The trail climbs steep and quick from the Portal then meanders past turquoise, glacier-fed lake,s and lush meadows that pop with wildflowers before breaching above the tree line. It makes its way up the classic 99 switchbacks to Trail Crest then follows the spine of the Sierra, the southside of the Mt. Whitney massif, past Mt. Muir to the flat summit and the hut. The summit is more than 11 miles and 6,500-feet of elevation gain one way from the Whitney Portal. Some visitors take several days, many do it in one day, and some locals run up the trail after work. All that’s really needed to reach the top is stamina, water, food, and a jacket won’t hurt.
A permit is required, even for day hikes, anywhere in the Whitney Zone. To obtain a permit, map, or guidebook to the area, go to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center located at at the junction of Highway 395 and State Route 136, about two miles south of Lone Pine. The center is open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Climbers head up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek to reach the prominent East Face of the mountain. Classic climbs like the East Face, completed in 3 hours by the first ascent party, the East Buttress, and the Mountaineers Route found on that side of the mountain are world-class challenges.
For information about a permit to climb go to www.fs.usda.gov.
Mike Bodine has been reporting on the small town news and gossip of the Eastside for more than 15 years.