While planning our winter Wild West Trail Running Road Trip, there was nothing we wanted to do more than Mt. Whitney. Not just because it’s the highest peak in the lower 48, but because it is a really good trail run, especially in the off season when all the many tourists, and mules, are put away for the winter. But, we never imagined that running Mt. Whitney work given that we’d be rolling in to the Eastern Sierra in mid-December.
Our own time on the East Side started in Bishop, where we were shut down on most every trail we tried. There wasn’t much snow, but there was enough in the dark, north facing nooks and crannies to make things unpleasant.
As we headed towards Lone Pine, it became obvious that there was less snow as we went south. By the time we were able to scope Whitney, conditions didn’t look so bad. Whitney went back on our list.
Assuming that others had already gone up and a track would be in, we decided to do a recon mission up the main trail to see what sort of shape it was in.
Sure enough, we easily ran up past Mirror Lake to about 3350 meters. From there we could see that the switchbacks up to Trail Crest were buried in snow. Beyond that, we could only hope that the last section of trail from Trail Crest to the summit would be mostly dry since it is south facing and often gets blown off.
The switchbacks would be the crux. With almost 500 meters of snow covered trail, our concern was for our feet. Even with a track we felt like the snow would not be stomped into a nice track, instead, it would be loose and sugary, and very slow. If our feet got cold and wet in this section, surely they wouldn’t warm up above where it would be even colder.
The weather forecast showed temps were on the rise, and on December 21, the first day of winter, we could expect 16°C in Lone Pine. With some time to kill, we decided to go run Telescope Peak.
A few days later didn’t seem to make much difference in how the conditions looked. But we figured more people had gone up, further improving the trail. Best of all, the forecast was warm and still. We registered our permits online, packed our bags and slept in the sage at the base of the Whitney Portal Road.
At 6:45 the next morning we started up the trail. Neither of us had been to any kind of elevation in months, so we kept the pace mellow and settled in for our 34km & 2000 meters of vert day. Sure enough the trail was well traveled and we arrived at the switchbacks feeling fresh.
The switchbacks proved to be no problem, our feet stayed warm and the temperatures mild given the time of year. We reached Trail Crest stoked for the last section of easy trail to the summit. And sure enough, the summit ridge and plateau were mostly dry. We put our heads down and charged.
Doing Whitney in the off season has many advantages, none more appreciated than having the summit to ourselves. We spent about 30 minutes on top before our cold finger alarm sounded as a reminder that we had plenty of trail to descend.
Much of the descent is very runnable, but care must be taken on the snow covered switchbacks. Once past Trail Camp, at about 3650 meters, the trail allows for cruise control to be engaged all the way to the car.
In the end, the day was a pretty standard, although big and high, trail run. What wasn’t so standard was the summit. Thanks to endless views from its high plateau, a massive cliff dropping away to the east, and yes, it being the highest point in the lower 48, Whitney is a special one to elbow bump on.
Mt. Whitney Trail Running Gear
This pile includes what we wore while running, which was actually most of the clothing. Even though Lone Pine was 16°C that day, we were pretty frozen on Whitney. Don’t underestimate how cold high elevation can be in the winter!
Some items to mention:
- We took Black Diamond Distance Spikes but ended up not needing them thanks to a sticky, or powdery, snow surface. These spikes are ideal, and at 200 grams, you aren’t cursing yourself for carrying them if you don’t use them.
- Poles are key to maintain forward momentum and prevent slipping in steep, snowy terrain. We use the Black Diamond Carbon Distance Z Poles.
- Gaitors. Again, Black Diamond – the Distance Gaitor.
- One 500ML soft flask each. We re-filled in creeks.
- The Patagonia Nano Air Hybrid Jacket is the best puffy imaginable for mountain running in frigid temps. It’s my go to piece that I’ve used extensively in the Himalaya, all through the Alps, and now Mt. Whitney.
- Black Diamond Stance Mitts as the warmer addition to a lighter pair of Patagonia Peak Mission Gloves. The Stance mitts go on all our potentially cold adventures. They weigh 69 grams, instantly warm frozen fingers and can literally save your day.
- Footwear: I used the La Sportiva Jackal, my go to shoe for big mountain days. But I was eyeing what Kim had… the La Sportiva Mutants. Kim discovered this shoe last fall and fell in love with their burly mountain performance, the built in ankle cuffs to keep grit and snow out and their very aggressive soles for snow. Full review coming soon.
- What wasn’t worn all got carried in the Black Diamond Distance 15 liter packs.
- CLIF Bars and Trail Butter
- The Sony RX100 MVI camera.
Tips and Points
- Don’t forget to get a permit. It’s very much the off season and it’s unlikely you’ll see anyone, but unlike the high season and the near impossibility to get a permit, in winter they come easy. The site is Recreation.gov and should be done several days in advance to allow you time to receive them and print them out. We registered the day before, received email confirmation, but never got any permit to print out given the short notice.
- Nutrition: Take plenty of food and water to stay fueled for a long day. We took a 500ml soft flask each and re-filled in creeks running fresh. Make sure the food is something you know sits well. High elevation magnifies what doesn’t sit well.
- Don’t underestimate the elevation and pay attention to what your body is telling you when you get above about 3700 meters.
- Visit Sierra Trail Runs for more info.