If you’ve been hiking in California for a little while, you’re eventually going to hear about Mount Whitney. It’s the tallest peak in the Lower 48 and not too far away from L.A. Additionally, if you go during the summer months, you can summit this peak without any additional tech like ice-axes or other climbing gear. I won’t mince words: it’s a very, very tough hike – one of the most difficult I’ve ever done. But with the right training and preparation it’s doable for just about everyone … and on top of that, it’s a gorgeous, life-changing experience, too!
If you’ve decided that you want to tackle this beast, there are a lot of things you need to get ready for – like a complicated permit lottery, black bears, marmots, and WAG bags (not as bad as you think they are, really). But in terms of physical conditioning, you’re mostly going to have to worry about two things: endurance and altitude.
The best things you can do to train for Whitney are to hike steep trails (preferably with your backpacking weight on) and to spend as much time above 8000 feet as possible. And lucky for you, there are a number of excellent local hikes you can do to help get yourself ready for Whitney. Unfortunately, acclimatizing doesn’t “store up” in your body – you can’t hike two 10k peaks on a weekend then expect to drive to Whitney the next week and be ready to go – but here are some great trails you can do to a). get yourself in shape for the Whitney Trail and b). find out if you’re susceptible to AMS.
In terms of altitude, you’re going to have to know the signs of acute mountain sickness, or altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is caused by a combination of reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes, and can be exacerbated by physical exertion (which you’ll most definitely be doing on the trail) and if you’ve spent a lot of time near sea level (which, if you live in Los Angeles, I’ll guess you do).
While you can get a prescription for Diamox, it may or may not prevent AMS on your hike. You can summit a dozen high peaks and never get it, or you can get it once, or every time. Every body is different and fitness isn’t necessarily an indicator of whether or not you’re going to get it.
The symptoms of AMS are often confused for other, more minor problems. If you’re getting it, you’ll probably notice a headache at first. If you develop ANY of the following, congratulations – you have AMS:
– Vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea
– Dizziness or lightheadedness
– Fatigue or unusual weakness (beyond what you’d expect from a grueling hike)
– Difficulty sleeping
The good news is, with most cases of AMS, you’ll improve with time. Time allows your body to acclimatize to the new altitude, and can be helped along with some rest and hydration. If the symptoms do not improve or worsen, a full-proof cure is DESCENDING. Do not be ashamed to descend if you have AMS and DO NOT get “summit fever” and attempt to try to make it up anyway – untreated AMS can progress to pulmonary or cerebral edema, both of which are potentially deadly conditions. There’s more good info on AMS here.
When my group hiked Mount Whitney, we went up to Lone Pine a few days early to help us acclimate – spending one night at Whitney Portal Campground (around 8000 ft) and the next night at nearby Horseshoe Meadows (around 10,000) feet to help us get ready for sleeping at Trail Camp (around 12,000 feet) for the summit trip. I know for me, personally, it helped a lot. I was pretty exhausted trying to sleep at 8 and 10k, but at Trail Camp I got one of the most restful nights’ sleep I’ve ever had and woke up fully energized for the pre-dawn summit push.
If you have any other questions about hiking Mount Whitney or other local trails you like to use to train for big peaks, leave ’em in the comments. And if you’re headed up to Lone Pine this summer – best of luck! Be sure to let us know how it goes!