There’s one surefire way to avoid headaches for getting yourself up the lower 48’s highest summit. Go when it’s miserable. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be miserable if you pay attention to conditions and time things right. Running Mt. Whitney in winter isn’t only possible, it’s advisable. We’ve successfully done it two winters in a row, had ideal weather and seen a total of six people. It’s been anything but miserable.
Unless there’s been an early season (November/early December) dump, December may well be your chance to have Mt. Whitney all to yourself. Even with a little snow, at that time of year there are enough motivated hikers to still stomp a track into place for you to consider making a go of it with running shoes. The trick will be to know 1) Just how much snow there is in case it’s too much and 2) Is there a well trodden path through the switchbacks?
While winter is our preferred time for running Mt. Whitney, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of assessing your personal ability and skill level. Too many people do this underprepared, undertrained, under equipped, or unwilling to make the decision to turn around when they’re over their heads. There are multiple deaths each year because of it. Know what you should and should not do and have the necessary equipment for your abilities and the current conditions.
If it did snow, and it’s December, the switchbacks aren’t going to see sun for some months so consider that snow as an obstacle. Ideally, there have been some boot wearing hikers in the days prior to your mission who’ve plowed a path for you to casually stride through. In the switchbacks, you might need spikes on your feet, or you may, like us, get away with just poles for stability.
Once you hit the ridge line at Trail Crest, you’ll likely encounter some drier trail thanks to wind and the mix of southern and western aspects. Again, this can vary year to year, but we’ve seen less snow above 13,600 feet than lower down in the canyons. In the Sierra, powerful winds often accompany storms leaving behind dry ground on windward aspects and dangerous deposits on the lee side of ridges.
In 2020, when we first did Whitney on a sunny, windless, but frigid day, we were concerned about our feet freezing during the shaded period of getting up the switchbacks. But thanks to continual movement, merino socks, gaiters and slightly bigger shoes, we had zero issues.
Finally, there’s the major bonus of the ease of obtaining a permit. For the summer and fall, you’ll need to basically win a lottery to get a permit for a long in advance pre-determined day. Come winter, visit Recreation.gov and a permit will be in hand as fast as your internet connection.
We told the story of our first winter trail run up Whitney over at our ALPSinsight.
Kim told a different story about running Whitney in winter, her first Sierra summit, for Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line.
By Dan Patitucci
Trailhead: Whitney Portal
|Distance : 21 miles||Vertical : 6550 feet||Difficulty : Difficult for distance and elevation|