Training and Preparing for Mt. Whitney

Training and Preparing for Mt. Whitney


From 2011 to 2016, I led a half dozen trips on Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. In the spring or early summer, I enjoyed introducing someone to hiking, with Mt. Whitney being our “big” hike at the end of the summer. Upon learning of what was involved for a Mt. Whitney hike (22 miles, 6,000+ ft of elevation gain, often taking 14 hours+ for first time day hikers), one of the biggest concerns that people had was making sure they were in “good enough” shape to complete the hike. In 2014, I wrote a an email with some training recommendations to the group of 5 I was leading on Mt. Whitney later that summer. Seeing questions about training on forums and social media, I decided to post the contents of that email on this blog. It quickly became and continues to be one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written.

This spring I started thinking about what I would be planning if I were taking a group up Mt. Whitney this summer … the results are below. I’ve updated that 2014 post, adding trail information, example training schedules and other training recommendations. In choosing the training hikes, I attempted to only use trails that I have personally hiked. Where options are limited, I have added trails that seem to fit in stats-wise. The trail and training recommendations focus on someone that lives in the Inland Empire and that is new to hiking. With the stats I’ve posted though, I am hoping people from other areas can find local hikes with similar trail profiles or start their training at a point that is more appropriate for their fitness level. 


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Hitting the trail for Mt. Whitney

If you run or bike regularly, you may already be in good enough shape to hike Mt. Whitney (more on this below), but you need to supplement your normal training with some hiking and time at altitude. You need to prep your feet for the long day and get accustomed to carrying and using the gear you’ll take on the hike. One of the things I’ve realized over the last few years is that quality of the miles hiked is more important than quantity. If you need to prioritize your training time, steep shorter hikes are likely more beneficial than long hikes without much elevation gain. Here are a few benchmarks that can help you prepare for a summit attempt, in order of importance:

  1. a hike with at least 5000 ft of elevation gain or a workout with 5000 ft of continuous climbing.
  2. a hike that’s at least 15 miles roundtrip (20 miles is better)
  3. a hike that takes 10+ hours to complete
  4. spend time hiking/camping at 10,000+ feet

While benchmark 1 is about leg strength and conditioning, numbers 2 and 3 are helpful in preparing your feet for summit day. For those of us that sit at a desk all day, spending 14+ hours walking can be very painful. Completing long hikes will also prepare your body for carrying a pack for an extended period of time. Spending some time at elevation (benchmark 4), can give you a good idea regarding how your body may react to hiking at a high elevation. For many, Mt. Whitney’s elevation is an x-factor and has much to do with many failed summit attempts.

Reaching these benchmarks is not necessary – you may be able to summit without doing them and doing them doesn’t guarantee that you’ll summit. If you do the training necessary to reach them though, I do believe that your Whitney hike will be more enjoyable and that you increase your likelihood of reaching the summit.

Southern California Hikers

For those that live in Southern California, a hike up San Gorgonio or San Bernardino can meet all of these benchmarks. To work up to these benchmarks, I have placed a few trails into categories. As time allows, I plan to add stats for each of the hikes below, as well as links to my trip reports or photos. In general, I recommend completing 2+ hikes in the easy, intermediate and difficult categories. About a month out(or closer if possible), I recommend spending a weekend hiking in the Sierra (altitude category) to log some time hiking and/or camping above 12,000 feet and to see how your body will react. If you are able to make multiple trips to the Sierra leading up to your Whitney hike, I highly recommend it.

Easy

  • Morton Peak
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 5.5 miles || Duration: 2-3 hours || Gain/Loss: ±1,350′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +1,340′ || Max Elevation: 4,622′
    • HikingGeek Photos: May 2, 2015
  • Devil’s Chair via South Fork/Big Rock Creek
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 6.5 miles || Duration: 2.5-3 hours || Gain/Loss: ±2,350′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +670′ || Max Elevation: 5,014′
    • HikingGeek Photos: May 14, 2016
  • Bridge to Nowhere
    • Geek Stats >Distance: 11 miles || Duration: 4-5 hours || Gain/Loss: ±1,350′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +815′ || Max Elevation: 2,812′
  • Loch Leven
    • This trail follows old Rt. 38, so it has a nice (not too steep) grade. No real vista at the “top” (you reach Angelus Oaks), but near the mid-point their is seasonal waterfall.
    • Beware of ticks and mountain bikers.
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 11 miles || Duration: 4 hours || Gain/Loss: ±2,050′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +1,670′ || Max Elevation: 5,550′
  • White Water Preserve
      • Nice in the spring (water crossings, flowers). You can hike as far or as little as you want and still see interesting stuff. Stats below are for the hike all the way to Mission Creek Preserve.
      • The trail can be very hot during the summer. It is totally exposed. The water crossing provide a nice place to cool off.
      • Key an eye (and ear) out for desert bighorn sheep.
      • Geek Stats > Distance: 13 miles || Duration: 4-5 hours || Gain/Loss: ±1,400′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +800′ || Max Elevation: 3,025′
      • HikingGeek Trip Report: October 17, 2015 || April 3-4, 2015

     


Intermediate

  • Black Mountain
    • Geek Stats: Black Mountain Fire Tower  || Distance: 8.87 mi || Duration: 4-5 hours || Elevation Change: ±2,700′
    • HikingGeek Trip Report: September 20, 2015 || July 26, 2014
  • Keller Peak
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 12.5 miles || Duration: 4-5 hours || Gain/Loss: ±2,075′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +1,800′ || Max Elevation: 7,882′
  • Baden Powell via Vincent Gap
    • Geek Stats >Distance: 8.75 miles || Duration: 4-5 hours || Gain/Loss: ±2,830′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +2,810′ || Max Elevation: 9,401′
  • Timber Peak
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 10 miles || Duration: 5-6 hours || Gain/Loss: ±3,385′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +3,313′ || Max Elevation: 8,295
  • Bighorn Peak
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 8 miles || Duration: 5-6 hours || Gain/Loss: ±3,675′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +3,535′ || Max Elevation: 8,441′
    • HikingGeek Trip Report: January 16, 2016
  • Taquitz Peak
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 10 miles || Duration: 5-6 hours || Gain/Loss: ±3,038′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +2,245′ || Max Elevation: 8,825′
  • San Jacinto via Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and Mountain Station
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 10 miles || Duration: 5-6 hours || Gain/Loss: ±?,???’ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +2,400′ || Max Elevation: 10,834′
  • Mt. Baldy via …
    • Devil’s Backbone
    • Ski Hut Trail and Devil’s Backbone
      • The route I’ve hike the most times
      • Geek Stats > Distance: 10 miles || Duration: 6-8 hours || Gain/Loss: ±3,960′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +3,900′ || Max Elevation: 10,084′
    • Here’s a comparison of some the more common routes to the summit of Mt. Baldy – Route Comparisons: Mt. Baldy
  • Cloud’s Rest (9,931)
      • Geek Stats > Distance: 13.3 mi || Duration: 6-7 hrs || Elevation Change: ±1760′ || Average Incline: ~6% || Max Elevation: 9,930′
      • HikingGeek Photos: August 9, 2014

     


Difficult

  • San Bernardino Peak
    • Geek Stats > Distance: 16.5 miles || Duration: 8-10 hours || Gain/Loss: ±4,890′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +4,425′ || Max Elevation: 10,649′
  • San Gorgonio via …
    • Fish Creek
      • Getting to the trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle
      • Geek Stats > Distance: 21 miles || Duration: 8-10 hours || Gain/Loss: ±3,990′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +3,525′ || Max Elevation: 11,503′
    • South Fork Loop
      • The trailhead has been closed since a fire in 2015, but once the trailhead opens, you can complete a nice “lollipop loop” starting here
      • Distance: 20 miles || Duration: 8-10 hours || Gain/Loss: ±4,775′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +4,625′ || Max Elevation: 11,503′
    • Vivian Creek
      • The most popular route up San G, but also the most difficult to get permits for and toughest hike.
      • Distance: 18 miles || Duration: 10-12 hours || Gain/Loss: ±5,425′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +5,420′ || Max Elevation: 11,503′
  • Mt. Baldy via …
    Here’s a comparison of some the more common routes to the summit of Mt. Baldy – Route Comparisons: Mt. Baldy

    • Register Ridge
      • I prefer to hike this as a loop, ascending via Register Ridge and descending via Devil’s Backbone or Ski Hut Trail. Mt. Harwood can easily added as an extra peak.
      • Geek Stats > Ascent: Register Ridge to Mt. Harwood to Devil’s Backbone to Mt Baldy, Descent: Ski Hut Trail || Distance: 7.18 mi || Duration: ~6 hrs || Gain/Loss: ±4,285 || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +3,900′ || Max Elevation: 10,084′
      • HikingGeek Photos/Trip Report: August 23, 2014 ||
    • Bear Flats/Canyon
      • Geek Stats > Distance: 12.8 miles || Duration: 8 hours || Gain/Loss: ±?,???’ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +5,800′ || Max Elevation: 10,084′
    • North Backbone
      • Dawson Peak, Pine Mt. and Mt. Baldy via N. Backbone || Distance: 13 mi || Duration: ~9 hours || Gain/Loss: ±6,000′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +2,040′ || Max Elevation: 10,084′
      • Trip Planning: October 2015
      • HikingGeek Trip Report: October 3, 2015
  • Half Dome

     


Altitude

All of the trips below include terrain above 12,000 ft, which is higher than anything in SoCal. Some hikers find that they hit a “wall” around 12,000 ft (Trail Camp) while hiking Whitney. Having prior experience above 12,000 ft can help you figure out how your body will react to the lower oxygen levels at Trail Camp and above.

  • Mt. Langley
    • Geek Stats: Distance: 23 miles || Duration: ~14 hrs hiking time || Elevation Gain/Loss: ±4,425 || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +?,???’ || Max Elevation: 14,026′
    • HikingGeek Trip Report: Day 1 – August 28, 2015|| Day 2 – August 29, 2015
  • Cirque Peak
    • Geek Stats: Cirqe Peak via Cottonwood Pass || Distance: 15.1 mi || Duration: ~XX hrs (not including time @ camp) || Elevation Change: ±2945′, 3600′ climbing || Max Elevation: 12,900′ 
    • HikingGeek Trip Report: May 17-28, 2014
  • Mono Pass Peak
    • Geek Stats: Mosquito Flats >Mono Pass > Mono Pass Peak > Scenic Overlook Totals: ~10 miles RT || Duration: ~6-8 hrs || Elevation Change: ±2580′ || Max Elevation: 12,780′
    • HikingGeek Trip Report: July 17, 2015
  • White Mountain Peak
    • Geek Stats: Distance: 15.76 miles || Duration: 10 hours || Gain/Loss: ±3,527′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +2,545′ || Max Elevation: 14,252′
    • HikingGeek Trip Planning: White Mountain Peak
    • HikingGeek Trip Report: August 9, 2015
  • Mt. Dana
    • Geek Stats: Mt. Dana || Distance: 5.83 mi || Duration: ~5.5 hrs (3 hr ascent, 30 mins on summit, 2 hr descent ) || Net Elevation Change (at Max Elevation): +3,000’+ || Max Elevation: 13,061′
    • HikingGeek Trip Report: July 19, 2014
  • Banner Peak (12,936′)
  • Other trails to consider
    • There were times when I could not get away for more than an hour or so, but still wanted to get some time in carrying a pack. I’d often load up my pack with 20-30 lbs and head out with the dogs. For those living near Loma Linda/Redlands/Grand Terrace they offer some nice terrain for short training sessions:
      • Blue Mountain
        • This is great hill for quick training hikes. I often ran into others training for big hikes here.
        • HikingGeek Photos: Multiple Dates/Trips
      • Hulda Crooks Park/Scott Canyon
        • The trails here are principally used for mountain biking, but the hilly area is good for hiking as well.
        • HikingGeek Photos: January 3, 2016
    • Malibu Creek Sate Park
      • Geek Stats >Distance: 5 miles || Duration: 2-3 hours || Gain/Loss: ±440′ || Net Elevation Gain (at Max Elevation): +308′ || Max Elevation: 700′
    • Having only really spent 5 summers hiking in California, there are many trails/peaks that I have no first-hand knowledge of. Here are some peaks/hikes/trails that I would planning to use as Mt. Whitney training if I were still living in CA. Where possible, I have included links to information.
      • Mt.Wilson (Easy – see SoCal Hiker, Modern Hiker), Cucamonga Peak (Moderate – see SoCal Hiker, Modern Hiker), The 3 Ts Trail (Difficult – see Dan’s Hiking Blog) and ECBO(Difficult – see SummitPost.org).

Hikers From Other Areas

For those that don’t live in Southern California or have 10,000 foot peaks nearby, hitting benchmarks 1 & 4 can be particularly difficult. Looking at the stats for the hikes above though, hopefully you can find trails in your area that present similar challenges.

Here is a suggestion from a man that lives in Atlanta, but hikes Whitney at least once per year:

“I hit the gym about a week out and put in 6000 feet of gain on a treadmill set at 15 degrees, just to make sure my legs can handle it in one day. I’ve been hiking and climbing western mountains for about 10 years, and the biggest problem in training here in the east is the inability to get sustained gains in these low mountains. Your legs always get a downhill break after no more than 2000 feet, which is definitely not the case in the Sierra. The treadmill always tells me how ready I am.” source: Aging in Overdrive

 

This can also be done on a stair climber, which may more closely mimic the act of hiking. Some googling shows that 100 flights is roughly equivalent to a 1000 ft of elevation gain. In terms of reaching benchmark #4, I highly recommend arriving in the Whitney area a few days prior to your hike, especially if you are unable to spend some time at elevation before your Whitney trip (more on this below). For those spending a couple of weeks in California leading up to Mt. Whitney, PlanPackGo has an excellent example of a trip itinerary – Training for Mt. Whitney: Get the Miles In, and Get ‘Em up High.

 

High Intensity Interval Training for Mt. Whitney

The first year I hiked Mt. Whitney, I hiked nearly every weekend for the 3 months leading up to the big day. I had read in many places that the best way to prepare for a big hike is to hike. Over the last several years and having some runners and cylists run circles around me on the trail, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not necessarily the truth … especially if you limited time to train. I’ve found that most people that use hiking as their primary form of cardio aren’t necessarily in great shape, but those that run or bike regularly are in great shape and are strong hikers. I think it’s because they are used to working at a much higher intensity than those that just hike. For those that hike as their primary form of cardio, I highly recommend supplementing your hiking with High Intensity Interval Training (HITT). A couple of years ago, I modified a HIIT Training program I found online and came up with 8 week and 12 week variations. I simplified the intervals (making the total exercise time 15 mins for all levels) and it has worked really well for myself and other hikers. I recommend completing a minimum of 2 HIIT training sessions per week and 3 or more sessions for weeks that you’re unable to hike. Here are some links explaining the my variations of the HIIT program in greater detail:

Other Training Considerations

Being the highest peak in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney may present some unique challenges/considerations. Here are some things to think about

Acute Mountaineering Sickness

On the majority of my Whitney hikes, someone has cut their trip short due to AMS. Some conditions/situations that can increase the occurance of AMS are:

  • overexertion
  • lack of sleep
  • dehydration
  • fast ascent, especially without a period of acclimation
  • prior history of AMS
  • recent alcohol consumption

Prior exposure to altitude will help your body adapt on our trip and will decrease the likelihood AMS and can help improve your chances of summiting. If possible I highly recommend hiking a 13,000 – 14,000 peak as part of your training. As part of your “Mt. Whitney weekend,” I also recommend hiking in the area a day or two prior to taking on Mt. Whitney to help you acclimate. Here are links to hikes we’ve done in years past and trails I’d consider for future acclimation hikes. When weighing options for acclimation hikes, it is important remember that just spending time at elevation will help you acclimate – my main reasons for actually hiking are to see new things and to pass the time. If your legs don’t fully recover from your acclimation hike, it could jeopardize your chances of summiting Whitney, so take it easy. My recommendations for turnaround points on each of these hikes assume that you’re hiking Mt. Whitney the next day. If you have a day off or recover quickly, you may consider hiking further.

 

Pack Weight

Your pack for a Whitney day hike probably won’t weigh more than 20-25 lbs. It is likely to weigh the most when you leave Trail Camp (switchback 22) fully loaded with water. While training for a big hike, I tend to carry a pack that has a weight greater or equal to what I’ll carry on the big hike. With this in mind, I would do the majority of your training on the trail while carrying 20+ lbs.

Training Deload

1-2 weeks out from the hike I recommend deloading (reduce volume/intensity to 50% or more), particularly for lower body and cardio training. You want your legs and feet to be fresh for this hike. I added a training deload period to the training schedule examples below.

Strength Training & Eating Habits

While training for Mt. Whitney, I am usually simultaneously working on some strength training and fat loss goals. While these goals have not always gone hand-with-hand or work well with my aspriations on the trail, I believe I have found a happy medium. In fact, I felt that I was most prepared for Mt. Whitney at a time where reaching some of my lofty strength training & fat loss goals coincided with goals on the trail. While adding strength training is not necessary for a successful Mt. Whitney hike, those that have used my recommendations have been happy with the results, both on and off the trail.

In general, I recommend sticking to compound, multi-joint movements, keeping workouts to 45 minutes or less. Completing lower body training near the beginning of the week will give your legs time to recover before your next big hike. I’ve added some vague details regarding strength training to the training schedule examples below. If you would like info please contact me. As time allows, I may post this info in a separate entry.

Part of the reason why I decided to hike Mt. Whitney in 2011 was that I wanted to lose weight. I figured that if I committed to something big, I’d be more motivated to make cardio part my weekly routine. While my caradiovascular health improved with all of the hiking and cardio, I did not lose much weight. After experimenting with my diet, I found some truth in the fitness axiom “weight loss is 80% diet and 20% exercise.” While what I do diet-wise is way beyond the scope of this entry, I will say that changing eating habits in a way that encourages fat loss can go a long way towards improving your performance on the trail. It seems that many obsess over losing few ounces from their packweight, while changing their diet and losing a few pounds of fat would increase their performance, possibly reduce injuries, and possibly even make their hikes more enjoyable. If you’re hiking Mt. Whitney as part of a plan to be healthier, taking an objective look at how and what you eat may be a great step towards your goals.

Heart-rate Monitor

Using a heart rate monitor during my first year of training help me set the pace for my first Mt. Whitney hike. Using the monitor for a few weeks leading up to the hike enabled me to figure out what level of intensity I could hike at for hours on end. Learning this helped me set the pace for my Whitney hike; without the monitor, I definitely would have hiked faster, possibly burning-out before reaching the summit. I frequently found myself working above my target rate and adjusted my pace accordingly.

Example Mt. Whitney Training Schedules

Below, I’ve outlined two different training schedules for an upcoming Mt. Whitney hike. If I were putting together a trip for 2017, this is exaxtly the type of training plan I would work from, depending on whether we had 3 months (preferred) or 2 months(doable, but difficult for beginners or those with busy schedules) to prepare for the hike. Some notes:

  • The training schedules are huge time commitments, but it was developed with the sedentary individual or beginner in mind. With the tedious lottery process for permits, the likelihood of needing to use vacation time and the spending sufficient cash on lodging and gear for this trip, cutting a Whitney hike short due to lack of conditioning would be horrible. Those with a sufficient level of fitness can get by with a lesser commitment.
  • Looking at the schedule, you’ll notice that I recommend spending a few days in the Sierra before hiking Mt. Whitney. This is especially true for day hikes.
  • On the calendar I’ve included hiking, HIIT and strength training (for those that are interested). In general, optional training activities are listed in gray, required/highly recommended are listed in red. I’ve also recommend a progression of increasingly difficult trails over the training period, with one exception. While I have Mt San Jacinto via Moutain Station (PS Tramway) listed as an intermediate hike, I prefer to save it for the weekend just prior to Mt. Whitney. It is the second tallest peak in SoCal, but starting from Mountain Station allows you to get up to nearly 11,000 ft without working too hard; most hikers will have plenty of time to recover for their Mt. Whitney hike a week later.
  • I recommend 2 days of HIIT with a big hike per week. For those weeks that you can’t hike, I recommend adding a third HIIT session. If you’re able to get out for some short hikes during the week (hike with stats similar to Blue Mountain or Morton Peak are good examples), those will help with conditioning as well.
  • Here are the training schedules:

9 Responses

  1. […] to the climb, hikers should avoid tobacco, alcohol, and depressants.  Finally, check out Training and Preparing for Mt. Whitney from HikingGeek.com for practical training […]

  2. Mitch Maisonneuve

    I live in Indiana and will be hiking mount whitney in August. Do you have any training tips.

    Mitch Maisonneuve

    • TheHikingGeek

      I apologize for not replying sooner, I missed your comment when you posted it.

      I am currently working on a “2017 Mt. Whitney Training Guide.” I hope to have it posted within a week or so. I don’t know anything about hiking in Indiana, but the guide should give you some general ideas about how to train. I hope you find it helpful.

    • TheHikingGeek

      How long will you be in California before your Whitney hike? Is it a dayhike or an overnighter?

  3. Kathleen Salmons

    Hi there, I want some advice on the possibility of a seventy yr. old hiking Mt. Whitney. I’m currently 68. Recently I have been considering getting in super shape and using the Mt. as my carrot. I have three nephews who would like me to take on this pursuit. I live just at the foothills of Mt. Baldy in Ca. The boys have done Whtney. I think I might be able to achieve this challenge with a little help from my Boys. I would very much appreciate your educated input…. Trying to Rock It at seventy…Thank you very much!!

    • TheHikingGeek

      I say go for it! I’ve seen people your age and older hike Whitney. In fact on my first hike in 2011, a woman hiked the section from Trail Crest to the summit faster than I … I’m guessing she was in her 70s.

      Have you heard of Hulda Crooks?

      http://articles.latimes.com/1997/nov/26/news/mn-57923

      As long as your train for the hike, know your limits and make smart decisions on the mountain, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t try!

  4. GALLEN

    Hello, great resource and information. Thank you! I noticed both of the Mt. Whitney training schedules link you to a 3-month training plan. Do you happen to have the 2-month training plan? We are in Las Vegas and will be doing a single day Whitney hike with 13 older and experienced Boy Scouts, Venturing Crew members, and leaders. We are starting our training this week for for a Mt. Whitney trip on July 18. We have already compiled an initial plan, but just wanted to compare it with someone who has hiked it before. Thanks.

    • TheHikingGeek

      Thanks for catching that! The link should work now. If you have any other questions, please ask!

    • TheHikingGeek

      If you want to post your training plan here, I wouldn’t mind looking at it.