Mt. Whitney: 14,505 feet— Or Is that 14,496.811 Feet… But Who’s Counting?

Highway 395 is one of America's most scenic drives. This view looking up at Mt. Whitney, center top, is one of the reasons why.

Highway 395 is one of America’s most scenic drives. This view looking up at Mt. Whitney, center top, is one of the reasons why.

Highway 395, with its panoramic views of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the most scenic highways in the United States. I will admit to a degree of prejudice, however. John Muir called the High Sierras the Range of Light. I think of them as ‘home.’ I have backpacked up and down the range numerous times. The mountains call to me in a way that no city or town does.

Driving up California's Highway 395 provides and ever changing perspective of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Driving up California’s Highway 395 provides an ever-changing perspective of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Another view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains along highway 395.

Another view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains along highway 395. This seems to fit Muir’s Range of Light description. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I celebrated my 60th birthday by backpacking over 300 miles down the spine of the Sierras, I started at Squaw Valley, which is north-west of Lake Tahoe, and ended by climbing up Mt. Whitney. It was my sixth trip up Whitney. I figured it would be a fitting way to kick off my sixth decade.

View of Mt. Whitney from the west including Curtis Mekemson.

Wrapping up five weeks of backpacking, my final climb looms in the distance. The curved mountain just to the right of my head is Whitney. I will be sitting on top the next day. The Sierras are fault block mountains, climbing gradually on their western slope and dropping off rapidly in the east. (Photo by Jay Dallen.)

Curtis Mekemson sitting on top of Mt. Whitney.

And here I am on top, complete with a large grin. The Owens Valley and Highway 395 lie some 10,000 feet below. (Photo by Jay Dallen.)

Looking north form Mt. Whitney up the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that I had just hiked through following the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails.

Looking north from Mt. Whitney up the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where I had just backpacked following the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails.

View looking down from the top of Mt. Whitney. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Another view from the top of Mt. Whitney.

The mountain’s claim to fame is being the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. It stands at 14,505 feet (4,421 meters). My friends in Alaska are quick to point out that Mt. McKinley/Denali is 20,322 feet. Mt. Shasta, where I began this particular series, is 14, 180 feet. And finally, for comparison, Mt. Everest, the world’s highest mountain, tops out at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters).

Mt. Shasta is one of the world's most beautiful mountains. Driving up I-5 through Northern California on a clear day presents this view.

Mt. Shasta.

Once the snow has melted, climbing Whitney does not require any technical climbing skills. A good trail leads to the top. According to the plaque on top, it is the highest trail in the United States. It was started in 1928 and completed in 1930. The plaque used to (and still may) claim that the mountain is 14, 496.811 feet high, which would seem pretty darn accurate, especially given the .811 feet. Apparently modern measuring techniques have added a few feet. Not that it matters, unless you happen to be the person climbing those last nine feet.

Getting to the top requires stamina, lots of it. The eastern route up the mountain starts at Whitney Portal and climbs 6000 feet. That’s a bunch of up, and the higher you climb, the thinner the air becomes. Most people slow way down near the top as their bodies fight to get enough oxygen.

I’ve always started from the west since I am either ending or in the middle of a backpack trip. There are two advantages. Most important, I’ve already spent several days hiking at higher elevations. My body has both toughened up and adjusted to thinner air. Second, by starting at Guitar Lake, the climb is only 4,000 feet. Still that’s 4000 feet up and 6,000 feet down on a 15-mile day carrying a 40-pound pack— hardly a walk in the park. (Grin)

The reason for climbing the mountain, beyond being able to say you have, is the spectacular scenery. I wouldn’t recommend the trip for anyone with acrophobia (fear of heights), however, given that all of the views involve looking down several thousand feet.

Jay Dallen standing on the edge of Mt. Whitney.

My nephew, Jay Dallen, stands on the edge of a thousand foot precipice and looks down. He obviously does not suffer from acrophobia. Different people joined me on each of my five-week segments. Jay was 16 at the time.

The Alabama Hills, featured in the photo below, are located just outside of Lone Pine at the base of Mt. Whitney. Over 300 movies, mainly Westerns, have been filmed in the area. Almost every major Hollywood cowboy from the 1920s up to the present have made movies there. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A final view of Mt. Whitney. This one features the Alabama Hills, the site of many early movies featuring the likes of Hop-a-long Cassidy and the Lone Ranger.

A final view of Mt. Whitney. This one features the Alabama Hills, the site of many Western movies featuring everyone from Tom Mix, Hop-along Cassidy and Roy Rogers to John Wayne and Johnny Depp. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

32 comments on “Mt. Whitney: 14,505 feet— Or Is that 14,496.811 Feet… But Who’s Counting?

  1. Bravo! What a great way to celebrate a big birthday. I envy you since I haven’t yet been able to do Mt. Whitney. Bad timing, bad weather, a few things in my way…
    It is still one of my goals, so thank you for the great description of the hike, the history, the landscape and of course the gorgeous pictures.

  2. You’re definitely right — this is spectacular scenery. And you’re fortunate that you’ve been able to hike, photograph, etc. in the area more than once. Thanks for sharing this part of USA with us!

  3. I never knew you did a bit of the”Into the Wild” excursion for your 60th..That is amazing..I like it better that people joined you along the way, What gorgeous scenery and the memories you have of that time must be wonderful!

  4. Good for you, Curt. I can also say it’s a great way to celebrate a birthday! took a rock climbing class and we climbed Mt. Whitney on my 30th birthday in 1977, Although it was scary and difficult physically, and I had a period of adjustment to the altitude, our instructors were mega-competent, patient and kind so it was an amazing experience. To make our packs as light as possible we didn’t bring our big cameras. Thanks to you, I now have photos! It’s even more beautiful than I remembered.

    • Glad you enjoyed a return to Whitney, Toni. Have to admire your climbing instead of walking. 🙂 Being on top of the mountain and looking around at the world is an experience never to be forgotten. –Curt

  5. Very impressive that you did the climb for the big 6-0 Curt. I’ve done a bit of high country hiking in Colorado. Not nearly 14K, but I can remember that the higher I went, the heavier the anchor I was towing got. And the .811 feet is really funny. I guess the surveyors skipped the class on rounding. ~James

    • I like the anchor analogy, James. It’s either that or we are suddenly at twice the gravity. It feels like you can hardly move. Hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. –Curt

  6. Happy Birthday Curt. Wow, what an incredible way to celebrate life and nature’s awe. That journey of 300 miles and 14,505 feet is something everyone should read, regardless off their age as a way of reminding them that so much in life is possible. For all you set out to do, and for all you did, I’m proud for you and proud to know you. You’re a great inspiration. ~ Rick (PS Oh, and the photos and text is terrific too!)

      • I look for those excuses all the time too Curt and have never regretted a single one. Early along I came to embrace Helen Keller’s wonderful words “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” Glad we share that in common.

        My 40th birthday was spent on my first 10k climb in Switzerland. I remember how difficult it was breathing and making my legs and crampons work once we went above 9,000 ft. And here you are at 60 topping 14.5! My heart smiles for with great admiration and joy. ~ Rick

  7. I’m not sure if I’ve developed a touch of acrophobia, or if there’s something about my balance that makes me uneasy thinking of being up there. The last couple of years I’ve cut a couple of jobs out of my repertoire – like varnishing a mast from a bosn’s chair, or standing on rails to work above my head. It might even be my declining vision that leaves me a little off-balance (no cracks, now!) If I can reach out and touch something, I’m fine, but walking a narrow finger pier isn’t as easy as it used to be.

    Be that as it may – your photos and narration are great. It was real inspiration to have a different person a week at a time. I like the first and last photos the most, although your grin of satisfaction can’t be beat!

    • I always approach ledges carefully, Linda. I do find, however, that backpacking and hiking over mountain trails improves balance. Walking on rocks when I haven’t been doing it for a while is definitely harder. And, yes, that grin was well earned! So was the cold beer Peggy gave to me when I reached the bottom. –Curt

  8. I still look at Mt Whitney with awe, cannot believe that I have been to the top! Now Mt. Shasta is on my list for a birthday marker, either 65 or 70? Hmmmmm. Peggy

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