How Thin Air and Summer Snow Can Heal the Soul

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In 2022, I scaled Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State, with my son. That weekend, ecstatic, we looked for another adventure. Some Google searching revealed that Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, was not out of reach for amateurs like us. I proclaimed that he and I, along with my daughter, would climb it in 2023. In the end, neither of them could make it. Lucy didn’t need much convincing to join me. Hiking had brought exhilarating new challenges and triumphs — and Mount Whitney promised those on a much greater scale.

But only a short way up, my lofty ambitions met snowy reality.

We’d been told to expect a lot of snow higher up, but we didn’t expect any this low. I had packed an ice ax and crampons, on the strong urging of the owners of a gear store in Lone Pine, the unpretentious town at the foot of the mountain where most people prepare for the climb, but I didn’t want to use them so early. It would take me forever — and we didn’t have forever. We had less than 24 hours.

Until I researched the trip, I had never heard of the naturalist John Muir and his wonderful line “The mountains are calling and I must go,” or known that much of the water for Los Angeles, about 200 miles south, comes from this part of the Sierra Nevada.

Mount Whitney, with an elevation of 14,494 feet, was named for Josiah Dwight Whitney, a Northeasterner and Harvard professor who headed the California Geological Survey, and its first recorded climbing, by three Lone Pine residents, was in 1873. It is dwarfed by Denali, in Alaska, the highest peak in the United States, at over 20,000 feet. But Mount Whitney offers something Denali does not: It is possible to hike up and down in one day. The round-trip trek, which mountain guides describe as challenging — even more so with snow and ice — totals about 22 miles, much of it at high altitudes.

The U.S. Forest Service runs a lottery each February for both day-use and overnight permits to go up Mount Whitney from May 1 to Nov. 1. The agency limits the number of day hikers to 100 for every midnight-to-midnight period to avoid overcrowding on the trail.

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