Training for Mt. Whitney

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m preparing to hike Mt. Whitney in late August. I’m really excited about this adventure, and am spending a lot of time thinking about how to best prepare myself for the hike. To recap, we have a 24 hour permit, so we need to hike the 22-mile, 6,000 foot elevation change round trip in one day. I have two big concerns on this trip: 1) the length of time on our feet (we anticipate it will take us 14-ish hours total), and 2) length of time hiking on an uneven surface and strain to my pelvis. 

Roundabout training

Earlier this summer, the New Mexico forests were closed to due to fire risk. This meant that I was limited to walking/hiking in the Albuquerque area foothills, or trekking to Colorado to find some mountains to climb. Given the busy status of our lives, I stayed in the city and opted to up my running. I did this so enthusiastically that I irritated my calf and both Achilles tendons. So….I switched to swimming. 

Early mornings at the pool are dreamy. I typically aim to swim 1,000-2,000 yards in a session.

I am banking hard on general fitness to carry the majority of my aerobic load on this endeavor. But, reality check: when it’s hitting 100+ degrees, I truly find lap swimming preferable to running. Bonus is that one of my sisters who lives in town is a brilliant swimmer and I swim more energetically with her than I ever would alone. I also have been riding my bicycle to take my son to daycare and being intentional and consistent with my strength training

Up Hill We Go

While the largest fire in NM history is still burning in northern New Mexico, most of the nearby mountains are open once again. While I might be banking on general fitness, I am doing hiking-specific training. This will help me to to grow my trail strength and stability, accustom me to the gear I’ll be taking, and (most importantly) grow my confidence as I approach the Mt. Whitney challenge.

I have 5 hikes mapped out: 10ish, 10-12ish, 12-14ish, 15-16ish, and 16-18ish miles every 1-2 weeks. These hikes are deliberately vague in the mileage and are scheduled somewhat randomly, pushed around by family camping trips, dropping off kids at sleep-away camp, and my work days off. In the meantime, I will continue my very conservative return to running, and will maintain my cross and strength training. All these small pieces add up: I am active 6 days of each week in one or more discipline, reserving one day each week to total rest. 

My official training plan. It has all the important info: Week #, distance, and goal elevation change. Yes, it’s on a sticky note.

While I do take this preparation seriously, my approach is intentionally relaxed. A hiking trip is FUN. Preparing for it should be fun. Our group has members coming from sea level; they are, however, much more consistent hikers than I am. I am less concerned about the elevation than I am my pelvis fatiguing and resulting in back spasms or similar symptoms I’ve experienced in the past. 

To Boot or Not to Boot

I also have to embrace the reality of life: while on my scheduled 10 mile hike, I was practically skipping down the hill with joy when I landed hard on my right ankle and rolled it. I didn’t fall down, but I did hop around on my left leg while muttering some choice words to the trail.

A week of icing, no running or aggressive walking (lots of swimming!), and I feel prepared to do some light jogging the rest of the week and tackle my scheduled 12-14 miler this coming weekend. 

Chasing the sunrise in the Sandia Mountains. This was near the top of the Pino Trail.

The rolled ankle did add data to a mental debate I have been having: trail running shoe or hiking boot. I generally do most of my hiking in running shoes, unless I have a baby carrier or backpack over about 25 pounds. After the rolled ankle, I *think* am going to opt for an ankle-supporting boot. Despite the added weight of the boot, I know I’ll be fatigued for the long descent, and I know my form will suffer, increasingly the likelihood of injury simply due to tiredness.  With that in mind, I’m going to try out my longer hike in boots this weekend. Wish me luck!

Do you have a shoe preference for long hikes? How do you prepare for a longer hike?

21 thoughts on “Training for Mt. Whitney

  1. Ron

    Good luck!

    I did Whitney over two days in September 2016.

    I got permits last year but tweaked my knee during conditioning which curtailed my conditioning. I still went to Whitney and got the trail but with a recovering tweaked knee. I did 7 miles round trip.

    I aimed to go back this year and complete the entire hike but missed out on permits. The permit lottery is pure dumb luck.

    Anyhow, low hikers are a great choice. Low with a stable or stiffer platform.

    Try Oboz Tamarack’s or Bridger’s. You might like them. The platform is very stiff and stable. This will help prevent ankle rolls. I know it sounds counter intuitive. It’s better than a squishy platform which invites ankle rolls. It’ll be low cut too so it’ll save some weight on your feet.

    Have fun.


    1. Val

      I have done it 4 times…every time as a day hike. I wore boots because it’s rocky the higher u go. My training was stairs and hiking Mt Baldy often. Be aware that u must carry a wag bag for ur own poop. They give that to u at the ranger station in Lone Pine. I always suggest not eating oatmeal the day before! You can pump water at trail camp. Bring ur own pump or Sawyer.
      14 hrs is about right. Bring a headlamp.

      1. magdalenadonahue

        Thank you! I’m glad to hear from a repeat day-hiker. I have a few more big vertical hikes planned before we do the ‘real thing’ in CA. I know the WAG bag deal, and good on them for providing at the ranger station! Good tips for breakfast, too 🙂

  2. Neil

    No boots are necessary. KEY is being acclaimed. Try to spend several nights at altitude prior to your hike. Your brain will try to convince you to stop – persevere.

    My credentials 10 times summit and the last this year at 67.

    1. Ron

      I’ve done San Jacinto, Mt Baldy and San Gorgonio tens of times. Close to a hundred of times cumulative as day hikes and from multiple approaches. I’ve hiked White Mountain once which is >14K and doesn’t need a permit.

      The major key to Whitney is acclimation as Neil mentioned. Time spent at elevation is key. Get there a few days ahead and camp on the adjacent mountain just south of Mt Whitney portal at Horseshoe Meadows. (A very modern and clean campground very closeby. I think it take you to ~8-10K’. We stayed there for a couple nights. Easily accessible by road.

      We ended up doing Mt Whitney without a hiccup. But we trained all year long. Almost every weekend and free time we could find. AND trianed at elevation.

      Good luck and get there a few days early.

  3. Scott Lewis

    I summited Mt. Whitney on June 21, 1998. One thing that you and the rest of your party need to consider is Acute High Altitude Sickness. Coming from sea level and only having a 24 hr permit, you will not be able to aclimitize. AHAS can cause headaches, nausea, shortness of breath and inability to excercise.
    Going in August I am assuming the snow pack has melted but please ensure you have all the gear required. When we summited we needed crampons and ice axes and glisaded after summiting. People die on Whitney, just make sure your prepared and set a Designated turn around time if you do not summit. Typically no later than 2 pm. 98 switch backs can take awhile. Good luck in your adventure. Over 20 years later I’m still proud of summiting when I was 16.

    1. magdalenadonahue

      Yes! Acclimation us definitely on our minds, and I have been through wilderness first responder training. We are planning on a 2 AM start and have a 12:30 turnaround time. I am hopeful we can plan conservatively and make steady progress! Thank you for the excellent feedback and your experience!

  4. Jay

    In one word….Easy. Or 2 words…no problem. As I have “ hiked” it 6 times, here is what I learned. First time I was 38..the last time I was 63. Twice we had to turn around….too much snow and ice ( they were both in September). Time wise? 14 hours is fast….16 hours is common…18 hours is doable, by most people that can make it past Mirror lake. I have done it both ways….meaning day use and overnight. A lot of the issue is mental. Physically you should have it easy. As for shoes? I always wore hiking boots and WOOL socks…never cotton. And I am VERY afraid of heights. But as you get used to it you gain more confidence. If you are doing the “1 day” hike I suggest being on the trail by 3 a.m. watching the sunrise is a wonderful experience! I was planning on doing it in 1 day on my 70th birthday…but Covid restrictions stopped that. Let me know how it went. ENJOY the adventure!

    1. magdalenadonahue

      This is a great comment: THANK YOU! I will keep those words in my mind! I definitely am with you on the no cotton socks. And yeah, we’re planning to be walking by 2 am, so a nice and early start. Those general time blocks are helpful to keep in mind, too.
      A 70 year birthday summit would be amazing, and that’s inspiring to me, sorry for the covid preventing that. We’re about 2 weeks out now, sign up for the email on the blog and I’ll be sure to do plenty of updates. I’m so excited!

  5. Mike P.

    My wife and I did Mt. Whitney in July of last year. We trained hard for months leading up to our permit date just to have our original date scrubbed due to fire. We scored permits for 3 weeks later but were unable to hike even once in the three weeks leading up to the new date. My advice is “ Don’t overthink it” we are both in our mid 50s and my wife is a slow hiker. We took 22 hours total time spending about an hour at summit.. just do it. I haven’t hiked since Whitney due to family medical issues and I still feel like I can conquer it in less than 12 hours. Do yourself a favor, don’t stress, DO NOT listen to all the hype about the DREADED switchbacks. They were probably the easiest part of the hike and when you set eyes on the hut on the summit, don’t get too excited because you will set yourself up for failure as your hardest part of the hike is now beginning. Have fun and be safe. Whitney is a beautiful mountain and the views from the top are worth the the work that it takes to get there.

    1. Jay

      Mike is correct. The “99switchbacks” are no big deal…just kind of long. I was actually planning on doing the hike tomorrow…on my 72 birthday… but Covid and other issues this summer made it not happen. Remember…it is not a race. 12 or 20 hours doesn’t really matter. Enjoy the adventure!

      1. magdalenadonahue

        Thank you! I have indeed heard a lot about the switchbacks, but I am indeed hoping to take the steady-does-it approach and not try to worry about too much. I am very excited to climb the mountain, one step at a time 🙂 I think we’ll be closer to the 20 hour mark, but it’ll be a great way to spend the day! And yes, we are hoping to dodge Covid, yikes.

    2. magdalenadonahue

      This is great advice! I have heard about the switchbacks, so I’m glad to hear someone who thinks they’re not a horror! We are indeed in it for the full day experience, we won’t be racing to the top, but more in it for the trail, the beauty, and the good company. Fingers crossed for no Covid and good weather!

      1. Jay schwabe

        So…did you make it? I was there last Thursday, the 25th. I decided on a whim to drive down 395 to San Diego, and camp the night at Lone Pine. Arrived at 2:30 pm. But there was rain and hail on the mountain, so I didn’t get started until 3:00 and everyone coming down looked cold and wet. I went to lone Pine lake and turned around to get dinner at the Portal store. Maybe NEXT a year I will train more and actually get a permit for my 73 birthday. Check my Facebook page for the photo.

      2. magdalenadonahue

        We made it! Actually, we were on the mountain last Thursday, so we may even have crossed paths. We left at 2AM Thurs AM, summitted, breakfast/lunched at the top, and scampered down. If you saw two giddy, soaked women enjoying the rain, that was us! I have to admit, coming from New Mexico, I enjoy a good rainy hike, so that was fairly delightful. We were well down by Trail camp before any of the serious lightning/thunder started, so felt safe in that respect. We also basically just hiked without stop from peak down to the Portal store, where I definitely slammed down a burger and fries with delight. Full hike report coming! Cheers to future permits, training, and more mountains!

  6. Jay Schwabe

    If you go to my Facebook page, I changed the cover photo to show what it looked like about 4:00 p.m. just below Lone Pine Lake looking East.

  7. Pingback: The Next Big Adventure – Bun on the Run

  8. Pingback: Hiking Foot Care, or, I have Bony Feet – Bun on the Run

Leave a Reply