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Giant U.S. Climbs Part 3: Whitney Portal

From Issue 93 • Words and Image by John Summerson

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WHITNEY PORTAL CLIMBS OUT OF THE HIGH DESERT on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains toward Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. One of the multiple monsters of Owens Valley, it is simply a remarkable ride with big mountain scenery.

PELOTON

From the aqueduct west of the town of Lone Pine, the road heads mostly west over moderate but gradually increasing grade. You twist through the Alabama Hills here, which briefly block the view of things to come. Just over 2 miles in, you find a descent into a drainage, but climbing soon resumes and the big wall of mountains that now looms in front of you will definitely get your attention. Soon you pass the junction with Horseshoe Meadows Road on the left (keep straight) and before long your pleasant outing is over for the day.

WHITNEY PORTAL

  • Total elevation gain: 4,580 feet (1,396m)
  • Length: 11.3 miles (18.2km)
  • Average grade: 7.7% (13% max)
  • Rating: Beyond category
  • Location: California

THE NITTY-GRITTY

CRUX STRETCH: The 1.6-mile stretch of mostly double-digit grade that begins at the 90-degree right turn about halfway up the mountain is the key to a successful summit.

DIRECTIONS: From Highway 395 in Lone Pine, travel on Whitney Portal Road west for 0.6 miles to begin the listed climb where the road crosses over the Los Angeles aqueduct.

The grade gradually increases as you continue toward the sharp peaks such that by mile 6 you are running into intermittent steep slope. One mile later the grade hits double digits and stays there for the next 1.6 miles. Within this stretch you make a right turn that is the beginning of the spectacular big switchback on the hill. Eventually ride through a sweeping left turn to head south over slightly decreased but still solid incline.

At the upper end of the switchback the route turns west again, into the mountain. You will enter a canyon here over decreased grade and with exposure in places. Pedaling gets more difficult once more through a double-digit S curve. At its end the grade eases and the hill finally gives up at the top of the upper parking area. Its descent is challenging (remember the big switchback) and very fast in places, particularly the straight section below the switchback.

Whitney Portal is a difficult ascent and one of the great American climbs. Statistically it is very similar to the famed French Alps climb of the Col de la Madeleine, a scenic monster frequently used in the Tour de France.

From issue 93, get your copy here.