Mount Whitney Summit Shelter – Inyo County, California - Atlas Obscura

Mount Whitney Summit Shelter

The first life claimed by this record-breaking peak wasn't lost to exposure or a fall but rather lightning. 


The highest point in California and the continental United States, Mount Whitney is 14,505 feet above sea level, but can be a surprisingly easy climb if you have the right permit.

That being said, there’s other things to watch out for in the absence of falling rocks and treacherous inclines, like where you decide to enjoy a sandwich. Four days after the very first trail to the summit was completed in 1904, Bryd Surby became the mountain’s first hiking victim. An employee of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Surby had just finished up a simple yet rewarding hike up the brand new trail and found a comfy spot on the summit to enjoy his lunch in the clean, fresh air and was struck dead by a bolt of lightning. This unfortunate demise inspired the construction of the Smithsonian Institution Shelter, also known as the Mount Whitney Summit Shelter.

Built in 1909, the three room, granite shelter was constructed not only to give hikers a safe haven from the storms, but also to act as housing for scientists camped out on the summit to study altitude, a very intriguing subject at a time when high altitude flight was just on the horizon. Gustave F. Marsh, the builder of the first trail that acted as the conduit of Surby’s demise, built the shelter with help from both the Smithsonian Institute as well as the Lick Observatory. The small stone hut has been the setting for many exciting studies, including Charles Greeley Abbot’s spectroscopic observations of Mars to investigate whether or not the planet had water. 

The hike may not be that challenging compared to other climbs, but it’s still not easy to partake in. To avoid overuse, only a limited number of permits are granted, and those are dispersed through a lottery system. If you’re one of the lucky ones that get a permit for the Mount Whitney Trail between May and November, you’ll need sturdy hiking boots, food and water, and maybe a pup tent. This trail is a steady 11 mile climb from the Whitney Portal to the summit, and is usually free of snow from July to late September. Three campsites are available on the trail for climbers to spend the night and make the trip on summit day a quick one.

Even though this is an “easy” hike, that does not mean hikers should come unprepared. Severe thunderstorms may strike in summer. Weather may be warm and calm or cold and very windy. Campers should have their food secured in a bear canister to keep it from the occasional hungry bear and an onslaught of marmots.

The Summit Shelter is on the waiting list for consideration to become a National Historic Landmark,  and ironically enough, it has recently been deemed less than ideal as a shelter from lightning, hikers are warned against using it for that purpose.

Know Before You Go

To the Whitney Portal trailhead, from Route 395 in Lone Pine, CA, take Whitney Portal Road west 11 miles to the Whitney Portal Store. Hike 11 miles on the Mount Whitney Trail to the summit. There are three campsites to spend a night on the trail.

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