28: Mount Whitney

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Stretch PCT thru-hiker on Forest pass the highest point on the PCT

Crabtree Meadows

I lie inside the tent's walls listening to the rain fall lightly on the roof.  This is the only sound.  All else is wonderfully quiet.  It is still dark outside, and I lie waiting for sleep to come again.  It comes in fits.  My shoulders hurt and then my hips and lower back.  Finally, the light of dawn comes, and I hear the familiar sound of Rambo letting the air out of his sleeping pad.  It is time to hike towards Mount Whitney.

We take our time backpacking the 12 miles to Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station, our base camp for the summit.  The weather is better today but grey clouds still hang around.  We do our first crossing at Rock Creek.  The snow report says there is a log upstream to make crossing easier.  We spot the log and crossover, but balancing on the thin, slippery log is risky.  On the other side, we have to bushwack back to the trail through a boggy meadow only to find that we could have crossed the trail without incident.  Lesson learned.

Mule trains interrupt our constant elevation gain.  We step up and off the trail often to make way, talking to the mules so that they know we are not a threat.  The trail is torn up by the pack use, making it hard for us to climb certain areas.  When we arrive in Crabtree meadows, we visit with some of the JMT thru-hikers.  Today the summit of Mount Whitney was without views because of all the cloud cover.  We visit the ranger in his cabin, and he says tomorrow should be clear.  I can hardly sleep.  Tomorrow we are climbing the tallest mountain in the 48.

Mount Whitney

We pack lightly and move fast in the early morning light.  Following the Whitney Creek, we reach the Timberline Lake, which is filled with Golden Trout fliting beneath the surface.  The creek is flowing fast and the waterfalls roar at us.  Guitar Lake comes next.  I start to realize that this is the most spectacular hike I have ever done, and we have not even summited yet.

In the meadow, the stark, jagged, still snow-laden peaks surround us.  Marmots graze in the soft, verdant grass and make their strange whistling noises.  Rambo calls them land-beavers.  A pika skitters along the rocks that line the trail.  The weather is clear.

The ascent begins with switchbacks up to crumbling pinnacles.  The rocks are barren and lovely.  It follows the ridge for some time before making a final climb up a summit, which is not peaked but rounded.  As we get higher, the air gets thinner.  We switch off carrying the pack every hour.

It is getting much harder to breathe.  Once the summit is within view we are forced to take breaks often, crawling over boulders to the very top.  Some hikers make a tunnel for us with their trek poles, cheering us to the summit.

When I remember this day, I think less about the summit at 14,505 feet, which did have incredible views and more about the hike up to and down from the mountain.  This was an amazing journey.  It does not get any better than this.  Or does it?

The Highest Point

We sleep like the dead after climbing Whitney.  The next morning we hike back to the PCT.  We ford fast flowing creeks that were raging torrents just a few weeks before.  We are still cautious, scouting out the crossing for the best place to ford.  When we do cross, it is usually on the trail with our packs unbuckled.  We face the current and leave our shoes on.

This place is incredibly scenic.  I cannot believe this wonderland exists, and that we can be a part of it for a moment.  There are grassy meadows filled with wildflowers of all colors.  Towering, snowy peaks reflect in the glassy lakes.

Up ahead I see something familiar, a pair of red pom poms dangling from trek poles.  Pom Pom!  We have not seen Pom Pom and Still Walking since Hiker Heaven.  Sitting on a log, we visit.  Sharing stories of our adventures since we last met.  They are hiking sobo now through the Sierras and will flip north thereafter.  They describe all the river crossings and passes for us, and they tell us that we will be fine.

Forester Pass

A few miles farther, and we will hike our first serious pass: Forester Pass.  It is the highest point on the PCT at 13,153 feet.  I do not know what it is going to be like.  I have heard stories that concern me a novice with no mountaineering skills.  We pass through an arctic landscape.  Waterfalls are crashing down the mountains that surround us, spilling into frozen, blue lakes.  We are in cold bowl.  I cannot see the pass.  All around us are steep mountains, surely we are not going to climb one of these.  Oh, yes.  Yes, we are.

Unbelievably high above us is a tiny notch.  I can see figures in this tiny notch.  We sit on a patch of grass among ice and snow.  A river of snowmelt rushes by us.  There are dark clouds on the horizon.  Should we attempt to hike up the pass with this weather?  We decide to chance it.  The clouds are still far away.

The lower switchbacks are still covered in snow, so we boulder up to the lowest, exposed piece of trail.  It is a slow and steady climb.  The trail is cut into the rock ledge, and we pace ourselves so that we can breathe.  Close to the top, the switchbacks get short and steep.  I feel like a mountain goat, clinging to the cliffs of a great mountaintop.  And just like that, we are standing in that tiny notch looking over into Kings Canyon National Park.  That was such a high!  I feel fulfilled like I could burst with happiness!  I will always remember this moment.

The Perfect Meadow

I want to linger but those dark clouds are moving in our direction.  The wind has picked up and the daylight is waning.  I can see a considerable snowfield on the other side of the pass.  If you glissade down this snowfield, you would end up dead or severely mangled.  It is time to use that snow gear!

Walking in the snow with microspikes on provides stability.  Our trek poles are packed away, and we use our ice axes for extra support.  They are out and ready to use if we slide.  The snowfield slows our going, but it is not bad.  Soon the descending trail disappears under the snow, and we are forced to find our own route down the pass among the boulders.  I enjoy using my whole body to weave down the gigantic rocks.

As the sun sets we backpack into the quintessential mountain meadow.  The grass is a perfect green.  A small stream trickles and meanders into a glass lake.  Nearby a herd of deer grace unperturbed by the group of hikers camped among them.  Along the cliffs above, waterfalls roar, spilling snowmelt into the streams below.  We set up camp and cook in this paradise.  I do not ever want to leave the Sierras.  I did not know life could be this beautiful and rich.  We cook three dinners but still go to bed hungry.

Thru-Hiker Tips:

  • Hike Mount Whitney.  It is not the PCT, but it is so worth it!
  • Fording dangerous creeks and rivers is scary.  Take your time.  Find the right place and time of day to cross.  Cross with other hikers.  Unbuckle your pack, and face the current.  You can ford as a group one behind the other in a line, facing the current.
  • Leave your shoes on when you ford.  You are going to get your shoes and socks wet just deal with it.
  • I have said it before, and I will say it again.  98% DEET!

In the spring of 2017, we set out to hike the PCT.  Hear our full story.

Continue to our next adventure on the PCT.

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