Today's miles: 4 (on PCT) + 17 (round trip to summit Mt. Whitney) = 21
Total PCT miles: 767
We camped last night at high altitudes, so it was very chilly when we woke up. We packed up quickly, excited about our summit today. We only had four miles to reach the base of Mt. Whitney, and the terrain grew more and more beautiful the closer we came. Rolling valleys, grassy meadows, high granite mountains, raging rivers... it was all so amazing. I still couldn't believe I was truly here.
Imagine, if you will, that you have been walking through the desert for 47 days, suffering through some of the harshest conditions on the planet. You have battled unending heat waves, severe drought, poisonous snakes, long days of hiking, sunburn, exhaustion and dehydration. Then, one day, you find yourself in the middle of the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range. Sure, you could be a dayhiker and visit here whenever you like, but nothing can possibly compare to the pure, radiant joy on the face of a thru-hiker who has walked through 700 miles of hell and suddenly finds himself in paradise. It's a kind of happiness that cannot be matched.
It was about 9:00am when we arrived at Crabtree Meadows, the lovely campground at the base of Mt. Whitney. It was so beautiful that we almost wanted to give up our hike today just so we could stay there for the night. But we had bigger plans for today, so we continued another two miles to reach a ranger's station and another open campground with a metal bear box for storing food. Since Mt. Whitney is not officially on the PCT (surprisingly, the PCT does not summit any mountain in its 2,650 mile journey, but Mt. Whitney is a must-do for most hikers. When else are you going to be a mere eight miles from the top of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states and in better shape to climb it?) hardly anyone carries their full pack to the summit and back.
Sansei, Rotisserie, Katie and I spent some time unloading our packs of extraneous gear: sleeping bags, pads, tents, bear vaults with most of our food, etc. We kept warm changes of clothes in our packs, a lunch for this afternoon, and headlamps and first aid kits, just in case. Everything else we bagged and locked inside the bear box at the campground.
With significantly lighter packs (weeeeeee!) we began the 8.7 mile trek to the top of Whitney. The first three miles were merely the approach; we passed by Timberline Lake and then Guitar Lake, both stunningly beautiful amid the surrounding mountain peaks. At Guitar Lake we found a surprise: Focus and the Chain Gang were here! They had camped at Guitar Lake last night and summited Mt. Whitney this morning at sunrise. We discovered that Whitney was a great place to have a reunion with our fellow hikers; usually our friends are out of reach if they are one day ahead or behind us, but since almost everyone takes one full day to climb the mountain, it's easy to catch up with friends who are either coming down from the summit or about to climb it.
I saw Dog and Sunshine poking their heads out of their tents, and we yelled to them,
"We've missed you!!"
We enjoyed a snack break beside Guitar Lake to catch up with our friends. It was a beautiful place to camp and I would have liked to stay here if I had felt like carting up my full backpack to this altitude (which I didn't.) From Guitar Lake the true climbing began, and I felt a thrill of nervousness inside me. Since starting the PCT fifty days ago, climbing Mt. Whitney has been an apprehensive milestone for me. I have never climbed so high, and until today the highest elevation we had hiked had been just over 11,000 feet. Mt. Whitney was an impressive 14,508 feet high. I had no idea what that kind of elevation would do to me, and I feared I would get altitude sickness, or get quickly out of breath and lose my ability to keep climbing. My greatest fear was that I would attempt to climb Whitney and not be able to summit. I kept my fingers crossed and took an energy gel before hiking, hoping the caffeine would help me breathe better.
Slowly, the four of us inched up the granite's rocky face. The trail was very well graded and consisted of hundreds of switchbacks slowly curving their way up the mountain. The caffeine seemed to be helping, for though I was moving slowly, I wasn't winded or losing air yet. Sansei was having a harder time; it was the first time this trip that I had seen him struggling. Usually he was the strongest hiker of the four of us, but the altitude appeared to be hitting him hard. When he mentioned he was starting to get a headache, I worried that he might be getting altitude sickness, and so I gave him another one of my caffeine gels. A little while later he appeared to be doing better and said his headache had gone away. As we got closer to the top, Sansei, Rotisserie and I took frequent breaks to catch our breath and admire the increasingly beautiful view. Toward the very top the trail became more of a rock scramble, and sometimes I had to put away my trekking poles to carefully climb or wedge myself around large boulders or tunnels of snow in the trail. Still, we seemed to be doing much better than a lot of the other people on trail. We passed quite a few dayhikers and John Muir Trail (JMT) hikers coming down from the summit. For them, Mt. Whitney was the culmination of a 3-week-long trek through the Sierras, but their packs looked entirely too big and their steps were slow. We passed them in much better shape, our steps steady and determined.
At last we reached the top, the final 1,000 feet of elevation hitting us hard. What a sight it was! The ground was littered with rocks and bits of shale, and a large, stone hut awaited us at the top with a register to sign. The elevation was doing strange things to my motor functions - I could barely grip the pen to sign my name: Bramble, on top of the world today! but soon I was gasping with delight more than lack of air and walking around the summit of Whitney with a full heart.
I made it! I summited the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States!
I jumped on top of one of the rock stacks, high above the world, and yelled into the open sky,
"700 miles of desert was totally worth this!!"
A dayhiker, lounging on a rock near me, turned at this with a laugh.
"Are you thru-hiking the PCT?" he asked me.
I smiled and nodded.
"Is this your first introduction to the Sierras?"
"Yes! We've only been here a few days so far. It's amazing."
"It gets better," he promised. "I imagine it's quite a change from the desert."
"Oh, yes," I said.
"If you had the chance to hike that section again, would you do it?" he wondered.
"The desert?!" I yelped. "Hell no!"
"But it's really only 'desert' hiking for the last 150 miles, right?" he asked.
"Ha!" I laughed, "and the 500 miles before that!"
At this point Rotisserie, Sansei and Katie caught wind of our conversation, and they began reiterating what I was saying.
"It's hot," we said vehemently, "and sandy, and there's hardly any water, and everything is prickly and trying to kill you..." we spouted for ten minutes the reasons we hated the desert so much, and then, after a long moment, the dayhiker said, "So... I'm planning to thru-hike the PCT next year."
There was a sudden, awkward silence, and then I said weakly,
"I mean... the desert's not that bad..."
He laughed and said he was from San Diego, so he thought he had a good idea of what it would be like, even without our tirade. He bid us goodbye and as he left called back, "Enjoy the water in the Sierras!"
We stayed at the top to eat lunch and enjoy the view. It was cold at the summit, but the wind was tame and the sun felt wonderful. We took photos of the spanning view and walked as close as we dared to the edges, vertigo grabbing hold of us as we looked thousands of feet down to the bottom. The mountains around us rolled into infinity, gray and blue and purple in the distance. It was a truly beautiful sight.
Sansei, Rotisserie, Bramble, Honey Bunny
Most of the JMT hikers had descended already, and PCT hikers usually like to summit for the sunrise, so we had the whole mountaintop to ourselves. We enjoyed our accomplishment for a few hours, and then decided it was time to descend before the sun set on us. Even though we were going to log 21 miles hiking by the time the day was over, it was nice knowing that once we got down from Whitney, we just had to set up camp near the ranger's station instead of hiking further.
The hike down went infinitely faster than the hike up: just over an hour, whereas the hike to the summit from Guitar Lake had taken three. We descended into oxygen-rich air and practically ran over terrain we had struggled through on the way up. Rotisserie and I, however, were overly cautious on descents and we went much slower than Sansei and Katie. We were careful not to stumble over the slick rocks, and take care of our knees by moving more slowly.
"Maybe if they get down to camp way before us, they'll set up the tents!" Rotisserie joked.
But halfway down the mountain, Sansei and Katie were waiting for us, and I said dourly,
"Oh, we were hoping you guys would have camp set up for us by now!"
Katie laughed. "Yeah, and dinner ready, too?"
"Well, now that you mention it..."
She and Sansei laughed and took off again, leaving Rotisserie and I to follow slowly behind.
"So.... do you think they'll do it?" Rotisserie asked me a little while.
"Set up camp and make us dinner?" I said. "I doubt it. When I mentioned it to Honey Bunny, she laughed like she thought I was kidding."
"THAT WAS NOT A SUGGESTION!!" Rotisserie mock-roared, and I laughed.
We reached camp by sundown and met up with more of our hiker friends for dinner: Coincidence, 30 Pack, Outburst, Hot Tub, Games and Reason. We set up tents and went to sleep with the promise that we're totally sleeping in tomorrow!
It had been a fulfilling, wonderful day, and I couldn't remember a day on trail that I've been so perfectly happy.