4 PCT miles (Miles 766.3 – 770.3)
+ 12.6 miles of the Whitney Spur Trail and John Muir Trail
Guitar Lake – Wallace Creek
We summited Mt. Whitney today and it is definitely one of the top most awesome experiences I’ve ever had. I couldn’t list what my top life experiences are off the top of my head (with the exception of a few), but today is up there. I’ll tell you all about it and use lots of photos!
Mileage was tricky again today with the side-trip up Whitney. We hiked a total of 16.6 miles when the day was done. Not bad considering the climb we made! We started at Guitar Lake, 3.9 miles off the PCT, then hiked the remaining 4.6 miles to the summit, then the same 4.6 miles back to Guitar Lake. From there we hiked back to the PCT via the John Muir Trail, which I figured was about 3.4 miles. Then we continued on the PCT for 4 more miles. I don’t know if that’s exact, but it’s close enough!
Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states at an elevation of 14,505 feet. By summiting it today, I bagged my first 14’er – which is just a fun way to say I climbed a mountain over 14,000 feet.
We woke up at 1:30am (!) and were hiking by 2:15am with the hopes of catching the sunrise towards the top. We left the tent set up at Guitar Lake with all the stuff we didn’t need for the summit hike, and kept our extra food in our bear canisters at camp. It was really nice to carry such light packs!
As we started hiking in the pitch black of night, we followed the 2-foot lit circle of our headlamps down the path.
Looking way up the ridge we could see a couple other hikers’ headlamps bobbing along, and looking down behind us about 8 more. Sunrise summiting was something quite a few people talked about doing, so we were among quite a few others with the same goal. A couple of times during the climb we turned our lights off and gazed at the bazillion twinkling stars, the slivered moon, and the bright, clustered stripe of our own Milky Way. Is it possible that we were seeing more stars the higher we went? As much as I doubt that, it sure seemed like it.
Our climb eventually brought us to a huge set of switchbacks where we really started to go up, and even though we couldn’t see any views around us yet, we could tell the edge of our path dropped off pretty drastically. A couple of times I stepped to the edge, leaned over and shone my light downward only to reveal what appeared to be a dark, endless abyss. This was no time for stumbling!
We took the climb up very slow for a couple of reasons. We didn’t want to stumble, we didn’t want to get all sweaty and freeze our buns off at the top, we wanted to try warding off any chance of altitude sickness, and in the thinner air you naturally move slower anyway. I knew it was the smartest plan to move slow, and I really had to hold back excitement and supress a little adrenaline – I usually enjoy pushing up hills and big climbs – but this time whenever I felt the urge to speed up I’d make myself slow down even more. “A snail’s pace…” I kept telling myself. I think we did something right, because I felt great the whole time. Whew!
About a mile from the top, the mountains around us started to come out of the shadows as the sun lit up the sky on the other side of the ridge we were climbing. Behind us mountains took on a rainbow of colors and constantly changed as minutes past. It was hard to pay attention to the trail sometimes, but we had to – towards the top we had to maneuver some pretty tricky trail. There we huge rocks we’d have to climb up onto, or step in between, and even a few spots we had to slide on our butts. We hiked past huge, slanted, jagged pinnacles covered in giant boulders, and a couple of times we’d get a peek in between of the red and orange horizon from the sunrise on the other side of the ridge.
We came to a narrow path cut into some lingering deep snow, zigzagged up a couple more times, and the silhouette of the summit hut came into view. I turned around and said to Tears, “we’re here!” I started to cry – it was pretty emotional. Tears cried too, of course… and we gave each other a congratulatory hug. It was a really great moment. There were quite a few others up there and we knew a lot of them.
We hugged friends, signed the register, took photos, and shivered our buns off (it was SO cold up there!). Tears and I were both wearing all the clothing we had with us, and we brought our sleeping bags to warm up in… which we did as we enjoyed the view with a 24-ounce can of Wisconsin-brewed Miller High Life… which I carried all the stinkin’ way from Kennedy Meadows! It was a nice treat, but I was pretty thrilled to finally rid myself of that extra weight. Sidenote: a can of beer at 14,505 feet gets super-foamy!
We both had good appetites (great sign we were dealing well with the altitude), so we ate the snacks we carried up, walked around a little to try soaking in the amazing 360º view, let it sink in that we’ve most definitely hiked our way into the middle of the high Sierras, and finally started our way back down.
We had to go just as slow going down. Now we could see our trail and just how extreme some of the drop-offs were. We were careful with our footing, but now that we could see everything around us we had to be careful of vertigo, too. We got a cool view of some lakes down below, including Guitar Lake where our base camp was. We worked our way down, passed quite a few people going up – including one completely nude guy – and finally reached the tent. We were tired. It was about 11:00am, so we ate some lunch, then completely crashed out for a good 3-hour nap.
We packed up camp, hiked to the upper Crabtree Meadow, made dinner, then hiked back out to the PCT until we came to Wallace Creek where we’re camped.
What a day! What an absolutely fantastic, fun day!
A couple of sidenotes:
I got cell coverage at the summit, so I took advantage of it and called Adam, my mom and dad – it was really cool to share such a great moment with those I love so dear. I wish I could’ve dragged them all up with me!
Also! A couple of weeks ago I met this super-nice girl, Maggie, on the trail. We’ve leapfrogged with her a few times, and she told me her mom was following my blog! On our way down from Whitney, we passed her going up. Tears had the idea to get our picture taken together so I could post it here – so HI to Maggie’s mom!!
Tonight (and always) I love my brother, Scott. For some reason I thought about him a lot today. I don’t know if he’s reading this or not, but just in case he is – I love you and miss you.
A few more photos from today: