Day 47 – May 20, 2022
Mile 766.3 (Whitney Creek/Mt. Whitney Crabtree Ranger Station) to 774.7 + Mt. Whitney ascent
8.4 trail miles | 19.6 tracked miles | 4,660 ft elevation gain | 61.5 F / 16 °C
My alarm woke me up shortly after midnight, and I emerged from my quilt in a daze. I did not get much sleep—some hikers were up chatting near my tent until “late” in the afternoon.
I had a quick breakfast while assembling the basic essentials for my night-time expedition to the summit of Mount Whitney: layers and my quilt for warmth, water, snacks, and my headlamp. Then, I stepped outside my tent into the darkness.
I could not find Joe and the rest of the group. They were camping a bit further afield and I didn’t want to walk around the campsite with my headlamp and wake anybody up. Besides, one member of my recently-expanded group, whom I’ve been hiking with since leaving Kennedy Meadows, is notoriously incapable of committing to a plan, so I figured they may have either slept in or left earlier than expected.
I began my ascent under the cover of darkness. The trail was bathed in moonlight, the path illuminated by a silvery glow. While the approach to Mount Whitney was much easier than I expected, especially with a light pack, I can’t see well in the dark, and I occasionally felt uncomfortable, constantly wondering if I had lost the trail at each turn.
Once in a while, I paused, turned off my headlamp, and gazed in amazement at the immensity of the starry skies and the dramatic mountain range glowing in the moonlight.
I met another hiker, modestly named “VIP”, and decided to follow him as it felt reassuring not to be alone. We hiked a portion of the way up together, but he was slightly slower than me, and I felt a sense of urgency not knowing when the first light of the day would appear, so I forged ahead.
The path was rocky, exposed, and very uneven, but neither terribly steep nor treacherous, especially without snow.
As I made my way higher, the air grew crisper, the temperature dipped below freezing, and the icy wind whipped across the barren landscape. I put on all my layers, but my fingers grew colder and numb. My gloves, though they provided some insulation, were no match for the extreme conditions. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to zip up my jacket. The bitter cold clung to my fingers like an unwelcome guest, and I could not grab the tiny, ultralight zipper. I felt powerless.
I hiked as fast as possible in an effort to stay warm. Closer to the top, the path became confusing and treacherous, and I kept wondering if I was lost.
I reached the 14,505 ft summit just as the first ray of light was engulfing the horizon.
Simply standing at the summit was a challenge, given the awesome power of the wind. Like most other hikers, I sat down and wrapped myself in my quilt in an attempt to stay warm. My hands were too numb to operate my phone and take pictures, and I felt emotionally drained.
Eventually I mustered the courage to stand up and snap a few shots of the sun peeking above the horizon. I could not clench my fingers, and unexpectedly let go of my quilt. It might have flown off the mountain, had another hiker not caught it on its ill-fated course.
As the sky gradually transformed from dark blue to soft pink, the silhouette of the surrounding mountains unveiled their true majesty. Peaks and valleys stretched out before me, the contours of the landscape sculpted by the forces of nature over millennia.
The expansive vista should have filled me with joy, but instead, I found myself fixated on the glacial wind. I struggled to celebrate my accomplishment as the freezing cold had rendered my fingers nearly useless.
The sun soon ascended higher; its warm light embraced the mountainside, casting a golden glow upon the rocky terrain.
Some hikers had huddled by the hut in an attempt to stay warm. The Mount Whitney hut, formally named the Smithsonian Institution Shelter, was built in 1909 and is the highest permanent building in the contiguous United States. It looked pretty beat up and full of debris inside, but the Ukrainian flag was defiantly standing outside.
I felt torn between my desire to descend to more hospitable ground as soon as possible, and my enjoyment of the magic of this place despite the pain.
As the rising sun started to warm me up ever so slightly, I started to descend. The sun was illuminating the valley, revealing a breathtaking panorama bathed in golden hues. It was a true wonder of sculpted peaks, frozen lakes, rugged mountains, and unspoiled nature. There was something magical about discovering the dramatic scenery that I had missed on the way up.
The rising temperatures and inspiring views of Guitar Lake uplifted my spirits. With each passing moment, life returned to my fingertips, and a sense of relief washed over me. The scenery was otherworldly, and I felt that, for the first time, I was experiencing the true grandeur of the Sierra Nevada.
I took a brief break by the lake to soak in the scenery, and reached for my water bottle. The water was frozen.
Back at Crabtree Ranger Station camp, I had an early lunch, packed up my tent, and collected my thoughts. I realized that my water filter was likely compromised. Backpacking filters remove impurities and bacteria by trapping them in the filter media as water flows through it. Should ice form, the filter media might expand and crack, rendering the device ineffective.
I had been cautious about sleeping with my filter in my sleeping bag on cold nights, yet I stupidly brought it to the top of Mount Whitney. The risk in drinking unfiltered water in the Sierras is extremely low, but I will need to purchase a replacement at the next opportunity.
On the heels of this realization, I walked back to the junction with the PCT, then hiked another seven miles north. From this point onwards, the Pacific Crest Trail follows the John Muir Trail (JMT.)
I traversed dramatic plateaus and meadows, and encountered my first challenging stream crossing, with rapid waters up to my knees.
I setup camp for the night near Wright Creek.
Tomorrow, I will climb Forrester Pass and reach the highest point on the PCT. Later on—either tomorrow afternoon or the following day—we will leave the PCT and climb over Kearsage Pass in order to get to Independence, CA and then Bishop, CA.
It has been smooth sailing so far, but I expect much more treacherous conditions with substantial snow accumulation on the northern side of Forrester Pass.