How do hikers take a day off? They climb the highest point in the continental US, of course!
Mt. Whitney stands a proud 14,505 ft (4.421m), its highest ridge peaking above the snow capped splendour of the Sierra Nevada range of mountains. We took one day off the PCT, diverging on a side trail to climb the beaut.
Our one day holiday started late, around 8am, as we’d arrived to our campsite as darkness was falling the night before. A tough 26 mile day yesterday on the PCT left us sleeping hard even as mosquitoes buzzed lazily around our dozing faces. Alight with the promise of Whitney, we began our side trip with light packs. We left most of our gear at base camp on the PCT, as the 17 mile round-trip Whitney trail splits from the PCT at a convenient junction.
Carrying only warm layers, a little water, and the day’s food, we sprang up the easily inclining first few miles through Crabtree Meadows. An enchanting area with plenty of wildlife, we tracked the trail along a stream heading up to a string of emerald lakes.
We stopped for breakfast (rehydrated oatmeal topped with granola, as usual) at Timberline Lake. A picturesque mountain view rose above the clear and bright water, fine green plants enlivening the scene at all angles. We marveled from our granite boulder perches, watching fat little trout meander through the rushes and stones.
Uphill we continued, gradually, to Guitar Lake, where at least 4 tents – base camps – were pitched alongside the granite cliffs. Around us still rose walls of crumbling rock, streaked with bright white snow. The lakes and ponds were mirrors, staring back at the stone walls with equal intensity. Marmots ran wild in this open area, fat and fantastically furry mammals who tumble with one another and romp around the grassy highlands. They are the free wheeling otters of altitude.
We filled up with water at the final glacial streams below the mountain, and then began the real climb. Up, up, up and up the switchbacks on a massive face of granite. It’s our vacation day, we told ourselves, as thin icy air punished our lungs. No need to rush.
Don’t look down, I kept telling myself, especially on a steep snow traverse. The switchbacks kept coming. We ran into our friend Hopscotch on the way up, as well as a few others who had braved the dark and frigid air to catch the sunrise atop the mountain. Farther up the trail I ran into an old L&C compadre from my college days, who is also thru hiking this year.
Eventually the switchbacks did end, meeting a trail from the other side of the mountain. This other trail, coming from the east, is a day hiking trail, and permits are very difficult to get. Apparently they are so limited that one must apply six months in advance with the exact day one intends to hike the trail! To backpack in from the west, as we did, no permit is needed.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of people from the trail junction to the peak, 1.8 miles on. The trail to the summit traverses a ridge and is at times both steep and crumbly, enough to waken my old fear of heights, but not dangerous.
At the summit one finds a plaque, a small cabin, a log book and a hoard of people. We ate lunch atop, admiring the 360 degree view of sparkling snow capped mountains and deep low desert to the east. We were on top of the world, the highest thing in sight. A pair of guys showed up, draped in ropes and carabeeners- incredibly, they had climbed the far side up a rock wall. As we oogled the view from on high, clouds moved in quickly overhead- a regular occurrence above high peaks on Sierra afternoons. As we were ready to leave, however, it started gently blowing snow despite the moderate temperature. We hurried down the mountain a little faster.
“Mountains have a way in dealing with overconfidence,” wrote Henley in the hiker log. His words were a good contrast to the majority of people, who had written remarks about conquering or beating Whitney. Mountains make you feel small, make you feel young and ingenuine. They have been and will be here much longer then we can conceive.
Our side trip, our vacation day, was much enjoyed. With light packs and light hearts we skipped down the mountain and made it to camp in good spirits, ready to chow down on broccoli cheddar rice and snickers.
On the way downhill, I popped in to speak to the Crabtree Meadows ranger. I was on a special mission – my family friends’ uncle tragically lost his life on a peak near Mt Whitney, back in 1946. His grave is in a sunlit and private corner of Crabtree Meadows, one of the only people to ever be buried in a national park. As promised to Becky and Lucy, I asked the kind Ranger Rob to lead me to the gravesite, where I sat with the man I’d heard much about and paid my respects to a fallen mountaineer. It was a special moment for me, especially at the end of a very memorable trip up Whitney.
Mountains are quietly humbling.
Onward into the Sierras!