Climbing Mt Whitney was an experience I’ll never forget and was definitely my favorite day on the trail so far. Staying pretty much on plan, I hiked up to Guitar Lake the day before, making my early morning ascent about five miles. Here at camp, who should I run into but Cathie and Randy Cummins (aka Fruitcake and Nutz), my friends from DC whom I had been trying to catch up with. They were hanging out in their tent, keeping warm as the sun was going down and we were at 11,600 feet. So, after brief hellos we all hit the sack. I couldn’t sleep at all and had to get up three times that night to pee thanks to the 2 liters of Tang I drank just before bed. So, getting up at 2:30 AM was no problem.
Silent as a ghost I packed up my warm clothes, a liter of water, some pretzels and crackers, a candy bar, and some cereal and headed towards the summit in the darkness. My biggest worry was losing my way. The trail initially crossed the bottom of a deep, steep walled canyon where it was mostly marked by rocks or gaps in rocks with an occasional sandy tread. Although I had my headlamp on, I would be in trouble if I hit a snowfield or a nondescript boulder field marked only with occasional cairns, as my beam only was good for about 10-20 feet around me. Thankfully, I made it across the canyon no problem and began the long haul up one of the canyon walls.
The night was beautiful. As is typical out here, I had a full constellation of stars and even saw one shooting star. The grey-white hue of snow patchers soon appeared below me and I could make out the faint trace of Guitar Lake in the distance for quite some time. I tried to navigate by moonlight, but this proved impossible as the moon was on the other side of the mountain. Instead, I turned my light off periodically during rest breaks to fully appreciate the vastness of the land I was walking above and the breadth of the canyon.
My other concern was the effect of the altitude. Hikers sometimes complain of dizziness and headaches during this climb and I certainly expected, at least, to labor more than usual due to the thinner air. Luckily, I only had some mild aching at my ears and temples at 12,300 feet which resolved, although I certainly felt the burn in my legs increase as I neared the top. After about 2 hours, I reached the top of the canyon wall and the trail made a left turn, passed some large rock pinnacles, and made its way towards the gently sloped summit ridge. I could barely make out the dark speck on the summit that is the Smithsonian Hut. Day began to break as I picked my way through boulders and enjoyed the sunrise alone as the two hearty souls who camped atop Whitney were still inside their bags.
I spent about three hours on top of Whitney. Both of the guys who slept at the summit, an Australian and a local, awoke and met me. We chatted for a bit and the Australian made me a bowl of coffee while the local handed me, unsolicited, a one-pound package of ham. The Australian still had frost on the outside of his bag as it was quite cold on the summit, 25 degrees by sundown last night.
While I explored the rocky summit and enjoyed sweeping, 360-degree views of the Sierra Nevadas, hikers began staggering up and soon there were about 30 people on top; a mix of PCT hikers and locals who had come up from the other side of the mountain. I walked down with Cathie and Randy and took a catnap at the ranger station for the rest of the afternoon.
The high Sierra Nevada has so far been my single most favorite place to hike. The landscape is breathtaking and to try and describe it in words is impossible. The next several hundred miles will be through the Sierra along the famed John Muir Trail. I don’t expect to write too much, but promise to take good pictures.