September 12 (~07:55 – ~18:50)
After Bubbs Creek – PCT/JMT Junction (16.1 mi / Total: 767.0 mi) (+0.9 bonus miles to Crabtree Ranger Station)
Total PCT miles: 2588.1
Weather: Cold in the morning. Warm during the day, but the wind remains chilly.
I have a short day ahead of me to set me up for summiting Mt Whitney tomorrow. While Mt Whitney isn’t technically part of the PCT, it’s a short side trip and most PCT hikers take advantage of the peak only being 8 miles off the PCT down a side trail. It’s popular because Mount Whitney is the highest point of the lower 48 states, whatever that means. It sits at 14,505 ft (4,421 m) which is high, and although summiting mountains isn’t really my thing, I decide to do it as it’s right here. Furthermore, I’ve decided to get there for sunrise, which is another thing people like to do. It also means I’ll have to get up not long after midnight and hike in the dark.
Today I’m hiking 17 miles to get to Crabtree Meadows, which has a ranger station with ample tent sites. It’s just a mile down the Mt Whitney side trail, and the closest point to Mt Whitney I’m allowed to stay at with my PCT permit. I reckon it’ll be a short day, but I’ll first have my own PCT highlight of going over Forrester Pass, which is the highest point along the PCT. I’m excited about this pass, and I’m only about 3.5 miles from the top, so I should get there soon. I have a slow start in the cold this morning, and I notice several people passing me while I’m packing up to get up Forrester.
The approach is similar to the previous passes. Rocky, moonlike and spacious, a long ascend with ample switchbacks. I pass some of the hikers who’d gone up before me, and am happy to find myself going up alone, and not in the queue of people I was fearing. It’s a surprisingly easy path, with just a few steeper switchbacks at the end that prove strangely exhausting. I’m mostly just waiting to hit the part of trail that has become a bit of an iconic image for the Sierras, a rocky sidle with a steep drop that’s often covered in snow. I really though this was around Forrester, but I don’t recognise it anywhere. If it’s not here, where is it?
When I reach the pass, another hiker has just arrived from the other side. Although I hoped for solitude, this ends up being a good thing. The girl is called Sydney and she’s hiking the JMT northbound with a friend. We chat while I scramble around trying to find something to attach my tripod to – and fail. There’s no way I can get a picture of me and the Forrester Pass sign, so I give in and give Sydney the camera, and don’t realise till later that she actually took good pictures, somewhat ruined because of my awkward posing. But of course, I should’ve known – she’s young, young people are generally pretty good at taking shots like this.
When I head down the other side I get my moment of solitude, moving slowly and taking in all the views. I wondered if I’d feel anything special about reaching this high point, but I don’t. The views are comprehensibly superb though, widespread fantasies, pale and indestructible, with those vivid alpine lakes in the distance. Admittedly, it’s not my favourite pass, views wise – the northern approach was not as magnificent as I’d hoped, but I’ll always love that ethereal landscape of solid rock, and it gives me all this space to just breathe.
After the initial steep rock side carvings, the southern descend turns into a nicely graded terrain again, spacious and warm and after all the rocks I find a little stream running through a meadow up from the trail and I have a leisurely long break.
Somehow, after Forrester, I assumed the trail would just sort of gradually lead down, until I’d hit Kennedy Meadows. But I’m wrong. There are a few up and downhills in the afternoon, and the path leads through some surprisingly dry, desert-like areas. Along the way I also realise I’ve been taking today a little too leisurely to get to Crabtree at a decent time, which is going to jeopardise my early wake up call. I realise I have to speed things up, and then my leg starts acting up again.
The tendon alongside my shin has been hurting on and off for days but it hasn’t been anything too bad, but during today’s downhill it gets so painful that I reach the point where I simply don’t know how I’m going to make it through the final few miles. It’s a good thing it’s late enough for the trail to be deserted because I’m in so much pain I’m crying as I try to walk down the trail. I take painkillers but they do nothing. I sit down, wait, then keep going and the pain doesn’t change. Every step is torture.
When I finally make it to the junction to Crabtree two true PCT southbounders pass me, and they tell me they’re also planning on the sunrise hike to Whitney. I lose them shortly after and limb to the tenting area, every step taking way too long, and hurting way too much. I wonder if this pain will fade over the next hours, before I’m supposed to get up again and summit this mountain. Moreover, there are so many people scattered around here that I instantly doubt whether I really want to summit Whitney. I don’t enjoy crowds very much, and I wonder if it would be worth it at all? I still set my alarm at 00:45, and go to sleep at 8:30. Let’s see how this goes.