PCT Day 162 : Higher Than High, Summiting Mt Whitney

September 13 (~01:45 – ~12:10)
Crabtree Ranger Station – Mt Whitney – Crabtree Ranger Station (off-trail / +14.6 bonus miles)
Total PCT miles: n/a
Weather: Cold at night and at the summit! It gets very hot again at lower elevation.

At 00:45 my alarm goes off, and I decide to go for it. I wear all my warm layers and pack my bag with only the things I’ll need – my sleeping bag for the cold summit, food and water. An hour later I’m ready to head off, it’s surprising how much faster I can be if I don’t have to pack up my tent.

It’s 7.3 miles to the summit of Mt Whitney, and I’ve given myself 4 hours to get there by sunrise. I leave the campground and it’s quiet. I’m the only one headed for Whitney right now. I wonder why. An I early? Late? There are so many people camped here, I can’t be the only one. But I am for now.

I follow the trail in the dark. The moon is full, the wind is still, it’s the perfect night for this. I walk with my headlamp on the dimmest setting, only sometimes using the more powerful beam if I can’t see where I’m going. It takes at least an hour to find more headlamps trailing behind me.

In the meantime I’ve played around with the settings on my camera a little, and I’ve been able to take some night pictures. I take a few as I walk along, and slowly get closer to those huge crests of rock. There are no obvious peaks, the mountains are all plateaued at the top and to be honest, I don’t even know which one is Mt Whitney. It’s not until I see headlamps leading up along the rock face, that I know which one is the queen.

Somehow, time passes differently in darkness. I keep thinking I should be much further ahead. When I reach Guitar Lake I realise I’ve only covered 2.5 miles, although it feels as thought I’ve done at least twice that. I always feel as though time slows down when it’s dark. Shortly after the lake I begin the many switchbacks up – finally I’m on the last leg towards the summit. I’m progressing steadily but I actually thought I’d be flying up without all that weight on my back, but I’m not. My pace is the same, even though everything feels a little easier. Why am I not flying? I expect everyone else to start overtaking me – suddenly there are more people, more headlamps approaching from other directions, but that doesn’t happen either. I’m still the one passing everyone else. Apart from the PCT hikers from yesterday, there are three of them – they are the only ones passing me as we get closer to the top.

When I think I’ve made it to the summit, I’m only at the three-way junction where a third trail leads to the Whitney Portal on the other end, and I’ve still got 1.9 miles to go. I can’t believe it. This mountain just won’t end. I could keep on walking forever. The trail gets worse as well. Whitney is clearly just a pile of rock, and the higher I get, the more the trail is littered with huge fallen boulders, sharp debris all around me, and I keep having to climb over everything. It’s a tricky path in the dark, with some tremendously steep drop offs.

The trail leads up on the west side, the shady side, but when I pass a window in the wall of rock with a view east I can see a layer of red appearing on the horizon. Sunrise. I keep waking, higher and higher, even through a little patch of snow and then a flat section towards the summit, and I can see yellow light spill onto the views around me. It’s 5:45. It’s happening.

I take a few shots on the way up, patiently waiting for the longer exposure, and hurry to the top at the same time. I watch the soft light grow, and join the others who’ve made it on time, lingering on the rocks, looking around me. There are no more than 15 or 20 people here, and everyone is quietly appreciating this moment, being here, some wrapped in sleeping bags, overlooking the skyline. It’s not as cold as I imagined, and the wind that grew on the way here, is gone. It’s the perfect morning for a sunrise. I move from side to side, changing the settings on my camera, trying to adjust to the changing light. Golden highlights make way for pale yet sharp panoramas, and everything just looks so surreal, so out of my grasp, yet it’s right here in front of me.

Unfortunately though, an official plaque for the summit seems to have gone missing, if ever it existed, and all there is, is an arts and craft homemade sign that says Mt Whitney with the wrong elevation on it. I’d imagined everyone posing with it, but initially I’m the only person interested in it. A few others take pictures with it, and someone offers to take my picture with the sign as well, and I take a few more with my tripod.

I stay for about an hour and a half, sitting on the cold rock, waiting for the sun to grow in strength and warm me up. It’s strange on the way down, when I can see everything I’d only imagined in the dark. The trail is almost more difficult now that I can see all the obstacles, and more and more people are coming up. I’m happy I got there for sunrise. All the tents I saw on the way have gone, everything is quiet.

It’s a long way down, made longer by my tendon acting up. The downhill is thoroughly painful, and I’m only going slower and slower the closer I get back to the tentsite.

I see the other PCT hikers before I dive into my tent. They’re laying in the grass, wrapped in their quilts and unable to quite get going but planning on moving on later that day. It’s only midday now, but I can’t wait to just crawl inside my little home and stay there for the rest of the day. I grab some water from the nearby stream and get inside. I watch some Netflix and fall asleep and it feels so great. Only a few days left now.

3 thoughts on “PCT Day 162 : Higher Than High, Summiting Mt Whitney

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