September 30th, 2018
Crabtree Meadow to mm 759.5
Distance: 7 PCT miles plus 16 miles on Whitney Spur Trail
0300 – 1630
Today was the big day: to climb the highest mountain in the the contiguous US at nearly 14,500′. The summer before, I summited the second tallest mountain, Mt Elbert, from the Colorado Trail. It’s only about 50 feet shy of Mt. Whitney, but who’s counting?
I was awake and making coffee by 2:30 am. I was on the trail by 3:25 but got a little delayed in trying to find a bear box in the dark. I needed to leave some of my stuff in there. The trail was easy to follow; in fact, I barely used my headlamp the whole way. There was just enough moonlight to pick my way along. It was better this way, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I could see all the surrounding mountains and valleys.
It felt like was either an astronaut or argonaut, walking along barren rock in a foreign and inhospitable realm. Every once in awhile, I could see a series of headlamps going up the switchbacks above. I wasn’t the only crazy one heading for the top at this hour on a Sunday morning.
It was fairly warm down in the valley, enough that I had to shed almost all my layers. But then a frigid wind began to hit me and I had to put all my layers back on. It got worse the higher I went and at the trail junction to the top, I even contemplated turning around. But there were only a few miles to go at that point.
The final push went along the backside of a spiny ridgeline. There were gaps between the spires where the wind was funneling through. The force was almost enough to suck me along…which would have ended badly. I stopped just long enough to gaze down to the desert valley below and admire the red glare on the horizon. The sun was coming up but I didn’t take any pictures because my hands were too frozen.
I knew at that point that I wouldn’t make it to the top before the sunrise. I was feeling a bit dizzy and exhausted and I didn’t know if it was because of the wind, cold or altitude…probably all 3. I stumbled up through the rocks to the top, taking one step after another as if in slow motion. Sure enough, I just missed the sunrise by about 10 minutes. But I didn’t care. I had made it and I went straight for the emergency shelter to warm up.
There were 3 other frozen souls inside. One, Dandy, was celebrating her 2 year anniversary of completing the PCT. Her lips were blue but bless her heart, she was more worried about me being too cold. The other 2, a couple Cody and Lystina, looked miserable and mentioned that they were from Florida. I asked where exactly and when they said Ft Lauderdale, we launched into a discussion about their professions and all the people we knew in common. It turns out, they are marine biologists too and knew all the same circles of friends and coworkers.
Can you believe it? Three marine biologists from SoFlo meet to have a Sunday morning pow-wow on the highest mountain in the US, what are the chances? It read like the setup for a joke. I gave them my contact info and they actually recognized my name. They had heard of me through our mutual friend, Christopher Boykin (he could possibly be everyone’s mutual friend). Ironically, I had just sent him a postcard of Mt Whitney while in Bishop. What a small world.
They informed me of 2 other SOBOs, Kuba and Bella, who were sitting outside. I went to join them and found them bundled in their sleeping bags. I had neglected to bring mine, which was a mistake. I cuddled with them for warmth and enjoyed the suns rays starting to pierce the frigid realm.
We lingered awhile, then took the obligatory pictures at the top. I looked ridiculous wearing every single piece of clothing I had but it was too cold to try to look good.
At 8:30 am, I started the descent. I was eager to get down to warmer and thicker air. I passed quite a few people going up…it was a weekend after all. Some didn’t look very prepared, but that is not surprising. I warned some of the cold wind that was still freezing the water in my bottles. But the sun was starting to have an effect and I finally started to feel warm again. All in all, I had great weather. Especially considering that the remnants of a hurricane were working north and expected to bring rain and snow showers by the next day.
I wound my way down through rock jumbles and I was surprised at how little I remembered of the trail going up. I must have been in a daze. There were some steep dropoffs that I was glad I didn’t notice in the dark.
It was good to get back to my tent and have lunch. I packed and continued down the trail. I didn’t want to go far but might as well make use of the daylight. I called it pretty early, which was fine, given my very early start. I went to bed feeling such relief. I had made it through the Sierra and my experience culminated in climbing the tallest mountain! It was all downhill from here.