Getting to summit Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48, was something all three of us had been looking forward too. At this time of the year it isn’t a technical climb, but it is a lot of elevation and it is gorgeous. So yeah, we were pretty stoked on it. This was our Whintey plan:
Whintey is not technically part of the PCT. Typically thruhikers take a 1.1 mile long side trail to the Crabtree Meadows ranger station, camp there, and then do the 15 mile long out and back to the summit. There is camping higher up on Whitney, past the ranger station, by Guitar Lake, which is where we planned on camping before attempting a sunrise summit in the morning. That made our day before Whitney a twenty three mile day and left us with another ten miles after we summited to get to the other side of Tydall Creek, which would set us up to cross Forester Pass in the morning when the snow as still firm. However, on our hike to Whitney we discovered that camping was now off limits to thruhikers past the Crabtree Ranger Station.
That left us in a bit of a pickle. We could still camp at the ranger station and summit in the morning, but it meant to get to Tydall Creek afterwards we would have to pump out a 26 mile day after summiting the highest mountain in the continental US. If we didn’t do the twenty six mile day we had two short days to get into Independence and we couldn’t use our dinners and breakfasts as snacks. Food won out, as usual, and we decided to do the big miles. That night we camped at the Crabtree ranger station. Crabtree meadows is gorgeous, and a huge creek runs alongside it, allowing us to wash off. We made a giant pot of mashed potatoes to supplement our mountain houses. You have never seen anyone be so happy about a pot of instant mashed potatoes. We crawled into our tents and set our alarms for 2am.
Leaving camp the next morning by moonlight our packs were light, filled only with extra layers, some food, water, our pot and stove and water filtration. Once in the trees we switched our headlamps on, heading up past the dark glossy water of Timber Lake and Guitar Lake. At Guitar Lake we left the trees and a dim moonlight shone off the high granite cliffs around us, relenting off the lake and the snow, stunning us. Small pin prick points of light from headlamps above us showed us how much further we had to go, but we were all enjoying climbing at night. There weren’t that many people out at that hour.
Shortly after the lake the switch backs started. Our pace slowed gradually as we climbed higher and the air thinned. Our goal had been to make it to the summit by sunrise but the sky began to lighten when we still had a couple hundred feet to go. We reached the Whitney Portal trail and began to traverse through tall granite spires until we could see the final traverse that would bring us below the summit and wrap us around to the top, where the Whitney Climbers Hut was barely visible. There had been very little snow up until that point and we could see that we would have to cross a hundred foot section of snow up ahead, but it looked like it had a very well trodden path in it. I was starting to feel weak so I made the boys stop so I could eat something. We crossed the snow with ease, it crunched under our trail runners, nice and frosty in the cold morning air. Around the bend the trail switched up to the top and finally we were at the summit, with about five other people. The sun was just above the horizon, warming our faces and our sweaty backs. We stood on the USGS marker and got vertigo, looking down at the alpine lake thousands of feet below us. Mountains as far as the eye could see, patches of snow clinging to their sides.
After a short break we decided to head down. We still had a long day ahead of us and we wanted to walk back through the snow before the sun got to it. Once we had descended a thousand feet of snow we stopped at an amazing bivy spot we had been eyeing on the way up to boil some water for a mountain house dinner turned breakfast. Once the mountain houses were rehydrating we continued down to the lake where we planned on eating them. Once off the switchbacks we were surrounded by meadows again. One of the beautiful things about climbing a mountain at night is that the hike back down looks completely different. We got down to the lake, ate our meals, loaned some JMTers (be prepared for me to use that term for people hiking the John Muir Trail) our water filter, and delighted in all the marmots that were coming our to frolick in the sunlight.
Marmots are seriously the best. They appear to eat grass, which might explain why all the meadows look like nicely manicured suburban lawns. And they eat the grass while they are laying on their bellies. They actually eat laying down! What a wonderfully lazy little creature. When they aren’t eating they are sunning themselves on rocks or frolicking around with other marmots. Our love for marmots caused us to dream up a wonderful marmot television show, where all the marmots wear adorable little outfits and soak in lake and drink at a bar called the Shady Rock. We were deep into story lines and plot twists and character profiles when our neighbors from the night before met us going the other way. They were out for the weekend, and only headed up to Guitar Lake that day. We smiled and waved when we saw them coming up the trail but they were stony faced and serious. They informed us, in very concerned tones that our tents were being ravaged by squirrels AND chipmunks. They had tried to scare them away and had put some more rocks on our tents (we had collapsed our tents before we left so we could use our trekking poles and we had weighed them down with rocks so the wind didn’t blow them away) but according to our neighbors these were vicious rodents, terrifying! The three of us looked at eachother, shocked. There was nothing in our tents that would attract animals, all our food was in bear canisters and our first aid kit was with us. Unless they wanted the iPad to satisfy an unhealthy Game Of Thrones addiction there really wasn’t anything in there for them. Also strange because we hadn’t seen a single squirrel or chipmunk the night before. Often if the animals are after food they appear immediately upon your arrival and are particularly interested in you during dinner time. But we hadn’t seen any interested creatures. Regardless, our stomachs dropped. Not our gear! Apart from being expensive the ultralight stuff we have from Zpacks is extremely hard to replace considering they have a six week lead time on most of their gear.
We let Cameron run back to camp to deter the rampaging hordes of woodland creatures that were shredding our precious cuben fiber and Kyle and I followed as fast as we could on our depleted legs. When we got close to camp we could see him inspecting everything, our nerves increased. We had been speed hiking along in silence, both imagining the worst but hoping for the best. The best being that our neighbors were just overreacting weekenders with a flair for the dramatic who saw one squirrel on our tent and lost their shit. This turned out to be the case. We came running into camp, expecting to see tattered tents surrounded by a ten foot radius of goose down, but instead there was just a relieved and bemused looking Cameron, assuring us everything was okay. Curse those weekenders!
We cooked up breakfast (it was noon but night hiking can really confuse your eating schedule) and crawled into our tents for a short nap before packing up and finishing our last eight miles. None of us were very excited about walking another eight miles or fording the three creeks that existed between us and our campsite. It is usually advisable to ford creeks in the morning when they are at their lowest, but that wasn’t an option for us and we would be fording Wright, Wallace and Tydall creek in the late afternoon. The eight miles ended up being easier than we though, the creeks were all mellow and right at the end of the day we popped out of a climb on top of an incredible treeless plattue filled with marmots and surrounded by mountains on every side. We were speechless. Cameron cried. It was such a long day, evidenced by the fact that this is such a long post, but it is certainly one that is going to stand out, forever.