PCT Day 58: The Longest Day to the Highest Mountain

Day 58 started at 4AM and 9,580 feet in elevation. Our alarm went off in the dark, and we pulled our packs together to start the six-mile hike to Crabtree Ranger Station, where we’d leave most of our gear before hiking up to the summit of Mount Whitney.

Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 at 14,505 feet, is not actually part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Whitney is the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail (which overlaps with the PCT for most of its route), but it’s about a fifteen-mile roundtrip detour off the PCT. We’d already summited it at the end of our 2012 JMT hike, but we didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to go up again—without the hassle of permit applications and in probably the best shape of our lives.

We started hiking at 5AM. We got to Crabtree, put our food in the bear box and the rest of the gear we weren’t bringing in a dry bag hanging from a tree, and set off for Whitney at 10AM. The sky was mostly blue, and it was fun to be back on a familiar trail—the last 7.5 miles of the JMT.

It’s a beautiful hike, transitioning from grassy, sometimes marshy forest to bare, craggy mountainsides. We saw approximately 8,000 marmots—grazing at Crabtree Meadow, running from us on the trail, and stalking hikers at Guitar Lake. We also saw our first pika (my favorite mountain critter and possibly also my spirit animal) and an impossibly tiny, dark-furred chipmunk.

Guitar Lake is about four miles from the summit and is where we camped before going to the top on our 2012 hike. By the time we got there, there were clouds massing over the mountain and along the neighboring ridges. Shit. The last thing you want when hiking to the top of a mountain, much less the highest one around, is to see dark clouds at the summit—rain, hail, snow, and lightning are all dangers.

At this point, headed up the ten long switchbacks that climb to the junction with the summit trail, we’re racing the clouds. Are they getting worse? Is that actually rain up there? I haven’t heard any thunder, have you? Turning back has to be an option if the weather starts to look too dangerous, but after coming this far, neither of us wants to give up now. We reach the final 1.9 miles to the top at around 1PM. What had been a steep, rocky trail now becomes a steep, narrow, snow-covered trail cut into sheer cliffs. Great. Hour nine of hiking. Let’s do this thing.

This last stretch of trail to the top is intense. It was intense in August with no snow—following the narrow path, scrambling over rocks—but now in June with snow still on the mountain it demands complete focus. We get out our ice axes and clutch them in one hand. There’s a path worn into the snow that covers the trail—sometimes a trough, sometimes individual footsteps. Most of the people we pass (who are all coming down from the summit, by the way—no one else seems to be going up this late, like we are) have micro-spikes or crampons on their shoes. Those would be nice to have about now—extra confidence on the slick footing.

The trail slowly winds its way along the craggy mountainside, and soon we can see to the summit—and to where a cloud sits on top of it. Super. We’ll get up there and not be able to see anything. Sigh.

But we keep going because that’s what we do. The final approach goes up the sloped, entirely unremarkable backside of the mountain. Whitney doesn’t have a pointy, “mountain” shape from this angle—just a gentle curve. The last few hundred feet of the trail goes across snow and through scattered rocks. Snow is starting to fall. And then we can see the shelter at the summit! Aaaaand that’s about it. Clouds block the (spectacular) views to the north and south and east.

Three PM, 14,505 feet. We take some pictures and sign the register (a tiny lined notebook rather than the full printed register—we’re so early in the season that the real one isn’t out yet) as it starts to snow harder. There are a few other people at the top—some dudes hot-boxing the shelter and one or two solo guys who came up about the same time as us. It’s definitely snowing harder. We’re up there for about fifteen minutes before we turn and start the trip back down.

This is when force of will has to take over. We’re going immediately back down the trail that we just worked so hard to climb up. The same snow-covered ledges with the same drop-offs, the same rocks to climb over, the same focus required. It’s exhausting, but there’s at least a happy sense of accomplishment—we made it to the top, even if we had to then turn around and go right back down.

We’re hiking out of the weather that’s been hanging out over the summit—there’s snow off to one side, and we get some flakes in the face, blown in sideways, but the trail is mostly clear.

When we get further down and look back, the damn sky looks perfectly clear. It’s all about the random luck of timing, up here. We wonder if hiker Shaggy, who was headed up to the top at 5PM as we were coming down, is getting spectacular views.

stupid blue sky

The walk back to Crabtree Meadows becomes one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done. I’m exhausted, yes; my feet hurt, yes; but it’s the out-and-back—going down the same trail we came up just hours ago, all while not making any forward progress on the PCT—that just kills. It’s getting dark, and the miles are unending. I want so badly to just sit down in the middle of the trail and scream. To lie down and go to sleep right where I am. Stupid mountains, stupid snow, stupid feet, stupid trail.

But we keep walking. Because that’s what we do. We make it back to Crabtree, 10,741′ elevation, at 8PM—fifteen hours after our hiking day started—and rush to set up camp as quickly and quietly as possible. The woods that were empty that morning are now filled with tents filled with hikers who are already asleep.

There’s a vague, happy sense of accomplishment… but mostly just exhaustion.

Day 58: 21.8 miles. PCT Mile 760.6 to 766.3 + 1.1 miles to Crabtree Ranger Station camping + 15 JMT miles to Mount Whitney and back

Elevation:
5AM: 9,580′
3PM: 14,505′
8PM: 10,741′

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