Day 69: Mt. Whitney

May 29, 2018

00.0 PCT miles, 15.2 miles up/down Mt. Whitney

I didn’t sleep at all. I was so nervous about hiking Mt. Whitney that I tossed and turned all night, had strange dreams, and somehow managed to irritate my eye injury from last summer (which happens sometimes while I’m sleeping). So starting my morning half-blind was fun!

I was wide awake at 12:30am and maybe dozed once or twice until my alarm went off at 4:00am. We hiked out at 5:30, leaving our tents, bear cans, and most of our other gear in camp, as most hikers do. We took only the essentials. Not knowing how much snow we’d be dealing with, I preemptively put Walmart bags over my socks before slipping them into my Oboz, just in case. It’s a trick my dad taught me as a kid to keep my feet warm and dry in the winter if ever my boots were not up to the challenge.

On this day, my feet certainly stayed warm but the bags meant to keep them dry had the complete opposite effect. My feet started sweating from the exertion and the moisture had nowhere to go. Rather than do the smart thing and stop to remove the bags, I hiked on. Of course I did, right? We wanted to reach the summit and start hiking back down before an impending storm rolled in, and I certainly didn’t want to slow us down with more of my foot issues. 

The morning was very cold. Crabtree Meadow is reached by crossing a creek along a somewhat sketchy log, and we had to cross back over the creek in order to get back to the trail that would either take us down toward the PCT or up toward Mt. Whitney. Being that it was so cold, the log was covered in a thin layer of ice and we were forced to crab-crawl across. 

I didn’t take these photos, but that’s me crab-crawling across the sketchy log. SO COLD!

After that, we had a few fairly-easy miles to Guitar Lake, and then the real climbing began. We stopped at the first relatively steep snowbank we saw and practiced self-arresting with our ice axes for a bit. Thankfully, this newly honed skill wasn’t needed. There were a few minor slips, but no one lost their footing or needed to self-arrest during our hike that day. 

After Guitar Lake, it was a long, steep climb up so many switchbacks I lost count. We stopped often, usually at the turning point of each switchback, in order to catch our breath and give our bodies and lungs a chance to get used to the rapid change in elevation. Sparky’s knowledge of this was a Godsend to me. Take lots of breaks and deep breaths, eat some sugar, drink plenty of water, and if you’re still having trouble breathing hike back down a little ways until it gets easy again, then take a break. Thankfully none of us had to backtrack but instead chose to take the climb nice and slow. There was a lot of snow so we wore microspikes or crampons most of the way, and I used one trekking pole and had my ice ax at the ready to self-arrest at all times.

Guitar Lake. I got a better photo later.
Nope, not this one. But it’s still better.
The view across from the switchbacks up to Mt. Whitney
A close-up of the above photo. I swear it looks like a beacon from Lord of the Rings!

It’s hard to adequately describe how I felt during that climb, the views that changed with every switchback up the mountain, or the enormous sense of accomplishment I felt when I finally reached the top. 14,505 ft above sea level. The highest I’d ever been with both feet on the ground. It was spectacular. 

What I’d been really nervous about was the steepness of the drop-offs, particularly the short sections with nearly vertical drops on either side. I needn’t have worried, though. By the time we reached those bits of the trail I’d already gotten used to the steep switchbacks and traversing the sketchy snow-covered trail, and the path was wide enough across those open sections that I had no trouble. I am proud to say that I was the first in our group to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney.

We didn’t spend much time on the top, though. It took us about an hour longer than expected to reach the summit so we hustled back down after taking all the photos and videos we needed. A storm was on its way and Sparky estimated that we had about 2 hrs before it hit, which turned out to be correct. 

It was shortly before the snow/hail started that we took a lunch break and I finally decided to do something about my sweaty feet. When I removed my gaiters, shoes, and socks, my feet were a puffy white mess, all swollen and wrinkly from being trapped in their own moisture for so long! I let them dry out a little in the cold air and then put on fresh socks, leaving off the Walmart bags. This helped a lot, but my feet were still pretty bad by the time we got back to camp and I was able to take my shoes off for the night. Lesson learned. 

Dark clouds over Guitar Lake. Can you see the shape of it?

The snow began just as we were climbing down the last few switchbacks. More like hail, really, but small. This grew in intensity and began to include thunder and lightning as we drew nearer to camp, and we all scurried a little faster to try and beat the storm to our tents. 

Elevation sickness is a thing, and I struggled with it on the way up and on the way back down, but I know I had it easy compared to some. There are many hikers who start up Mt. Whitney and have to turn back because the change in elevation is just too much for them. I had trouble breathing and walking, but we were off the mountain and a few miles from camp before I was suddenly struck with exhaustion I’ve never experienced before. It took everything in me just to keep walking the easy, mostly-level trail to Crabtree Meadow. I should have been starving by the time we reached camp, but I couldn’t imagine putting a single morsel of food in my stomach. I used the pit toilet and crawled into my tent, curled up in my dry sleeping clothes and my quilt, and closed my eyes, willing the nausea to subside. Every muscle in my body felt utterly defeated and I was asleep well before dark. Just before I drifted off, however, I realized I’d carried Oswald all the way up Mt. Whitney and had completely forgotten to take a picture of him at the summit. 

Published by rogerssj23

I'm a long-distance hiker, an audiobook producer, and an amateur writer. I live in the woods in a renovated 1972 Airstream with my Golden Retriever Zoe. Read more about my hiking adventures at sarahhikes.com.

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