It was a downhill morning. The trail wound freely from our campsite just below tree line down into a valley. The forest was quiet and bright, the trees just sparse enough to let in the morning sunlight, with the occasional grassy glade or trickling stream. I stopped for a bit to watch a pair of deer graze in a clearing, indifferent to my presence.
At the bottom of the descent were open meadows and a treed campsite area next to a large creek. Several people were taking down their tents. I didn’t recognize anyone, but judging by their gear, they were more likely weekend warriors than thru-hikers. I sat on the creek bank and watched people cross as I ate breakfast. It was supposedly a ford, according to the guide book, but it was possible to hop across on some strategically placed rocks and logs. I watched a couple of people lose their footing on the rocks and plunge their feet into the water instead. When it was my turn I fared no better and came out the other side with wet toes.
The trail climbed out of the valley through a sparse forest. At the top of some switchbacks I took a break in the shade of a huge boulder and ate a protein bar. I needed all the energy I could get for the next twenty-four hours.
For several more miles I followed the undulating trail, surrounded by old and twisted pines, granite boulders, and massive upturned root systems. Finally I descended into an almost barren valley. A wooden gate crossed the trail. I leaned against it and gazed ahead at a set of three jagged peaks framed by closer, smaller summits. Mount Whitney – the first I’d seen of it from the PCT. It looked so intimidating. I couldn’t help but reevaluate my decision to climb it, and whether the effort would be worth it.
Soon after crossing the gate I arrived at a beautiful green meadow bisected by a mirrored winding creek. On one side, with the trail, a group of hikers rested in the shade. Across the creek, a family of deer grazed and napped in the long grass.
While my water filtered I chatted up one of the hikers in the clearing, April. When I introduced myself, she looked thoughtful for a second. “Did you hike with a group of ladies for a while? With someone named Justa?” I nodded. “I think she has a letter for me.”
I couldn’t help but laugh when I remembered. The waitstaff at the Paradise Valley Cafe had given Justa a letter for April the day we hitched into Idyllwild. None of us knew who she was, but figured we’d run into her eventually. That was over a month ago, though.
“I think she still has it,” I said, “but I haven’t seen Justa in a long time. I think she’s pretty far behind.”
When Rowan and Cuban arrived, the three of us took a spur trail off the PCT toward Mt. Whitney. After a mile or so we arrived at Crabtree Meadows where we pitched our tents in a cluster of trees. It was still early in the afternoon, but we had decided on a game plan while we were in Lone Pine: We’d climb the mountain overnight to catch the sunrise at the summit. For now all we could do was rest.
I had managed sporadic periods of sleep that afternoon by lying prone and practically naked in my hot tent with my buff wrapped around my head and eyes to block out the relentless brightness of day. When my alarm went off at 11pm I was quick to gather my supplies. I could hear faint rustling in the area as Rowan and Cuban did the same from their tents. We’d leave mostly everything behind and hike up the mountain that night with minimal gear.
We left together silently, crossing a log bridge over the rushing creek, and then into the silent forest. I kept my headlamp on its dimmest setting, careful not to misstep or stub my toes. Despite the altitude I started to feel overly warm, so I stopped to take off my puffy jacket. By the time I had my pack back on, Rowan and Cuban were long out of sight. I felt calm, though, and thought back to a time in my life where being alone in the wilderness in the middle of the night would have sent me into a panic.
I caught up to them a couple of minutes later. They had stopped to wait for me.
We soon ascended above treeline, out of the muddy darkness and suddenly into a living Ansel Adams photograph. We turned off our headlamps. The full moon illuminated the alpine valley, reflecting off towering walls of granite and impossibly still water in the surrounding tarns. The rugged silhouette of Whitney ahead was the clearest and closest I’d seen the mountain. It was hard to comprehend the possibility that I would be at the summit by tomorrow morning.
We climbed switchbacks in the moonlight, silent and appreciative of our surroundings. There was no one else around, and the air was the perfect temperature. I started to slow down, resting for a moment on every switchback, leaning on the boulders and breathing heavily. My head started to throb with pain, and when the nausea hit I finally acknowledged what was happening to my body.
I caught up to Cuban and Rowan while they took a quick snack break.
“I feel terrible,” I said. I explained my symptoms, and Rowan echoed back what had been on my mind all along.
“Altitude sickness is no joke,” he said. “If you start to feel loopy, tell us.” We agreed that I’d stay in the middle of our group for safety reasons.
“Seriously, don’t be stupid,” Rowan insisted. “Promise that if it gets worse that you’ll head back down.” Brave mountaineers were eventually dead mountaineers, he said. I promised, but as I looked up at the mountain looming over us I knew that I was already under its influence, like a gravitational pull, and my usually rational self was already inventing excuses so that I could reach the top by any means necessary.
We continued upward with only the moon to light our way, and the only sound was our heavy footsteps and clack-clack of our trekking poles, and the soft moan of the wind through the darkness around us. My mind buzzed with invasive thoughts as if to drown out my persistent headache and queasiness. I was a responsible decision-making adult. I didn’t need to be told what was best for me. I rolled my eyes, and consequently wobbled sideways, catching myself on a boulder and quickly righting myself.
We stopped for a break on one of the many repetitive switchbacks. We passed around a freezer bag full of Fritos and pulled on our crampons and microspikes. My usually hot core temperature could no longer compete with the frigid altitude, and I layered my puffy jacket over my rain jacket, long sleeve shirt and long sleeve base layer. My legs felt like rigid stumps beneath my shorts, two pairs of leggings, and all of the socks I owned. Far below us we caught glimpses of a headlamp in the darkness. Another soul hoping to make the summit by sunrise, but judging by the distance they weren’t likely to make it in time.
We passed the Whitney Portal junction where most people would arrive from the east approach of the Mountain through Lone Pine. We had yet to encounter any other people.
We carefully ascended along narrow snowy contours, our trekking poles at the ready to self arrest if we happened to slip. The sky had been gradually lightening, and I hoped that we would make it to the summit in time for the sunrise. After another brief stop, I surged ahead, riding on a second wind and a sudden reprieve from the fog and nausea of altitude sickness. I scrambled carefully around large and irregular chunks of snow covered talus, postholing occasionally in suspended snow bridges between the rocks. The silhouette of a small building rose above the horizon – the Whitney summit hut! I turned around and waved my single trekking pole at Rowan and Cuban, signalling that we’d made it. I didn’t call out to them; it was a silent moment. The remainder of my approach felt automated as if the mountain was pulling me in. I felt featherlight and wide awake.
I entered the summit hut – a small wood-panelled room that reminded me of a sauna. A sign on the inside of the door warned of lightning risk and implored visitors not to remove the wooden floor. I set down my pack, taking only my sleeping bag, phone, and camera. Back outside I joined Rowan and Cuban and we approached the ledge overlooking the opposite side of the mountain from which we’d ascended. Somebody in a sleeping bag stirred on one of the flat rocks and greeted us. It was dark and it took me a moment to recognize Pounder despite his European accent.
“I set my alarm to fifteen minutes from now,” he said. “You arrived just in time.”
The view was incredible. The Owen’s River Valley, thousands of feet below us, was vast, stretching flat for miles until reaching the sudden wall of mountains on the other side. The darkness was speckled with the lights of small towns and settlements, including Lone Pine where we’d rested and resupplied only two days earlier. A faint band of orange stretched across the horizon. We settled down on the rocky ledge, bundled in our sleeping bags, ready for the first light of day. It was 4:15 a.m.
As the sun rose, the sky became saturated with blues, purples and orange hues. It was like watching a sunrise from an airplane; the earth seemed beneath a layer of atmosphere and we were suspended in the sky above all life and noise. Looking back toward the summit hut, the sun had cast an incredible shadow of the mountain far into the distance under the setting moon. We sat for a long time, taking photos and just staring in silence. Cuban at some point had merged into his sleeping bag, dead still and curled up on the rock like a big orange larva. I envied his ability to sleep practically anywhere.
I stood up to stretch my legs, climbing up onto a boulder looking northward above the rugged Sierra peaks. I wrapped my sleeping bag tight around my body and looked back to Rowan who was framing a shot of the sunrise through his iPhone.
“Hey, I’m the highest woman in the continental US!” I laughed. I gave Rowan my camera to take my photo and preserve the strangely exciting moment.
A small group of hikers arrived and gathered silently to watch with us. I recognized Hippie Jesus in his poncho, but didn’t know anyone else. It was about 7:30 and the sun was up, and with Cuban awake we decided to start our return to base camp. I entered the summit hut to retrieve my pack. I figured I wouldn’t need my crampons since the snow would be softer with the morning sun. I sat and leaned over to remove them and was suddenly overwhelmed with nausea and complete disorientation. I felt like I’d plunged off of a waterfall, breathless and with no concept of up or down.
The disorientation passed after a moment, but the queasiness and dizziness lingered. My body had had enough of the altitude, and the physical exhaustion of staying up all night climbing a 14er probably hadn’t helped.
I left ahead of the boys. descending quickly the way we had come. I slipped on a patch of ice in a spot where the snow had thinned out, nearly launching myself off the trail and down a steep gully. I stepped more carefully afterward, allowing Cuban and Rowan to catch up.
“We should climb Muir peak on the way down,” I suggested, gesturing to a steep rocky pile ahead of us. We scrambled up a steep snow bank to get a closer look.
“That looks dangerous as hell,” Rowan said.
“Let’s just take a photo instead,” I said.
Back on the trail, I ended up in the lead again. Despite being a slow hiker on any sort of incline, my knees of steel had always made descents a breeze.
On the way down I passed Treeman and Squatchie, and then a couple of other people. At the bottom of the mountain, but still some miles from camp, we stopped at Guitar Lake, pristine and frigid and rich with trout that constantly leapt out of the water, glistening in the morning sunlight. A marmot scuttled about on the lakeshore, ignoring our presence.
“We have to jump in,” Rowan said. We all agreed. We all needed it. Rowan went first, followed by Cuban. When it was my turn, I stripped off my clothes and stood on the grassy bank. My body still hadn’t forgiven me of the betrayal of launching myself into Chicken Spring Lake, and my stomach lurched at the thought of being submerged again in freezing water. A fish leapt from the water at my feet like an invitation, and without giving myself any more time to debate the issue, I ran forward and launched myself into the sapphire blue.
The sensation was even more jarring than the last time. My body went instantly from complete exhaustion to wide awake. The lake had the stimulant magic of a thousand ounce coffee. A moment after surfacing I overcame the shock and swam to the bank, gasping and unable to speak. I noticed the presence of hikers on their way up the trail, stopped to watch us. They probably wondered at our states of mind. They were bundled in their warmest layers, and we stood by the lakeshore in various states of undress – in my case, nothing at all.
We dressed and put our packs back on. Cuban and I went ahead on the trail. The energy of my brief swim was fleeting and I quickly became even more exhausted than before. We passed a couple with a dog. The woman looked at my wet stringy hair and remarked “That looks cold.” I think I grunted in response. I was practically catatonic, my eyes only barely open enough to make sure I didn’t trip over any rocks or my own feet.
It felt as if muscle memory was all that led me back to the campsite. The trek itself was a blur until I found myself crawling into my tent. I didn’t have a chance to change or even drape something over my eyes to block out the daylight. I slept deeply, only slightly woken and vaguely aware when I heard Rowan arrive eventually, and then Treeman and Squatchie much later.
I crawled out of my tent sometime in the afternoon. When Rowan and Cuban woke up, we ate an early dinner and packed our gear to get at least a few PCT miles in before dark.
Rowan told us that on the way back from the lake he’d zoned out and missed the sign for Crabtree Meadows. “After you guys got here I ended up hiking all the way back to the PCT before I realized I missed the turnoff. I ended up doing like two and a half miles extra.”
Rowan and I took the shorter John Muir trail junction back to the PCT while Cuban, being a purist, followed the original route and rejoined the PCT from the exact spot where he’d left off. The evening’s usual silence was broken with a chorus of frogs from the marshes and meadows along the trailside. We found Treeman and Hedgehog setting up their tent in a small clearing, and talked briefly about our experiences on the mountain (Hedgehog had opted not to make the ascent) before continuing a couple more miles to a flat wooded clearing near a creek. We pitched our tents and had some tea while waiting for Cuban to catch up around thirty minutes later. After inflating our sleeping pads and storing our bear cans, we said good night and cozied up into our respective shelters.
Our official entry to the Sierra had been explosive – an experience I would never forget. I felt like I had a renewed sense of what I was capable of. I had gained a new perspective about the value of accomplishments. Before ascending the mountain I had questioned whether it was worth it, and why. Now I could answer the first question with a confident, resounding ‘yes‘, but for the second question, if there was a succinct answer, I couldn’t say. I was used to reason and logic, to observable relationships and cause and effect. But climbing Mount Whitney, just like hiking the PCT, had had an effect on me far greater than the sum of its parts. I might not ever be able to explain it, but I knew there was something immeasurably valuable about the experience. I didn’t feel more enlightened, intelligent, or even happier. But in a more subtle, fundamental way, I had been permanently and profoundly changed.