Day 33: Mt.Whitney and the great high Sierra…

Day: Friday, July 1st 2016

Miles: 766.3 – 774.7

+ 15 miles (Crabtree Meadows – Whitney Summit – Pacific Crest Trail junction)

Crabtree Meadows Camp – Tyndall Creek Remote Camp
I wouldn’t exactly say that I slept well last night. There was some anticipation of today’s ascent of the beautiful Mount Whitney on my mind, and certainly some trepidation at the physical challenge it represented. The last time I ascended Mt.Whitney, just 4 years ago, was a memorable and intense experience. Physically I was probably not as fit as I am now, and certainly less prepared in terms of gear (gear weight specifically). But there is still some excitement and nervousness involved in something like hiking Whitney. Having it completed it before surprisingly didn’t seem to make it feel any easier. There’s an allure and an apprehension. A romance, and yet a blunt and sharp reality when you think of the physicality involved.

I may also have slept badly as there was a lot of movement in Crabtree Meadows. At all hours people seemed to be arriving and departing. Packing up and making camp. Wandering for water and wandering to the bathroom. Early rises departed for Whitney summit at midnight. Wandering headlamps and stumbling morning movers would occasionally catch the tent in their view – a moment of shining light just when you’re about to nod off. At one point I decided to use the bathroom, and in my sleepy-headed state managed to lose my bearings on where my tent was amid the tent city for 15mins. Certainly an inauspicious start to a day that would involve navigation and hiking skills that are a little more involved than a typical trip to the restroom. We would be slack-packing today. Our tent, bearcan and most supplies and food would stay behind, whilst we would carry our basic backpack and food provisions for the day along with water, thus lightening the load immensely. The distance was approximately 7miles to the summit making it 14 miles for the return trip. The elevation gain would run from 10690ft at Crabtree Meadows, up to 14504ft at Mt.Whitney summit and the plan was to complete the ‘out-and-back’ in the early afternoon, with potential for further miles in the afternoon, back on the Pacific Crest Trail.

As a result of the movement and the expectation (and no doubt the ‘losing my tent at 1am’ escapade), it came with great relief when my alarm buzzed at 3AM. I noticed light from David’s tent and sounds of breakfast-munching coming from Nelsons tent-mansion – the gang was up and ready. As an aside, Nelsons insistence on always having a cooked breakfast in the morning is an admirable quest (if something I gave up on weeks ago!). Hitting the trail at 3:15AM, our first challenge was a short river-crossing over Whitney Creek on a log in the darkness. Surprisingly nimble with a slack-packing setup, I enjoyed the lightness of my load and the initial miles in the brisk coolness of the Sierra morning passed quickly.

The trail followed Whitney Creek for some time, eventually rising to a barren plateau above the tree-line where we passed a number of ponds and lakes, finally reaching a small tent group at Guitar Lake. In a somewhat annoying twist of the permit system, JMT permit holders can camp at Guitar Lake however PCT hikers cannot. The strange differences in permit allowances also extends to the provision of the affectionately known “wag bags” or poop bags. The heavily trafficked area around Mt.Whitney (the Whitney zone) is covered by a “pack-out-your-poop” policy. Official looking grey bags (1 per person) are provided by the ranger stations on both access routes to Mt.Whitney, however PCT hikers were overtly and strictly informed that we could not use the wag-bag system. Interpreting this nuance may mean that:
a) PCT hikers can poop wherever they want in the Whitney zone with reckless abandon.
b) PCT hikers need to hold it for 14 miles and 8000ft of elevation gain/fall.
Regardless of the interpretation, thankfully it wasn’t an issue for me due to the early morning misadventure I had last night.
Beyond the iconic Guitar Lake, the real fun of Mt.Whitney begins, as a number of switchbacks start the steep climb up the west face of Mt.Whitneys southern approaches. This virtual wall of rock is an incredible, if daunting view early in the morning. By 4:30AM, the slow creep of the milky morning light had started to invade the opposite valley and walls, an incredible alpine scene reminiscent of Switzerland coming into view.

Since the approaches to Mt.Whitney from Crabtree Meadows are entirely from the west side, the ascent was still solidly set in a sharp chill and eery shadow of darkness. Munching on some snacks to keep energy levels high, my progress was slower than David and Nelson so I urged them to continue ahead, to some degree I prefer the moment to the movement and like to stop and gaze irregularly, likely to the chagrin of a focused hiker. The pressure of other hikers it can be a useful impetus to keep moving, but such a sublime scene as that unveiling itself to me, was something I wanted to take my time at. A few times along the way I passed other hikers in a similar frame – enjoying the moment or enjoying a respite from the incessant increase in elevation. The sun had almost risen at this point of the climb, the valleys to the west were golden-hued.

Meanwhile the vista to the east was about to be exposed with the Sierra Crest just ahead, this knifes-edge ridge marks the split between east and west at this point in the Sierra Nevada. Desert valley to the east with alpine ridges to the west. The trail follows the ridge north until the summit of Mt.Whitney. I reached the Sierra Crest trail junction around 5:40AM, this is the point where the trail from the east side (which I completed last time) meets the John Muir Trail. It’s from this point, that the “Windows” come into view, a series of breaks in the jagged peaks of the Sierra Crest which afford a short view into the eastern side of the ridge – a magnificent sunrise was laid out ahead of me, with shadows and haze covering steeps below. A magnificent warm sunlight filled the gaps, reflecting onto the far walls of the ridge to the west.

As the final trail wound towards the peak, there was two short snow crossings to complete, before a few final switchbacks to the summit.

The summit hut was a welcome sight to behold when I arrived around 6:30AM. The sun was firmly established in the sky, and the sunrise crew were already starting back down the mountain. I met Nelson almost immediately, already complete with the summit and heading back to base camp.

I settled into a warm sheltered nook just below the summit. The luxury of cell-coverage in little summit pocket, allowed me to make a quick post to mark the occasion of Americas birthday weekend. A little cliched I guess but when cell coverage is available, you have to take advantage of it!

After a short time admiring the view and taking some pictures, I visited the summit hut where I met Chocolate Milk (last seen in Warner Springs) and BrewHiker (play on ThruHiker) who (true to his name), was brewing a small portion of beer at the top of Whitney – whether for bragging rights or scientific research, a truly remarkable sight!

After some time warming-up and finishing my own can of celebratory Budweiser (no questions on my taste of beer please!) and it was time to set about my triumphant return to base camp. It was 8:30AM and I had spent what I felt to be a respectable time at the summit. The views evolving before my eyes as the sun rose and the freshness of the morning air, being unparalleled.

The down-section of the Whitney return-trip was arguably more grueling than the ascent. My IT band had been trouble-free for a considerable amount of time but the constant bracing and leverage on the rocky terrain was taking its toll. I resolved to take my time and enjoy the view, sharing the first few miles with a hiker from Seattle, named Gangland. There’s no end to the variety of trail names at this stage of the PCT!

Where I reached the trail-split at Sierra Crest, I met a couple for the second time who were just finishing the JMT. They asked if I wanted any of their spare food as they were just about to finish the downward haul to Lone Pine on the east-side and wanted to lighten their load. Whilst making my own load heavier wasn’t exactly a goal of mine, I did grab some oatmeal, trail mix, powdered milk and a Mountain House Spaghetti dinner for later. Happy with my haul I continued down the switchbacks, enjoying the newly illuminated meadows in the bottom of the valley by Guitar Lake, and making quick progress back to camp. The views were pristine, and the glimpses back to Whitney Summit, although fleeting, were truly magnificent and wholeheartedly fulfilling after my mornings effort.

I returned to camp a little after noon, once again meeting David and Nelson who were about to hit the trail, eager to make the next camp-spot on their itinerary around Tyndall Creek, about 8 miles distant. I had intended on aiming for Wallace Creek at the 4 mile mark, so I decided on an “aggressive but possible” and “highly probably” strategy for my evenings efforts depending on mood. I settled in for the afternoon with a brief cat-nap and a nice celebratory dinner of Risotto (which turned out to be a complete disaster or watery messy proportions).

By 3PM I decided it was time to start moving and so decamped, a little sad to leave Crabtree Meadows, but aware that the next tranch of Whitney prospective summiteers were just arriving and that my moment here had passed. As I hit the trail northbound, I once again found myself in the solace of a beautiful evening wander, punctuated with meadows and low elevation gains – my mood and spirits high after a busy day.

I met many hikers coming against me, southbound on the JMT, the slow realization dawning on my that the JMT addition would likely mean a lot more Southbound traffic – most bedecked in nice clean new gear and effervescent with the scents of the real world – laundry and deodorant! After – very pleasant 4 mile hike I reached Wallace Creek, my first waypoint of the evening.

Not entirely content with a shadowy aspect and a proliferation of mosquitos who decided to attach to me in a frenzied moment of opportunism during the creek crossing, I decided I was going for broke and aiming for Tyndall Creek, another 4 miles ahead. This additional mileage would lead me along a ridge with a truly magnificent view back to Mt.Whitney, something that is relatively unique in the Sierra as Whitney is closely guarded by its surrounding ridges, virtually eliminating any line-of-sight views from any direction. As I admired the view and rose towards Bighorn Plateau, I was treated once again to a magnificent Pacific Crest sunset set against the backdrop of Centennial Peak and the magnificence of Sequoia National Park to the west. Known for its incredible sequoia groves, from this perspective the park is a winter wonderland of snow capped peaks and incredible glacial features.

The plateau at Bighorn itself is a beautiful if stark reminder of the harshness of the regions weather. Absenting any features other than a few Marmots feasting on alpine grasses, the plateau is a popular snowpack measuring point, one of the locations used for the definition of the Sierra Entry Index (SEI) which is used by many hikers in order to identify the earliest date when an easy entry (without professional equipment) to the high Sierra can be guaranteed – this years SEI date was June 18th – so I think I’m well timed to deal with the snows ahead. Something I would tackle tomorrow for the first time

As I descended to Tyndall Creek, I passed David and Nelson camped and settled in about a mile before the crossing. I decided to venture a little further as I needed water and wanted to finish the final river crossing. I entered Sequoia National Park officially, right as the sun set behind a huge massif to the west. The final shoes-off river-crossing of the day, set beneath a firey sky of pinks and oranges reflected in the mountains.

I made camp a few hundred feet north of the creek, in a beautiful setting bedecked with bear box, flowing water and just two other campers. A setting of peace, tranquility and drama, all provided by the sounds and sights of a truly incredible Sierra vista.

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