I knew about Mount Whitney before I started this challenge, before I started hiking, before I’d seen a mountain. It’s not the most difficult of the “lower 48” highpoints, but it is the highest– the highest point in the contiguous US, the highest point of the country until wild Alaska joined us in 1959. The highest point for 1500 miles in any direction. I’d seen the mountain close-up just once before, four years ago on a winter trip to nearby lowest-point-in-the-US Death Valley, and remember gazing up in awe at the tilted Sierra Crest and imagining the badasses who could climb that behemoth. I submitted a permit request and thought back to my first successful climb of Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona two years ago, the rush of accomplishment as I stood there, the memory only slightly faded as now Humphrey’s became my training hike; I summited it five more times this spring.
The night before my hiking partners and I checked into the hostel in Lone Pine, collected permits from the ranger station, accepted a few free beers from golfers and hikers, and ate Mexican food at a Chinese restaurant. My fortune cookie read “NOTHING CAN KEEP YOU FROM REACHING YOUR GOALS” and I neatly tucked it into the pocket of my hiking pants.
In the morning we started the hike off on the right foot with one of Doug Sr.’s amazing enormous pancakes at the Whitney Portal Store– he’d made it the size of a hubcap and sliced it into pieces expecting it was to be shared, but nope, all mine– and did a last check of our required items (permits, bear canister, wag bags) then posed for goofy photos at the trailhead sign and headed lazily up the sunny main trail.
It’s a beautiful trail at the start, hot this time of day but sporadically shaded by the trees, quiet and peaceful except for the rumbling waterfall and the strange purr of grouse chuffing in the underbrush. Unhurried, I detoured to Lone Pine Lake and dawdled at Outpost Camp, crossing streams on thoughtfully-placed log bridges and watching as swarms of tiny butterflies lighted on my shirt and fluttered away.
After a rest beneath a 50′ waterfall, the trail turns rockier and the trees twist into sparse windswept columns beneath the tall grey granite spires of the crest. Smooth slabs of slickrock overhang a placid lake and then swell into boulders as I left the trees behind, the granite broken only by the stunning oasis of Trailside Meadows, where the same creek I’d crossed earlier as a trickle now rushed down a wide waterfall, flanked by snowfields and escorted through the valley by a huge swath of green grasses and wildflowers.
I reluctantly left the Meadows and climbed again through rock and boulders, hopping tiny streams of snowmelt runoff and twisting through the granite glowing white in the sun. Clear teal lakes glitter below me and for the first time I smell the sharp dank bite of snow in the clean air.
The rocky path leveled into a protected barren clearing dotted with other hikers unfurling their gear, this was 12,000′ Trail Camp. We selected a spot and pitched the tent just as snow started to fall, piling rocks on the corners where the hard ground wouldn’t accept a stake. I ate my re-hydrated lentil dinner with shivering hands as the wind blew the snow into tiny white whirls and gusted arrows of it across the flat rock, circling me like shark fins.
The last of the light bled out from the horizon and the falling snow was for a second indistinguishable from the specks of stars winking from behind the high clouds overhead. I poured boiling water into a small waterbottle and snuggled against it in my sleeping bag as the spindrift scoured the tent walls and the wind tattooed the guylines against my door.
Just before dawn alarms chirped and buzzed throughout camp and we unzippered into the charcoal morning. A line of headlamps bobbed in a crude zigzag up the trail already.
The rising sun painted the Sierras in delicate pastels, then set that painting on fire. I warmed up with instant coffee, standing where I could feel the licks of flames from morning’s bold orange glow.
This part of the trail was the notorious “99 Switchbacks,” an easily navigable route that snakes up the mountain face, turning back on itself a full 99 times. The mood of the other hikers here ranged wildly, from grumbling headachey suffering to jocular energy, both types counting down each turn from 99. It was early enough in the season that some parts of the trail needed to be scrambled up with handholds, but late enough that tiny waterfalls trickled down the path. Finally I reached “the Cables”, a short section so shielded from the sun the snow never melts, and the trail is protected by a metal cable fence so hikers can avoid tumbling down the steep face. In winter this section is unpassable and hikers must climb up a snowy chute and glissade down; after a few late-season storms the cables had opened to hikers just six days before our arrival. The trail still wasn’t quite wide enough for my entire foot, and I edged across the narrow ledge on my heels.
I lost count on the switchbacks, but suddenly there were no more hairpins up the mountain face, and a gust of wind and small wooden sign greeted me to the ridge at Trail Crest. The views opened up to amazing alpine vistas in every direction. Far below I could see the John Muir Trail, sewing itself into the Sierras past clear turquoise lakes and snow-capped granite spires. At the ridge it joined with my own trail and wove among the jagged reddish-grey rocks and tall pinnacles, occasionally breaking to frame another spectacular view.
The route gradually leveled off to a long and desolate slope of talus, the edges of the field scalloped like a kindergartner’s valentine heart, ripped into ridges by avalanches and spiking upward in the twin peaks of Crooks and Keeler. A deep path was stomped through the snow ahead of me, snow penitentes bowing on each side in the afternoon sun.
I shuffled along the melting slush, skidding through a few slick icy sections. The trail twisted upward from the snowy traverse to another rocky incline and without seeing the summit I knew it was almost there, I could feel the rest of the earth dropping away around me with every step. Hikers on their way down whooped and shouted encouragement; I yelled back my congratulations. I couldn’t see it, still couldn’t see it, the trail and my feet just kept me moving upward through the same rosy rock and then oddly there was a rock that looked just a bit darker and sharper and then two more big steps up and it wasn’t a rock at all but a roof, it was the stone hut at the top of the summit, I was there. My last few strides were huge and I spun around in a circle looking down at the Sierras, at California, and at the entire United States all below me.
only time I got to use my ice axe…
About the beer:
There are a lot of outstanding craft beers in California, but Sierra Nevada was the one who kicked open the door for all the others. Their classic Pale Ale, a hoppy but balanced brew with a gentle grapefruit twist, was my very first Pale Ale, the snappy hops the most exotic and intriguing thing I’d tasted. My gateway beer, it remains a solid classic, and there’s nothing I would rather have with me after a long hard hike to the top of the country.