A solstice summit of Mt. Whitney

PCT miles 766.3 to 771.4 – Crabtree Meadows to just south of Wright Creek – Total PCT miles 771.4

Hiking up Mt. Whitney (14,497 feet) was definitely something we hoped to do as part of our PCT hike. Today we got to hike and scramble up to the highest point in the “Lower 48”!

Our day started at 2:30 in the morning, which felt way too early, but we had big ambitions for the day: climb Whitney (~15 miles RT from the meadow) and get in position for an easy ascent of Forester Pass the next day, by hiking 8 more miles. Little did we know that packing up, crossing a creek, and some pre-dawn route finding challenges would slow us down. We could have just slept another hour or two. Ahh, hindsight is 20-20.

While we could have started a little later in the morning, the early start did offer us much better climbing conditions: crampons made for easy walking up firm and icy snow vs. the thigh high post holes of those approaching the peak in the soft snow of late morning/afternoon.

Being from the Cascades, hiking into a basin of 13,000-14,000 foot granite peaks is not something Gabriel or I often experience. We stopped in awe many times to watch the alpine glow light up the granite walls and tinge the mountains with gold light. My mind was filled with passages from the writings of John Muir, rapturous and exuberant about the beauty of the Sierras, rock, snow, and geological processes. So thrilling and so deeply satisfying.

Most years, the route from Crabtree Meadow to the top of Whitney is a hike up a switch backing trail built into the flanks of the mountain. But in mid-June of 2011 the route up Whitney included some “pitches” of scrambling loose talus (yes, even in the granite-filled Sierras there is scree) to get up from one switchback to another. These screen and boulder pitches were the faster and safer way to avoid the still icy and snow covered segments of trail that offered less than desirable run-out. It also made the route a little more interesting, rather than just walking up switchbacks. As we were coming up a few climbers were coming down and heading back to the east side of Whitney and to the Whitney Portal Store. Boy we’re all of us PCT hikers envious to hear these folks talk about the milkshakes and burgers they’d get to have in a few miles!

Gabriel and I made it to the summit around 10:00, where we joined fellow hikers Camel, Pooh Bear, and Gray Ghost. Soon after, Dusty, Queso, Nacho and Storytime were also at the top and we had a celebratory gathering of PCT hikers, enjoying the views, appreciating the first day of summer, sharing snacks and talking about life on the trail. Being the summer solstice, it also happened to be what’s known in the hiker world as Naked Hiking Day. Now, Gabriel and I are much more more modest than our fellow hikers and weren’t interested in participating, but we also weren’t going to discourage anyone from celebrating Naked Hiking Day. As we were willing to stay clothed, we were recruited to be the photographers for these 6 guys (Gray Ghost took off shortly before) as they posed on the summit of Whitney wearing their packs, boots and some discreetly placed socks. It was a lot of fun to help these guys take their pictures and it was definitely a novel experience for us to participate in this sort of photo shoot on top of a peak, let alone Mt. Whitney.

After more than an hour on the summit, Gabriel and I decided to start heading down. We knew the snow in the basin below would be warming up and softening and we also knew that we had more miles to push on. On our way down, we had a reunion with Mr. Fox, Rocklocks, Cricket and Hotrod! They were heading to the summit. What a great surprise to get to see them on Whitney, as we’d thought our different resupply points were going to separate us. We visited with them for a little while. Mr. Fox was exuberant about having a light summit pack and he’d also had fun participating in Naked Hiking Day while walking through the snowy basin.

Down the trail, scramble sections and glissade shoots we went. We were back to the basin of lakes below Whitney in early afternoon and the basin was heating up with the reflection of light on snow (strong albedo!) and we started to post hole. Made it back to where we’d stashed our gear (turns out it was right near Rocklocks and Mr. Fox’s camp… smart hikers on the other side of the creek) by 3:00. We lounged around for a little over an hour, drying out our wet tent (camping in a meadow = damp tent! = :-P) and other gear and assessing our food situation. Indeed, we definitely needed to push on that day and get over Forester Pass the following day as we were running out of food. We packed up by 4:15 and we’re heading down the PCT and now the John Muir Trail as well.

The snow on the trail after Crabtree Meadows definitely made for some slow going and having to concentrate on keeping the trail/route in sight. With our legs being a little tired after our climb, we weren’t covering as much ground as intended…but that was okay we knew any miles we could get this long evening of summer solstice would make it easier tomorrow.

We crossed a couple of creeks, Wallace was thigh-high on me but relatively slow moving and hiked up a ridge to patches of snow-free lodgepole forest with lots of lodgepole cones. Ahh…one of our new favorite ground covers to sleep on. We made camp and were soon having our Whitney summit/summer solstice feast of corn chowder w/peas, cashews, olive oil and cheese. A good day indeed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.