The Day We Summit Mount Whitney

June 19, 2017
Crabtree Meadows, up to the Summit of Mt. Whitney, down to Crabtree Meadows
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 45

Exhausted, worried about food, worried about stream crossings, worried about Forester Pass. Pretty much worried about everything coming up, mostly because, for the first time on trail, I could get stuck in the wilderness with no food. What I expected to be a moderate day, what with packs that are at least 30 pounds lighter and only 7 miles to the summit. It was a slog, and I probably should have turned around.

I woke up at 3 am, made coffee and cereal, made sure I had the essentials in my pack, and we set out with headlamps and light packs just as everyone else had started rustling in their sleeping bags. The trail was straightforward enough for hiking in the pitch black, though sounds were magnified and eerie. There’s a creek that runs along the trail up to the summit, and sounded thunderous. We couldn’t see it, but finally sloshed through muddy trail alongside the swollen banks. The creek was relatively innocuous. We made progress for half an hour with flattish, open-ish trail. Then the trail turned and we hit snow. Navigating in total darkness with no sight of trail is slow going. The rest of the group quickly caught up to and passed us. 

With the sun’s glow beginning to show on the horizon we could see that the next mile or two would be completely snow-covered, until we hit the switchbacks criss-crossing up Whitney’s rocky face. I felt nauseous, but had a long talk about elevation sickness with Justin last night, brought Tylenol up the mountain to help keep my oxygen-aching brain quiet, and made a conscious effort to take my time and drink plenty of water. It wasn’t difficult to take it slowly—any more than five consecutive steps across the field of suncups and my brain turned into, what I called, a ‘boom boom room’. The edges of my vision flashed like I’d stood up too fast, and my head pounded along with the beat of the strobe. I stopped, closed my eyes, caught my breath, and rinse, lather, repeat. Add constant waves of nausea, plus the luck of a lady to have today as the most painful day of my period, and I march on.

We continue the climb, trailing further behind the rest of the group with every step, but at this point it’s clear that I will need to use every ounce of my concentration to get to the top, not focusing on when I get up there or who it’s with.

HItting the switchbacks would be better, but I am so dizzy and nauseous that I’m not eating and barely drinking, moving forward one or two steps at a time. The trail is thin, the fall down is long. The view is beautiful, but it’s hard to appreciate when I’m one wobble away from toppling over the edge. I take my time, pretty certain I won’t make it to the top, when we come to a fork in the road. Traverse a snowy slope, twice, just to follow the switchbacks, or rock scramble straight up the face of Whitney to the next switchback? Decisions, decisions. A descending hiker (WTF, people are already coming down?!) opts for the rock scramble, and my scrambled brain does two things. One, realize that, oh fuck, I have to come back down this way, and the other is to decide that if someone else picked rock scramble, I’ll pick rock scramble too. Here’s what it feels like: put a floppy half-full backpack on, haphazardly shove your trekking poles somewhere out of the way, do 15 spins on a dizzy bat, then climb 20 feet straight up a face of dislodged rocks above a 2,000-foot drop. The dizzy bat component really ices the cake. 

Since I’m writing this, I didn’t die. I didn’t even cry. I just kept plugging along, persistent as ever. Justin said if the headache is in the back of my head, I should descend. Well, it’s only swallowing the front, and if I go slow enough it only manifests as extreme nausea. So, I’m fine. Up and up. It’s surprising how much more terrifying the trail is when you feel severely unsteady, like you’re walking on a wire instead of a foot-wide trail. I lean into the mountain. I think we’re close now, it’s seven hours in and I can see the trail family starting to descend. They can’t have left the summit long ago, so we must be close. When we finally cross paths, Chris tells me and Alex to scramble across the boulder field before the summit instead of following trail. It’s a good day for a scramble, I think, and we follow his advice. The slope of the field is much milder and the rocks less slippery than what we did earlier today. We reach the summit at noon, on the dot. Look at that. Impeccable timing.

The view is stunning, even for an oxygen-depleted, nausea-ridden brain. I am deeply satisfied at making it this far. I sit and take in the view, try to eat a few bites of food, try to to enjoy the moment. My brain is confused, but if I move slowly and carefully my body does a fine enough job following directions. While most hikers spend a few hours at the top, 15 minutes was enough in my mental state. I told Alex I was ready to get down, and down we went.

I felt better with every step. I even managed to finish the Kate’s bar that I started eating on the ascent. Like clockwork, a mile away from the summit and less than an hour past noon, the storm clouds started their approach. They look worse than yesterday, and we picked up the pace. The slippery scramble on the way down wasn’t great, but we managed and kept trucking. With a long glissade (sledding on your butt down the snowy part of a mountain) to cut out a mile of switchbacks, a trek across the two miles of slushy suncups and the final bit of trail, we were back at camp just 4 hours after hitting the summit.

Sitting at Crabtree Meadows under a big tree, the family sprawled out and gave us a warm welcome. They debated between heading out for the creeks tonight or staying and leaving early in the morning. The group decided to stay, thank goodness. As we sat and ate our dinner, watching the storm clouds roll in around the summit, we had our own storm roll in. In our time spent at Crabtree Meadows the past two days, we hadn’t seen any hikers coming from the south. We hadn’t seen any hikers attempt the creeks ahead and turn around, nobody at basecamp with plans to exit over the Whitney Portal ( up the Whitney trail and one mile from the summit). As we sat and ate our dinner, three men walked up and joined our crowd. They would be the first of the folks we met that decided to bail. They made it across Wallace Creek, got to Wright, and couldn’t do it. It did not sit well, but we still needed to see the creeks. My food supply whispers to me that it's not big enough to add any extra days to the itinerary. There is no getting across two creeks and turning around because the third is impassable. I'm either crossing all three, or I'm not crossing any of them.

It starts to rain, and we head off to bed at 6pm. We’ll need to head out early if we want to cross Wallace Creek with everyone else, and I’m exhausted. Worried, and exhausted. A thunderstorm breaks over the camp. The thunder booms and echoes and shakes, resonating against the mountain peaks. I am glad that I summited the tallest mountain in the continental United States, and I have no desire to ever do it again.

 Thrilled with how long this is taking (probably about 7 hours to hike 6 miles at this point, with another 2 to go)

Thrilled with how long this is taking (probably about 7 hours to hike 6 miles at this point, with another 2 to go)

The final boulder field before the summit. If you look hard enough at the center of where the boulders meet the sky, you can see the pinprick of another human. 

 Fifteen minutes of sitting still, swimming inside my confused brain

Fifteen minutes of sitting still, swimming inside my confused brain