I summited Mt. Whitney today! At an elevation of 14505 feet, Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. While not technically on the Pacific Crest Trail, it is located so close to the Trail that most PCT hikers elect to climb it. When else will I get an opportunity like this? I’m in the best physical condition of my life, I’m only 8 miles from the summit, and I have a permit to climb it. So I decided to go for it.
I decided to get up super early since I was advised by a ranger that there was a chance of thunderstorms today, most likely in the afternoon. I definitely do not want to be anywhere near the summit during a thunderstorm. After reading the book Shattered Air about some hikers who were struck by lightening when climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, I have a healthy respect for lightening.
I decided to leave my tent set up at Crabtree Meadow and emptied out most of my gear inside my tent so that I only carried the essentials with me. It was nice to have such a light backpack.
I was on the trail by 5:00 am and hiking by the light of my headlamp. My stomach was upset before I even started hiking. I wasn’t sure if it was due to altitude or just one of those random stomach things. I kept to a slow pace so I could adjust to the altitude slowly. But I also felt pressure to hike quickly so that I could reach the summit in case the weather turned.
I arrived at Timberline Lake around 6:00 am, and the pre-dawn light finally enabled me to put away my headlamp. It was still pretty dark, but I could see the jagged peaks rising in the distance all around me. I wasn’t exactly sure which peak was Mt. Whitney as they all looked equally tall from this vantage point. It took my breath away.
By 7:00 am I arrived at Guitar Lake (elevation 11485 feet), which is a popular jumping off spot for hikers who plan to climb Whitney the following day. By this time, the sun had risen enough to the point where I could clearly see the white granite spires rising in the distance. Sunshine glowed off of distant mountains but the lake was still shadowed as the sun was hidden behind Mt. Whitney. I would love to just camp here for a couple of days. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life.
I filtered some water and forced myself to eat a Clif Bar. I was feeling nauseous and I wasn’t sure if I could keep anything down, but I felt a little better after eating. Puffy white clouds quickly skated across the blue sky. I watched for dark or ominous clouds that might herald rain, but the wind was blowing in from the west and the mountains blocked my view in that direction. The weather looked good so far.
From there the path continued rising in elevation past a couple of other alpine lakes. Then the serious switchbacks really began directly below Mount Muir. I zigzagged up the mountain, first reaching 12000 feet, then 12500 feet, then 13000. As I rose in elevation, the view became increasingly spectacular. I could see more and more mountains in the distance, rising out of the horizon like distant jewels.
By this point I started to feel really lousy. I felt dizzy and nauseous and my pulse was pounding – more than it normally does when I climb hills. Usually I don’t have issues with heights, but every time I looked down over the edge I felt a vertiginous lurch in my stomach. I was worried I might pass out. So I stopped at every switchback and took a break.
1.8 miles from the summit, I reached a trail junction at an elevation of 13432 feet. Day hikers who started the trail from Whitney Portal joined the trail here, so there were lots more hikers on the trail. I took a break for a while and decided whether or not to keep going. I seriously considered stopping. But then I saw all the hikers heading to and from the summit. It didn’t seem so far. I could do that, I thought. So I went for it.
As I started the last leg of the hike, dark clouds started rolling in. The clouds were small at first, but then began covering the tops of the mountains. This made me really nervous. I wasn’t sure if I should keep going. But I was so close! So I kept plodding along, closely monitoring the weather for any electrical activity. The path became really rocky at this point, and my pace slowed as I scrambled over boulders.
The closer I neared the top, the darker it became. Soon was hiking through a cloud. I probably should have turned around then. But I was only 500 feet from the top! I felt awful. But I kept going.
And then I was there! I gratefully entered the shelter at the summit and sat down for a few minutes, catching my breath. But I didn’t stay long. Snow starting falling outside the hut, lightly at first and then harder. The hut was enveloped in a cloud of mist and it was impossible to see more than a dozen feet away, so alas I did not see any views from the summit.
After about 5 minutes at the top, I turned around and started hustling back down again. The weather worsened as I traversed the ridge back to the junction. Then, all of a sudden, lightning flashed and a thunderclap boomed almost immediately afterwards. There wasn’t even time to try to count between the lightning and thunder.
I stopped for a moment, feeling petrified.
I was vulnerable and exposed on one of the highest mountain ranges in the United States in the middle of a lightning storm. It was a really dumb move on my part. I almost had a panic attack right there. But then I quickly pulled myself together and continued hiking as fast as I could go, scrambling over the wet boulders. Another thunderclap boomed loudly overhead, just as close as the last one. Hail and snow fell around me, so I stopped to put on my raingear. By this point I was wearing almost all of my clothing, but at least I wasn’t cold.
When I reached the junction, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was no longer in hiking in the raincloud and I had descended 1000 feet in elevation. But I didn’t allow myself to stop until I had raced down most of the switchbacks. By this point it was mid-afternoon and I had only eaten 2 power bars all day. Thankfully I was no longer feeling nauseous, but I wasn’t feeling hungry either. I forced myself to eat a little anyway.
I slowed my pace when I reached Guitar Lake. It was so gorgeous here. Lots of hikers had arrived during the day and set up tents all around the lake. I saw several marmots hanging out in the rocks, checking out the hikers.
When I arrived back at camp I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. It started raining hard so I cooked dinner in my tent’s vestibule. A thunderstorm raged for the rest of the evening, with bright flashes lighting up the sky outside my tent and loud booms shaking the valley floor. The rain slacked off and I drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened again by another thunderclap at 11:00 pm.
I was glad that I had recently started hiking with a footprint (groundcloth) again. I’ve camped in rain before when I hiked the Wonderland Trail, but not on my PCT hike – at least not rain like this. I was curious to see how my tent would hold up. I guess I’ll find out in the morning!
PCT 2017 Stats
PCT Day 151 – Monday, September 11
Crabtree Meadow Mile 766.3
PCT Miles Hiked Today: 0
Non-PCT Miles Hiked today: 14.6
Total PCT Miles Hiked: 1636.6
Feet Ascended Today: 3797
Feet Descended Today: 3797
Current Elevation: 10642
For more on my experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, visit my Pacific Crest Trail 2017 Blog page:
So impressive! We’re cheering you on. The highest I ever got in the Sierra was about 12K feet. Glad to see you’ve got plenty of layers and (presumably) a warm sleeping bag. A couple times, years ago, Anna and the kids and I camped in Tuolumne Meadows (only 8500-feet) in early September and it would get down into the upper 20s some nights. I’m sure you’ve soaked up more lore about altitude sickness than I have, but on Sierra backpacking trips when I was younger we used to force ourselves to eat and drink (no matter how terrible food sounded) as soon as the first symptoms showed up, and that always helped us. I always wanted to do the John Muir stretch of the PCT, so I’m super jealous, but I look forward to your updates!