According to Pine Nut, there’s an accomplished mountaineer who often asserts during his presentations that a hike is only half done when the hiker reaches the summit. I learned that lesson at the end of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on Mount Katahdin, and it was reinforced a couple days ago, after Pine Nut and I successfully summited Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
On the day that we were to climb Whitney, I woke up at 1:19am and couldn’t get back to sleep. No amount of meditation could stand up to the excitement and anxiety that were keeping me awake. As planned, I woke Pine Nut up at 3:00; at 4:00, we hit the trail.
The vast majority of White Mountain hikes begin with a walk along a brookside approach trail; therefore, the first mile of our hike, alongside the stream that coursed between Upper and Lower Crabtree Meadows, felt familiar and special to me. That’s where the familiarity ended.
From Upper Crabtree Meadows, the trail to Whitney turns and takes hikers up above treeline and past a series of pristine high-elevation lakes. As the sun rose and lit the landscape, I was astonished by the beauty surrounding me. Timberline Lake was probably my favorite spot along the trail, with the squishy mounds of grass that bordered it and its gentle outlet that meandered through the meadow.
Leaving Timberline Lake and approaching Guitar Lake, the world around Pine Nut and me changed. Tiny patches of alpine vegetation were the only signs of life that remained; even they disappeared after some more climbing. After a week in the hospitable mountains and meadows of the Southern Sierras and “Section G,” we were back in an area where we were clearly just visitors.
My stomach, which had been uncooperative all morning, kicked its complaining into high gear as we cleared treeline. After using my “Wag Bag,” the Sierras’ solution to high-elevation cat-hole-ing too many times, I took a couple Immodium and ate a ginger chew from Pine Nut. I didn’t feel much better, but at least I didn’t need to find secluded spots on the switchbacks that comprised the climb proper.
When the climb began in earnest, it was apparent that a couple inches of snow had fallen on the mountain during the previous night’s rainstorm. Fortunately, earlier-rising hikers had packed down the trail a bit, but I found it startling to be suddenly in a white world, where snow covered the trail and snow and ice patches comprised the trailside landscape.
As we climbed higher, I watched as the mountains nearby, which had appeared gigantic only an hour before, grew smaller and smaller. Sunlight highlighted their peaks and began working its way into the valley. As I continued my climb on the dark side of the mountain, I put on an extra layer and hiked on.
Around 13,000 feet, I began to feel dizzy. One thousand feet before that, I’d become short of breath. Knowing that I was simply feeling the elevation, I was actually amused. I’d felt strong and capable, and it was fascinating to me that climbing a few thousand feet could have such a huge impact on my body. Noticing my struggle, Pine Nut explained that it was perfectly reasonable to slow down a bit: I didn’t need to Rainbow-Dash to the summit.
We went a little slower and took a few more breaks. My nausea made me less hungry than I’ve been in two months, but I nibbled at crackers and a Clif Bar.
When we reached the Trail Crest, where the trail we were on meets the trail from Whitney Portal, we cheered and kept walking. The trail was snowier at that elevation, and my shortness of breath was more pronounced.
When I climbed up into the sunlight, I felt an instant sense of peace — and one of the greatest hiker’s highs I’ve experienced. I may have found myself in a place with little oxygen and with nothing but rocks and snow surrounding me, but there was sunshine here. I felt a little more welcome in the stark environment. I also put on sunscreen to protect myself.
As the sun warmed the snow underfoot, it became slushy. On flat, wider sections of trail, this wasn’t a problem at all; on steeply sloped areas, where the trail dropped off significantly to the valley below, this was unsettling. Pine Nut, who’s much more familiar with snow travel, offered to take the lead, and I relaxed ever so slightly when I got to follow her footprints.
Rounding a contour, we looked ahead and saw the final ascent to the broad peak. Along with other PCT hikers, JMT hikers, and dayhikers, we continued to the summit. The snow sparkled in the sun, and we emerged from the hazy valley to find ourselves under a deep blue sky.
When the summit shelter, adorned with prayer flags, came into view, I started to tear up; finding that crying and breathing were incompatible, I composed myself and hiked on. A few more snowy footsteps, a few more deep breaths. And, then, we’d done it! At 10:40, Pine Nut, Canada the Kidney, and I were on top of the Lower 48!
We smiled and snacked and took photos and had our photos taken. We congratulated our friends and received their congratulations. I used Pine Nut’s Delorme to send my family a message from the top of the contiguous United States. I wanted to linger at the summit, basking in the warmth of the sun, but my dizziness was becoming a headache, and I was worried about the snow’s melting in the sketchy sections of trail we’d encountered on the climb.
The descent was long and difficult for me. The snow wasn’t as treacherous as I’d worried it might be, but it didn’t make for easy walking, either. My stomach and my head were conspiring against me, and I fought to keep the little food I’d been able to eat inside me. I tried to stay singularly focused on the task at hand and press on, but it was so very difficult.
When we got to the little lakes in the valley, I stretched out on a rock and worked on stilling my head and stomach. I was hungry and tired, and all I wanted to do was make camp. Pine Nut must have felt that way as well, but she stayed with me.
The final 3.5 miles to camp were painful and slow but also beautiful. I fought to stay awake and upright, and we slowly made our way to camp. Pine Nut read aloud from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” which was a welcome distraction.
Around 6:00, the woods opened up, and we found ourselves back in Lower Crabtree Meadows. In spite of my headache, nausea, and utter exhaustion, I was elated. Climbing Mount Whitney was certainly not easy, but don’t they say that nothing worth doing is?