Each day the clouds seem to gather earlier. Yesterday, seven raindrops tapped my face as I skirted Sandy Meadow: change is coming. And after clearing the high curtain of the Kings-Kern Divide via Forester Pass, I’d seen a first glimpse of… could it be? That far, hunchbacked peak in the clouds, framed by nearer heights?
A few miles later, the PCT splits off and continues south to Mexico. The John Muir Trail is on its own for the last few miles. Goodbye, imaginary thru-hiking J. See you for real in five days!
It seems I accidentally mailed my soap home, so from here on it’ll be either dust baths or plain-water scrubbing. Then I lose my water treatment, leaving the little bottle of bleach by a distractingly pretty brook. Evidently I’ll now also be carefully sourcing water from springs, or tiny streams that no dirty human shoes cross, and carrying extra in case of a dry spell. Absent-mindedness increases as the last mountain eclipses all else. From camp at Crabtree Meadows, I can see Orion scaling Mount Whitney as the night sky spins.
When day breaks, I’ll follow.
Pre-dawn motions are surreal: fold the tent, press air out of the pillow, stuff the sleeping bag, for the twentieth time. Summit Day. What is there to say, really? A goal, a peak, dreamed of for a year, only eight miles away. What’s the use of narration? You know how this goes: up, up, up. So let the photo essay begin.
Aside: There are a ton of people up here. Daily, 150 people get permits to hike in the Mount Whitney Zone. Some of them look like the walking dead, slowed by elevation sickness and exhaustion. This is why: last night they camped at the Whitney Portal, and got up at two in the morning to start hiking. Wearing headlamps in the dark, they climbed 6,200 feet of elevation up 97 switchbacks to the summit, and now they’re going all the way back down in one day, a 22-mile round trip. Sounds harder than a thru-hike to me!
So we negotiate not only the terrain, but each other. We slowly pick past one another at wide spots. Those coming down nod knowingly at the energy of those going up. “Boy, you’re grinning from ear to ear,” says a descending day hiker. I didn’t realize I was smiling, but it’s no surprise.
I savor a Snickers bar, basking against the sun-warmed bricks of the shelter. People throng past in vibrant insulating layers, but my eyes are fixed on a deep blue space beyond, a space of grateful, jubilant disbelief. It’s all downhill from here. And that’s not bad at all.
So here we are, together on the peak. Thank you for reading this story. Knowing folks wanted to hear it has been an excellent push for writing, a reason to live the journey again, even more reflectively: to invite others onto the trail. It’s been a treat. Your comments have been so thoughtful and kind.
Mount Whitney is not the end. There will be more writing, for instance, a post about the 97-switchback hike down to Whitney Portal. (The John Muir Trail ends at the summit, but it’s still two vertical miles above civilization, and there’s no zip line.) Ever-popular hike statistics are on the way, as well as the tale of the kick-ass women I meet on the journey home, a quest to find just one beautiful thing in Reno, Nevada, a sitcom wrap-up of lessons learned… and then I’ll keep writing, albeit less often, about other jaunts, and non-hiking adventures too: there’s a Day of the Dead piece in the works, I happen to know.