Yeah, reaching the summit of the highest peak in the lower 48 is supposed to be great. And I was happy – really, I was. Partly because I’d managed to get that far without tossing my Annie’s All Natural Bunny Graham cookies, and because it meant I could turn around.
I felt great until 13,000’, but the Mt. Whitney summit put us much higher – 14,505’ or 14,497’, depending on who you believe. They keep upping the official altitude. I think the mountain grew at least a few feet that day alone.
Either way, it’s an elevation that wouldn’t have bothered me much with a small daypack, but one that, after carrying a heavy pack to camp and spending a night in thin air, made me suffer.
Of course, being up high meant both amazing views and a little adventure.
On the way up, we’d had to cross a few remaining snow fields, slamming in our ice axes as protection in case we slipped. In one stretch, the snow was still piled feet higher than the cables that hikers usually can grab to keep from sliding down a slab of rock. Water was running off the melting snowbank above, dripping onto my shoulders as I picked my way across, slowly and nervously.
After that and a few gazillion switchbacks, we arrived at Trail Crest and scenery overload.
The final approach to the summit, Trail Crest runs for two and one-half miles along a relatively level ridge, with blocky rocks and columns along the way, and a clear view west into Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, with mountains all the way to the horizon.
Occasional “windows” in the rock let us see down the opposite side of the mountain as well, sheer drops of maybe a thousand feet. Lakes were below on both sides; one was still covered in snow, but the water along the shore had soaked through to draw an aqua “o” in the white.
After an hour or so by the watch on my wrist and a week or two by the clock in my head, we reached the summit! We signed the register, took a few pictures, and circled the 100-year-old stone hut built by Smithsonian astronomers.
Chris was a Whitney veteran, excited to be there once again.
I was a Whitney newbie, happy to stand on top, California at my feet and restless bunnies still in my tummy, having finally climbed a mountain I’d coveted for years. It was an excellent climb, and I’d live it all over again.
But at that moment, what truly was best of all was to turn around and start the long, slow, oxygen-giving walk back down.