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Long Trails

Hiking to Catch a Mount Whitney Sunrise

Our PCT correspondent watches the sunrise from the roof of America.

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I’m not particularly a morning person, normally; even on trail, I’m generally not one for alpine starts, preferring at least pre-dawn light to tear down camp by. But when a member of my trail family had her heart set on seeing sunrise from the summit of Mount Whitney, I found myself waking up at 11:30pm to walk the 7.5 off-trail miles and about 4,000 feet of elevation gain to greet the dawn.

We had an easy 12-mile day yesterday, meandering off-trail about a mile to Crabtree Meadows where we’d camped, since Guitar Lake had been declared off-limits to thru-hikers. I was glad for the rest, as it made getting up so “early” that much easier to manage. I’m not the fastest hiker, so I got out before nearly everyone else that day in my attempt to beat the sun.

I’m not wild about night hiking, either—especially since I saw a mountain lion while night hiking alone around mile 500—but the moon was bright, and as time went on, there were plenty of headlamps bobbing in the darkness to keep me company.

Once we hit the switchbacks on the approach, things got a little more intense. Sure, there were more people passing me, keeping me company in that strange-yet-companionable way, but I was feeling the pressure of both the clock and my exhaustion. It was difficult trying to climb, rest, and eat when I was low on energy.

Once I passed the trail down to Whitney Portal on the east side of the mountain, with only 1.9 miles to go, the trail turned to talus under my feet, and the keyholes in the mountain that showed off the eastern skyline began to turn red and yellow. That, more than anything, gave me the final push I needed to get up the snowfields and last, nearly pathless way up to the summit.

I made it to the top of Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet above sea level, with time to spare, and settled into my sleeping bag in the company of about 30 other thru-hikers for the morning’s light show.

We stayed up there for most of the morning just taking in the view, taking silly pictures, and signing our names in the register. It’s not every day you climb the tallest peak in the lower 48, and we enjoyed it to the fullest.

Still, what goes up must come down, and coming down was the hardest part—not because of the trail, but because I’d been awake for so long at that point. I hit a wall of exhaustion around 2 p.m. and slogged the mile and a half back to Crabtree Meadows in an hour and a half. Still, when I do go to sleep, I’ll sleep like a champion—I sure feel like one.

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