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Long Trails

PCT Week Seven: On Top of The Lower 48

I climb Mount Whitney off the PCT.

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Top of the Lower 48

I sit pretty on top of the world, kind of. Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48.

Mount Whitney Summit Shelter

Close to the top of Mount Whitney sits a tiny little shelter — just enough to get out of the weather on bad days.

The Long Way Down

The summit is half the battle — this is a look at the long way down.

Mount Whitney stands 14,505 feet tall — the tallest, most wondrous mountain in the lower 48. It has called to me for years, the idea of being the tallest person in the contiguous United States being dangerously appealing.

In September of last year I found myself standing in awe of the granite spires in the little town of Lone Pine, at the bottom of Whitney. I made it to 11,000 feet before my fearless hiking partner and photographer, Avry “Little Ant” Martinson, and I started feeling the effects of altitude. Going from sea level Seattle straight into the heavens is not a smart idea (but you already knew that!).

I returned to view Whitney’s jagged beauty on this little jaunt up to Canada. Yogi, the author of the definitive guide to the PCT, wrote that we were in the best shape of our lives and the summit was not to be missed, as if I would pass up the opportunity a second time.

As I hiked, I searched for its peak stretching high into the sky — trying to pick it out from the fierce looking granite shards that attend it. All of us thru hikers guessed which mean looking rock was the prize.

The day began at the glorious hour of 3am. I fumbled around in the deep darkness, finally treading upward in the night.

It was stunning. The stars winked at me, encouraging me onward. A stream’s tinkling voice accompanied me for miles. The sun finally stretched awake, tinting the mountains with rosy pinks.
When I arrived at Guitar Lake, the last shelter before the serious climb begins, I found snow and ice, much of it new from the previous night’s storm. I looked up at the cruel crown of mountains and wondered what the day would hold.

Up I climbed, finding the snow much better than I had imagined. Up I continued, finding that the elevation suited me. I felt strangely invigorated by the slow withdrawal of air, by the beginning of pressure in my head.

I walked up into a sky that looked like an old photo — strangely blackened with some sort of beautiful magic that made me feel like an explorer from ages past. The snow deepened and became treacherous and I became excited by the harder path, pushed on by the thought of the long awaited summit. Some parts of the path held slippery snow, ready to send a hiker to their quick death hundreds of feet below. But I chose my way carefully, and stayed safe.

And then I found myself on the summit, the natural cathedral, found worthy of the height by Mother Nature herself.

I found myself writing in the register:

“What a day it has been,
What a mood I am in,
Why it’s almost like being in love!”

And then, thinking better, scratching out the “almost.”

I looked around me, finding the mountains surrounding me going on and on until they blended up into the deep blue sky. Fluffy clouds spun wildly above me, one becoming the next. I felt my smallness and the might of the world all around me.

A young man took out his harmonica as he reached the summit, playing:

“I once was lost,
But now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.”

I finally dragged myself away from the summit, knowing my journey was only halfway through. I stepped carefully through the slushy snow downward, especially careful of the parts with the long drop offs. I remembered this rock and that point, this place where the marmots were attacking backpacks left behind (pro tip: don’t!) and that lake far below.

Finally, after some tough work, I arrived back at Guitar Lake, reflecting the tall mountains in its clear face. I pressed myself flat on a huge warm rock, feeling the ecstasy of the day sinking deep into my bones.

Those 17 non-PCT miles were well worth it.

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