June 24: Summiting Mt. Whitney

Our toughest “zero day” of the trip so far, we hiked 16 miles round trip on the Whitney Spur Trail to summit and descend Mt. Whitney. Although we made no northward progress on the Pacific Crest Trail this day, climbing Mt. Whitney was well worth the effort.

Start: Crabtree Meadow (PCT mile 7XX)
Stop: Crabtree Ranger Station off the Whitney Spur Trail (PCT mile 7XX)
Miles hiked: 16 (on Whitney Spur Trail)

We woke at our campsite in Crabtree Meadow, very near where the Whitney Spur Trail intersects the Pacific Crest Trail at the latter’s mile 7XX. As usual, we took about two hours to break camp before we started walking at 8:30 am. Many of the hikers still hanging out in the meadow when we left had summited the previous day and were taking it slow that morning to recuperate. According to them, the climb was tough, but worth it.

With that in mind, we started the slow and scenic climb alongside Whitney Creek. The first 4 miles of the Whitney Spur Trail gain elevation at a moderate rate, affording hikers plenty of time and energy to soak in the surroundings: the rushing water, tall evergreens, and distant peaks. It was like walking through a postcard.

Once we got up to Guitar Lake, however, the scenery changed as we rose above the timberline and entered the exposed and dramatic terrain at the base of Mt. Whitney. We stopped and ate lunch at a creek flowing into the lake. Although we had no shade from the late morning sun, we had already gained enough elevation that we were comfortably cool during lunch.

By 11:30 am, we were walking again, headed for the first set of steep, grueling switchbacks that characterize the ascent to Mt. Whitney via the Spur Trail. Although we were only about 4.5 miles from the summit when we left Guitar Lake, it took roughly three hours for us to reach the peak. The climb was unrelenting–as was the sun–but the views became more and more impressive as we ascended. We looked down on the lakes we had passed earlier, which were impossibly clear blue below us.

Fewer than 2 miles before the final ascent, the Spur Trail intersected the Whitney Portal Trail, which people use to climb Whitney from the east. At that point, the trail started following a rocky ridgeline northward toward the summit. Although mostly less steep than the switchbacks further down the mountain, the ridgeline was slow-going because of its rockiness. Still, considering that many hikers tackle Whitney in the snow and ice, our climb was mercifully smooth by comparison.

Rick reached the summit roughly 15-20 minutes before Erica, having peeled ahead of her about a mile before the summit. At the summit, Erica sprawled out like a lizard on a rock, thankful to be done with the climb We spent about an hour at the summit, taking pictures, savoring the views, and eating snacks. There were a number of other hikers at the summit as well: a handful of PCT-ers, day hikers, and section hikers. Most people congregated around the Smithsonian Hut on the summit, a 100-year old stone building presumably intended to provide emergency shelter to hikers in the event of severe weather. Although Whitney gets its share of spontaneous storms, we were lucky enough to have pleasant temperatures and sunshine the whole day.

After signing our names on the summit log book, we headed back down the mountain at 3:30 pm, hoping to get back below treeline before dark. The descent was uneventful, although we were surprised to pass a number of people still on their way up the mountain as the afternoon wore on. Some had full packs whereas others had day packs; we assumed that the hikers without full gear were probably heading back down to base camps along the Whitney Portal route.

By 7:30 pm we reached the meadow near the Crabtree Ranger Station, where over a dozen other hikers were already camped out amongst the trees and along the banks of Whitney Creek. We found ourselves a site apart from the others and made camp in the last of the daylight. Although 16 miles was nowhere near our longest day on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Whitney Spur Trail left us beat; we were in bed not long after hiker midnight.

Leave a Reply