PCT Day 49

Today was the big mountain day – we would ascend Mount Whitney, 4421m (14.496 ft), which is the highest peak in contiguous United States and additionally would also become our new highest climbed peak. Our alarm went off at 3 o’clock at night and we got up straight away to start preparing for the big day. As we were busy, still in our sleeping bags, we heard a group of hikers passing by, already heading for their summit. They recognized our tent and we recognized their voices: it was Amanita, Space Jam, Young buck and Yoga Bae (all males by the way, don’t judge a man by his trail name). They stayed 1,2mi behind us on the trail and they had an earlier start strategy.

Our plan was to head out at 4:00 so once we were done with our breakfast and packing the day-bag we hit our set off time. Probably our previous jungle training helped out a lot here as that’s what we were doing there on a daily basis – managing deadlines.

The first thing we had to do was to cross the Whitney creek; luckily for us there was a fallen tree that allowed us to cross the creek without getting our feet wet already in the first minute. We used our head torches to illuminate the path and besides the half moon half behind some mountain it was still pitch black outside. We started slowly as Stiina already from the beginning told me that she doesn’t feel 100%.

After two hours of walking and getting lost for a couple times because of the snow that has covered everything we started to really approach the base of the mountain. The snow was still very crisp and we could walk over it without falling in the snow. Looking behind us we saw that the sun has already lit up the peaks in the other end of the valley.

The ascent got steeper and steeper, but more in a way that the slopes we were walking on got steeper and steeper. Stiina now said that she really doesn’t feel like she can make it to the top due to feeling nauseous and having a stomach ache, we were at around 3800 meters. We decided that she needs to go back to tent before the upcoming sun would make all the snow soft. It also made sense as the Whitney ascent wasn’t a part of the PCT but just a side activity. Plus if she would push herself all the way up it’d only be half way as you still have to come down.

When Stiina left I continued upwards for another switchback and it was already getting more serious as I was higher on the mountain and slipping off was not an option anymore as it could be lethal. I decided to put on my new pair of crampons just to feel more relaxed while crossing the snowy slopes. Additionally, I exchanged the hiking poles for the ice axe as it would allow me to self-arrest in case I do slip. The downside though was that not all of the trail was covered in snow so I had to walk over the rocks with my crampons (which is not the healthiest way to use crampons).

Anyways, once I got to the junction (4094m) where the trail from the other side of the mountain joins the summit trail I took my crampons off again and did the remaining 327m of ascent just with my sneakers and hiking poles.

Even though there was still a lot of snow walking there were also plenty of rock jumping options around which I really like to use. As it was almost the ridge the wind had already picked up to a pretty strong and freezing breeze. I like to call it the sweat-free ascent as you can move uphill pretty fast and not get sweaty due to the wind cooling you down rapidly. The only problem is that in such a weather your nose runs like there is a whole lake in your head.

As I was approaching the summit I met Young buck and a few minutes later Space Jam – they were already heading down. Once I got to the summit I also met Amenita and Yoga Bae that were also about to leave. There was a stone hut on the summit that didn’t really offer much shelter inside it as the doors had been left open and the small room was full of snow. However, the eastern wall of the hut offered a good protection from the wind that was blasting from the west.

I spent around half an hour on top of Whitney taking pictures, videos, selfies and of course simply enjoying the views. In a beautiful place like that the cold wind seemed to become a secondary matter. Once I was done with enjoying the summit I headed down.

I knew that we still have to get back on the trail in the afternoon and do some more miles to get closer to the Forester pass, which is the highest point on trail (4000m). So I tried to move as quickly as possible but on the same time stay safe. After about 40 minutes I met Calculus who headed up and had started about an hour after us. Soon after I also caught up with Amenita and Yoga Bae.

By this time the snow had already melted slightly, making the soles of the shoes stick to it really well. So on the whole way back I didn’t use neither the crampons nor the ice axe. After about 2 – 3 hours of descent and a lot of postholing I finally also caught up with Space Jam and Young buck – just a mile before returning to the starting point, which was our tent.

After seven and a half hours, 1300m ascent and a 24km day I finally got something to eat. I somehow didn’t get hungry during my trip up and down the mountain. I put all my wet gear to dry in the sun and had an hour long nap before getting back on the trail and continuing the day.

Stiina said that she felt only slightly better but we packed everything up after the nap and headed back onto the PCT. After about 2 hours of walking we came upon this nice camping spot which was in the direct sunlight on the edge of a meadow. We decided to have a dinner before continuing for a couple more hours.

Once we were done with our dinner, in order to continue the hike the first thing we had to do was to cross a creek. I did it in my Crocs while Stiina walked through with her boots; the water was freezing nevertheless. It is so cold that when you exit the water your nerve ends send you this massive pain wave from your feet, it almost makes you scream.

As we kept walking the sun was already setting, once again painting all the surroundings in amazing colors. We reached a snow plateau which had a lot of water under it so as the snow had been in the sun for the whole day it was soft enough to make our every step fall through it, therefore making our progress extremely slow, physically demanding and wet.

Once we got across the snow field we started heading down into the next valley, from which we could hear the sound of a raging river. As we kept descending deeper into the valley it got dark already and we had to put on our headlamps once again that day, only a good 16 hours later.

The campsite we were aiming for was unfortunately on the other side of the river and we couldn’t really see anything anymore so crossing it at that point would be really risky, near suicidal. Due to the fact that all the snow that has been melting in the sun for the whole day was now still feeding the river, it was still very rapid.

There were no camping places on our side of the river and everything was either covered in snow or consisted of big rocks. We headed upstream to try and find some more or less flat spot to put up our tent. We knew from the map that the river has three large streams feeding it from around 300m up so if we would cross it there the next morning it should be relatively safe.

Our wet shoes from all the wet snow crossing were pretty much soaked by that point and started to slowly freeze and some things that were just hang-drying from our pack were already frozen. We had to find the spot quickly to set up the tent and get in our warm sleeping bags. We got lucky and there was one more or less decent spot to put a tent up, which we quickly did. It was already late, around 21:00 in the evening, but we had had our dinner already so all we had to do was to sleep and recover for the next day, which promised to be just as challenging.

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