Everything I said about the Pacific Crest Trail being hard before: scratch that, and double it.
But every single picture we take looks like a postcard. We are now in the high Sierra’s.
Getting into the high Sierra’s first meant getting out of Lone Pine, which finally happened six days after we dropped our bags at our feet in the motel. Storytime and I got back on the trail on Thursday morning, walking 18 miles until we passed the boundary of Sequoia National Park and reached a nice, big campsite complete with a creek, a fire pit and a bear box.
On Friday, we walked 6.5 miles to the junction of the PCT and the John Muir Trail, then anther mile up to Crabtree Meadows—10,690 ft. We stopped in the early afternoon, knowing that the next day would take us to the top of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48. We were among a small sea of tents, full of people with the same plan. We laid down around 6 p.m., the alarm set for 12:30 a.m.
I couldn’t sleep.
My dreams were a mixture of ascending Whitney successfully and failing. I woke up around 7:30, 8, 9:30, 10:30, 11:45, 12:10, 12:19. My eyes were wide open in the pitch dark when Storytime’s alarm went off.
We packed the bare essentials into our backpacks and left the tent and everything else behind. I choked down a pop tart and some caffeinated drink mix. We left around 1:30 in the mornins and walked in the bubble of our headlamps, passing grazing deer and trickling steams in the dark. The first few miles were gradual and I spent them waiting for the climb to begin.
With only three miles to the summit, it began and the trail gained nearly 1,000 feet of elevation with each remaining mile.
I’ve never been above 10,000 feet of elevation before the Pacific Crest Trail. I felt extremely nervous to push to the top of Whitney, at 14,505 feet. I moved slowly, though my heart pounded like I was sprinting. Our goal was to reach the summit by sunrise, but I moved too slow and it became clear we would miss it. By 13,700 feet—with only a mile and a half left to go—I started feeling unwell. Whether it was the altitude, not enough food or water, or my own fears of being sick, I struggled to keep myself calm and moving forward. By 6:30 a.m., we reached the summit at last. I looked around me quickly before running into the emergency hut and trying to warm up from the extreme cold and wind and snow starting to fall from the sky.
Within five minutes, the entire peak was in a whiteout. The highest point in the continental US offered no views—just bitter cold wind and blowing snow.
It was time to go back down, but not after posing for the coldest photo I ever have in my life. That photo is at the bottom. If you’d rather not see my bottom, don’t scroll down. It is tradition, though, for thru-hikers who summit Mount Whitney to get a little bit naked.
Getting down was certainly easier than going up, but the snow continued to fall harder and harder. We started passing people who decided to turn around—people in full mountaineering gear and crampons. We wore only our puffy coats and trail runners. Of course only an hour or so after we left the summit, the clouds broke and we knew we missed the view.
We planned to do another nine miles that day, to the base of Forester Pass, but even though we reached the camp at noon, we were exhausted. We spent the rest of the day sleeping and resting, with the promise that we’d get up early the morning for Forester, the highest point on the PCT at 13,200 feet.
That plan was thwarted by one of the loudest thunderstorms I’ve ever heard. Thunder vibrated in my chest and lightning pierced the night sky. We did our best to sleep through it. I woke up in the morning to the tent sagging. Storytime unzipped the door to reveal a few inches of fresh snow coating everything.
The snow melted as the day went on, but dark clouds looked around us. By 2pm, it was snowing again. We had only half a mile to the base of Forester’s Pass (then five miles up, then 10 miles down), but a wilderness ranger suggested we hunker down for the night and enjoy the clear views tomorrow morning’s sky would bring.
Frustrated, cold and behind schedule, we spent the rest of the afternoon and night waiting in the tent for the snow to stop. It was a cold night.
But Monday morning brought that vibrant blue sky the ranger promised. We packed up in the cold morning and headed towards Forester, but not without crossing a swift and brutally cold creek that came up to my thighs. I thought I might cry as the blood returned to my frozen feet. We put our shoes back on and kept going, covering snowfields and hopping little creeks of runoff.
We got to the approach of Forester’s at about 10am, careful to make it before we stared post-holing through the snow. The next mile took us up and over the pass through a series of snow covered switchbacks and one sketchy little ice chute. When I made it to the top, I howled. Sierra’s, every direction I turned. Strength, from my feet up to my face.
We practically skipped down Forester Pass and through Kings Canyon National Park, excited to get to Bishop later in the evening. A migraine foiled our plans and we only made it 13 miles total, but Storytime made a fire and took care of me and we camped at the base of a gigantic mountain so beautiful, it hardly seemed real. Another cold night. I shivered while I slept.
We made the hard climb up Kearsarge Pass the next morning (a 7.5-mile side trail off the PCT) to get to town and dive into a warm bed.
So now we are in Bishop, an unplanned, but very-worth-it stop. I’m excited to hop back into the postcard, though. Just give me one more dip in the jacuzzi to thaw out.