Upper Crabtree Meadow at mile 766 to Wallace Creek campsite mile 770
"Castle, wake up."
"Is it clear, Opus?" I ask, no drowsiness in my voice as the cold shocks me awake.
I hear Opus move away, calling the names of the others. I look at my
watch: 2:07 a.m. My alarm either didn't go off or I slept through it.
Doesn't matter which; I'm up now and I need to hurry.
I pack my bag with cold fingers and stow it in my pack. I start some
drops for my water, checking the time, and already ten minutes have
slipped past me. With reluctance I change from my warmed up sleeping
clothes into my hiking clothes. They are cold against my skin and I put
my jacket back on. I know they'll warm up quickly, but that hardly
matters at 2:30 in the morning.
After five minutes the drops for my water have only blushed
yellow-usually by now the drops have turned a neon yellow. I dump them
into my bottle anyway and give the bottle a good shake.
I know the others are waiting for me as I cram the last of my belongings
in my half empty pack. At 2:45, with Opus in the lead, we leave
camp. We walk mostly silently-no body has said good morning, but it is.
The moon is so bright only Opus has on his headlamp. The rest of us
navigate the silver shadows without extra light. I only think about
switching mine on a few times: crossing a creek on a pile of logs, a few
patches of pine shadows, and then I do turn it on when the trail
vanishes out from under me.
Opus and I look up on a smooth plane of granite while Portrait and
Heesoo look near a muddy stream. They find the trail under a couple
inches of water. I cross onto dry trail without getting my feet wet.
The forest opens around us as we come to one of the first alpine lakes.
The moon's reflection shimmies across the wind swept surface. On the
far side of Timberline Lake Mount Whitney looms and we all stop to
As we passed the lake the wind starts to pick up. We stop to add layers. I pull out my rain jacket and slip into it and zip it up. I quickly fish out a Cliff bar only to find upon my first bite that it is nearly frozen. While I carefully chew, Portrait asks if anyone has an extra layer. I hand him my insulated jacket--which he puts on inside out. The others swing their packs onto their backs and I stow my Cliff bar in my cargo pocket to warm up.
I take the lead from Opus, setting a slower pace to avoid sweat which will only make us colder as the wind rushes around us. My hands are cold in their mittens, but so far I'm feeling good as I climb. The trail is well graded and the beauty of the path almost reviles the view of the full moon over Guitar Lake which is framed by cliffs draped in snow. I can not imagine the time and energy that went into the stone work surrounding the trail. After being involved with the Appalachian Trail the past few years I've come to appreciate how much work goes into a simple footpath, but at this elevation and with the cold pressing against my bare face, I can only marvel at the stone walls fortifying the tread-way. I want to stop and take pictures of the stone walls, but I don't think my camera will do the trail builders' master piece justice. And I'm not sure my fingers could manage tiny buttons.
I stop near a boulder taller than I am that offers the four of us some shelter from the wind. I grab my Cliff bar and take a bite. "I don't think I'm generating any heat," I say around a mouthful of still hard Cliff bar. I grab my water hose for a drink to help wash down the solid lump of food--the hose is frozen.
"Try mine," Portrait says, turning to the side so I can grab one of his water bottles. With mittened hands I struggle with the orange cap, but can't budge it. "I think its frozen shut," but I don't mention how weak my hands feel as I hand the bottle back. Portrait tries, but it doesn't matter that he can't open it either: the water is solid inside. I shrug--guess I'm not thirsty anyway.
Heesoo checks his altimeter hanging from his pack strap. "Sixteen degrees," he says.
We all look at each other each thinking it is colder than we expected. I start hiking again--I won't get any warmer standing by a rock. But I don't warm up while hiking. I can't even warm a Cliff bar enough to eat it without risking my teeth my fingers don't stand a chance at staying warm.
There's a bright star hovering just above the ridge that I have been
keeping an eye on and it seemed to loose some of its twinkle while we were stopped. Dawn isn't
far away. "We're not going to make it in time," floats through my mind as insubstantial as the cloud formed by my every breath. I saw nothing to the others. There is nothing we can do about the lightening of the sky--and I certainly can't hike any faster. My breath is ragged and I can hear the heavy breathing of the others behind me.
"Anyone else want to lead?" I ask, having to pause halfway through the question to take two deep breaths.
The others decline. "I can hardly catch my breath as it is," Opus says and I plod upwards.
The wind blows with more of a bite on every other switchback. With the wind blowing more on my back I think things are going well and then a few steps, a pivot, and the cold is so fierce my cold lips burn with each hot exhale. "I'm not going to make it," an inner voice whispers while I face into the wind, but she quiets when the wind is at my back and I finally start to feel like I'm getting somewhere. There seems to be less ridge above me and below me I see other alpine lakes that I have no names for, but they are stunning in their frozen beauty.
I stop at another somewhat sheltered place. I eat the last few bites of my Cliff bar. I'm not sure what is fueling my ascent, but any other day on this hike I would have eaten multiple times in the hours that had passed since I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag.
Heesoo again checks his altimeter, not for the temperature this time. "We're three miles from the saddle." He has his hood on and thick gloves. He looks warm and hasn't complained once. "We're not going to make it in time" says that nasty little voice again while the others work out the remaining elevation gain and miles to go and how long we have. One look at the sky and my fading star is all I need to know, but I don't need to see the sun rise from the top--just after will still look nice.
We continue--no one else will take the lead so I go first after pushing myself away from the rock I was leaning against with my hands. My hands have enough strength in them to loosely hold onto my trekking poles. My feet don't feel like they are flexing as I step--it seems like my gait has turned into a shuffle. I am cold, from my nose that won't stop running, to my fingers that have gone ridged, even my legs as they propel me forward. "You're not going to make it."
I turn my back to the wind. I don't know where the trail crest the ridge, but I think I will have the wind at my back when I make it to that point. My step is a little less of a shuffle with my back to the wind. "It's light out; we've missed it," I say to Portrait over my shoulder.
"It's dawn," he corrects. I don't think I can manage to look at my watch under my mittens and the cuff of my rain jacket. It doesn't matter if it's dawn or just before we've missed it. "Doesn't matter anyway; you're not going to make it."
"I'm not going to make it?" I try to think of what mountain I've hiked in the past that I haven't made it to the top of. Has there been any? I think about the rain on Mount Katahdin and the snow in the Smokie mountains which left my boots frozen solid around my feet. And I think about climbs that turn back from their summits.
I stop again bringing the others to a stand still. "Stopping again? You're not going to make it." The wind has stripped away my strength. I look at the others, but I feel like I'm looking at them through a glaze.
I have a base layer shirt and leggings in my pack but they might as well be back in my tent. My fingers can't work the clasps on my pack and even if they could I would have to strip to put the close fitting clothing on.
Heesoo and Portrait go around me--Heesoo taking the lead. I start moving again slowly with Opus behind me. "How are you doing?" Opus asks.
"I don't know," I say. "See? Not going to make it. Just say it." But I don't want to say it. I don't want it to be true. I've thought about climbing Mount Whitney for since I had heard of it. I've thought about it for two years, probably longer. The highest point in the lower 48 just a seventeen mile round trip from the PCT. Seventeen miles isn't even a full day of hiking. With over 700 miles of trail stretching behind me to Mexico seventeen miles is just a blip on the map. Just seventeen miles.
"Their at the lightening strike warning sign," Opus says. I can see the other two about a tenth of a mile ahead. "I will hike there," a small goal.
I try to hike faster, and if I do, it doesn't matter. "Not going to make it," floats through my mind again in a choppy fragmented way--even negativity has gotten too cold. "Won't get any better any higher. Wind will be worse." The wind will be worse. It will be colder. It's not going to get any better any higher.
The lightning strike sign is in a pocket of trail protected from the wind. "I think I should go down, Opus," I say. "I'm not doing well."
He nods. "Do you want me to come with you?"
I don't need him to. I can go down. I can think about the valley floor where it will be warm. I can let gravity help me down the trail. I can go fast going down. "I'll be okay alone." I nod to show commitment as he studies me.
"Alright, I'm going to keep going. We say good-bye, but as he turns to leave I remember I need at least one photo of me on Whitney.
"Take my picture before you go?" I pull my camera out of my pocket with two stiff hands. To my surprise its already turned on. I hand it over and with more dexterity than I could muster Opus takes a couple of photos. The moon is behind me, they sky near behind the ridges is pink and blue above them. I pocket the camera and look out over the valley as Opus walks away.
Then I follow him up. "I thought we agreed on down?"
We did, but I want to see it. There's just 1.9 miles left to the top. "But what happen to it won't get any better any higher?" The view will get better.
I see Portrait--jogging--down the trail to me. I stop in front of him.
"Take your jacket back," he says while unzipping it.
"My jacket? How'd we forget our jacket?"
I look at my hands--their stiff grasp around my trekking poles. They haven't moved since I put my camera back in my pocket. "I can't."
"Don't you dare tell him to keep it," the voice floats through my mind. "You might have a chance at the top with it on."
I don't tell him to keep it. I want it desperately, but I don't have to fumble with my pack's buckles to know that I my hands won't do the work I need them to. "I can't," I say again.
"I'll help you," he says while shucking his pack easily. He releases my sternum strap and hip belt with ease and lowers my pack to the frozen ground. He unzips my insulated jacket and pulls his arms from the sleeves. He holds it out and I slid my hands down the sleeves one mitten covered hand at a time. I watch as he fits the zipper together and smoothly zips the jacket to my chin. "Helpless as a child and still you continue up?"
My leg starts to jitter madly as Portrait picks up my pack. I look at my leg--direct eye contact seems to help too cold limbs obey thought process, but there is no stopping the jittery dance of shivers coursing up my leg. "I can't stop it," I say. Portrait pulls his sleeping bag from his pack and drapes it around his shoulders like a shawl.
"Time to go?"
Time to go down. "I'm going down."
"You'll be okay?"
"Yeah, will you?" He doesn't look good. He looks about as cold as I feel, but his hands still work. He doesn't need anyone to buckle his pack for him.
So I go down.
I stop at the lightning strike sign again to crouch behind the rocks with my hands between my thighs for warm, but they find none. I stay for a moment least I change my mind again.
As I hike down I feel as if I'm going more than twice as fast as I went up. And yet I'm still cold through. The sun is fully up on the other side of the ridge, but it will be awhile yet before it shines on the trail I'm following. I stop again to huddle behind some rocks and try to warm my hands. They are too cold to cram into my pockets--my hipbelt is in the way.
Guitar Lake becomes discernible again and suddenly I see Greywolf moving up the trail towards me. "How was the sunrise?" I am stuck by how normal he looks through my cold glaze. "I could follow him to the top."
I shake my head. "I had to turn back at the lightning strike sign. I was freezing cold," is what I want to say, but not what I manage. I can see by his face that maybe I'm worse off than I thought.
"I'm sorry," he says and offers me some water. I take it when I see that it isn't frozen. My hands are still frozen though.
"I can't," I say, handing it back. He uncaps it for me and I take a small sip suddenly not thirsty any more.
More hikers are coming up behind him and as I look at them I want to go back up. To fall in line and make it to the top. "And still be helpless? You couldn't form a real sentence or open a bottle."
I continue down to the valley, pass the lakes and the hikers while thinking about warm drinks and sunshine and knowing that I made the right choice to hike down.
Things I learned climbing Mount Whitney for sunrise:
Don't hike up without a base layer on
Eat something before hiking and eat fatty food while hiking
Don't give up your insulated jacket
Protect your water from freezing