September 8, 2002 26º-52º @UTY
A cold morning greeted us. The only time on the trip, in fact, that my feet were cold. So cold that it took about twenty minutes of hiking to thaw them out. It didn’t take much motivation to get us going, since we knew we would soon be on the shoulders of Whitney. Soon we ascended a little and marched across the Bighorn Plateau, some fairly barren hills, and looking southeast I wondered if I was seeing the first glimpses of Mt. Whitney. A bit farther, looking to the west, I saw some rather intriguing looking twisted trees. I went off-trail to spend some time photographing them. They looked particularly stark with the morning sun on them. Stupid me, it wasn’t until later I realized they may have been Bristlecone Pines, some of the oldest living things on earth.
We hiked on and got to the vicinity of the Crabtree Ranger Station. While breaking/resting/lunching there, (it was about 2:00) I did some cipherin’ and cogitatin’ with the map, and was intrigued with the idea of continuing on that day all the way to the ridge just below the summit of Whitney. It would mean a dry camp, i.e., we’d have to pack our water all the way up, but I felt we were strong enough at that time to make it. After all, we could always change our mind at one of the upper lakes, which we had planned on stopping at anyway. Todd thought about it, and agreed. It would make a world of difference on the last day; spending most of the time descending from Whitney, as opposed to spending half a day climbing, and the rest of the day descending.
So that’s what we did. We began the ascent from Crabtree at 2:40. We passed a large group (possibly military?) re-watering at Timberline Lake, then another group at Guitar Lake, where we pumped water and made the decision to continue on. The ascent up the backside of Trail Crest was long, but a steady grade and good trail made it fairly straightforward. (Photo nearing Trail Crest, looking back on Hitchcock Lakes, Guitar Lake, and Crabtree Meadow farther down.) At 5:00 we got to Trail Crest; the crossing of the knife-edge of the Sierra Nevada. Basically, everything on the other side was straight down out of the Sierra, and a left turn along the knife-edge took you to the summit of Whitney in about two miles.
The guide book indicated a few campsites near the Trail Crest trail junction (13,500′): I could not find any sites. After about a half hour of looking, I looked back down the trail we’d just come up and saw a couple of flat spots not visible from the trail. I hollered at Todd, and we went back down and found a couple of well protected, well-worked campsites, with rock walls and flattened sleeping areas. There was nobody else in sight, so we each took one of these luxury “flats.” In this picture from above, you can see both sites hanging on the edge of the backside of Whitney—that’s me on the extreme right side, and that’s the obviously appropriately named Guitar Lake below.
As I laid back in my sleeping bag, and tucked a water bottle into my bag (it was obviously going to be way below freezing that night) I was struck once again by the scenery. Well after sunset, the mountains were still aglow; behind me, close enough to reach out and touch, were the highest mountains in the continental U.S. Immediately to my left were more mountains and ice fields a thousand feet below (!) me. Miles away and below me was the valley of the Kern Canyon, and beyond that, and stretching into the distance to the north was the Great Western Divide. Once again I felt the loss of not having the camera with me that the scene demanded; instead, I focused on committing the scene to memory. In my notes for the day, I mentioned that Camp 20 was the most spectacular place I’d *ever* camped. I’ll admit, being so close to the finish after twenty days on the trail, I had a few butterflies in my gut and didn’t sleep so well.