After spending a full, indulgent day in Kennedy Meadows, we ventured north. The shift in the terrain was dramatic. Suddenly, there were huge mountains, things were GREEN, and there was water everywhere. We spent the entire first day doing nothing but climbing, but by the end of the day, it was like we were in a different world. We were above 10,000 feet for the first time, and could see rows upon rows of mountains stretching below us and ahead of us.
Over the next 60ish miles, we hiked through the beginnings of the High Sierra. This section was full of ancient-looking trees, idyllic little creeks, and meadows so perfect they looked manicured. I felt sure we would see a bear, and kept looking for one… but alas, no bears. The trail got harder and more hilly during this section, and the altitude took some getting used to.
We arrived in Crabtree Meadows, where you can take a 17-mile side trip off the PCT to climb Mt. Whitney, late on a Saturday night after hiking about 25 miles that day. The day had been challenging, full of constant hills, and my legs were tired. We planned to climb Whitney the next day.
99% of PCT hikers climb Whitney. It’s right on the trail, our permits allow us to climb it without going through the complicated lottery process that normal day-hikers have to complete, and, at 14,505 feet, it’s a chance to climb the highest mountain in the lower United States. Deep down, though, I didn’t really want to do it. I was tired from the previous 3 days of hiking, and it was 17 EXTRA miles. Not to mention, over 4,000 vertical feet of climbing.
I was extremely grumpy as we started down the Mt. Whitney trail Sunday morning. I’ve found that, at times, hiking all day causes me to regress to a 5-year-old version of myself, and this was definitely one of those days. I was far behind Phil, annoyed at his ability to bound up the trail without ever seeming to get tired or need to stop, and many times debated throwing in the towel altogether. I could stop at a nice lake along the way, talk to the marmots, and wait for Phil to finish the climb. But, I kept on going, hiking so slowly. We started to climb endless switchbacks up the side of a mountain, surrounded by jagged granite spires. Each person who passed us coming down said how amazing it was on top, how worth the climb, how much we would love it.
After four hours of climbing, we finally got to the top, a wide expanse of huge granite rock slabs surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks every direction you looked. It was truly an amazing view. We could see far north into mountain ranges we’d soon be crossing, and to the east, the desert and Owens Valley. As soon as I got to the top, the pain of the climb vanished. I was just so happy to be there, and so happy that we had done it. It was similar to the feeling you sometimes get after finishing a marathon: the hours before could have been torture, hell, full of those thoughts of “NEVER AGAIN will I do this.” As soon as you finish, though, the pain melts away, you are euphoric, your brain somehow convinces you that was the best experience ever, and the evil creature in the back, nether regions of your mind starts to plot your next opportunity for torture.
We awoke the next morning tired and stiff, but we had another adventure awaiting us – Forester Pass! At 13,200 feet, this pass is the highest point on the PCT and also marks the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. To me, the climb didn’t feel nearly as hard as Mt. Whitney had, but I talked to others who said the opposite. At the top, we got an amazing view into Kings Canyon and the most dramatic, jagged peaks I had ever seen. The descent was one of the most beautiful parts of the PCT so far.