17.3 miles on Whitney Trail and PCT
At midnight two men are yelling.
“How do I get to you?”
“Come this way.”
“There’s a cliff!”
This exchange repeats almost verbatim several times. This is why I didn’t want to attempt the climb in the dark. Eventually I have to get up to pee. When I do, I see two headlamps bobbing together up the ridge. Maybe now the shouting will end and I can sleep again.
Rooster’s crew hikes out at 5am. Cucumber and I hike away at 5:35. I leave my tent and my bear canister in camp, and my pack is blissfully light. “If I go food-less and tent-less, I could have a ultralight pack,” I tell Cucumber.
We more or less follow the trail. Sometimes we detour around snowfields and reconnect with the trail higher up. I can’t stop taking photographs. This works to our advantage, providing much needed opportunities to catch our breath. I feel great, except I can’t breathe. I take a photo of Cucumber crossing a snow field looking like a mountaineer. A few switchbacks later, he takes one of me. Tonight, we’ll have to exchange.
We pass 12,000 feet elevation and the sun is rising and the view keeps getting better and my camera keeps collecting unbearably beautiful images.Up we go, step by step, always out of breath. The top of the ridge seems to be getting closer. We must be nearing the junction with the trail from Whitney Portal. Then, I see snow on the path ahead. The trail is covered in steep snow. This looks like the notorious chute on Forester Pass (at least, it reminds me of photos I’ve seen of the chute) – not good. I decide this situation calls for crampons. And my ice axe. I secure the crampons, grab my axe, and head out onto the snow.
Whoa. No way. Below, the chute drops straight down. One slip here and I’ll be gone. The snow is so hard I can’t plunge my ice axe to make an anchor. I have nothing for security but the spikes on my feet. What am I doing? This is too dangerous. I need to get off of this ice. Now. Right now. Go. Get off the ice! But I can’t. I can’t move. If you move, says my brain, you’ll slip and die. Don’t move. Don’t even think about moving.
I’m stuck. I can’t turn around. I can’t go forward. Somehow I contort myself into an extremely precarious position. Cucumber wants to help, but I don’t see how he can. I need to move my feet. I can’t move my feet. I’m really stuck.
If only I could get my axe into the snow. Then I’d have an anchor, some security. If I can move just a little, I won’t be directly over the chute, and then if I slip those rocks will stop me from sliding a thousand feet down. How in the hell am I going to get out of this? This is what it’s going to be like on Forester Pass; Forester has a chute like this, only worse. If I get through that chute, I’m going to have to get down the back side of the pass, the snowy side. I’m going to be standing at the top of a 13,000 foot pass looking down an icy slope, and I won’t be able to move. I can’t go up Forester. And if I can’t go up Forester…I’m going to have to leave. I have to leave the Sierra. This is it. Right now. This is the end.
Cucumber walks out to me on his microspikes and calmly suggests where I should place my feet. When I can’t do it, he tells me to lean against the ice on the uphill side. I take one step. I take another step. I have an incredible hiking partner. He’s so patient and calm, and I’m going to have to leave him. I can’t ask him to do this every time we run into a challenge. This is yesterday’s log crossing fiasco all over again. I keep getting stuck, and we’re only at the beginning of the Sierra. If I can’t cross this ice, I can’t handle what’s ahead.
I finally get both feet off the ice and back onto the trail. Cucumber has me sit down and put on my jacket. Yeah, it’s freezing up here. I’m done, and I know it. I tell Cucumber that I don’t think I should go on. I can’t do this. I can’t do Forester. I think I’m going to have to skip ahead to northern California. He says I don’t have to decide right now, but deep inside I know the decision has already been made. I’m not prepared for what’s ahead. I’m going to have to rejoin the PCT up north. I can hike back to Cottonwood Pass, get down to Lone Pine, and get out of here. Maybe my family will pick me up and take me home for a few days to reorganize.
Cucumber asks if I’m ok to go down. I am. I wasn’t the least bit nervous until this icy chute. We exchange contact info so I can let him know if I leave. We hug goodbye and I thank him as well as I can. It’s such an abrupt and awkward goodbye after such a successful (if short) partnership. We’re on a narrow trail on the edge of a thousand foot drop off, we’re both freezing, I’m emotionally drained, there’s another hiker putting on his spikes to attempt the chute. He and Cucumber head out onto the ice. I can’t believe they’re comfortable traversing this with microspikes and trekking poles. Why am I the only one who’s so afraid?
When Cucumber reaches the far side, I shout and wave goodbye. Alone, I begin my descent. Trails of thoughts swirl through my brain. What if the snow was softer? What if I could have planted my ice axe? What if the snow was too soft? Conditions out here will never be ideal. Continuing through the High Sierra will mean putting myself in uncomfortable and dangerous positions again and again, every day. I’ve had a taste of what’s coming with yesterday’s relatively easy stream crossings and today’s attempt at summiting Whitney. Maybe I can do it, but I don’t want to. This isn’t easy to admit. I want to continue north. I want to see the High Sierra so badly my chest aches. But I don’t want to fear for my life every day for the next few weeks. I don’t want to put myself through what’s ahead.
The magic of having walked here from Mexico will be broken. That’s not insignificant, given how much joy this gave me. Just yesterday, it brought me to tears. That chapter of my PCT hike will end. I’ll begin a new chapter farther north, on familiar ground, and soon I’ll be flying up the trail and seeing new sights. I’ll return and finish this section in the fall. I’ll finish my PCT hike in the High Sierra.
However…I pass hikers heading up the mountain, and I can’t help feeling like a failure. I retrace my steps back to camp, where I repack my backpack with my tent and my giant bear canister. So many hikers are coming up the trail in pursuit of Whitney that I can’t even duck behind a rock to pee. Seeing them makes me sad. Probably every one of these people will cross that chute and achieve the summit. Every one of them. But not me. Have I made the right choice? Yes. This isn’t about summiting Whitney today. If that was my goal, I could wait a few hours for the snow to soften and probably walk right up. This is about the conditions that I’ll face day after day for the next few hundred miles. I won’t be able to wait for perfect conditions every time I face a dangerous situation; I can’t carry enough food for that. For better or worse, my perception and/or tolerance of dangerous situations is different than the other hikers. I won’t be the first to skip ahead, but I may be the last. At this late date, everyone seems to be going through.
I text my family through the GPS unit that I’m borrowing from my uncle. “I’m going to bail on the Sierra and skip north. I’m ok. I’m 20 miles from Cottonwood Pass and can be there tomorrow.” Mom responds. She and Dad will come get me at Horseshoe Meadows. Now I just have to hike out.
Festus shows up as I’m finishing packing. Dad and I met him on the trail two days before Kennedy Meadows. I tell him I’m skipping ahead and why. He’s incredibly supportive, fist-bumping me and saying, “Good for you.” I wish him a safe journey. We part. I pass many more hikers and I have to explain again and again why I didn’t summit. To the PCTers, I explain that I’m skipping ahead.
I recross Whitney Creek, rinsing my dirty pants for the second day in a row. I climb south out of Crabtree Meadows. This is so weird. I was just here, so excited to be coming from the other direction. I had tears in my eyes when I saw this view. I retake some of the pictures I took yesterday, this time without the smokey haze.
I reach the top of the climb. Now I have to descend to Rock Creek. I’m going to have to go back across that log with my pack on, all by myself. And guess what? I do it. I’m on my hands and knees, but I do it without fear. Next, I face a steady climb of over 1,300 feet at the end of a mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting day. I’d like to reach the campsite with the awesome view where I stayed with Cucumber and Smooches the night before last.
I climb and climb. I’m carrying four liters of water uphill, more than enough for a dry camp. I’m loaded down, but I’m hiking at my usual pace…uphill…at 11,000 feet. Wow. What happened to me? Sleeping above treeline has made me a hiking machine. When I hit northern California in a few days, I’m going to fly up the trail on these 700-mile legs and high elevation lungs. I’m not quite at peace with my decision to skip ahead, but I believe it’s my best option given the circumstances. I pass many, many hikers moving north. I recognize some of them, and each time I have to explain why I’m hiking the wrong way. At last I reach the campsite. The view is as good as I remembered. I pitch my tent in the same place, with the fly on this time. I eat snack foods, nothing that counts as a real dinner, but I’m not hungry for anything except chocolate. More hikers walk by. I don’t want to see them. I get into my tent and prepare for bed. As before, I can hear frogs and Rock Creek in the distance. So many emotions are running through me that I don’t feel much of anything. Tomorrow, everything will change.