Words and photographs by "WeeBee" Aschenbrenner
It's not often that I set my alarm clock for 11:25 PM, but that is what I did on June 14th. It was 6 in the evening and I was snuggling into my sleeping bag near the ranger station at Crabtree Meadow at the base of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48 states. Myself and five fellow hikers had decided to leave camp at midnight and climb the 14, 505 foot peak to arrive in time to watch the sun rise. After several hours of sleep it wasn't the alarm but the tell-tale sound of zippers zipping and unzipping that alerted me that my companions were awake and our departure was nigh. The night was pitch black and the clouds of earlier in the evening had moved on to reveal a sky full of stars and our very own Milky Way. I hurriedly dressed, got my pack together, and crossed a dewy meadow to meet my cohorts and choke down a quick snack.
My excitement was palatable as 6 headlamps cut the darkness and we began our night hike by crossing a creek on a stack of piled logs. Our elevation was 10,371 feet and while we'd been at a high elevation for several days, we decided to set a reasonable pace so that we could stay together as a group in the dark night while we climbed higher. There is something indescribably exciting about setting out on an adventure in the middle of the night. With just the beams of light from our headlamps illuminating a small patch of trail in front of our feet, we set out on unfamiliar turf, not seeing a single tree, brook, lake, or rock wall surrounding us....just knowing that we were about to ascend 4,000 feet to see what we could see.
The group picked up a seventh member as another headlamp was seen bobbing down the trail, trying to catch up with us. We briskly marched down the trail amiably chattering back and forth about everything from PCT related topics to movies and, of course, food. Occasionally we'd hear water running or see a pitch black void to our right that indicated we were near water and someone would pull out a map and announce, "We must be at Timberline Lake." or "This is the outlet for Guitar Lake!" Soon, though, we began ascending in earnest and the chatter was reduced to just a few while the rest of us used the conversation to distract ourselves from the increasing lack of oxygen and incline of the trail. Spirits were high.
We traveled for hours this way, not seeing any elevation gain, or anything else for that matter, but feeling it in our lungs and legs. Periodically we would stop to catch our breaths and everybody would turn off our headlamps and we'd stare up in awe at a California sky unpolluted by city lights and lit only by billions of stars. Those were possibly the only times when all 7 of us were silent at once, in awe at the skyscape above us. It was too cold to stay still for long and we'd soon switch the lamps back on, shocking our eyes which had adjusted to the darkness, and continue climbing the massive mountain. Sometimes the trail was smooth dirt but the higher we got it turned to small, unstable rocks, and then we found ourselves climbing over small boulders. It was uncanny not being able to see anything around us, most notably any evidence of our progress up the mountain. Beams of light only lit the trail and demonstrated the black void that awaited us if we took a misstep too close to the edge of the trail. The darkness dropped away into unimaginable vastness that we didn't want to discover. The trail hugged the mountainside and was sometimes cut right into it. More than once we compared it to the route in the mountains that the travelers took in Lord of the Rings though we didn't have the option of the Mines of Moria as a backup to our destination.
Finally, after hours of hiking and climbing we were rewarded with some evidence of our efforts: near the top of the mountain there are jutting spires of rock that form "windows" between them. While we'd been on the west side of the mountain the moon had been in the east and we had finally climbed high enough to get our first peek in that direction and were rewarded with a view of the town lights from Lone Pine far below us and a perfect sliver of yellow moon just yearning for a woman and a pint of beer to be perched in its crook. It looked amazingly close as did the stars. Getting some perspective on the progress we'd made pushed us to pick up our pace despite the high elevation and we scrambled over rocks and raced the ending night to the top of the mountain. Very near the top we began to see red light in the east and the cohesive group scattered like spilled mercury on the floor and we individually scrambled as fast as we could to get to the summit before the sun broke the horizon. The boys naturally outpaced the girls and we heard hoots and hollers as they each reached the benchmark at the top of the mountain. We girls flew as fast as the thin air would allow us and shortly after the deep male cries pierced the silence our higher shouts celebrated our summit success.
All seven compadres at the top of Mt. Whitney and a red/orange glow in the east, we settled ourselves on huge slabs of boulders to watch the show. There was a slight wind at the top, but it was enough to remind us that we were at 14,505 feet and that it was downright cold out. We each delved into our backpacks and pulled out puffy, insulating layers as well as wind-blocking layers, hats, neck gaiters, and mittens. Then we stuffed ourselves into our sleeping bags and sat facing east, ready for nature's hike-in movie theater to put on its show. We sat looking at each other with big eyes, huge grins, and giggles as we prepared to reap the benefit of our all-night expedition.
Around 5:30 AM, someone excitedly shouted, "There it is!!" and we all saw it: a small bump of neon pink breaking the horizon which strangely looked as if it were below us. We whooped and hollered and welcomed a new day. Cameras went crazy like the paparazzi at the Academy Awards. Perma-grin made my teeth cold, but I didn't care. I sat on a rock outcropping with only my face peeking out of my downy sleeping bag and bulky layers and enjoyed Mother Nature's laser show (no Pink Floyd needed). As the rosy light turned gold we were able to see for the first time the endless miles of peaks below us as well as crystal clear, blue lakes scattered among the granite landscape. I felt giddy as my surroundings were illuminated and I could fully appreciate how far my companions and I had hiked in the middle of the night. It was like I'd been on a treasure hunt and was finally rewarded with the chest of gold medallions rather than just tearing into a present on Christmas morning and having the anticipation over in a matter of seconds. This reward was well earned.
As the brilliant sunrise colors faded and regular daylight took over, the clan dispersed over the breadth of the summit. Whitney has a rather broad, flat space at her peak and most folks chose to walk around and look at various views from other directions or to hunker somewhere out of the wind. Three of us just tightened the drawstring on our sleeping bags and laid down for some well-earned rest, not wanting to breach the warmth of our cocoons nor admit that the sunrise was over by moving elsewhere. Eventually, in ones, twos, and threes, my friends left the summit but I was reluctant to leave. I sat alone on a perch looking north, eating snacks and trying to absorb the morning and the views and the feeling of amazement as much as possible. I had the entire summit to myself for quite a while and when the day hikers who had come up from the Whitney Portal to the east arrived I knew my time at the top of the Lower 48 was over and began my descent.
The hike down made me feel like a million dollars. It was a brand new hike. Terrain I'd literally never seen. The scary, dark drop-offs that looked like they went into an abyss were really just steep mountainsides made of boulders. The surrounding mountains gave a neighborly feel to the previously isolated peak. Rather than just a beam of electric light in an endless darkness with no reference points, the sun showed me just how far I'd climbed in the night and the equally awesome and impressive peaks surrounding Whitney. Not only did the daylight provide perspective on Whitney and her surroundings, but the trail as well. Instead of blindly descending on an invisible route, I was able to see the trail ahead of me, bends and switchbacks, and where I began in the valley below. It was as if I hiked two totally separate trails: one in the night and one nine hours later.
Not only was the scenery and sense of perspective different, but the air got thicker and thicker on the way down and at one point I was literally running down the mountain. It felt incredible! Not carrying a full pack, going downhill in a giddy mood, and getting more oxygen to my lungs and muscles with each step had me smiling from ear to ear and periodically stopping in my tracks to just BE and take in my rocky surroundings. Who knows if I'll ever be back on Mt. Whitney, but I wanted to remember this moment, this day. I passed hikers on their way up, moving slow and trying to catch their breath and tried to be encouraging and not seem like I was gloating to be floating down the mountain carefree and happy.
The rest of the hike was just as exciting and rewarding: marmots showing
off, sparring and rolling down hills, putting on mating displays (he so was trying to get lucky and she was so
having none of
it...), crystal clear lakes and babbling brooks, and gnarly trees lined my path that I hadn't even known were right next to me in my dark trek up. My companions and I met back up at camp and laughed and re-lived our already eventful day.
Suffice it to say that the Sierras were amazing, a cathedral of nature, a sanctuary, and my home for a few weeks. While the excitement of just beginning my journey bolstered me through the desert portion of the trail, I felt like I'd just begun a totally different hike once I got to the granite of the Sierra Nevadas. The excitement of the Sierras is a totally different animal and one that feeds me energy and nourishes my spirit in a totally different way than the desert.
"WeeBee" Aschenbrenner lives within the Alaskan wilderness in a small cabin built by her very hands! With over 20 years of backpacking throughout New Zealand, the American West, and (obviously) Alaska she's a bipedal force to be reckoned with. In the off season she enjoys unsupported long distance ski expeditions.
To hear (and see) more stories from WeeBee's adventures check her out at weebeestinyhooves.blogspot.com.