We had been trying to get a permit to hike to the top of Mt. Whitney for years. This year we finally won the lottery and got the chance to hike to the highest point in the lower 48 states. We picked up the permit the day before at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center then drove up to Whitney Portal where we would camp for the night. It was an amazing campground with huge boulders and even bigger rock walls. The area was always full, but a nearby stream of icy mountain water blocked out the sounds of other people. We packed our big backpacks, ready to wake up early and adventure upwards.
The morning came fast; the adrenaline had already kicked in making for anxious sleep. We packed everything we wouldn’t be carrying into the car then, after putting our extra food into a bear box, we started up Whitney Trail. There were lots of hikers, mainly very friendly people. The trail wove its way up a steep canyon and eventually leveled out to high lakes with constantly flowing water. There were many creek crossings where we had to rock-hop through deep, streaming water. We were especially glad for our trekking poles at those times! Soon we were among the snow piles, still melting from the hard winter. We saw chipmunks and very fat marmots, waiting to score a snack off an abandoned backpack. It was only six miles to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet so we made it around 1pm, the summit above us and cold lake beside us. We set up our tent and got water to filter. With our boots off we spent the afternoon lounging, hydrating, and reading. We felt strong and had great feelings about making it to the top.
The alarm went off at 5 and we were out at 5:30. Dawn was already creeping over the horizon, so we left our headlamps at Trail Camp and started up the infamous 99 Switchbacks. There was running water over some of the paths and when you took your feet from the water to the rocks your feet would become instant ice-skates. Good thing it wasn’t any colder. We wore hats and gloves; it was cold but the air was still and since we were well trained we powered up the switchbacks as I sang “99 Beers On The Wall…” in my head, to surprising accuracy. We thought the name “99 Switchbacks” was a joke. Nope, there are really 99 of them. Hikers going up were in all shapes, mostly doing pretty well, but a few seemed to be struggling with altitude sickness. We finished the ‘backs and entered another area called the Pinnacles, I think. This was the stage where you merge with the John Muir Trail hikers to summit for the finish of their weeks-long adventure. The trail zig-zagged behind the peaks with some amazing views of the inner Sierras and nice drop-offs to the opposite side toward camp. Carrie thought that it looked like an ancient castle, long worn down by weather. The final section was up the back of the peak, sometimes jumping rocks and following a new path near the end as the old was still snowpacked. Up, up, up until finally around 9:30am, the peak of the Stone House, more than 100 years old, inched over the horizon and then the world was below us and a cliff of nightmares and we had made it!!!!!!! 14, 496 feet, the highest peak in the lower 48 states! Everyone was overjoyed, we kissed and sat near the edge and soaked in the moment. We signed our names in the register with everyone else and didn’t linger, it was a long way down.
Back at Trail Camp we packed our tent and were out of there by 1pm. The way down was easy but we took it slow, avoiding injury. We felt accomplished, the world was ours!
It felt weird to be back in Arizona. Not our home for six years but the comfort remained as we checked out all our old favorite spots. We hiked to our favorite swimming hole, which was still as beautiful as ever, water a perfect way to cool off in the middle of a seven-mile, 90-degree hike. Nearing the end, we witnessed a teenage couple— the guy foolishly hiking into a deep part of the canyon to get water, cursing back up at his girlfriend for not following him down. They showed up at the swimming hole about an hour later. Apparently on the edge of death, the miserable looking boy pulls out a small battery-powered fan, his girlfriend using his precious water to wash sand off her butt. I never did see them get into the water.
On the way back we drove through Sedona and up Oak Creek Canyon. The views in this region are unbeatable! We had forgotten what an amazing place this is.
The next day we hiked a section of Bill Williams Mountain, starting at the ranger station east of town. The hike has some pretty nature and I enjoyed finding four types of wild mushrooms nestled beneath the pinion pines. The grasshoppers buzzed around the woods, their sounds always startling and interrupting the tranquility. We didn’t finish the hike, which round-trip totals seven miles, because we have done it a few times before and we had been hiking a good deal.
Our third day we got up at dawn and drove to the Grand Canyon. We hiked along the rim until there were less crowds with selfie sticks and climbed over the edge to a nice place to hang our feet over. In the distance we spotted two California Condors which we had never been lucky enough to see before. They circled through the sky, catching air streams, and eventually cruised right in front of us. The sound of their feathers rippling through the wind was mesmerizing, wings stiff like a hang-glider. Easily the coolest birds I’ve seen in the wild.
Day four we finally got some climbing in. We went bouldering at a place called Priest Draw off of Lake Mary Road in Flagstaff. The Draw is famous among the climbing community and we were excited to check it out again, having last been there in 2011. We sent some of the easier problems, leaving the classic cave problems for the pros. It was a great spot to spend the morning with our pup Toby who loved tramping around in the woods. We planned to go across the street to The Pit, a sport climbing area, but it started to rain as we entered the parking lot so we went to Flagstaff to a gear shop. We needed just a few more things for our coming Mount Whitney trek.
Our Prius has been carrying us everywhere and we are calling it the “Rock Crawler” now. Every day seems to bring about some new dirt road for us to conquer. We are decked out with gear and a new solar panel/battery bank. Wish us luck as we head to hike Mount Whitney!