Kennedy Meadows (my mile 1465, trail mile 702) to Mount Whitney (my mile 1530, trail mile 767)
I got a dose of Southern California’s searing August heat the second I stepped onto the air bridge at Burbank. The sun beat down on me as I crossed the street to the rental car garage, but I was thankful for it. Those warming rays had spent the past two months slowly thawing the huge volume of snow that had been dumped on the Sierra the past winter. Now, finally, the trail in the High Sierra was passable again.
On my way out of Los Angeles I stopped at a Von’s supermarket and bought supplies for the first stretch out of Kennedy Meadows. The trail in the Sierra is as remote as it gets on the PCT, making resupply a much greater challenge than elsewhere. Most PCTers resupply by hiking one of several long exit trails over mountain passes to reach towns in the Owens Valley, over 8,000 feet below. The Kearsage Pass trail, one of the most popular exit points, is nine miles long each way. Add a hitchhike in and out of town and your grocery trip is likely to take at least a full day.
I was determined to reach Canada by the end of September, but my two hospitalisations had cost me valuable time. In a bid to make it up I purchased enough food to get me all the way from Kennedy Meadows to Vermilion Valley Resort, 176 miles away. I planned to do the stretch in 10 days, including a day off-trail to climb Mount Whitney, and bought enough food for 11 days. It would be my longest stretch without resupply, and by far my heaviest carry.
With a car boot full of groceries I drove three hours to the desert town of Ridgecrest, where I’d arranged to stay with local trail angel Sandy before she gave me a ride up to the mountains in the morning. I spent the evening trying to cram my huge pile of food into my bear can, repackaging items and arranging them like Tetris blocks.
In the morning, Sandy and two other trail angels drove me up to Kennedy Meadows. We stopped at Grumpy Bears for a pancake breakfast – my last fresh meal for 10 days. I hauled my pack onto my back at the trailhead and felt it sag under its own weight. Buckles audibly creaked under the load, and the straps bit into my chest and shoulders like pincers. Seriously overburdened, I lumbered my way up the trail.
The going was slow and painful, made worse by the rising mercury. Kennedy Meadows is the official start of the Sierra section but I was still basically in the desert, following an exposed, sandy trail as it climbed to 9,000 feet. I stopped for lunch on a bank of the Kern River, and massaged my aching shoulders as I tried to force food into my face to lighten the load.
By late afternoon the desert had been replaced by grassy meadows and rolling hills, a prelude to the high alpine range I knew was just ahead of me. The heat, the climb and the crippling weight of my pack had slowed my progress, and I’d barely made it 18 of my planned 20 miles when I staggered into a campsite in pitch darkness. I tried to make myself eat more, but the exertion had killed my appetite. I felt dejected as I crawled into my sleeping bag. Canada seemed to be slipping farther and farther away.
A good night’s sleep gave me a renewed energy the next morning, and I made the rest of the climb to 10,600 feet elevation in good time. I had lunch in a green meadow, and watched a pair of deer chase each other up and down a rocky slope as I ate. I saw only two other hikers all day, and camped alone in a forested area by the trail. Being alone made me more concerned about bears than I had been, so I cooked my dinner far away from my campsite so as not to attract them.
I reached Cottonwood Pass the next morning, where I got a sliver of phone reception at a spot overlooking the Owens Valley. The loneliness of this section of trail had left me feeling more isolated than ever, so I appreciated the opportunity to check back in with the real world. I’d hoped by this point to have teamed up with other PCTers flipping back down to hike the Sierra, but apparently I was the only one out here.
Chicken Spring Lake, just after the pass, is the spot where many hikers say they feel like they’ve arrived in the Sierra. I stopped there for lunch, and marvelled at towering rocky peaks reflected in the lake’s glassy water. Patches of snow still clung to the slopes, adding to the spectacle. A group of trail riders came by on their horses and quizzed me about the PCT.
My plan was to reach Crabtree Meadows, near the base of Mount Whitney, by the end of the day, but the terrain proved tougher than expected. I reached lower Crabtree – about a mile short of my target – at 9PM, and decided to call it a day. I wanted to summit the mountain for sunrise, which requires a 1AM start, but I knew as I flopped onto my sleeping pad that that wasn’t happening.
I woke instead at 4:30, and was on the trail by 5:30. I stopped by the Crabtree ranger station just as the sun was rising and stashed most of my gear in a bear box. I set off carrying only my lunch, my med kit, a water bottle and rain gear. It was a huge relief to my aching shoulders, which were still suffering from the bite of my overburdened pack straps.
The sky was blue as I made my way up through the valley that leads to the base of Whitney, but the surrounding mountain range still blocked any direct sunlight. I was passing Timberline Lake when the first rays hit the peaks of the range. The light reflected off the lake’s perfectly-still waters, which were partially shrouded in mist. I couldn’t recall ever seeing anything so beautiful, on the trail or elsewhere. It felt like this was the reward for everything I’d been through in over 1500 miles of hiking. The diagnosis, the two hospitalisations, the endless pain and sweat. This is what it was all for. Tears welled in my eyes as I climbed.
The sun appeared over the range as I reached the start of the grueling section of the ascent. The long, gradual climb was replaced with a series of steep switchbacks winding their way up the mountain. Slowly I worked my way up from 12,000 feet to 12,500, then 13,000, then 13,500. I could feel the air getting thinner, and I had to stop for breaks more regularly as I climbed higher. The last climb from 13,500 feet to the summit at 14,505 is made along the length of a cresting ridge. I passed a gap in the trailside cliff face about half a mile from the summit, and was confronted with a dizzying view of the valley miles below me.
I negotiated a steep snowy patch just short of the summit and then, all of a sudden, I was there. I passed the stone Smithsonian Shelter and reached the peak – the highest point in the mainland United States. The Sierra Nevada range was spread out before me in one direction, the Owens Valley in the other. I was looking down at the summits of some of the highest mountains in North America. I saw Crabtree Meadows, thousands of feet below. For the first time in a long time I allowed myself to feel proud.
It was a beautiful day, so I lingered on the summit for over an hour. Clouds began to form on the horizon as I began my descent. By the time I stepped off the last switchback, dark storm clouds were rumbling overhead. I was grateful I hadn’t started any later. Freezing rain began to pelt me as I reached Guitar Lake. 20 minutes later it was replaced by marble-sized pellets of hail. I spent the last mile back to Crabtree dashing from tree to tree.
I’d planned to repack my backpack and make it another eight miles or so down the trail that afternoon, but my feet were aching and I just didn’t feel like wandering out into the storm. I retrieved my stuff from the bear box and set up camp next to a group of JMT hikers. I watched some Netflix on my phone, grateful for my first early finish in a while.