Instead of deciding between sunrise or sunset on top of Mt Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States at 14,496 feet; we decided why not do both? Despite reports of freezing temperatures, high winds and lightning strikes, we spoke to a ranger at Crabtree Meadow who said the weather reports were good and that the hut at the summit would protect us from the elements. We were sold!
We started up early, UB was already packed and ready to roll by the time I woke, but I made record time dressing, packing and peeing so that we were on the trail by 6am. The cold morning air was tough on the lungs going uphill and I was already out of breath by the time we hit the bear box at the ranger station where we could leave all of our unnecessary items. I left my extra food, tent, toiletries and camp shoes to lighten the load and ensure we could carry enough water to the summit for dinner and breakfast.
After fuelling up on top ramen noodles and tortillas we started the 7.5 mile ascent. The views along the way beside Guitar Lake and as we started climbing the switchbacks were stunning. I honestly wanted to have my camera on the ready every time we turned a corner. We filled up our water bottles straight from the last icy cold stream which was so clear you could see the rainbow trout swimming below. UB was determined to catch one with his bare hands, and 10 minutes and a few scratches later he succeeded.
We passed a lot of hikers coming back from the peak who had arrived there for sunrise and were slowly thawing out on their way down. Everyone said the views were incredible but that it was freezing cold at the top. I had about 4 extra layers in my pack but UB only had his down and rain jacket so we were a little nervous until we bumped into Turtle and Willow who said the hut was very solid and that they wished they had have spent the night up there too!
The trail was graded well but when the steepness reduced, the rocky scrambling increased. With the high winds the walk across the ridges felt a little sketchy, but apart from the one section of snow we were lucky with the conditions in comparison to other years.
We were so thankful we decided to do the climb during the day, one because we could see the views and exactly where we were stepping, two because we weren’t having to breathe hard with freezing cold air, and also because we didn’t have the time rush of sunrise behind us. We arrived at the summit around 5pm which gave us plenty of time to get comfortable before sunset.
We were the only people at the summit when we arrived and immediately set up camp in the hut, put on all of the clothing we had and made coffee. As soon as we had our sleeping bags laid out and set for the night, four other hikers arrived with the same intentions.
There was no way anyone could sleep outside so we discussed sleeping arrangements and played human Tetris until we found sufficient floor or bench space for everyone. The wind had already picked up outside but we made a mad dash outside as the sun started to set to enjoy the gorgeous light slipping away behind the surrounding mountains.
Once the sun went down we bunkered down in our cosy little hut, feet touching heads, hips touching knees, and the heavy wooden door banging in the wind. I don’t think I slept more than an hour between the noise of the wind outside, snoring, shuffling and sneezing. I was actually overheating all night and stripped down to only one layer as the heat produced by six bodies was immense. Just after 4am the first of the sunrise hikers burst into the hut. Coincidently it was Pac Man. He was closely followed by over 5 other hikers who all squeezed into our bedroom as we shuffled into seating positions, half asleep with our backs against the wall. Two of the hikers were suffering badly from the cold and altitude to the point they needed to be wrapped in sleeping bags and one laid down on a sleeping pad. When we started seeing light in the sky we all rugged up, took a deep breath and opened the heavy wooden door to the freezing wind outside.