If there is one thing hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail do on a regular basis it is getting high.
In fact, most people get higher on the PCT than they ever have been or will be in the rest of their lives. It is something that brings people together and provides a common ground for relating to one another out in the wilderness.
On my 46th day on the trail I got so high that I could say, with complete confidence, that I was the highest I have ever been (with the exception of when I travel via airplane – you can get really high on those things).
Yes, 14,505 feet above sea level, atop Mount Whitney, is a very high place indeed.
16 MILES OF GETTING HIGH
Following a failed attempt to summit the mountain before sunrise, at noon the next day, accompanied by Mr. Achillies and Mr. Banjo, I found myself higher than I have even been before.
From the PCT you approach Whitney from the west (a Whitney summit adds 16 miles for PCT hikers) until you meet up with the Whitney Portal trail 1.9 miles from the summit and join forces with the army of day hikers up to the top.
I kept catching myself looking at other mountains in the area and thinking to myself, “Damn! Good thing I don't have to go all the way up that guy.” But then I would remember: I am climbing the highest mountain in the lower 48 – I am going higher than that – fuck.
You have only one thing to fear atop the highest mountain in the Contiguous United States – lightning (lightning has replaced all other things atop my “most feared” list on the PCT). And altitude sickness. So maybe two things. But also hypothermia and dehydration. Well at least there are no bears.
A healthy collection of survey markers and the metal-roofed Smithsonian Institution Shelter await you at the summit – why does the only shelter for miles have a metal roof in this lightning prone area? I do not know. But needless to say it it will not provide you with sanctuary in the event of a lightning storm (get your ass off that mountain is what you do).
WHY CAN'T WE BE FRIENDS?
The day hikers leaving the summit as I made my approach were all in shit spirits despite the beautiful weather and their having just summited maybe (likely) the highest mountain of their life.
I hardly even got a “hello”.
Even the ranger, who was collecting improperly disposed of wag bags (yes, it is a bag that you poop into), had higher spirits than these super high people. Perhaps they were just ill-acclimated to the altitude and physical strain (or maybe they were dickheads).
In any case, standing atop Whitney was well worth the PCT detour.