The Mountaineer's Route — Page 11

Mount Whitney's Summit and Smithsonian Shelter

XI. Whitney's Summit

There is one last tricky section to contend with before I gain Whitney's broad summit plateau, and then, just like that, the climbing is over and there is nowhere higher to go.

I am the first hiker of the day to reach the summit via the Mountaineer's Route, but others traveling along the Mount Whitney Trail are already here. Some simply stare silently into the distance. Others talk excitedly, complain loudly about the altitude, their legs, their packs.

Owens Valley from Whitney's Summit Mount Whitney - Atop the Summit Mount Whitney - Looking Down the East Face Mts. Langley & McAddie, and Keeler Needle

Mount Whitney's summit marked both by a USGS sign and also a stone shelter built in 1909 for high altitude research by the Smithsonian Institute.

As hikers and climbers sign the summit register, I meander over to the eastern edge of the summit plateau to take a cautious peek at the frightful void below.

We are right now standing atop the highest point not only in the state of California, but also the entire lower 48. In all directions, everything else is lower—including the many high Sierra summits to the north and south.

And yes, I can feel it.

There is inarguably an extra thrill to be had standing here on the highest peak of them all.

To the south are the inspiring Needles, Mount Muir beyond, and, farther still, Mount Langley, from whose 14,027' summit I skied a year ago.

To the west are the Kaweahs, a striking, brightly-colored range of rock normally well-hidden within the Sierra's center.

Looking northward, I see first Mount Russell, and then the vast bulk of Mount Williamson, fourteeners both. Beyond them are the Palisades, distant on the horizon.

From the tip of my toes, the spine of Whitney's East Buttress rolls off to infinity, leading to Iceberg Lake, which shimmers green-blue, two thousand feet below. I can just barely make out the yellow dot of my tent off the lake's south shore.

It's easy to follow yesterday's route: through the moraines below Whitney's eastern cirque, past Upper Boy Scout Lake, the slabs, Lower Boy Scout Lake, the North Fork Canyon, then Whitney Portal. Beyond that lies Owens Valley and Lone Pine.

I'll revisit all each of these landmarks on my way home today. It will be a long day indeed. But first, I take a lunch break on a nice sunny rock away from the wind. My thoughts go back to my first Whitney climb, now years past, and I'm time traveling once again. The mountain seems the same, but I've certainly changed: older, wiser—hopefully.

I think again of Hulda Crooks. Her unusual means of celebrating birthdays is starting to make sense to me now. With each visit to Whitney's summit, I find the experience more, not less inspiring. I resolve not to let so many years pass again before I return. And with that last thought, I know it is now time to make my way home.

next: Heading Down

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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