America's Triple Crown

Pacific Coast Trail: Up Mt. Whitney
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The snowy upper reaches of the High Sierra<BR/> along the Pacific Crest Trail
The snowy upper reaches of the High Sierra along the Pacific Crest Trail

"Away we go to the topmost mountains," Muir wrote about his first summer in the Sierra. He called it the "Range of Light". The Sierra is America's longest unbroken mountain chain, its biggest wilderness outside of Alaska, and the heart of the Pacific Crest Trail in California.

"Many still small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, 'Come higher'," Muir continued. I have hiked several hundred miles of the 2,600-mile long PCT, and I know all about voices that call me higher. One of them belongs to 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney.

The PCT runs along the remote western side of Whitney. Technically, it does not go to the summit at all, but that's a detail ignored by most PCT hikers, who detour up the 8-mile side trail on the theory that you can scarcely walk past the highest point in the contiguous United States without climbing to the top of it.

On this tripmy own first summer in the Sierra, and my first long hike on the PCTDan and I are not PCT thru-hikers; he has already completed the entire trail, and I am just starting to piece it together in sections of a few hundred miles at a time. On this particular occasion, it is Mt. Whitney that calls to both of us,"Come higher."

Most people climb Whitney from the east, from a trailhead near the town of Lone Pine, which lies in the Owens Valley. The opposite approach, via the PCT is longer but more gentle. This longer approach has its advantages. For one thing, by the time Dan and I reach Crabtree Meadowsour base camp for the hike up the mountainit's been four days since we crossed a road, and that was at Kennedy Meadows, a Forest Service campground that is itself in the middle of nowhere. For another, the climb is easier from the west. We've gained our elevation slowly, so we're better acclimated to the altitude. That said, the trail is still long enough, a series of seemingly endless switchbacks, eight uphill miles and nearly 5,000 vertical feet from our campsite. And then back down again.

The numbers are impressive, and the PCT guidebook is filled with themmileages from this to that, feet of elevation gain, and so forthbut as a hiker, I'm more intrigued with what these numbers mean. For example, using"What Lives Where" as a yardstick, by walking 1000 feet uphill, I am moving the equivalent of 170 miles north. As I climb, the ecosystem changes. The temperature drops 3-5 degrees for every thousand feetmore statistics, but these numbers mean something. The change in temperature prompts an increase in wind, which blows cold against my skin. The firs shrink until they are replaced by scrub pines. As I continue on and up, the winds blow even harder and the trees grow smaller. The pines and spruce twist into the fantastical shapes of the sub-alpine krummholtz (German for "crooked trees"); then even the krummholtz disappear leaving only a few willows and grasses, which grow shorter and scruffier until finally, they too surrender to the elevation. By the time I reach the summit, I may as well be standing at the Arctic Circle, among rocks and lichens and not much else. Out a ways and downalmost three miles down is a different, but equally inhospitable fierceness: Death Valley, the lowest and hottest place in the United States.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 12 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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