Day 4: A Moonlight Climb

Guitar Lake to Mount Whitney to Junction Meadow
(24.4  miles, +3,500/-7,000 feet).

Neither one of us could sleep much in anticipation of our alarms going off at 2am for our night hike up to Whitney Summit.  We actually got up a few minutes before the alarms to start packing and grab a bite before we set off.  We could already see about a dozen headlamps on the switchbacks in the distance from other hikers who were also starting their hikes early to arrive at the summit for sunrise.

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2am breakfast

My iPhone does not take great pictures at night, but I do want to show one of them to give a feel for what it was like to hike by the full moon.  It was so bright that I did not use my headlamp at any point on the way up!

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The full moon reflects on Hitchcock Lakes

It was cold, but as long as we were climbing we were able to counteract the cold with our own exertion.  The secret for me was to hike at half pace and keep it steady without stopping.  Ultrashuffle went a little faster than me, so I lost sight of him after a while.

By about 3:45am I made it up 2,000 feet to the turn off for Whitney Summit.  There were a few hikers milling around at the junction, and one of them said “Aha!  Another stealth hiker!” when they saw that I was hiking without my headlamp.  I thought that meant they had already seen UltraShuffle, who was also traveling without a light.  I looked around for him and waited for a few minutes, but couldn’t find him, so I assumed he had continued up the trail towards the summit in order to stay warm.  I carried on.

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Junction to Whitney Summit

By 5:30am I reached the summit, but it was still dark and very cold.  I popped my head into the Emergency Hut to see if UltraShuffle was there.

I couldn’t see anything, but I could sense the presence of several other hikers who were inside waiting for sunrise.  I said “Jay?”  No one answered.  And then everyone nervously laughed!  I said “No worries, I’m just looking for my hiking buddy.  He’s probably outside somewhere.”

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Sunrise view from the Whitney Hut

I went outside to look for him, but to no avail.  I decided to wait in the hut as well, and every couple of minutes I checked outside for him.  Each time it grew a little brighter and I started taking some pictures.

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Hikers wait for sunrise on Whitney Summit
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Old Benchmark at Whitney Summit
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Sign at Whitney Summit

Finally, UltraShuffle came shuffling up the trail.  I asked him what happened.  He told me that he had gotten confused at the junction and went to Trail Crest to wait for me.  After about 20 minutes he realized his mistake and returned to the junction, and when he saw I was not there decided that the best thing to do was to continue towards our planned destination.  Whew!  Was I glad to see him.

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UltraShuffle on Whitney Summit
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Me, the moon, and the Whitney Hut

In our attempt to be as ultralight as possible, we had both left our gloves at home.  This turned out to be a mistake, as UltraShuffle gradually started showing the first stages of frostbite around his cuticles.

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Pre-frostbite

We (and several other hikers) decided to go ahead and start back down before the sun was fully visible so we could stay warm.

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Hikers start the journey down from Whitney Summit
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Pinacle Ridge and Thor Peak
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Whitney Sunrise
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The setting full moon
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UltraShuffle, Discovery Pinnacle, and Mount Hitchcock

It was interesting to get a view in full daylight of the trail we had ascended this morning.  Although it is mostly class 1, there are definitely some parts that feel more like class 2.

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Only bit of snow we encountered
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Pinnacles along the trail on the way down
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Sunrise between the pinnacles
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Morning light on the pinnacles
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Morning light on the pinnacles

There were many beautiful alpine flowers along the trail clinging to the bare, seemingly lifeless soil.

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Alpine flower
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Alpine Flower

By 7:30am we were back at the trail junction, where we could now see dozens of packs and bear canisters abandoned by people who were trying to lighten their loads for the there-and-back trip to the summit.

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Packs at the junction to Whitney Summit

Steadily we made our way back down towards Guitar Lake.

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Switchback above Guitar Lake
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Guitar Lake, Mount Hale, and Mount Young

When we got back down around 9am, we tried napping, but it was tough in the intense high altitude sunlight.

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UltraShuffle borrows my umbrella for a snooze

UltraShuffle was really feeling the effects of the altitude and was hoping to make it back down to the Kern River for some relief.  So we packed up and headed back towards Crabtree Meadow.

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Heading back

Soon we joined with the Pacific Crest Trail and turned north, heading through Sandy Meadow and back over the saddle between there and Wallace Creek.

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Sandy Meadow
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Saddle between Sandy Meadow and Wallace Creek

We turned off the Pacific Crest Trail at Wallace Creek and headed back down towards Junction Meadow.

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Lower, lower

The sun shone brilliantly on one of the chaparral bushes that was in full bloom.

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Blooming bush
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Bush bloom close-up

The sun began to settle below the Kern Canyon walls, offering some relief from the heat for our last couple of miles.

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Sunset in Kern Canyon

At last, after descending 6,400 feet from Whitney Summit, we made it to Junction Meadow, where we shared our beautiful camp with a few other hikers and a deer.

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Camp at Junction Meadow
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Camp neighbor

The Kern was really beautiful here, flowing gently through the woods.  It’s babble would soothe us to sleep.

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Kern River by our campsite
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Kern River by our campsite
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