Alone on the Summit of Mt. Whitney (14,508 ft.)

Alone on the Summit of Mt. Whitney (14,508 ft.)

Had the top all to myself due to taking the sunset option during the wildfire breakout at Whitney Portal.

Keegan Leary
Keegan Leary

June 21, 2021 was one of those magical evenings in the Sierras. On day 34 of my PCT adventure, I had the opportunity to step off of the main trail for a half day side trip to make a push for the summit of Mount Whitney. Originally, I wasn't planning on it, thinking I could save it for a later date and focus on actual PCT miles. But after speaking with many other hikers who stated it was "my favorite part of the trail (that actually isn't the trail) so far," and "more beautiful from the PCT than from Whitney Portal," I decided that it was an opportunity I shouldn't pass up.

My route from the west to the summit is depicted below.

I'm thankful for those hikers who changed my mind. Two events conspired to make this a once in a lifetime summit of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.

  1. Whitney Portal was closed due to wildfire. The vast majority of people who hike Whitney do so via this entry point on the eastern side of the summit. Per day, Mt. Whitney typically sees 100 day hikers and 60 backpackers, so it's not typically the place to go if you're in search of solitude.
  2. Right now, the hot thing for PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and JMT (John Muir Trail) hikers is a sunrise summit. Most of the comments on Guthook guides (the tool all of us thru-hikers use) say, "Do the hike at sunrise!" I've decided to be contrarian and do exactly opposite of what people recommend on Guthook, so sunset it was. This also worked out best with my itinerary since I had fifteen miles to cover from Chicken Spring Lake before I got to Crabtree Meadow anyways.

I made camp at Crabtree Meadow around 1:00 PM. I enjoyed a hearty meal, caffeine, ibuprofen, and topped it all off with sugary Skittles before stepping out with a very light pack at 2:00 PM. I felt like a mountain goat stepping up the rocky path with a 5 lb backpack instead of the usualy 25 lbs. However, I stopped often to record video footage of the ascent, which slowed me down some.

I still made good time to the summit, arriving there around 7:00 PM. Sitting on the precipice looking east, I could see the wildfire raging thousands of feet below me. As darkness crept in, the embers of the fire began to become distinctly visible. Chaos and burning just 10 or so miles away while I sat in serenity alone on the summit - nature's ferocity and majesty on dual display. The fire was a small puff of smoke at first, but by the time I left at 8:00 PM, the billowing cloud was crawling up over the 14,505 ft. summit. Cold was incoming along with the darkness, and the wind was really picking up. It was time to boogie.

Nobody was out but me. No day hikers. PCT and JMT hikers were napping in preparation for their sunrise ascents. I made the journey without passing another soul.  As the golden glow of the sun dipped below the western horizon, I remained unaccompanied for the three hundred and sixty degree views of various Sierra ranges against a backdrop of blue sky which faded into enchanting orange, purple, then black hues.

As I made my way back down, I wanted to make sure I got to the junction with the Mt. Whitney Trail before all natural light was lost. Then I was confident that I could handle the rest of the trail by headlamp. I had quickness in my step, but couldn't help from turning around to snap a few pictures of the final strokes of light painting the summit.  The summit Smithsonian Hut seemed to illuminate just perfectly for this one.

The fire continued to grow as I descended and I grabbed this shot in a rock window by Keeler Needle with my phone.

I rolled through Crabtree Meadow around 11:30 PM as lots of hikers were gearing up to make their sunrise push.  At some point later that day, the park service closed the summit to hikers.  No surprise there based on how the fire was developing.  I tucked myself into the sleeping bag around midnight and allowed myself a lazy morning to reflect on the side adventure and gear up for another day on the PCT.

Oh and check out the YouTube video of the hike too!

PCTAdventure

Keegan Leary

I'm the dude the website is about.