Balancing Caution and Bravery: The Sunrise Summit of a Snow-Coated Mt. Whitney
Upon entering the Sierra in 2017, I was greeted with snow. Snow that made every peak look more dramatic and all the valleys beautiful. Snow that made me learn to diligently shield myself from the sun and made me hate sun cups. Sun cups are little pockets in the snow caused by melt. They are incredibly hard to walk on because you either have to step down into them, expending extra energy with each step, or balance on the ridges between them and risk slipping and falling, potentially spraining your ankle. More often than not, the trail consisted of boot-pack through the snow and many times there was no trail at all. It was an exhausting and gorgeous beginning of the next section of the PCT.
Deciding to Attempt a Summit
I knew I wanted to summit Mt. Whitney if at all possible. One morning on top of a ridge, I got a text from a friend who was a couple days ahead of me on the trail. He said, “Duuudddeee, do it! There are only two switchbacks covered in snow!!” That was all that I needed. I knew I was going to be able to attempt to summit Whitney. If only two switchbacks were covered in snow, it also meant that maybe I could try to achieve my dream of doing a sunrise summit. I had read about this in a Backpacker Magazine article before leaving for the PCT and loved the idea and the description of a stream of headlamps heading up the mountain and then everyone sitting together in their sleeping bags to watch the sunrise from the top.
I floated the idea to the group of people I was hiking with at the time, which consisted of a bunch of guys and one other woman. The guys responded first, “No way!” “That’s crazy!” “I don’t want to get up that early!” “Sounds dumb” “Why would you want to do that?” I was feeling a bit discouraged. The other woman paused for a second and then said, “That seems like it could be cool. I was kind of thinking about that too.” I smiled and we agreed to wake up at 1 a.m. to start hiking.
Hiking in the Dark
We went to bed early that night, which was a little hard given the chatter of all the hikers making a base camp for their summit the next day. All too soon the familiar sound of my alarm took me from my dreams and I quickly shut it off. I sat for a moment and was happy to hear stirring in the tent next to me. We were really going to try this!
We met outside our tents with our summit packs ready to go and wearing jackets because it was so cold. A little way from camp we turned our headlamps on full force. Mine was brighter. So despite the fact that she hikes slightly faster than me, I went first.
It wasn’t long until we hit a river crossing. We both stopped and looked at the river. We had a brief meeting. The decision: if we could not get across we would go back and go to bed and if we could then we were going for it. We made it across without too much difficulty and continued our hike.
Looking around with my headlamp, it was kind of incredible. All I could see was the white of the snow and the intense darkness of the night. Occasionally, if I pointed my headlamp beam straight at a mountain, I could see its outline looming even darker than the night sky. Unlike what my friend had said, so far everything was covered in snow. Maybe it was true that only two of the switchbacks were covered in snow, but it was also true that the entire lead up to them was covered in snow.
“Stop,” the woman I was hiking with said forcefully. I was startled. “Turn off your headlamp.” We were on what we thought might be a frozen lake. It was a large open expanse covered in snow. We looked up and the sky was blanketed in stars. They were so bright against the dark sky. Silently, we stood there, mesmerized. It was time to keep going.
We reached another water crossing. This one had snow on either bank, which is a problem because the water melts the snow underneath, creating a snow overhang. Luckily the crossing was not very wide. We scouted around a minute and then just decided to jump. If we jumped far enough we would clear the ledge and the snow wouldn’t break. I jumped. She jumped. Her back foot landed on the overhang and broke through but she quickly regained her balance. She was OK; she had just one wet foot. I briefly worried about how we would get back or how the guys would cross when they came later that morning. I decided those worries were not important now and hopefully it would be easier in the light. A few minutes later we reached a similar crossing and this time it was me who ended up with a wet foot. We had to be careful that we did not get too cold, but other than that our wet feet were no issue. We kept going.
We reached the point where our path turned dramatically upward and started up the snowy slope. In my head, I yelled at my friend who had told me only two switchbacks were covered in snow. How could he have neglected to mention all this snow? We had no ice axes and no crampons. It was hard to stay on trail because the boot-pack and sun cups looked the same. We tried our best to find it and navigated with a GPS every time we thought we were far off course. We could now see rock patches amid the snow, so our new method was going from rock patch to rock patch. Unlike what I had read about doing a sunrise summit of Whitney in past years, there was no stream of headlamps climbing their way up. It was just us.
We lost the trail again and had gone .2 miles in the past 30 minutes when usually we hike 1.5 miles in 30 minutes. I looked at the GPS, but it had become erratic. It was jumping around, telling me that we were in several different places. I was starting to get worried. It’s OK, I thought to myself. Worst comes to worst, we will just sit on one of these rock patches until the sun comes up. We decided to give finding the trail one more try and we managed to locate the boot-pack.
We had reached the switchbacks and we knew we were getting close to the summit. There were longer sections of dry trail to hike on and we were going faster, but we were definitely feeling the altitude and were panting a bit as we went.
Then there was snow again. We clearly had reached the first switchback my friend had warned me about. I remembered him saying there was a rock scramble to get around the snow that was much easier. I found the route and was ready to go up. My partner did not feel comfortable doing a rock scramble in the pitch black. That made sense. I am a rock climber, though, and I felt pretty comfortable trying the scramble.
“What if I just go check it out and I’ll let you know how it is?” I started up knowing that we both are very competitive. I got to the top and just heard an “I’m commmmiinnnggg” groan from below. I smiled and the two of us continued till we hit the second rock scramble. After getting up the second one we could see the light of the sun starting to glow on the horizon. We were running out of time.
Almost to the top, we lost the trail again and found ourselves at the base of a steep snowfield. Clearly going up it would lead to the top. My partner had stopped to catch her breath, again struggling because of the altitude. She knew this and was taking it slow. “If it’s OK with you, I may just go,” I said to her and she nodded. I went straight up the snowfield, happy it was dark enough that I could not see the exposure beneath me. I could see the summit and my feet were back on rocks. I enjoyed the transition to the talus as it felt more secure than the snow. I could see the sun was just coming up above the horizon. I hiked fast.
When I reached the summit, the sun had just started to come up and all the mountains were glowing pink in the morning light. I was the first person to summit Mt. Whitney that day. I turned around and my friend was just getting to the summit. We did it!
We enjoyed the view and the sunrise, and took some photos before we started getting cold. We put on all our layers and slipped into our sleeping bags. It was still cold. Part of me knew there was still more to enjoy of the summit, but for right now I couldn’t. I don’t remember who said it first, but one of us said, “How are you?”
The other responded, “I might puke. How are you?”
“I might vomit.” We tried to eat, but couldn’t, so we lay down in our sleeping bags and, perhaps stupidly, fell asleep. A couple of hours later we woke up and managed to put down some food. The sun was up now and we were no longer struggling with the cold. I sat up
and could feel that I had gotten past the exhaustion, mild hypothermia, and altitude sickness. The summit was beautiful. There was so much to take in! I walked around seeing views that I didn’t notice when we first got there.
We hung out at the summit for a total of six hours watching it get progressively more crowded until finally the guys we were hiking with made it to the top. They greeted us with hugs and said that the whole time they hiked up they kept thinking about how crazy we were and how they were so glad they were not attempting to summit in the dark. It was not long after they arrived that we could see storm clouds forming in the distance. It was time to go down.
Racing the Storm
I was dreading going down, because I am scared of heights and there were some sections that were pretty exposed. I had been happy on the way up not to have been able to see below me. Nervous, I joined my friends in our rather quick decent. To my surprise, it was a lot less scary in the light. The trail was far easier to find, too. About midway down we could see sheets of rain falling in the valley near our base camp. We were all hurrying to get back below tree line, hoping to be off the exposed rocks before rain, perhaps lightning, hail, or snow came. We passed people still trying to go up and mentioned the sky to them as they hiked by us. It was an exhilarating descent.
Some of my friends had made the bad call of not putting up their rain protection before leaving base camp and a few actually began to run, hoping to reach their sleeping bags before the rain to throw up a rain fly.
Back at base camp it had started to drizzle. I saw two friends I had not seen in days. They told me they had started to go up Whitney but were forced to turn around because of the storm. I was frustrated on their behalf, but nature is definitely the one making the rules. I felt incredibly lucky to have been able to make it up that day. I went to fill my water bottle and on my way back it started to pour. We would not be hiking any more that day and I was OK with that. I was exhausted. I found my friends and we all squeezed under someone’s extra large hammock tarp and ate candy.
Want to listen to my story along with those of other awesome women taking risks? Check out She Explores Risk Takers Podcast!
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