Trail Tales #4 – Mt. Whitney Surprise Bachelorette Party
It isn’t very often that you can write an entire essay about a single day of your life, but that is what made the climb up to Mt. Whitney so special. I would love to say that my sunrise summit of Mt. Whitney was a solely magical experience but honestly, it was a tough one. As tough as it was, I did somehow have the time of my life — days on trail will surprise you like that. Some days you wake up to big challenges but when the sun sets in the evening, you have made one of the most memorable moments of your life.
On September 22nd, my tramily (Puffy, Scraps, Dilly Dally, and myself) made the push for a sunrise summit on Mt. Whitney. Although over a month has passed, I remember that climb like it was yesterday.
The day before summitting Mt. Whitney my tramily pushed to get over Forester Pass. As usual, our group was scattered; Puffy and I were at the front of the line followed in no specific order by Scraps, Dilly Dally, and special visitor, Bachelor Party. Puffy and I summitted Forester first and with no signs of the group, we continued hiking and stopped for a long lunch. After some time, we gave up on waiting and made our way to Crabtree Meadows to setup our Whitney base camp.
Puffy and I arrived late at Crabtree Meadows and vowed to wake up at 2am, despite not knowing the whereabouts of the others. When they weren’t to camp around 9pm, we were worried that they wouldn’t show up. However, we figured that we would see them in the morning because we had planned for a sunrise summit as a group and unbeknownst to Puffy, the rest of us had plans to throw her a surprise bachelorette party at the peak.
As we were heading to bed, Scraps came around the corner into our campsite. Her spirits were down, and the idea of a sunrise summit sounded like a fleeting dream but knowing about the surprise we had in store, she promised that she would join us for our 2am wakeup. She shared news that Bachelor Party was feeling under the weather and Dilly Dally had stayed back to make sure he was alright. It was unknown if they would be joining us in the morning, so we decided to stick to our grand plan.
Time for the climb
Each hour of this day felt like an entire week, so I’m going to take you through my experience hour by hour.
Our alarms went off as alarms do — loudly and right on time at 2am. We had originally wanted to be on the road by 2:10, but this proved to be a challenge and we started hiking closer to 2:30. To make things easier, we had left some gear and our frost-covered tents setup to return to for a nap later in the afternoon. Together, we began to move towards the mountain.
The first few miles were peaceful. It was a gradual climb and the world was quiet. The ground was blanketed with frost and places where water seeped over the trail were icy. It was strange to pass streams and lakes with no idea of what kinds of views stretched beyond. The weather was cold but calm and I was able to strip off some layers. If it was going to be like this all of the way to the top, it was going to be a spiritual experience.
After a few miles of hiking, I started to see headlamps in the distance at various points of the journey. Some were near and some were up on switchbacks high above the valley. As I began to pass other headlamps, I hoped that I would eventually run into Dilly Dally and Bachelor Party but was disappointed each time. Passing by Guitar Lake, I finally got what I wanted, it was Dilly!
Dilly and I hiked together towards the first set of switchbacks, with Puffy catching up very soon after. We all chatted and Dilly informed us that Bachelor Party had gotten sick, likely from the altitude on Forester, and he would not be joining us for the summit. This was a bummer but luckily, he would be waiting for us at base camp later in the afternoon after he had some time to recover. After our quick check-in, I decided to pick up the pace a bit and promised the others that I would see them at the top.
Coming around the corner of a switchback, I was suddenly hit with a wall of wind. The peace I had found in the valley was now replaced by the chaos of wind on the mountain. I quickly put on every layer I was carrying in my pack: rain pants, pullover fleece, puffy jacket, rain jacket, gloves, a headband for my ears, and a buff. It. Was. Freezing. Even with the brutal weather, I stopped every so often to catch my breath and admire the incredible set of stars above me, Milky Way and all.
Climbing the final switchbacks to the Whitney Portal junction, I began to feel a bit nauseous. Was this altitude sickness? Was I just exhausted? Did I need more food? Things were getting harder, but I needed to keep pushing. This journey was turning into Type II fun.
In the middle of the struggle, I was rudely interrupted by a large rat running across the trail and up the steep rocks to the side with ease. I’ve never seen a rodent so large and thought I was hallucinating, expecting the rat to start talking to me at any moment. In the end, I decided that as large and in charge as it was, the rat was not just a dream but was a real-life reminder of the crazy thing I was doing. The nausea subsided and for the entire rest of the climb, I thought about what it would be like to move as gracefully as the “Mt. Whitney Rat.”
About a mile from the summit, I caught a glimpse of deep red on the eastern horizon and continued pushing through strong wind to make it to the top for sunrise. Twilight began to reveal the craggy landscape in front of me and the only obstacle ahead was a snowfield just below the summit.
I silently traversed on hands and knees through frozen sun cups to prove to the mountain that I deserved to be there. Midway through this snowy climb I turned to face the trail behind me, where I was surprised to see one of the most beautiful sights of my life. With stars overhead and a soft glow on the rocks, I observed ~15 headlamps bobbing up the trail, each evenly spaced. While we were all making this journey separately, there was this overwhelming feeling of togetherness. I started to pull out my phone but stopped; no picture would capture the beauty of this moment. Knowing this, I soaked in the view before continuing my journey upward.
As I pushed past the snow field and moved towards the shelter, I choked back tears. Reaching the summit was symbolic of this entire hike, a journey that I would soon be ending. Rounding out the top and passing the shelter, I joined a handful of other hikers wedged amongst the rocks at the summit in an attempt to hide from the howling wind. I found my own rock to hide under and quickly climbed into my sleeping bag, bringing my frozen water bottle and a pack of Hawaiian Rolls in with me.
As the sun rose, a handful of us watched the light spread across the horizon. We were on the top of the world (or at least the lower 48), and nothing was going to get in our way. Something about this moment made it feel like I had known these people for years when in reality, I didn’t even know their names.
After quite some time, I was worried that I hadn’t seen anyone from my group, but I was far too cold to move. Eventually, Puffy came around the corner, surprised to find me under a rock. She had searched everywhere and even asked around for my whereabouts, with no success. Dilly and Puffy had made it to the summit in time to catch some of the sunrise and immediately moved into the shelter in an attempt to hide from the cold.
The shelter was packed with people, some struggling with the cold and others just looking for a quick break from the wind. There was a large ice chunk in the middle of the room, so I decided to lay in the corner hugging the ice to make room for anyone who wanted to pack themselves in. After waiting a while to see if Scraps would appear, I signaled to Dilly to see if it was time for Puffy’s bachelorette party reveal. If Scraps had turned back, there was no use in waiting another hour for the surprise, so we made the executive decision to start the party.
I turned to face an unassuming Puffy and loudly made an announcement to the dead-silent crowd of people who had gathered in the shelter.
“This is the perfect time to pull out the surprise bachelorette party supplies,” I exclaimed and was promptly met with silence.
Dilly made a cheer in support of this statement, but everyone else just stared. Proceeding this announcement, we passed Puffy a “Bride” sash, bride sunglasses, a freeze-dried meal, and some Pink Whitney shots that we had carried with us from the last town. We explained that later in the day, we would be doing temporary tattoos as well! As we handed out sashes to the “bachelorette crew” consisting of myself, Dana, and another innocent bystander, Scraps popped her head into the shelter and we all celebrated together.
None of us wanted to take shots at 7am after climbing a mountain, so those went back into our packs for later. Other hikers ended up being excited after realizing what was going on. The glasses and sashes ended up being a huge hit. The first stranger (and our newest friend) to take a sash got one that said, “Bad Influence” and for the rest of the day, we referred to him as such.
At some point, we finally decided that it was time to leave but gathered for one more snapshot together at the top. Covered in layers, we stepped out into the wind and snapped a picture with the bride and her entourage. Most bachelorette parties involve elaborate outfits and weekends in Nashville but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) for Puffy, this was the best she was going to get from us.
The crazy thing about hiking back to Crabtree Meadows during the day was realizing how much scenery you miss while hiking under the stars. Nearing the bottom of the snow field, we were treated to views of alpine lakes sprinkled amongst jagged peaks. This area was one of the most scenic of the entire Sierra Nevada. At this point, we thought about our friends who had summited Whitney back in late May and thought about how scary and scenic it must have been.
I hiked the entire way down to the valley with Dilly. Day hikers wearing brand new gear passed us on their way to the summit and in contrast, we looked like we had fallen off of the mountain. We were hidden in layers, our clothes were old and ripped, and our faces showed the extent of our exhaustion. We wished them luck and laughed at the ridiculous nature of our entire PCT journey but agreed that we would never change a thing.
The entire trip down the switchbacks, I insisted that I would be hiking my happy butt all of the way back to base camp without taking a break. I in fact, did not make it.
PCT hikers congregated at the bottom of the switchbacks, and it was clear that everyone was feeling the early wakeup. Dilly and I stopped in a sandy area to relax and when another hiker joined us, he ended up passing out for a nap on a rock. I had insisted on this stop being a quick break but just like the guy on the rock, the desire to sleep took over and Dilly and I ended up taking a long nap.
Scraps and Puffy caught up to us for lunch and we strategized our afternoon. Puffy and I had a few more days of hiking to reach Kennedy Meadows South, while the others were set to finish their hike in Lone Pine. To meet our mileage goals Puffy and I would have to hike further tonight, making a split from the rest of the group. Before our split, we planned to meet up one more time for bachelorette party temporary tattoos and to plan our meet-up at KMS in a few days to celebrate together as a tramily. After planning, we made our way back to camp for a well-deserved nap.
For a few hours in the afternoon, we relaxed in the sun and used gaiters, sweaty bandanas, and socks to put bachelorette and camping themed temp tattoos all over our dirt-cover bodies. Bachelor Party got his trail name when he shaved a spot on his leg with a knife to put on an incorrectly placed “Bachelor Party” tattoo from our “Bachelorette Party” tats.
When it was time for Puffy and I to hike more miles, we hesitated. This afternoon had been so much fun and leaving our tramily felt like a sad way to end the day. We proposed that rather than our originally planned five, Puffy and I would hike two more miles if the others wanted to join. They agreed and we all happily packed up to hike a little further with our friends.
In the desert, our tramily slept in cowboy camping trains or what we called “Tyvek lines” each night under the stars. Wanting to recreate this setup for our last night as a tramily, we opted for the cold weather version a Tyvek line, aptly named Mega Tent. Don’t ask me how or why, but the idea of Mega Tent had become a tramily goal long ago. Today was the day to make our dreams come true.
With three, 2-person tents, we would be able to connect our poles and doors to make space for all five of us. For the next hour we worked together to put Mega Tent together, and in the end, it turned out better than we ever could have expected. After dinner, we hopped into the tent and laughed for a while, reminiscing on our hike as a whole and how crazy of a day today had been.
The next day
Puffy and I got up early to congratulate our friends on their finish as they would be heading into Lone Pine while we prepped for another 25-mile day of hiking. Saying goodbye was made easier by the fact that we would all be meeting at KMS in about two days.
For the first time in almost six months, Puffy and I were on our own. We had started the hike with just the two of us and now, we would get to end it that way. Knowing this, we took long breaks, spent extra time together at lunches, slowed down during our trash and microplastic surveys, and enjoyed dinner together at camp in the evenings. Before splitting from the group, it still felt like we had unlimited time on trail. With just the two of us left it was clear that time was ticking away, bringing us closer and closer to the real world.
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