PCT Day 50: Tumanguya

June 7, 2022

Crabtree to Tumanguya (Mt. Whitney) summit and back, then Crabtree to Tyndall Creek at mile 774.7

Non-PCT miles: 15.4

PCT miles: 7.7

My alarm goes off at 11:15 PM on the night of the 6th. Time to hike! It’s all red headlamp and throwing snacks in my pack. The nice thing about this hike is that it’s essentially a slackpack: we can leave our tents and sleeping pads and whatever we don’t need and just take what we do. My pack is still pretty heavy because I’m taking every item of clothing I have and my sleeping bag, because the summit will be frigid.

Photo by Catless

Right out of camp, we run into Lotte and Rainbow of the Belgians, who are coming down from their sunset hike. They tell us that the hike is hard but doable, and very worth it. Soon we run into Burrita, who is in a panic because she thinks she may have left some of her stuff on the mountain. We tell her we’ll look for it.

The first few miles are pretty easy. From my memory, we’re just going alongside the creek, and soon we’ll hit Timberline Lake and the trees will thin out into alpine fell-field. At the lake, we get our first glimpse of how the ambient light is reflecting off the mountains. We turn our headlamps off and see the gentle reflection of the rocky ridge in the water. The stars are pinpricks of glory in the sky above, and we can see the Milky Way. Alright. Fine. I hate night hiking, but this is beautiful. This is its own hushed magisterial wonder. I can get down with this.

Another photo by Catless. This one is Guitar Lake.

We stop to load up on water at the Guitar Lake inlet stream. I’ve been drinking a surprising amount already, so I get two more liters since it will be four miles to the summit and four back before I can get more. The trail starts to really get serious after that. It meanders vaguely uphill, passing a little pond where we can hear frogs ribbiting, and then we’re on the side of the mountain properly switchbacking. They’re small at first, then the really long ones start. This is what I remember. This is where the hike starts to grow up and get serious. We go all the way across, then sharply turn and head back up. I have to take an awkward pee break between a couple of rocks. I’m definitely getting more cavalier about my proximity of such stops to the trail and to my tramily. You gotta do what you gotta do, man. Also, at one point, we come around the corner and see Ishay camped at the Chad Spot, still asleep. What a legend.

I’m trying as hard as I can not to be cranky as we walk up the mountain. It’s definitely Jumbo and Catless who wanted to do the sunrise hike; I think if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to make this happen at such a time. I keep making little snide comments about how I hate night hiking and how cold I’m going to be. I hear myself and am annoyed for them. I chose to be here. I love this mountain and it will be worth it. Just take some more steps and breathe.

I just can’t stop with these night sky photos Catless took. They’re so amazing!

At the junction with the trail down to Whitney Portal, things start to get rocky—literally. The path goes from easily walkable to the surface of an alien planet. We walk along a ridge navigating irregularly shaped rocks as we pass the Needles and the windows where, during the daylight, one can see down to the Owens Valley and Lone Pine in the distance. It freaks me out. I’m starting to get dizzy, and every breath is an effort. I try to concentrate on my foot placement so that I don’t fall. It seems like we’re getting close to the summit, but then we see headlamps still on the side of the mountain far in the distance.

We reach a snowy patch full of deep sun cups, then shortly after, the trail makes a turn. I remember this now. We’re almost there. The faint glimmer of day is just starting. I let Catless and Jumbo go ahead so that they don’t miss the beginning of the sunrise. I plod up the hill, step step step, until I see the outline of the summit hut. I have every single layer on now, and I am so, so cold, but we made it. We’re on the top of Tumanguya.

Jumbo and Catless on the summit, just in time.

I join Catless and Jumbo on a rock right at the top of the summit. The horizon is the faintest color of orange, with a deep blue layer on top. It is very, very beautiful. I get out my sleeping quilt and wrap it around me. Jumbo gives me his jumbo winter gloves, but my hands are still icicles. Somehow, neither of them is in their quilt. I can’t understand it; I think I might actually freeze up here. But the sun is coming up now, slipping softly from its bed and into the sky, and the light it casts on the mountains to our right and left is heartbreaking and gorgeous, and I can’t believe I’m here on this sacred mountain again, and I love my imperfect little dizzy body that got me here and the God that is everywhere among these hikers facing the coming of the day.

Okay. It was worth it. I still hate night hiking, and I still hate being cold, but it was worth it.

Once the sun is properly up and I’m less miserable, I get people to take photos of me and then I FaceTime my mom. I called her the last time I was on Tumanguya too, but this time I hardly recognize myself in the little rectangle in the corner of the screen: cold, wind burnt, covered in hoods and down products. After that, I get photos with Jumbo, Catless, and Ishay. We sign the tattered trail register at the summit hut, take in the views one last time, and head down.

The descent takes forever, but it’s arguably the best part of the experience. We can actually see the mountains and lakes that were soft faint outlines in the darkness. I love how the perspective changes as you round a corner or turn another switchback. We spot a marmot poking out of a hole in the rock, then more marmots all over the meadows and rocks once we get down to the lakes.

I’m very tired by this point. I roll my ankle, sit down, and lose Jumbo, who’s now on code red for cathole time. I walk slowly and alone for a while, reentering the trees, now burning up in the sun, which feels so strange compared to how cold I was a couple of hours ago. I have to dive into the woods for cathole time, and after one more interminable-feeling mile, I’m back at camp. Jumbo isn’t there; it turns out he asked Tomahawk if he’d seen us (he had; we had a whole conversation), and he said that he hadn’t. So Jumbo waited, thinking we were behind him. It’s all good, though. We all made it back. We did the thing!

As a silly little treat for myself, I eat my green tamale pie meal from Fernweh. It’s… there are no intelligent words. It tastes so fucking good. There are little cornbread pieces and beans and tomatillo and peppers and my god, it makes me feel satisfied in a way that I haven’t since maybe Tehachapi. I feel so content.

We all lay down in our tents to take naps, but our tents are in the sun, and while I do sleep well for a while, I wake up drenched in sweat and take my sleeping pad over to the shade and finish my nap there. Around 3:30, we start hiking again. We need to make it to Tyndall Creek so that we’re in a good position to do Forester Pass tomorrow.

At first, I feel worn out and rusty. My body is like, “Excuse me? Do you not remember that you hiked to the top of the highest mountain in the lower 48 today?” But then something kicks in—the green tamale pie, probably—and I start feeling pretty great. We have a couple of short uphills, then down to Wallace Creek. This was a torrent in 2017, but today it’s an easy rock hop. The same goes for Wright Creek a bit later. It’s unbelievable to me how different the water and snow situation is compared to what I remember.

Wallace Creek

After Wallace, we have a two mile climb. There are also clouds of mosquitos that seem hell-bent on chasing Jumbo. He takes off up the hill, and I manage to stay with him. We stop at a viewpoint, then keep going up to Bighorn Plateau. I’m ahead now, and I feel incredible. The world smells like pine and there is water everywhere and the sky is so big.

At Bighorn Plateau, we all stand in silent wonder. The evening light is really showing off. There are mountains all around us: Tumanguya to one side, another craggy range to the other. There’s a little pond that’s sparkling in the sunlight, and marmots are running around. I look at Jumbo, and there are tears in his eyes. He’s been planning this for so long, and he says that now being here is overwhelming and surreal. His reaction magnifies the moment for me even more. I’ve been here before, but it’s beautiful to see it again, and to see other people seeing it for the first time.

We have a few short miles of downhill to Tyndall. We enter the woods again, and it’s a mix of huge gray boulders and those lovely twisty trees again. The light comes through them and illuminates each needle. I stop to pee and Catless and Jumbo get ahead. I catch up with them as they’re looking at a campsite next to a small creek. They think it’s Tyndall, but we’re not quite there yet, and Catless is not happy when I tell him that there is mother half mile. We trudge downhill and finally arrive at the campsite.

In 2017, Tyndall was a torrent and we had to cross upstream in the meadow. Tonight I can see the rocks and hop right across. We find good sites and set up our tents. Catless goes right to bed, and I eat dinner with Jumbo down by his tent. I’m proud of us today. We hiked Tumanguya, then eight more miles to put ourselves in a good spot for tomorrow.

Tomorrow is my 29th birthday. I can’t believe it. I think most ideas about what one “should” have done by a certain age are bullshit, but it still feels weird that I’m entering the last year of my 20s. I’ve done a lot with this decade, and I’m so grateful for the chance to be on this amazing adventure this year. And tomorrow is Forester! What an epic way to celebrate another trip around the sun.

Tyndall Creek. Those rocks were not visible when I was here in July of 2017. So far the creek crossings have been easy!

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