All my life I have been uncomfortable with heights. I like my feet on solid ground. I enjoy outdoor activities, though I am not an extreme adrenaline seeker. I enjoy my comfort zone and having a feeling of physical safety. Slippery slopes and skinny trails with severe rocky drops do not interest me as a fun challenge. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has had just enough variety for my level of adventure in my spirit.  Not too much, not too little.  At least, until I met Mount Whitney.  

Mount Whitney, in the Sierra Nevadas in California, is not technically on the PCT. It requires hiking a few miles off trail to get to the base. Yet the majority of PCT hikers allocate a full day to hike the 14,496 feet up Mount Whitney for the beautiful 360 degree view and bragging rights of hiking up the highest summit in the contiguous United States.  

The power of the sun

Every person I have hiked with on the PCT had plans to summit Mount Whitney. Many woke up before the sun rose and hiked up to see the sunrise as they summited Whitney.

Not me. I planned to skip the summit detour and just continue hiking along the PCT. I was asleep in my warm tent, leisurely waking to a delightful, quiet day. Then I stuck my head out of my tent. The weather was gorgeous! The sun was shining and the storm from the previous days seemed to have cleared. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the day and I could not imagine spending the day just logging in miles on the PCT.  

Today was a day for Whitney, and the cautious, comfort-seeking part of my mind even agreed it was the day to take the plunge past comfort and embrace a new experience. 

On my way

I quickly ate as many calories as I could for breakfast and transformed my food bag into a small, awkward day pack.  I tossed my backpack and belongings into the bear locker, grabbed my trekking poles and was on my way to the side trail of Mount Whitney, with a huge smile on my face.  

The sun was shining on my face and I was beaming with joy as I embarked on my spontaneous adventure. It was a delightful surprise to see one of my favorite people, Nailz, sitting at a stream near the base of Whitney. She had gotten a later start, too, and was taking a break. I was so happy to see her.

We celebrated the mystery of the trail and how you never know when you will see someone, regardless of the plans we make. After a few minutes I promised to meet her at the top and I was quickly on my way up the steep climb. 

Slippery when wet

Three hours later, I was feeling good and pacing to keep elevation sickness at bay. I thought I was close to the top when a group of hiker friends who started the summit at 3:30 a.m. were coming down and advised me of slippery snow on thin, dangerous ledges ahead. I had not yet encountered the most terrifying and challenging section. I contemplated turning back down. I was at 13,500 feet. This could be good enough for my feeble adventure spirit. Plus, dark clouds were hovering and a view from the summit was unlikely at this point. Yet, I could not turn around. 

The rest of the climb was a white knuckle experience for me. Eight more times I debated turning back. I took one step at a time and just tried to breathe — the elevation made the air thin and my heart was pumping with fear induced adrenaline. I kept telling myself that I was merely out of my comfort zone and I was uncomfortable with the situation but I could do it. I just needed to take one step at a time, and not look down the slippery ledges.  


An hour and a half later, sweaty and exhausted, I reached the summit of Mount Whitney. I did it! Though the view from the top was nonexistent, due to the overcasting clouds, I was relieved I made it to the top. I hung out for a bit, took pictures and met a few day hikers with whom I shared and exchanged mountaintop treats. The wind and cold combined with the lack of a view chased me down sooner than I expected. Also, I was nervous to summit down the slushy, slippery snow. Thankfully, my newfound day hiker friends left at the same time as me and the conversation with them distracted me just enough to successfully make it down past the sketchy snow ledges without fear taking over.  

Mount Whitney was a humbling experience I am glad I had. It was beyond what I had imagined. It was a day I struggled to push myself out of my personal comfort zone and I could not be more proud of myself for doing so. I was able to summit a beautiful peak that I will always remember. Even though the pictures do not prove anything more than me sitting on a rock in a giant grey cloud!  

Elizabeth Ketterer of Cle Elum is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the California-Mexico border to Canada.


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