Day 20: Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake
Our 20th day on trail I woke up knowing that I would be summiting the highest peak in the contiguous United States. There was really no question about whether or if I might summit, it was simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.
Our plan for our summit day had shifted a bit as we had worked our way south. We had actually ended up pulling up a couple miles shorter than planned over the past couple days, which meant we had more miles to do before reaching Mount Whitney. We had also originally planned on camping at Guitar Lake, at the base of the mountain, and doing a sunrise summit of Mt Whitney. At some point along the trail we had gotten it into our heads to instead spend a whole night up there, watching sunset and sunrise from the peak.
That morning we got up and hit the trail with granola bars to sustain us for the four miles to Crabtree Meadow. We started out with a switchbacking climb through lodgepole forest, onto the shoulder of a ridge line. We had a few ups and downs as we worked our way along the sandy trails and through the sparse forest.
We reached Crabtree Meadows by about 9. We pulled up in the campground and enjoyed a Sunday brunch of hashbrowns, veggies and scrambled eggs. I had thankfully planned heartier meals for our last full day on trail, offsetting all the hard work we’d be doing to reach the summit.
We were back on trail by about 10:30, heading ever upwards in our climb to Guitar Lake. The scenery was beautiful as we climbed. I particularly admired the rock formations around us and the last few stands of very hardy trees, somehow managing to survive at such high elevations and in such arid conditions.
We stopped for a short break at Timberline Lake, taking the obligatory Whitney view photos.
Leaving Timberline Lake we were surprised to hear a loud chopper noise. The Chinook helicopter that came into view was even more surprising! It looked like a military chopper and we speculated that it was dropping off an army crew for altitude training.
When we reached Guitar Lake we realized that it was not a simple training exercise. Instead, there were dozens of Search & Rescue personnel, wearing the bright orange shirts that are their trademark. We put two-and-two together, having seen a “missing person” flyer at the junction for Crabtree Meadows. Apparently a hiker had gone missing from his group about 6 days prior.
The Search & Rescue teams had evidently been dropped off by the Chinook chopper and were splitting off to search for the missing hiker.
Our plan for the afternoon was to relax lakeside, have a nap, eat a late lunch, and then head for the peak. We set up our tent on some rocky slabs near the lake to give us a bit of shelter from the sun and the strong breeze.
I spent quite a bit of time that afternoon watching the Search & Rescue teams. I was amazed at how quickly and efficiently they worked their way around the lower slopes of Mount Whitney.
At one point there were also 3 different helicopters working search patterns along the upper slopes of the mountain. It proved to be rather difficult to have a nap.
Partway through the afternoon all of the helicopters suddenly cleared out of the area and the Search & Rescue teams started to converge on one particular location partway up the slope of the mountain. It was an area that was way off trail, above a scree slope and at the base of some challenging rock formations. I can’t imagine how a hiker could possibly have ended up there and unfortunately there was very little chance that he had survived.
As we ate our late lunch, the teams moved off from the slope and the Chinook helicopter came back to start bringing them off the mountain. At one point a small helicopter came in to drop off a couple people who clambered up to the spot where we figured the hiker had been found. I assumed they were a specialized recovery team.
The afternoon felt very bizarre. After 3 weeks of quiet mountain sounds we had been subjected to loud helicopter noises. Plus we were forced to contemplate the risks associated with summiting the awesome peak in front of us.
Once back in civilization I took the time to look up the Search & Rescue report. Unfortunately the group as a whole had been somewhat unprepared for their hike and had gotten lost. The hiker in question had then chosen to leave his group and go off on his own to search out the trail. He evidently made some further poor decisions that ultimately led to his death.
All of our adventures hold a certain level of risk, and it’s how you prepare and face such activities that will increase or decrease the risk levels. Dan and I are overall pretty low-risk hikers. We always do a lot of research about the area, we bring a map, a full first-aid kit, extra food and gear, and we communicate and discuss our options as we’re hiking.
No matter how well we prepare, we know that we can never completely eliminate risk. We just hope that when faced by more challenging situations we will have the capability and awareness to make the right decisions.