LONE PINE, California — Hostel with cozy bunks and hot showers. Check. Laundromat across the street. Check. A steakhouse and a saloon a few doors down. Check. After a tough last 10 days on the trail, it appears there’s pretty much everything in this dusty little town that a hiker could want for some proper celebrating.

This morning when I stepped out of the sagebrush onto Sherman Pass Road at Kennedy Meadows, I could have kissed the pavement, such was my elation. The moment marked not only the end of a long and difficult traverse of the High Sierra, but my completion of 1,773 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I began the trek at Campo on the Mexican border back on April 3 and hiked north for 702 miles through the southern California desert to the start of the Sierra at Kennedy Meadows. Because of the enormous high elevation snowpack and winter conditions there, I chose to flip-flop to Fish Lake in southern Oregon and hike 1,071 miles south through California. The dots are now finally – incredibly – connected.

High Five and Honey Muumuu, PCT friends and true trail angels, met me and my hiking buddy Ranger at the Kennedy Meadows General Store. They are driving us to Oregon to continue the northbound journey to Washington.

Beautiful Marjorie Lake on the hike up to Pinchot Pass (12,107 feet) is one of the many azure lakes that dot the otherwise monochromatic landscape of the High Sierra. Photo by Carey Kish

The last stretch of the PCT through the High Sierra is mostly at or above 10,000 feet, a monochromatic but incredibly beautiful and rugged world of rock and snow, occasionally punctuated by azure lakes and clumps of green conifers. It’s an otherworldly landscape for a hiker like me used to the forested tunnels of the Maine woods. Strenuous hiking is the norm and the daily miles are hard-earned.

From Palisade Lake, I tested my mettle on Mather Pass (12,100 feet) and Pinchot Pass (12,107 feet), besting both in a single 20-mile day. The next morning, it was a crazy boulder scramble to Glen Pass (11,926 feet), followed by a 7-mile grunt off the PCT over Kearsarge Pass (11,760 feet) to get down to U.S. 395 and the Owens Valley for supplies. The 2,500-foot climb back up with a week’s load of goods made this the most arduous resupply of the hike.

Forester Pass is a gunsight notch in an impossible ridgeline, as unlikely a spot for a trail as you can imagine. Yet the PCT threads a route up there, the highest point on the entire trail at 13,200 feet. Step through the narrow cleft and you’ve entered Sequoia National Park and are on the path toward Mount Whitney, the final challenge.

Mount Whitney is the crown jewel of the Sierra Nevada, and at a soaring 14,505 feet, it is also the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. The mountain is reached via a 15-mile round-trip side hike from the PCT at Crabtree Meadows.

A look at the jagged crest of 14,505-foot Mount Whitney. Hikers must scramble along this difficult route before tackling the gentler slopes of the summit dome (left). Photo by Carey Kish

I departed camp at dawn, and, charged with excitement, verily floated up switchback after switchback on the steep west face of Whitney. The jagged crest above, a mile of exhilarating scrambling among granite pinnacles, led to the gentler summit dome, which I reached at noon.

In a 1972 National Wildlife magazine article, Peter Dunning described his Appalachian Trail thru-hike the prior year, a story that was a key source of inspiration for my own AT hike five years later. Dunning wrote:

“Why climb mountains? All answers pale before the joy of the summit. It is for feelings and emotions that people climb, not reasons. Few emotions can compare with standing on the highest piece of land in sight, feeling your kinship with eagles. It is the process of climbing, both physical and spiritual, that remains the mystery and the allure. The exhausting devotions to the summit can make a person one in being with the mountain being climbed.”

Signs like this one occasionally mark the route of the PCT. Photo by Carey Kish

Dunning’s words have resonated with this hiker throughout my life, but perhaps never more so than when I stood atop Mount Whitney with a million-dollar view at my feet, as wild and free as I’ve ever felt.

My wife Fran left Maine in July and, with travel trailer in tow, has camped her way across the country and is waiting for me in Medford, Oregon. After five months apart, it will be a very happy reunion.

Just 877 miles to Canada remain.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1977 and 2015, and completed the 1,100-mile Florida Trail in 2017. Follow Carey’s PCT adventures on Facebook @Carey Kish.

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