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WHY WHITNEY? THE COLLECTOR'S EDITION | NECESSITIES

A simple throne with a regal view

October 14, 2003|Martin J. Smith

The most dramatic toilet in the continental U.S. rises like a pedestal three feet above the granite boulders on the summit of Mt. Whitney. It's easy to overlook because of the arresting scenery that surrounds it, but there may be no better place in America for quiet contemplation.

Except for a low quarter-moon of rocks piled behind it as a nod to privacy, the open-air privy offers a grand sweep of Western beauty. To the south, exhausted hikers trudge the knife-edge trail past jagged Mt. Muir and the Keeler Needle. Even as they struggle past about 60 yards to the left of the toilet, they're usually so focused and spent as they approach the summit that most pass without a glance. To the southwest, way down at 13,186 feet, Mt. Hitchcock rises from the valley floor like the arched back of a diving whale. Mt. Russell, like Whitney a fourteener, is due north.

All of it at the user's feet.

Directly behind the perch, climbers scramble around the summit shelter, take photos, rehydrate, prepare to descend. But those intrepid few who discover Whitney's least celebrated secret are so passionate about the experience that when Backpacker magazine omitted it from a September 2002 feature called "Best Seats in the House," a reader from Visalia dashed off a letter of protest: "I know it must be hard to pick the top 10, but how can you overlook the highest outhouse in the lower 48?"

-- Martin J. Smith

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