This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
JMT Day 13 – .5 mile past Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal
Miles: 14.8 Elevation Gain: 3073′
Trip Miles: 211.9 Elevation Loss: 6268′
Trail Crest, 13,640′
Mt Whitney, 14,500′
Max elevation: 14485 ft
Min elevation: 8563 ft
Total climbing: 3363 ft
Day 13, our last day on the trail. Two days earlier than expected we had nearly made it to the conclusion of our journey. But first we had to wake up. Early. And hike. Up the tallest peak in the lower 48. Little things, compared to what we’d accomplished over the last 12 days.
My watch alarm went off at 1:30 and neither of us was quite ready to get up. We stayed on our pads just a few minutes more before motivating to get up. After all, it was so much colder outside than it was under my quilt. I didn’t need much more motivation once I unzipped the tent and saw the clear sky packed with stars, the Milky Way cutting through the center, and the black silhouette of the peaks on the horizon. It was gorgeous. All trip long I had hoped to stay up to see the stars, but every night we were in bed at or well before hiker midnight, 8:00. Finally, I had a chance to get a few nighttime sky shots.
First, though, I had to make use of one of the wag bags we’d been carrying since Yosemite. In an effort to minimize impact of the highly visited Whitney Zone, the park asks that you use bags for your human waste. To help make this possible, they provide “wag bags,” bags designed for this purpose with a little human litter (it’s not for kitties, after all) in the bottom. It was actually much easier than I thought…but then I had to store it.
That out of the way, I set up my camera to grab a few long exposures while we sleepily broke down camp. We skipped breakfast and coffee and just jammed some bars in our pockets with the idea of getting right on the trail. Several hikers, headlamps blazing, had already passed our site as they came up from Guitar Lake. Brian was up and ready to go and once all of our gear was stowed, we joined the line of swaying lights in the darkness.
Up the first incline, the person in the front of the pack we’d latched onto announced she’d lost the trail. Lights zoomed around as people scanned the area for sign of it. Up this high, the trail is mostly slightly more worn rocks in a line contrasting with the slightly less worn rocks on either side. Eventually someone spotted it off to our left and the three of us took off in that direction.
It was slow going up the side of the mountain. The one saving grace of the steep climb was that you could only see a few feet ahead of you. So, you never really knew how much higher you had to go, until you scanned the horizon and saw the towering silhouette of Whitney contrasting against the starry sky. Everything else was bathed in darkness, including the ever deepening drop off on the downhill side of the trail. Every once in a while I’d scan my headlamp off to the side only for it to get lost in the darkness. Looking ahead and back, all I could see beyond the rocks illuminated just in front of me were the white dots of people’s headlamps bobbing slowly as they climbed up Mt Whitney.
Many switchbacks later, we were finally at the junction where the trail splits, one way toward the summit, the other toward Trail Crest and the descent on the other side of the mountain. We dropped our packs here, opting to make the last 2 miles to the summit a little easier on ourselves. So, lighter, we continued onward and upward.
It was still pitch black out and Brian’s headlamp was starting to fade. He opted to walk between Carlos and I so our lights could help illuminate the way for him. Soon we were passing the giant, slanted spires that cut to the east. As we passed the openings between them, the drop off we’d had on one side of the trail was reflected on the other. Without being able to see, though, there wasn’t much to be afraid of. The lights of Lone Pine twinkled far, far below.
The trail was very rugged here and we were often scrambling over big boulders. After climbing up and up and over rocks and around switchbacks, we made it to the last stretch on top of the mountain. The outline of the hut appeared and the first glimpse of light blue horizon to the east became visible. As we reached the very top, the wind was whipping and it was cold. Having passed most of the people on the way up, when we got there, there was only one other hiker who’d made the summit. For a moment, we were essentially alone on the tallest peak in the contiguous US, just before sunrise.
I hopped down from the rocks at the very top in an effort to find a little shelter from the wind and a good seat to watch the sunrise. Only after I had jumped down to the little ledge where I planned on sitting did I notice that this rock was literally the edge of the mountain. I could dangle my feet off and there’d be nothing under them for a good 1,500 feet or more. I leaned slightly over and got a dizzying, dark glimpse of the shear drop and a lake far below. It was exhilarating and more than a little scary. It wasn’t scary enough for me to expose myself to the wind again, though.
We’d hiked faster than we predicted. Assuming we’d be sleepy and slow on the ascent, we figured it would take us about 3 hours to get to the summit, but it only took us 2 and a half. We’d beaten the sun by over an hour and it we certainly weren’t getting any warmer now that we’d stopped climbing. It quickly got cold. Freezing cold. I didn’t check the temperature, but it was easily below freezing.
Eventually, the ledge Carlos and I were sitting on got too cold for us, even with the wind protection it provided. We had to get up and move around. So we hopped back up to the top and joined the crowd that had formed while we were hiding on the ledge. We tried moving and jumping around, but any good that did was quickly nullified by the blasting, cold wind. We took shelter against the leeward wall of the hut and huddled together for warmth. In my excitement to drop my pack at the trail junction, I’d failed to grab my warm, puffy down jacket. I had my t-shirt, a thin fleece and a wind shirt to keep me warm. At least I had my wool beanie, though.
The sky got brighter and brighter and more and more of our surroundings came into view. As cold as it was, it was even more beautiful. Behind us, the peaks of the Sierra stretched out forever. To the east, the flat desert valley opened up and beyond that, the Inyo Mountains. The light was growing, but the sun seemed to refuse to rise.
Then, just after 6:00, there was a cheer from the crowd. I raced away from the wall of the hut and hopped up on some rocks to see the golden red tip of the sun breaking the horizon. It was beautiful. I needed to capture it in a picture, but my the feeling had left my fingers a half hour ago. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to manipulate the fine controls, I fumbled the camera’s switch to automatic and jammed the shutter button a few times.
We couldn’t wait for the sun to fully rise. We needed to get moving back down the mountain to warm ourselves up. We collected Brian, who wholeheartedly agreed it was time to leave the summit, and started back the way we came. Moving again, my body started to warm up, but my fingers were still numb. It wasn’t until 2 miles later, back at the trail junction that the pins and needles finally started to subside.
Eager to get a drink from my pack, I closed my mouth around my hydration tube and sucked…but nothing came. I looked at the line. It had frozen solid! Drinking would have to wait. We threw our packs on and started up the last few switchbacks to Trail Crest, the pass over Whitney that marked the beginning of a long, steep downward hike toward Whitney Portal.
The sun was fully up by the time we passed Trail Crest and we were fully warmed up. Then the downhill switchbacks began. I didn’t even try to count how many there were. The descent off Whitney to the south is a steep affair. The trail itself is engineered onto the side of the mountain, held up by retaining walls made from the rocks of the mountain itself.
Down at the Whitney Trail Camp, we passed another tent city of people who came at the mountain from this direction. After getting to the bottom, hours later, I would wonder who in their right mind would ever approach Whitney from this side. I felt like the lazy one saying that if I were to do it again, I’d happily walk from Yosemite rather than climbing the endless ascent from Whitney Portal!
The rest of the way down was scenic, but anticlimactic. It was a long, slow, steep descent with almost no flat sections. We were walking off the side of a mountain, after all. A few miles from the trailhead, we met Vanessa, a hiker who’d done an overnight at Lone Pine lake. When she found out we were finishing the JMT and would be needing a ride into Lone Pine she eagerly offered to drive us. And I’d thought we’d be hitching for a while before someone agreed to stop to pick up two scraggly, trail-worn men!
By 11:00am, we’d reached the trailhead and Whitney Portal. In exchange for a soda, Vanessa was kind enough to let us stop at the store and get some food and drinks before we left. We each ordered french fries and helped ourselves to the 18″ diameter pancake sitting on the counter next to the sign that read “Free Pancake!” Outside, we ended up running into Brian at the picnic tables devouring a burger. We sat with him and talked about the freezing cold summit and the endless descent and the delicious french fries, an order of which, it turns out, is an entire plateful.
Sated and ready to go, we said goodbye to our trail buddy, Brian. He almost hitched a ride with us, but decided it was better to stay at the Portal. His dad was coming to pick him up eventually, but the only way Brian could contact him was via email; he doesn’t have a phone. Later, by the pool of our hotel, we hoped that they’d been able to meet up.
We collected Vanessa, and she drove us away from the trailhead, away from Mt Whitney, away from the John Muir Trail and toward the quirky, desert town of Lone Pine where we’d spend the next two days waiting for the first bus back to Reno.
It was an amazing trip. In 13 days, we hiked 212 miles of the high Sierra through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. We conquered high mountain passes. We forged icy rivers and hopped countless creeks. We endured rain, hail, lightning and snow. We bathed in chilly, snowmelt fed lakes. We passed through wooded valleys and scree covered mountains. We traversed national parks, national forests, and national wildernesses. We climbed over 42,000 feet. We summited the highest peak in the lower 48. We thru-hiked the John Muir Trail.