There was a dusting of snow above us, but camp was cold and dry when I awoke. I was a bit dizzy, but chalked the issue up to altitude. Richard and I were the first people moving, getting rolling about 7. It was a hard climb through rubble towards Forester, the highest pass of the entire trail. After 90 minutes or so, we met Sean and Melanie enjoying breakfast among the rock piles. They had actually camped there. According to Sean, they had spent nearly an hour rearranging rocks to create a spot flat enough to pitch their tent. That made no sense to me. Spending that hour walking would have put them over the pass and close to a flat spot with water. Apparently it’s hard to beat the comfort of an exposed semi-level bed of rocks. Maybe I’m missing out.
A half hour later I was standing at 13,180 feet, the crest of Forester Pass. There was a bit of smoke in the air, but the view was still outstanding. The drop off the pass was pretty dramatic with some serious switchbacks, so it seemed like a good time for a break. Three ladies that worked for the National Park Service were also there cooking up breakfast and were a wealth of information. I found out just how close I could get to Mt. Whitney before I’d need to poop in a bag and carry it with me. (I was still worried about the learning curve of using a “wag bag.”)
In addition, they confirmed a rumor for us. Apparently it’s true that if a pack mule dies on the trail high up on a mountain, the corpse is dynamited. The thought process is: burial is impossible in the rocks, a large carcass would take forever to decompose in the dry alpine environment and eventually it would attract bears. Of course if a bear was squatting on a dead mule, that might close the trail for weeks at a time. By exploding the body, smaller predators can handle most of it and the rest can quickly decompose. I didn’t ask about humans. Hopefully, I can finish the trail in one piece.
After the initial drop, the trail leveled out somewhat, but generally dropped for the next 10 miles. I walked most of the stretch alone, enjoying the sights. The area was obviously very dry and there were few trees to block the views, or the sun. It reminded me somewhat of desert hikes I’ve taken in Arizona. Near the High Sierra Trail I got into some trees and took a break for a late lunch. Richard, Frick and Frack caught up to me and we walked together from there.
Despite the long drop the trail was still bouncing around 11,000 feet. Between the altitude and being tired from earlier climbs each uphill was pretty tough. Eventually the trail swung east, the Pacific Crest Trail split off and we were looking at a heck of a big mountain in front of us. From the size of it, we could only assume we were looking at Mount Whitney and the finish of the JMT.
Though it was only mid-afternoon, I was getting pretty worn out. It appeared everyone else was just as tired as I was ahead of the rest of the group. Clouds were building up around Whitney and it looked like I’d be getting wet in the not too distant future. Once the lightning started, I picked up the pace hoping to make it too a camping area before the storm cut loose.
The trail and I stayed right on the edge of the storm and dry for the next mile of so until I reached Crabtree Junction. There was a forest, pretty stream, plenty of places to camp and I was still dry. After covering 15 miles I was ready to stop. However, I was still 7 ½ tough miles from the top of Whitney and I felt I should get a little closer. To finish in a day I’d not only need to tackle that climb, but also walk another 10 ½ miles off the mountain to the trailhead at Whitney Portal. Once I sat down for a few minutes though, I knew it would be tough to go any further. Tomorrow might need to be a long day.
Richard, Frick and Frack rolled in about 30 minutes later. I asked if they wanted to hike some more and get a little closer to Whitney. “Hell no!” was the consensus and they began setting up camp around me. It turned out to be a great place to camp. Some deer walked by as I filtered water. The storm stayed up on the mountain and never reached us. There was even a toilet in the area. Not a latrine mind you, but a toilet with a view.
After some heated discussion among themselves, Frick and Frack announced they were only going to hike to Guitar Lake in the morning. Generally this is where most people start the assault on Whitney. It’s about 2 ½ miles from where we were and 1,000 foot higher in elevation. Richard had a plane to catch and was heading for the finish. For better or worse, the closer I get to finishing a hike, the more I tend to push myself. In addition, we were near the end of hiking season and a big snow could hit the higher elevations at any time. Richard and I would get up around 4 am and make a run at it.