The rain that threatened Crabtree Junction all evening long never reached where we were camping. I got up at 4 am and the sky was ablaze with stars. The display rivaled any I’d seen. The Milky Way was obvious and I’m sure I would’ve spotted a few satellites had I taken the time. I was on a mission however. After a quick breakfast of the last of my peanut butter and tortillas I packed up my tent for, hopefully, the last time on this trip.
Richard was also soon ready to roll. His breakfast was a combination of instant Starbucks coffee, Carnation Instant Breakfast and powdered milk mixed into some cold water. It looked and sounded pretty rough but it was how he started every morning. After an initial slug of the concoction he was ready to roll. Headlamps pushed back the darkness as we started the long climb towards Mt Whitney.
The trail was pretty obvious and the glow of the headlamps was enough to navigate without much trouble. On the 2 ½ miles to Guitar Lake the elevation rose 800 feet to 11,500. The steady climb was enough to keep me warm despite rather cool temperatures. Before I got there though, I told Richard I was going to step off the trail for a few minutes. He readily agreed and said he’d be doing the same. We were running out of time to legally “shit in the woods” and neither of us wanted to be stuck on Whitney, using the “wag bags” we’d been carrying the entire trip.
Guitar Lake at dawn
The sky was just starting to lighten in the east when we made it to Guitar Lake. A number of hikers had obviously camped there the night before and several headlamps could be seen moving upward in the distance. A small, partially frozen stream was running into the lake and we stopped there to filter enough water for the climb. Per my guide, this might be the last opportunity until a good distance past the summit. Richard loaded up with three liters and I carried two. Like with food, I prioritized light weight over adequate supply. We left the area a bit after 6 am with a five mile and 3,000 foot climb to the peak.
The trail was pretty consistent above Guitar Lake, using switchbacks to climb around 600 feet per mile. However, each step higher also meant a bit less oxygen. At the top there is less than 60% of the oxygen found at sea level. Combined with the cold, once I passed 12,000 feet, I really started feeling it.
The trail surface was pretty good, so that was a plus. It was important to be a bit careful around any wet area as it was frozen. There were a few other hikers in the area. Whenever I met one, I always stopped and chatted. If nothing else, each break allowed me to catch my breath somewhat.
Richard grinding up the slope
The day remained clear and, at that altitude, the sun was strong. Things were quickly warming up. By 8:30 I had made it to Mount Whitney Trail. The intersection was about two miles and 1,000 feet from the summit. Many hikers drop their packs at this point as they can be picked back up on the way down and there were several laying by the trail. There were also several marmots hanging around waiting for an opportunity to check the packs for food.
Nice looking pack you have there.
I stuck a small bag of trail mix in my pocket. I made sure what other little food I had left was in the bear canister, pulled the canister out of the pack and left the pack open. Grabbing a half liter of water I started for the top.
Free from the pack, the next half mile felt great, but soon the lack of oxygen began weighing me down again. In addition, the trail got a bit “sketchy” as it climbed through boulder fields and along steep drops. I was walking slower and slower as I went. The last quarter mile was a fairly gentle climb, but even that was difficult. Finally though I made the summit at 10 am. I was at 14,505 feet, the highest spot in the continental United States and the completion point of the John Muir Trail! Now all I had to do was get off the mountain via a ten mile trail that dropped nearly 7,000 feet. Oh, and find a way 13 more miles to the town of Lone Pine. That could wait though. I was taking a few minutes to enjoy the view and my completion of the trail.
View back the way I climbed
There were several hikers on the summit including Evan, who I had hiked with earlier. I was glad to see he had made it despite his shortage of food and diabetes. At that point, he was completely out of food. I told him if we met up once I was back to my pack, he could have any food I had left. Sean and Melanie were also there. Richard made the summit about 20 minutes behind me. Eventually though, since I was no longer climbing, I began to get cold. It was time to start down. I did try to call the Dow Villa in Lone Pine. It was a hotel recommended to me, but I couldn’t get a signal. Oh well.
Trail near the top
Heading down took considerably less effort and I was soon back at my pack. It appeared undisturbed. Richard’s pack was covered with dusty marmot footprints, but I didn’t notice any damage. Evan showed up right behind me and I gave him an energy bar and a couple instant oatmeal packets. I’d never seen anyone eat that oatmeal dry before, but I guess if you need the glucose, you do what you have to do. Somebody else was there with a box of cookies and we both got a fistful of those. It looked like Evan was set for a while.
Sean and Melanie also showed up at that point. Melanie was in bad shape as her one boot had completely fallen apart. Her feet were a mess and she was looking at walking the next 10 miles in just socks. I had a small roll of duct tape with me and offered it to her. She used the whole roll rebuilding her boot, but it looked like it might hold her for the rest of the day. As a way of thanking me, she mentioned that she and Sean had a car at the trailhead and, if we finished together, I had a ride into town.
With that, they took off at a fast clip, bouncing through the first of 100 downhill switchbacks like pinballs. I looked at Evan and we both yanked on our packs and gave chase.
A couple of the 100 switchbacks
The downhill was unrelenting and the pounding took its toll. I was tired but there was no way I was going to miss that ride. The stretch was as steep as any on the trail, and went on for 8 ½ miles. While the downhill was tough, doing that section uphill would have been much more difficult. Hiking the JMT south to north would be a herculean effort. I couldn’t imagine starting my hike by carrying a week’s worth of food up a 6,300 foot climb.
The scenery stayed beautiful the whole way, though I rarely stopped for pictures. Evan and I stuck together and discussed life, including his struggles with Juvenile Diabetes. That he was able to finish his hike was amazing. While the hike seemed endless at the time, we did cover the mileage pretty quick. Less than four hours from leaving the summit of Whitney, we were at Melanie’s car. She took off her boots and started to cry. I looked at her feet and almost got sick. That was one tough young woman. Before we got rolling, I was able to get through to the Dow Villa and rent their last room for the night.
Melanie drove like she hiked so we were in town in no time. First stop was McDonalds for some well-deserved empty calories. From there, Sean and Melanie were heading home to Bakersfield and I was heading across the street to the Dow Villa. Evan needed to make arrangements to meet his parents and gave his Mom a call. It was pretty interesting to hear him excitedly tell his Mom about his hike. It was also gratifying to hear him tell her that a guy named Jim happened along when he was having trouble, gave him some food and “saved the hike.”
The Dow Villa was a great place with a great shower. Of course it was the first shower I’d had in eight days so that may have affected my opinion. Richard called a bit later. Apparently “some bastard” had got the last room at the Dow Villa and he was bunking down the street at the local hostel. I bought him a beer at the Pizza Factory to make up for his bad luck.
In the morning it was a $19 bus ride (a cab would have been $550) back to the entrance of Yosemite. From there, 10 minutes of hitchhiking got me back to my truck. Beyond that, a three day drive and I was home from a tremendous adventure.