Blazing The Trail To Whitney – Day 13 on the JMT
As I sit down to write this post, I hope that I can remember the whole day. It’s been almost a month, and I’m just now getting around to writing about it. On all other days on the trail, I journaled in great detail before falling asleep, but this was my last day on the trail, which included packing up my snow-covered fortress, blazing the trail to Whitney, taking in the glorious views, jogging back down the mountain, and then realizing that the hike back to Whitney Portal is a lot longer than I thought. Not only that, but I still had a five-hour drive home. Exhausted is an understatement of how I felt at the end of that day. Coming home to a somewhat irritated fiance, a suffocating amount to do at work, and kids that I hadn’t seen in almost a month meant that finishing this story would take a while… but here I go.
It was around 6:30 a.m. when I finally dragged myself out of bed. Sleep was sporadic, but I did manage to count a few sheep. Even so, my eyes were puffy from the exhausting night of keeping my shelter standing and my body warm during the snowstorm. There’s no time to drag my feet though. I have a long hike ahead of me today, and it’s not going to be easy. First things first, I head out to survey the scene. Still in my pajamas, I slip on my shoes and emerge from my little cave. The sun is just starting to kiss the mountaintops in the distance and the newly snow-covered landscape is eerily quiet but magically beautiful. Every inch of dirt is covered in a six-inch thick layer of powder. The rocks all have white mushroom tops and only a few of the tallest flowers poke up with their frozen petals.
I climb to the top of the large rock formation to get a better view. Trying to move quickly so my shoes don’t get sopping wet, I trudge through the fresh wet snow, but I didn’t put on my microspikes, so the moving is slow in order to not fall on my ass, or worse yet, sprain an ankle on the last day of my trek. I carefully plan my route, taking the clearest path to the top. The view is amazing, but I can’t help but notice that there is not another soul out there. There are no footprints, no tents, and no trail. This is going to be a long hard day, but I can do it. I’ve downloaded quite a few maps and looked at them enough times to have a pretty good idea of where I’m going. The mountains will be my guide.
Getting Ready For The Big Climb
Carefully I head back down the boulders to my camp. It’s halfway under the snow, but still standing. I’d say that’s a win for sure. I decide to start the day with a hot bag of oatmeal and a steaming cup of coffee. Normally I don’t take time out of my day for breakfast, but today I’ll need the energy. As I wait for the water to boil, I look around and start to get emotional. I can’t believe I made it through that night. It was horrible! My little snowmelt trench is frozen over and the space is tight from all the snow encroaching from under the flexing tarp. I start to tear up, but I don’t have time for that. Instead, I turn the valve off on my gas can, pour the hot water into the oatmeal bag, prep my coffee, and enjoy my last relaxing moments.
Once I’m done with breakfast, I grab my compression leggings and slide them over my wool leggings. The more layers the better to keep me warm on this hike out. I decide not to put on my sun hoodie though. The wool shirt might be warmer. Next, I take off my sleeping socks and slide on both pairs of my toe socks. Lastly, I look around for something I can put over my feet to keep them from getting sopping wet. Then I see my stuff sacks. These will work! I slide on my sleeping pad and my tarp stuff sacks, sinch them closed, then slide on my shoes. Wow, this is some stylish shit here.
With that, I start taking down my snow palace. First to go is the tarp which is not as easy as it usually is. The stakes are frozen into the ground under the snow. I pull and manage to get all but two of the stakes. The lines are frozen so I can’t untie them. Instead, I roll up the tarp, then wrap the lines around it complete with stakes still attached. This is such a disaster, but I’m heading home, so who cares? Next, I pack up my pillow, clothes, and tiny electronics. As I pick up my sleeping pad, I laugh. My stupid flashlight that I was looking around frantically for is hiding right smack dab in the middle under my pad. Stupid flashlight! I could have used you last night. Oh well. I throw it in my bear can. Most items are thrown in my bear can. I plan to stow it at the base of Whitney to drop weight for the final climb.
Blazing The Trail
Once I have everything packed up, I put on my jacket, pull on my microspikes, strap on my backpack, and grab my hiking poles. With one last look at my last home on the JMT, I turn and take my first steps out into the fresh powdery snow. Let’s start blazing! Amazingly, blazing is not as hard as I thought it was going to be, but I’m sure it still doubled my hiking time. Looking at my map, I picked out a mountain peak to head towards and just kept walking. It’s not long after I start walking that I find a lone set of tracks. A trail! This will be so much easier! I skip along the trail at a quick pace until I notice the tracks lead off in the wrong direction. Hmmm… I could follow and hope they found a quicker way, but instead, I decide to go back to my GPS as my guide. It’s a good thing too. I never saw those tracks again. I hope they made it out okay.
Heading Off Trail
The rest of the trek was full-on blazing. Sometimes I could tell where the original trail was based on the placement of the snow mounds, other times I had to pick a point and go. At one point I pivoted upward figuring that I’d eventually have to go up anyways, but it was a bad move which led to a dead end of sheer drops and rocks that I couldn’t get a grip on. Instead, I had to drop back down, almost twisting my ankle in the process. Dumb move. Follow the trail. It’s usually the easiest route.
Further down the trail, I saw another set of footprints. This set just crossed my path. I wonder where they were going? Those were the last set of human tracks I saw for hours. I did see lots of tracks though. They were tiny little tracks that crept out from under rocks and towards other rocks. I suspect they were pikas or marmots, but some were larger. Maybe deer? Are they up here? Who knows. I didn’t see any animals that day. Once in a while, I would hear one scurrying through the rocks, but they never peeked their head out.
Walking On The Sun
The sun was beating down on me. I took off my coat and mittens, then lathered on more sunscreen. It’s funny that I’m lugging myself through piles of snow, yet I feel like I’m on the surface of the sun. I wish I could take off a layer of pants, but that would be difficult, and I do like that they seem to be waterproof. I don’t feel one bit of moisture on my legs. The stuff sacks also seem to be working as my feet are dry as well.
Soon the sun begins to melt the snow and the trail begins to turn into a stream. I enjoy watching the bubbles of water flowing under the ice and the drips sliding down the icicles. As much as I hate being cold, winter is definitely a beautiful wonderland. Looking back it’s amazing to see my trail wandering off as far as the eyes can see; back off to Guitar Lake. The lake gets smaller and smaller, while the mountains get closer and closer. I now begin the switchbacks as they climb up to Trail Crest. One switchback, two switchbacks, three switchbacks. They go on forever. Up ahead I see a rock formation that looks like it’s flipping off the world. Yep, that’s how I feel right about now.
After what feels like many moons later, I finally reach Trail Crest. A man is rounding the corner on the other side coming up from the direction of the portal and wants to confirm he’s heading in the right direction. I point him down the trail towards Whitney and then head over to a rock pile to stow away as much of my gear as I can. I’m definitely dropping my bear can, but I pull out any snacks I need and lather up with sunscreen one last time. In addition, I fill my plastic bag with my sleeping pad, my bivy sack, and my extra clothes with the exception of my jacket. I would have put my tarp in there, but it’s way too expensive to just leave lying around for someone to steal or a marmot to chew. Instead, I opt to take my tarp and my quilt with me. They are my favorite backpacking pieces used on every trip that I go on. You’re staying with me!
Walking On The Edge
After fully securing my stash, I turn around and head up the tiny trail in the direction of Mount Whitney. This trail is fully blazed, and I practically jog the trail in order to reach the top faster. Earlier I broke the news to David that I was in fact going to summit Whitney. The night before I had said I was going to skip it. I was exhausted from the storm and my pep was totally drained from my soul. Today was a different story though. I was energized. I was excited. Mt Whitney is so close, and I’m going to reach it. I’m going to be at the highest point in the contiguous United States! David was upset. I hadn’t seen him in a week and tomorrow he was heading out of town for two weeks on a work project. Not only that, but he feared the snow would be dangerous and I’d hurt or kill myself. Even so, I had to go. I can’t get this close to Whitney and not try and summit it.
Views and More Views
My quick pace eventually slowed to a normal pace. It might have been the altitude that made it more difficult, but I think it was the same problem I always have with hiking. I’m just a slow climber. As I hiked I passed a few others. Some coming down from the summit, some turning back and not summiting, and some still making their way to the summit. For the most part, the trail was clear though. It was a perfect day for a quiet solo climb to the top. Just me and the world with nobody else.
Just A Peak At The Other Side
Looking around I could see the clouds rolling in. The chances were slim to none that I’d have a view from the top. Every once in a while I’d have a view while hiking up the trail though. Crevases in the mountains peaked through to the other side with sheer drop-offs and jaw-dropping views. The clouds were perfect puffy cotton balls that hugged the sides of each mountain and blanketed the depths of the valley. It brought me to tears. So few get to see something as amazing as this. I wish photos and videos would do it justice, but no matter how many I took, they never seemed to capture the feeling or the sheer magnitude of the never-ending landscape.
The Final Push
Up ahead I see two hikers trekking up what looks to be the final push to the top. I’m almost there! It’s taken me quite a bit longer than I had hoped, but I’m almost there. Once I finally reach the final push to the top of Mount Whitney, I see a group coming down. We talk for a while and I find out that they are the ones who blazed the trail heading up this last section. I wouldn’t say it’s actually a trail. This section is definitely a climb and a lot harder than the entirety of the rest of the trail. Coming down they slip-and-slide a bit, but for the most part, they do fine. I tell them I’m in a hurry to climb so I can drive back to Fresno, and they say they’re in the same boat, driving back to San Francisco. Oh, the joys of long days. We wish each other luck and head on our way.
Mt Whitney All To Myself!
After climbing up and up for what seemed to be way more than it should have been, I started to wonder if I had headed in the wrong direction. What am I even looking for? Then I saw it. In the distance, I could see the little building that resides at the top of the mountain. I can see a few people standing around it, maybe around five, but for the most part, the mountaintop is clear. As I reach the building the men who are already there congratulate me. They’re amazed that I did this all on my own, and on such a difficult day on top of that. We talk for a while and then they begin their descent back down the mountain. It’s freezing on top and they can’t wait to dip back into the warmer air. Before heading off I ask one of them to take a few pictures for me with the Whitney sign, but then I have the mountaintop to myself. How often can someone say that?
Dora The Explorer
I explore the tiny little building and its contents. There are boxes of first aid equipment, sleeping bags sleeping pads, tools, pots, and lots more stuff stacked upon shelves. It’s good to know if I got stuck up here that this option would be available. I kind of wish I would have hiked up the day before and stayed at the top. That would have been so cool! Names line the walls and I wish that I had a marker so that I could write my name as well. In sheer excitement, I didn’t even think to look for the registry book. How dumb of me. I saw the table outside, but no book. Oh well. I know I did it. I don’t need a book or wall to prove it.
Top Of The World
Walking back outside I head over to the edge of the mountain. My hands begin to sweat even now as I think about how high up that was. I’m deathly afraid of heights, but I always seem to pick adventures that make me face this fear. It’s good for me I guess. The view is breathtaking. I only get to see it for a moment though before the clouds shut their doors to the view. I’m glad they opened up though, even if only for a moment. It’s as if they felt bad for me making such a long trek and not getting to see the world below, so they opened their doors for just one peek and then closed them just as fast as they opened.
I stayed at the top for a little longer even though I knew I had a long hike back to my car. I texted with my best friend and took a few more photos. Obviously, I had to look for the survey marker before leaving. I almost forgot. It ended up being right where I took my sign photo earlier. Then I began my trek back down the mountain.
The LONG Trek Back To Whitney Portal
Going down is so much easier than up. I practically ran all the way down. Okay, I didn’t go that fast, but I did run a good portion of it. I’d run for a bit, walk for a bit, and then run again. At Trail Crest, I gathered up my belongings and begrudgingly took on the weight of them on my back once again. Even so, I still kept up with my run/walk rhythm getting me closer to the end. At the switchbacks, I passed two of the men I had met at the top and then I passed the other two. I felt like a beast until to trail runners ran past me like it was nothing. Okay, I guess they do this a bit more than I do.
Soon I reach Trail Camp and I naively think that I’m close to my car. I bet I’ll be there in an hour! I was wrong. Oh my gosh, I was so wrong! That trail from Trail Camp to Whitney Portal was the longest trail of my life. I know it was because I was tired, hungry, and cranky, but I swear it was neverending. Not only that, but it’s not a flat trail. It’s a technical trail with lots of rocks and boulders that you have to carefully place your foot on so as not to fall or twist an ankle. I wish I could have just camped at Trail Camp, but I need to get home. I promised David that I would get home to see him before he left. Plus I work tomorrow. What fun!
In The Black Of The Night
With no other option, I trekked on. Soon dusk was upon me, and then it was pitch black. I hate night hiking. My eyesight isn’t the best and I rely on being able to see the full landscape in order to figure out where the trail is going. At this point, I’m regretting that I only brought my thumb flashlight. The battery only lasts for what seems to be five minutes before it’s too dim to even use. I’m guessing that while it was under my sleeping mat it drained the battery. Dumb! How could I be so dumb? It’s a good thing I have a phone flashlight. That thing is super bright. I shove my phone in my strap pocket so the light shines forward and trek on.
Down a few levels of the switchbacks I see another group of maybe six people. As much as I try to run and catch up with them I can never get close enough though. It would be nice to hike with someone else through the night. It’s not that I’m scared of animals or anything. I just like the confirmation that I’m heading in the right direction when you’re in a group. I never end up catching up with that group though. Well, I shouldn’t say never. I did catch up with them eventually, but it wasn’t until I reached the last quarter mile. Up until that point, I descended too many switchbacks to count, crossed a foot-wide log bridge that spanned about 500 feet, and rock hopped across a creek, all in the pitch black of the night.
Once I reached the parking lot I wanted to kiss the ground. It was 9 p.m. and I still had a 5-hour drive ahead of me. As much as I wanted to stop to grab a pizza in celebration, I ended up just hitting the road and stopping at a McDonald’s. With a newfound energy, I called David and Shannon to share my excitement and texted the rest of my family and friends. I did it! I climbed Mount Whitney! Not only that, but I hiked the John Muir Trail. Well, not the whole thing, but I’ll finish it next year. This was a great adventure and a great accomplishment. Now that I’ve finished this journey, it’s time to plan another. Haha! Yes, I’m an adventure addict like that. Always looking for the next item to check off my bucket list.
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