John Muir Trail, Day 20: Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal

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J:  Hardest part of the whole hike was the “99 switchbacks” going down, down, down to Whitney Portal, but let’s back up a minute….

I hope you’re all ready for a lot of pictures, because our final day is easier to describe that way, because words are just plain hard. But we’ll try.

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sleepy, but so excited!

Our alarms went off nice and early on Day 20. While we knew we didn’t want to hike to the summit at sunrise, we did want to be hiking when the sun came up on our final day. We got packed up rather quickly, making sure we had our snacks close, our headlamps on, and our ‘day packs’ easy to access for the final couple of miles (more on this later).

J:  My alarm went off at 3:30 am…I wanted to get up early enough to see the meteor shower (and to get the WAG bag situation out of the way early enough to find some privacy in the dark, behind a rock, on top of a marmot’s house).  The only cool thing about shitting into a bag was being distracted by one of the most amazing starry skies.  The milky way was gone by then, but there were a bunch of shooting stars/meteorites.  It was one of those skies that makes you dizzy if you stare too long – also making it a little harder to balance over a bag.

Then we noticed the headlamps of hikers that were heading up the mountain to make it up to the top before sunrise.  We finally knew where the trail was which was awesome and terrifying all at the same time.  Ignorance is bliss.

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the ascent has started, and Guitar Lake is in the distance

By 5:00, we were on our way. We had about 4.5 miles to hike to get to the summit, and slightly more than 3,000 feet to rise. No big deal, right? It wasn’t long before the darkness faded and the light came through – the stars were beautiful while hiking, but the sunrise over the area was something I will never forget.

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We stopped after a few hundred feet of climbing for a short break and a snack. Oh, and to take in some of the views. Do any of you watch Survivor? Chris and I might be the only people on earth who still watch it, but the final miles to Whitney reminded me of the part of the show where they used to drop all the torches of the ‘fallen’ and reminisce about the adventure. I felt like this section was just that, and I felt as cool as those people at the end of Survivor probably feel – without the chance of all the monies.

J:  I’m not sure about the Survivor reference (sorry, H), but do agree that the whole climb up to Whitney was not that bad simply because my brain was preoccupied replaying the whole hike leading up to this point.  I still couldn’t believe that we were on our final climb and were actually going to make it (unless a giant mountain goat pummeled us off a cliff).

You were replaying the hike like those Survivor people replay their game. See? Same thing ;).

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we didn’t look tired at all, did we?!

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Guitar Lake to the right, Kaweah Peaks in the back

The only part we could really see for the first while was the view west down to Guitar Lake and the Kaweah Peaks that we lunched at the day before. While we weren’t really able to appreciate the ‘guitar-ness’ of the lake while we were camping right at the base of it, you could really see the actual guitar shape when higher and looking down. It was also pretty cool to see the changing colors of the same view as the sun slowly made its way over the massive boulders on the east, and over to the west.

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making our way towards Whitney!

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After some steady climbing for about 2,000 feet and 2.5 miles, we came to a destination that was almost as exciting as getting to Whitney itself. Ok, not really, but it was still a big accomplishment. The Whitney Trail Junction was the fork in the trail where you could go one way and reach Whitney in a couple of miles, or you could continue the other way and reach Trail Crest and eventually after a lot of descent, Whitney Portal, the end of the road. This meant we’d be coming back to this spot after reaching Whitney – which translates to we didn’t have to carry our entire backpacks over the final 2 miles. YES!

The final stretch wasn’t easy without our packs, but it felt a whole hell of a lot lighter – in weight and in breathing. Chris didn’t have a day pack, but he moved most of his stuff into my pack, so we all had significantly less weight for the final haul.

J:  Dumping our heavy packs felt great!  I remembered worrying about leaving our packs on the side of the trail a few weeks earlier to hike up Half Dome.  We (or maybe just me) were worried about someone or something taking our packs while we were hiking.  This time, I did not care.  I was so happy to have a lighter load, especially with the extra trouble breathing at such a high altitude.

As we were getting ready to climb the last 1.7 miles to the top, we ran into the girls who had camped next to us the night before.  They were in the group that hiked up for sunrise (left around 1 am).  While they said it was one of the most spectacular views they’d ever seen, they also confirmed that it was freezing cold.  It confirmed for me that we had made the right choice to skip the sunrise. I think the cold would have ruined it for me.  

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By this point, other hikers had certainly started to arrive on the trail – those coming from the South who had stayed overnight at Trail Camp, and those like us who’d stayed at various points along Guitar Lake. The difference today though, was that we all had one united goal at this point – getting to Whitney.

The section of trail here was really rocky, full of pinnacles and gorgeous views to the mountains, but also on the other side, to Lone Pine. We tried not to rush it – as excited as we were to get to the summit, we also wanted to soak it all in. We also didn’t want to rush because some parts of this trail were rather narrow, and we weren’t looking to make it all this way just to fall down the mountain. That would have really sucked.

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Jennifer had hiked ahead of Chris and I a little bit during this last jaunt. I hiked a little ahead of Chris as well, but would stop to take pictures pretty often, so we were never too far apart from one another.

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Whitney Trail selfie!

I kept looking ahead at the trail, feeling like these last 2 miles to the summit were never going to end. Not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, but geez, for 20 days (and months before we even started!), we’d talked about making our way to Whitney. We were so close at this point we could feel it, but I still couldn’t see it.

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J:  I was on a mission.  I kept going and didn’t realize I was pretty far ahead of Heather and Chris.  I was forced to stop at one point as I came around a corner and the view just took my breath away. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it was pretty spectacular up there.  I had a feeling we were pretty close to the top so I wanted to wait for Heather and finish this thing together.  As I stood there waiting, staring out over the world, I sort of lost it a little and started tearing up.  It was at that moment that Heather came up to me and laughed at me a little for getting emotional, then she did too.  Chris had told us earlier not to wait up for him, so we sucked it up and were off to climb the final stretch.

Jennifer stopped probably about 1/4 of a mile from the summit to wait for me, and I was so glad. I know we weren’t hiking together every second of this journey, and we were both completely ok with that, but this last section was something that seemed appropriate to do together. We finally made it those last few feet to the summit, and when I saw the building at the summit, a gush of happiness came over us both – we had made it to Mt Whitney!

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we wanted to run at this point, but the thin air just wouldn’t allow it

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J:  WE DID IT!!!!  Hell yeah!

We had a few minutes to walk around before Chris made it to the summit as well. He was feeling much better today, but the last bit of the ascent slowed him down a tad, and he was more than fine with us getting there before him – he knew we were excited!

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view from the edge!

Once Chris got to Whitney, we took a ton of pictures. We knew pizza and beer was down below, but we didn’t want to rush our time at the summit – not at all.

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this is where the picture above this one was taken from

Don’t worry – we were totally careful.

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Wild Turkey still life 😉

Jennifer had this idea for us to each pack a travel-sized bottle of whiskey to drink when we made it to the top. I remember thinking, “do I want that extra weight”? It was only a few ounces, but remember, I’d left behind my 1 oz. headphones, so it all mattered. I ultimately decided to carry it, and I was so glad I did. It was a perfect way to top off an already amazing trek. Also, there were plenty of people around us who’d wished they’d done the same.

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The funny thing about it was that we only took a couple of baby sips from the bottles. Our tolerance had significantly decreased throughout these past 3 weeks, and being at 14,500 feet wasn’t making that any better. We took the mature, responsible route and decided to play it safe. Aren’t you proud?!

(Also, I just checked, and that same bottle is sitting on our bar cart. Maybe it was just one ultra baby sip that I took….)

J:  It felt like we might need something to commemorate our journey once we got to the top of Mt. Whitney. I’m so glad we had something to toast with at the end (even if we only had a few sips).

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Victory hug! I know I already said this, but damn, we are badass. The cool part was that since we both smelled super funky by this point (I think we were on 10 days without a shower), neither of us noticed.

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Rumor had it that Mt Whitney had some cell service, and it did! After we took a bunch of photos, we all sat down to give Jon a quick call. We all agreed that it felt weird having this huge accomplishment without him there, so before long we brought him in on the excitement. Jennifer was especially happy to hear his voice – though they’d talked briefly at VVR, the connection was horrible there and this was much more clear. Hard to believe we were up 14,500 feet in the air and essentially in the middle of nowhere.

J:  I’ll admit, I lost it a little when I got to call Jon. I’m not sure why it bothered me so much not to have any contact with him the last couple of weeks, but it was great to hear his voice and share this moment with him.  I also got to call my parents for a brief minute.  They had been following our progress with our Spot GPS tracking device and knew we’d made it…finally!

We also made a few quick calls to family members, soaked in the view a little longer, signed the register, and made our way back to our packs. We had tried to get in touch with the hotel we had our reservations at for the following night, but didn’t have any luck there. So at this point, we weren’t sure if we’d get to stay at the same place or not, but we’d just have to figure it out on the other side.

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the register at Mt Whitney

It was hard to believe that we had to get all the way down to the bottom of this view (below). You’d think they’d just build some ski-lift situation to take you down or something. I mean, seriously. 😉

J:  zip line.  that is what needs to happen.

Before long, we’d made our way back to the trail junction and picked up our heavy heavy packs. We had a tiny climb up to Trail Crest, which some consider another ‘pass’, but it isn’t actually part of the JMT, so I never think to count it. The JMT essentially ends at Mt. Whitney (hence the final point in our daily mileage picture at the top of each post), and the rest of this is just the way down, in my brain.

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After Trail Crest (elevation ~13,700), we headed out of Sequoia National Park and back into the John Muir Wilderness, beginning the final and most unrelenting descent of our trip – the dreaded ’99 switchbacks’. There were times when the switchbacks were a little too steep for my liking – we wanted to hike quicker but we just couldn’t! We finally made it down the 2.2 miles to Trail Camp, the first campsite on the other side of Mt Whitney, at ~12,000 feet. I didn’t count the switchbacks, but it felt like there were 1,000 instead of 99. Trail Camp was definitely full of people, poop, and as expected, general all-around gross-ness. I don’t think we would have stayed at Trail Camp anyway (we’d planned for Outpost Camp, another couple of miles away), but since it was early in the day, I was very very happy to be heading to the end at this point.

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we finally knew where the top was…on our way down

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a taste of the ’99 switchbacks’

In case anyone was wondering, all three of our WAG bags had to get used. We were all hiking at different paces after the stop for lunch, which was shortly after Trail Camp, and I honestly thought I was going to make it all the way out without using that thing, since my morning routine was nonexistent due to the early start. Unfortunately, the urge hit me an hour or so after lunch, probably at the worst time on the trail as there was really nowhere to hide. I had to get Jennifer to watch the trail so I could duck around some little rock and figure out the bag situation. It was not cool, but whatever.

Chris, meanwhile, literally disappeared. We knew he was hiking a little slower than we were, but at one point I had stopped to see how far back he was, and he was completely out of view. I had a feeling he was getting pretty uncomfortable by that point (this was, after all, 4 days of no poop action for him), so I had an idea of what was going down. We just waited for a few minutes, and he eventually showed up and just hiked on by. There was no major conversation about his experience, but just an affirmative that it had happened.

I should have wagered some money on that bet. ha!

J:  I was pretty glad that the WAG bag situation had taken care of itself early in the morning for me. It wasn’t the most ideal of situations, but the alternative that H+C had to deal with on this busy trail seemed like it sucked. 

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The area around Outpost Camp was actually really nice – a wooded area with nice streams/creeks nearby and free of ‘riff raff’ – probably because it was relatively close to the trailhead. And there was honestly still a (very small) part of me that wanted to camp one more night. The final jaunt at this point was only about 4 miles and about 2,000 feet of descending, so it would have made for a very easy morning and pizza for lunch. But our decision had been made and we all really really wanted to finish this – we just kept right on truckin’.

J: We had all split up a bit on the descent down so I got to the Outpost Camp a few minutes before H+C.  I stopped to talk with a few hikers, but when I saw Heather round a corner, I practically ran out of there. I didn’t want to have any discussion about whether or not we would stop there for the night.  At this point, I was SO ready to get that victory beer.

Eventually, we made it to the final section of trail and the last few hundred feet of down. At one point you could see the parking lot – and while it still looked far away, it brought a HUGE smile to my face. We also started seeing families out on day hikes, and a couple of people walking their dogs – all obvious signs we were almost there. And then we were – after about 240 miles of hiking, most of which was on the JMT, we had reached our destination at Whitney Portal. I can’t describe how I felt, other than to say I was happy, sad, tired, excited, and really really fucking hungry. Turns out, the Whitney Portal Store was open, and the ‘Grille’ smelled like heaven.

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But first, we dumped our shit!  There was a special ‘biohazard’ bin for the WAG bags.  Glad Jennifer captured this!

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Jennifer and I found a nice outdoor table, where we practically threw our packs down, and we proceeded to find a nice cold beer and ordered a giant plate of fries. We scarfed them down while we waited for Chris, feeling pretty satisfied about life and this major accomplishment.

After hundreds of faxes, 8 months of planning, 20 days of actual hiking, pounds of Snickers Bars and sports beans, drops and drops of liquid magic, lots of throwback tunes, dozens of blisters, mornings and nights of throbbing ankles, and countless smiles and memories later – the JMT was complete.

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demolished a plate of fries and of course, Sierra Nevada beers

J:  If you want to have the best damn beer of your life, all you have to do is hike 240 miles.  For some reason, it makes any beer 100 times more satisfying.  What a day and what an epic adventure!  I am so glad I got to share it with one of my best friends and the best hiking partners a girl could ask for.  

And with that, this job is complete! Well, almost – stay tuned for one more write-up – our “post JMT” re-cap, starting with the rest of the night (pizza!), the next day, and the few days after.


Day 20 details (August 13, 2015):

Start-finish: Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal
Daily miles: 15.1
Mileage tally: 237.9
Camp elevation: Lone Pine, CA in a REAL BED – ~4,000 ft
Hiking elevation: Elevation: 2,545 ft gain; 6,108 ft loss

John Muir Trail, Day 19: Tyndall Frog Ponds to Guitar Lake

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Our 19th morning was frigid. So frigid that it was really hard to get moving, even though we knew it would help to warm us up! Courtney and Brittany started off before the rest of us; we had one of our latest starts yet – around 9AM. It felt nice to not have a major pass to ascend, but instead 11 miles or so with not too bad of an ascent or descent (not too bad by this point meant <2,000 feet).

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coffee for three

Eventually, we knew it was time to go, so we said goodbye to Andrew (who was doing his usual leave last/finish first thing) and started through the forest, ascending ever so gently.

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ready to roll out…

Following a short ascent upon our departure from the Tyndall Frog Ponds area, we came upon the vast, expansive Bighorn Plateau. It was beautiful, but eerie all the same – we’d hiked for miles upon miles in forests and up and down mountains, and all of a sudden we were hiking through what looked like a giant, barren field, just one small trail guiding our way to the other side.

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the trail through Bighorn Plateau

J:  Bighorn Plateau was a different landscape than what we’d gotten used to hiking through, but I thought it was beautiful in it’s own way.  There were these really interesting, sculptural looking trees along the trail. I kept taking photos of them as we passed.  I’m sure H+C thought I was weird at this point for taking so many photos of dead trees, but look how cool they are…

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dead tree #119

We took our time going through the plateau, admiring the view from every direction. It was at this point that we could supposedly see Whitney to the Southeast, but it was difficult to appreciate since it didn’t necessarily look as high as it was.

J:  It was difficult to appreciate because we couldn’t figure out which mountain peak it was! Or maybe that was just me?  I kept pointing to different mountains and taking photos with the idea that I’d just look it up later.  The jagged peaks in the background (below) looked like they had the most potential to be Mt. Whitney, so we went with that assumption.  

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Is that Whitney?  or the one next to it?

J:  Mt. Whitney was over there somewhere and we were going to find it and climb the shit out of it like ‘real’ thru-hikers do! 

Good point, Simpson. We have another “possible Whitney” picture on the day we were actually almost at Whitney, and I still don’t know if that was it….

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almost through Bighorn Plateau

On the other side of the plateau was the start of our descent down into the Wright Creek area, the last of the heavily forested areas we’d hike through. It was getting warmer by this point, and we started seeing quite a bit more foot traffic from the other direction – people hiking Northbound on the JMT, and people entering the JMT through the High Sierra Trail, which was nearby. I remember feeling so proud at this point – remembering how different I felt at the start of our hike, and wondering if those we passed felt the same as we did almost 3 weeks ago.

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the Kaweah Peaks, I think…

For lunch, we stopped off under a shaded area where we had one of the most impressive views of the day (above). At this point, we probably had about 6 miles to go, which didn’t seem too bad, so we got on our way.

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someone was feeling very happy – we were almost there!

J:  I was full of adrenaline on Day 19.  I was anxious about climbing Mt. Whitney, sad about leaving the trail life and all of the friends we’d met along the way, but also extremely excited to get back to my husband, my own bed, and get some face kisses from my dog.  It was hard to believe we had hiked so far and only had a few more days/miles to go and we’d actually complete our goal of hiking the entire JMT!

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It wasn’t long before we’d started back after lunch that Chris really started losing steam. I mean – let me be clear – we were all tired, but tired today didn’t feel different to me than tired any other day. For Chris though, this was his third day of hiking, and all have been at high elevation. While today’s hike from an intensity standpoint wasn’t that bad, it was still long and constant, and 3 full days of hiking was definitely more miles and elevation than our typical weekend hikes back home. I know he was happy with each and every break we took, but we also wanted to get to camp at a decent time today, given that the next day was ‘summit day’.

We continued on, slowly but surely, and began to see more signs for Whitney as we did. It was worth a stop for a picture at every one of them!

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Ok. So it’s been a couple of days (maybe?) since we’ve had a conversation about poop. I’m sure those of you reading regularly are perhaps sad? Upset? Confused? Let there be no doubt that we talked about it plenty on the trail – against Chris’ strongest wishes, no less – but there haven’t really been any important stories in that regard – until now.

You see, it was today that we came across the wonderful ‘WAG bag’ bin. If you’re planning to hike, or have already hiked the JMT or at a minimum, the area around Whitney (or other areas like Mt Rainier or in Denali), you know what a WAG bag is. But if you haven’t, here’s the gist: the ‘Whitney Zone’ as it’s called is extremely overcrowded with backpackers as well as hikers summitting Whitney as a day trip. Once you get away from Crabtree Meadows (where we are in the picture picking up the WAG bag – below), the area is primarily granite, or very hard packed earth. The result? Pooping is against the rules. Clearly, you can’t forbid a human being to actually poop…but you can force (or strongly encourage) them to poop in a bag that has been designed by NASA (I don’t know if that’s true but that’s what I was told). The bags have this special stuff in them that hardens the poop instantly, and then there’s a sealable bag IN the bag. You hang your bag outside of your pack and you discard it when you’re officially outta the ‘zone’ – at Whitney Portal, the end of the hike for us. Let’s just say no one looks forward to pooping in a bag. It’s just not natural.

J:  Ahhhh….the WAG bag.  I’d been dreading the WAG bag since reading about it in our initial planning of this hike, but once the moment was upon us it didn’t seem so terrible. Of course, there’s nothing natural about pooping into a bag (especially one full of space-age technology), but if I was able to overcome my fear of shitting in the woods then surely, when the moment came, I’d be ok using the WAG bag.  I was more worried about using the bag in the super crowded Guitar Lake camp area with no trees or hiding spots.  I wrote in my journal:  “I might just poop in the bag in my tent and hope I don’t miss?  We’ll see…that might be a little gross even for me”.  At least I had options.

I’d also like to make a strong plea to anyone hiking in the Whitney Zone (or any wilderness) …please please take your shit (literally) out with you.  The Whitney Zone had so many WAG bags just scattered around because people couldn’t be bothered to pack it out.  Really?  If you are badass enough to hike up through this area, then you are badass enough to add a little extra weight and carry out your own shit.  Now back to the poop talk…

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The other poop story is about Chris, and he’ll hate me for telling this to the entire world (I mean let’s be honest, everyone reads this blog, right?!). Chris does not like pooping outdoors. I had made a, um, prediction, that he’d be ok for a few days, but he probably wouldn’t make it all the way to the end, which for him was 4-5 days depending on when we were to finish up – still undetermined at this point. What I predicted was that he’d make it until the worst possible time to not make it – WAG bag time. Let’s just say that I was right so far, despite a 30-minute stop at the last ‘toilet’ at the Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station that he actually never found.

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last of the trees before heading up to Guitar Lake

J:  There wasn’t a lot of shade after we passed the Crabtree ranger station, so we took our time heading up to Guitar Lake to soak in the last of the trees and take some extra breaks as needed.  I sure didn’t mind going a little slower up to our last campsite before Whitney.  It was hard to believe we had actually made it (almost) to the end. 

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me, Andrew, Courtney, Brittany, Jennifer at Guitar Lake

Ultimately, we were all tired by the time we got to Crabtree Meadows, especially Chris, and he had extra weight to carry, so to speak (muah ha ha ha). We trudged ahead and made it to Guitar Lake right before 5PM – just in time to catch our friends before they made their journey up to the ‘bivvy site’ near the Mt Whitney trail junction (~13,500 feet) – the spot they’d decided on for their sunrise summit where they’d all hover together and barely sleep because it was going to be so damn cold up there! I didn’t envy this choice at all, if you can’t tell!

We hung out with them for a few minutes and said our goodbyes, exchanging phone numbers in the event that we’d have a chance to meet up ‘on the other side’ in Lone Pine, before we all went home. Chris took one final picture of the 5 of us, and we said goodbye to 3 people who helped to make this such an amazing adventure. We were sad to see them go, sad to know we were almost finished, but so happy to have had the experience with them.

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Jennifer, me, and the “Tallahassee Lassies”

While Chris, Jennifer, and I had planned to hike another half mile or so to the other side of Guitar Lake to get past a little bit of tomorrow’s final ascent, we decided that we’d be just fine stopping right where we were (and honestly, not sure Chris would have agreed to go one step further!). The campsite we had in mind could have very well been full by that time anyway, and we definitely didn’t want to backtrack. So we found a nice spot overlooking Guitar Lake and settled in, right next to our Tallahassee friends that we’d been leap frogging and camping alongside most nights since we left VVR. They were also part of our giant trail family, and we got one good group shot with them, too. We knew we’d never see or hear from these guys again, but we were so happy to have met them – they inspired us every day.

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Guitar Lake, our ‘official’ final campsite

While we’d been talking about it for the last day or so, tonight was the night where we felt like we really needed to come to a decision about when we finished our hike. Our original plan was to hike the JMT in 21 days – we’d finish relatively early on 8/14, a Friday, and stay the night at a place we’d reserved in Lone Pine, then drive home to SF on Saturday, then Jennifer would fly back home to Seattle on Sunday. But we’d started to get the feeling that after summitting Whitney tomorrow, we’d probably be ready to finish this adventure and get to beer and pizza lickety split. We’d also not heard anything great about any of the trail camps on the other side – there was talk of WAG bags all over the place, a lot of litter from people doing weekend trips to summit Whitney, and just a ton of general nastiness and noise.

All that said, a big part of me wanted to stretch this journey out as long as I could – what was the point in hurrying? I could get pizza and beer the next day, and SF wasn’t going anywhere. But as much as I wanted to stay one more night in my heart, I knew in my head that it was best to descend Whitney, and descend altogether. Whitney was the goal, and Whitney was the end of the JMT. The rest was just the way out – all 10 miles or so of it.

So that’s what we all three decided – tonight would be our final night camping, and tomorrow would be our final day on the trail. Those 6,000 feet we’d have to descend from Mt Whitney to get to Whitney Portal, our car, and real food and beer would be long and arduous, but we’d make it there tomorrow  – at some point.

J:  Somehow we all agreed that getting up early for the meteorite shower, summiting Mt. Whitney, AND heading all the way down to Whitney Portal in the same day (about 12 miles of extreme up and down for the day) was a fantastic idea.  I had a feeling that after finishing the JMT on top of Mt. Whitney, all that would be on my mind was talking with my husband for the first time in weeks.  There were rumors of having cell service on top of the mountain, but I didn’t want to count on that.  I was definitely going to miss being out on the trail, but I was also ready to get home.

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do you see the trail??? we couldn’t either…

And with that major decision made, we had our final trail dinner, packed up most of our things, and went to sleep as early as possible with plans to be up around 4:15, planning to hit the trail by 5:00 for our final ascent to Mt Whitney – the final stop to tick off before heading home.


Day 19 details (August 12, 2015):

Start-finish: Tyndall Frog Ponds to Guitar Lake
Daily miles: 11.0
Mileage tally: 222.8
Camp elevation: 11,470
Hiking elevation: 1,539 ft gain; 1,252 ft loss