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.
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.
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.
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 ;).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
Don’t worry – we were totally careful.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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