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

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John Muir Trail, Day 18: Upper Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Frog Ponds

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The morning of our biggest and final ‘official’ pass, Forester, was upon us. I knew this one was gonna be a doozy, but we’d been hiking for 16 days at this point – how much more prepared could we be, really?! The story was different for Chris though – he’d started his adventure in high elevation, carried in our shit along with his own supplies, and now his second day on the trail was going to be this? Poor guy.

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We got started later than usual – around 8:15 today. Jennifer and I had our own routine when it was just the two of us, but it was little slower going with one more person in our group – Chris likes to take his time in the morning, and I think we were all procrastinating because of the ~2k of climbing we had to do. Nonetheless, we finally got going.

Since Chris wasn’t sure how he’d fare on this giant climb up to Forester, we’d made a deal to meet up at the top, assuming we’d be hiking differently. He was worried about ‘dragging us down’ (his words), so he made it clear that he didn’t want us to wait for him if he got too far behind. Turns out, that never really happened. We started out at a nice leisurely pace, and while we did eventually separate out during the last half, we were actually only separated by maybe 10 minutes. We were all able to see each other for most of the ascent, which was sorta fun – I was in the middle, so I could look up to see Jennifer a couple of switchbacks ahead, and I could look back to see Chris making his way too.

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the pole felt so. far. away.

The views of the forest behind us reminded us how far down we were when camping the night before (which was still over 11,000 feet!). Even though I’d obviously never hiked this area before, in a way I felt like I was showing Chris my home. We’d been out here for so long and become so used to the expansive views, the towering mountains, the trees that looked so tiny at times, and the sparkling sapphire blue lakes – it was interesting to see a newcomer, and to watch his reaction to seeing this beautiful place for the first time.

J:  Every time we passed a north bound hiker on the JMT, we were warned about Forester Pass. I’d been dreading this climb almost more than Mt. Whitney, but was also looking forward to kicking it’s ass.  

The beginning of the climb was a gradual uphill and wasn’t too terrible.  Once we got up higher, the wind picked up and almost blew me over in some spots.  I was a little further ahead of Heather and Chris (don’t know how this happened) and kept hopscotching another hiker from Germany the whole way up.  Having some music on, soaking up the sun and the expansive views, trying not to blow off the mountain, and chatting with my new German friend made the never-ending switchbacks go by a little faster.  Then, all of a sudden (or 2+ hours later), there was the top of Forester Pass! 

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The journey up to Forester Pass was long and winding. While the ascent seemed to never let up, I still felt that Glen Pass, the day before, had been more difficult. There were enough people standing around at Forester that a round of applause ensued every time someone made it to the top. It made it feel like even more of an accomplishment! It was fun to cheer Chris on as he rounded the final switchback – Jennifer and I were waiting, feeling pretty proud of him for conquering the pass in the time that he did. Once he caught his breath, he admitted that he felt ok until the last 700 feet or so – around 12,500 feet was when he really seemed to noticed the change in elevation, and the sparse air.

J:  I still can’t believe Chris made it up Forester as fast as he did. I understand why all the north bound hikers were warning us about Forester. They hadn’t had any time to acclimate to the elevation. Hiking southbound, we were able to “practice” on all the climbs leading up to this point. The higher elevation definitely takes a toll on your breathing and if you aren’t used to it, then it’s especially tough on day 2 or 3 of your journey.  

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one brave mother fucker…marmot tried to eat everyone’s food at the top of Forester

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two chapped smiles, but smiles nonetheless!

So unfortunately, while Chris originally reported that he had chapstick with him, when we stopped to look for it in his pack yesterday, we came up empty-handed. As it turns out, he’d left his chapstick in the car, and we were now all 3 without any. Awesome, right? Of course, for all the horrible things that could happen to someone on a 3 week trip in the wilderness, not having chapstick probably wasn’t that big of a deal, even though I remember thinking it was pretty miserable with every gust of wind and every big smile (of which there were many – of both).

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Forester Pass celebratory Snickers toast. View looking south, towards our destination.

Chris was a HUGE fan of our celebratory Snickers Bars. What’s not to love about it, other than having to wait to eat it?! I know there are people who literally live off of these things when backpacking – I was starting to understand why. Snickers definitely satisfies.

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Chris and me on Forester right before we started the descent

It is always pretty chilly at the top of the passes, and by this point we’d learned that the descents aren’t usually that much better until you really get into the swing of it. This was no different, and in my opinion, worse than most. The south side of Forester was really windy, and really steep. So much so that I had written “day of wind” at the top page of my journal entry. I’d also written that this section of the trail was my 2nd least favorite, after the trip down into Red’s Meadow, which felt like so long ago. Once we’d gotten down a little over 1,200 feet, it wasn’t as steep, but it was still quite barren, very desert-like, and still really really windy – an awesome combo for the chapped.

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north side of Forester…no treeline until waaaay in the distance

Lunch that day was uneventful – we found an area that allowed a slight break from the wind that doubled as an area to fill up our water.

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One of the highlights of the day was our first sign for Mt. Whitney – we were SO CLOSE! It was hard to believe we were only a couple of days away from being finished.

We finished our day shortly after we passed the sign (above), ending the day at Tyndall Frog Ponds, shortly after the Shepherd Pass Junction, and right after the start of the first ascent for the morning.

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last campsite with our trail family (and with trees)

Brittany, Courtney, and Andrew had by this point decided that they were going to try their damnedest to summit Whitney at sunrise after tomorrow, which the three of us had absolutely no interest in doing. That said, this would be our last night camping with them, as they were going to head up as far as possible for tomorrow night. We celebrated our journey together by dividing up the bottle of wine that Chris had brought in (nothing says class like a nice bottle of Broc Cellars Cab Franc out of a plastic collapsible bottle!) paired with our best dehydrated dinners and some amazing dessert, which was either a chocolate pudding or key lime pie – or both? I can’t remember…

J:  We had been debating how to finish up the hike for a few days.  There was supposed to be a meteor shower the night before we summited Whitney so I wanted to get up early (around 3 am) and start hiking under the stars.  I had zero desire to hike up any earlier in order to catch the sunrise on top of Mt. Whitney since I knew it would be way too cold for me to actually enjoy it. Luckily H+C were both on board with the no-sunrise plan, but I still had some convincing to do on the 3am start.

We still had to figure out our exit plan, but we knew it was our last night with our trail family so like Heather mentioned, we stayed up a little later (around 8pm!), ate some chocolate mousse, drank some wine, and fantasized about all of the “real” food options in Lone Pine.  I wasn’t sure if I would eat pizza or burgers first but one thing was certain,  there would definitely be beer…

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look at all that color!

Before closing out for the night, we all walked over to the Frog Ponds, where we met up with our favorite group from Tallahassee. They were happy to take a group photo of our trail family, which was a perfect way to end the night.

Next up – the journey to Guitar Lake, and the discussion about whether we finish in 20 days or the originally planned 21.


Day 18 details (August 11, 2015):

Start-finish: Upper Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Frog Ponds
Daily miles: 11.4
Mileage tally: 211.8
Camp elevation: 11,100 ft
Hiking elevation: 2,632 ft gain; 2,056 ft loss