Mt Whitney Backpack Trip – Day 3 – 9/16/11 – Guitar Lake to Mt Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal – 15.7 Miles
Jeff woke us at 6:00 a.m. to get an early start on our summit of Mt Whitney. It was a whopping 24 degrees overnight but I slept warm and comfortable. I now have the gear combination nailed down for surviving (enjoying!) these cold temperatures. Pitched out in the open, my tent was covered in dew which turned to ice within minutes after I vacated it. Great - now I have an ice block to carry to the top of the mountain.
I had no appetite for breakfast, nervous about the big mileage and elevation gain ahead. Was I being affected by the altitude? I didn’t feel lightheaded or nauseous, just sluggish and tired. The hiking groups around us were packing up and leaving. Despite our best efforts, it was nearly 7:30 a.m. before we resumed the John Muir Trail. This was Carolyn’s day to carry the bear canister, a big load combined with all her other gear. My pack did not feel lighter than the first day: less food but a wet tent.
In my short few years of outdoor adventures I have drawn many lines that I refused to cross…and then crossed them. Peeing in the woods? Hiking farther than 10 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles? Hiking alone? Hiking in a downpour? Hiking at 15 degrees? Hiking with people I met on the internet? Sleeping in a shelter, no tent? Camping alone? No shower for five days? Crossed all those lines. After a debate about the WAG bags (“maybe I can just hold it until I get to Whitney Portal”) we women acknowledged that if we are true environmentalists and stewards of our public lands, we should follow the recommended guidelines, so before we left camp we joined the WAG bag club. Another line crossed, and like the others, no big deal. Whatever it takes to get me to the places I want to go…and keep them protected for the next adventurer.
I carried 2.5 liters of water and was not drinking enough, which added to my lethargy. My first steps taking me away from Guitar Lake were already tough. The long sustained climb up to the pass, called Trail Crest, was relentless. The tree line was long gone. Looking at the wall of rock, it was difficult to discern the switchbacks until I was on top of them.
Dolores was hiking with one pole (her second one had broken before the trip) and she was uneasy about the narrow trail. She said that she would be my “slave” today, one step behind, and she was true to her word. Me, I was so slow that she occasionally bumped into me but neither of us minded because we wanted the moral support. I would not have believed that I could walk so slowly. Each step was a monumental effort, breathe in with the right foot, breathe out with the left foot. If the slope of the trail changed one iota I could feel it. When I had three easier steps in a row I gained confidence and thought I could make it – then the trail tilted upward again and it became unbearable, too hard, bad idea, ain’t never doing this again.
And all the while we were surrounded by God’s incredible works. Good morning, Guitar Lake
Good morning moon
Can you find me and Dolores?
Can you find the hiker blending in?
Looking down at Guitar Lake
As we climbed higher the temper- ature dropped lower and I dug down for my thicker gloves. Mileage was fuzzy as usual, but I think after about three miles we reached Trail Crest, the intersection of the John Muir Trail with the spur trail to the summit of Mt Whitney. Carolyn and Jeff were already there, eating and preparing for the summit. Here we dropped our packs, put on a couple more layers, including rain gear, and loaded our pockets with essentials for the four-mile out-and-back trek: food, cell phones, cameras, gloves, hats. We debated about donning our YaxTrax that we had carried for three days, but descending hikers said that they were not necessary so we skipped it (except Jeff because he is smarter than we are). I did not consider not summiting: I was just glad to drop that pack. I didn’t eat anything at this point, even though I knew I really should, just didn’t think I could swallow.
And off we go to summit Mt Whitney!
Carolyn in the red coat on the spur trail
Dolores on the spur trail
Mt Whitney is the mountain sloping upward from the left to the center of the photo
An iceberg lake
The uphill was quite difficult even without a backpack. My breathing was labored, my legs weighed about a thousand pounds each, and I stopped often, trying to catch my breath and eat a mini Clif bar one microscopic bite at a time.
Still working it. Now the mountain is just a big pile of rocks and the trail is just stepping over rocks, no fear of heights whatsoever. Passing descending hikers can be challenging.
Snow field – I was not happy about this, flashbacks of the Grand Tetons backpack trip. Dolores finally passed me as I struggled to continue.
It is not lonely on top of Mt Whitney. I’ve read that 11,000 people summit it each year. Cell signals are possible and everyone calls home to say, “Guess where I am?”
The gang’s all here sharing an unforget- table moment at 14,500 feet, the highest point of the lower 48 states.
Personal triumph – the feeling of accomplishment was immense
Signing the summit register
We hung around for the better part of an hour, taking numerous variations of summit photos. Jeff left first, then Dolores, then Carolyn, and then I began the long descent – 11 miles. The snow field was terrifying going down. It’s just a narrow path stomped into the snow and nothing on either side except air. I slipped once flat onto my back, got myself back up with my heart pounding, then slipped two more times. There were people behind me waiting patiently, telling me to take my time. Note to self: always carry the darn YaxTrax.
Back at Trail Crest, Jeff’s pack was gone so we figured we wouldn’t see him the rest of the day. I shouldered my pack again, took a few steps down and around a curve…and there was another upward climb. Back to my now-perfected snail’s pace. After that, the downhill began for real on the infamous 99 switchbacks. I was so very glad to be going downhill that the switchbacks were a pleasure.
Dolores in the lower left corner
A friendly marmot
I passed Dolores, descending very cautiously with her single hiking pole, and eventually caught up with Carolyn below Trail Camp, about 6 miles from the trail’s end at Whitney Portal. The trail opened up as we passed through meadows and it seemed that the end was near, but then the trail would descend sharply again through a narrow section. My back felt great, my knees didn’t hurt (much) and with every downward step the oxygen level increased and I could breathe, breathe, breathe again.
Looking down into the town of Lone Pine
A waterfall on Lone Pine Creek
We caught up with a couple of hikers and Carolyn became engaged in a long conver- sation with them, trying to pass the time, and I slipped on ahead and got into a zone. Time was flying and I really wanted to get off the trail before dark. The last two miles were tough as my joints began to protest the constant stepping down. I finished in fading light at 7:10 p.m., almost 12 hours on the trail. Taking off a loaded backpack is one of the best feelings in the whole wide world.
Carolyn was only a few minutes behind, then we went to the car to catch up with Jeff. A half hour later Dolores emerged in full dark with a very cute young man who had noticed her descending with one hiking pole as he was going UP to the summit. On his way back down he saw her again, insisted that she use his hiking poles, and then accompanied her the rest of the way. What a big finish!
Is the day over? No, not yet. The only place in town to get a quick bite was McDonald’s. Then we had to find our campground home for the night and set up tents again. Then…after a prayer of thanks…oblivion until morning.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do, than by the ones you did do. ~ Mark Twain
Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. ~Christoper Robin to Pooh