July 22, 2016
Distance: 11 miles
Traveled: Junction Meadow to Guitar Lake
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
– John Muir, Our National Parks
The last full day.
The last full day.
I woke up fully aware that our crossing over the Sierra Nevada from west to east was quickly coming to an end.
On typical long backpacking trips, the last full day on the trail usually feels like just that: one last normal, long, day. One last day to go through all of the motions and routines of tearing down and setting up camp. One last day for a swim. One last day to devour all of the extra calories and ounces you’ve been hauling on your back through the mountains. One last day to walk through the wilderness until the sun hangs low before sunset. One last campfire. There is nostalgia for where you have been, and usually a building craving for the shower, or hot meal, or bed pillow that will await you the next day. But there’s still one last full day in the wilderness in front of you to savor.
On a long backpacking trip that ends on the summit of Mt. Whitney, there is something tangibly different about the last full day on the trail. There’s an anticipation that doesn’t quite compare. You’re usually sleeping in her shadow. It’s like running a marathon and stopping to take a nap 10 feet from the finish line. There’s an energy in the air that’s noticeably different, that makes the last full day on the trail not quite feel like the last day, but instead, an experience of its own.
Waking to this fifth day on the High Sierra Trail, it was more that yesterday had been our last day on the trail – yesterday was the last normal. Today we were walking to take a nap in the shadow of the highest finish line in the contiguous United States (and a “nap” is ironically an accurate definition for what we would have).
There was not a bone in my body that was ready to be done.
But, alas, the walk had to continue…
When we woke around 6:00 am, our neighbor Cormac was already gone from camp. Our other neighbors were all still sound asleep.
It would be a short 11-mile day, and the one priority was to get as much of the day done as we could before the heat tried to kill us again. We had 4 miles to the junction with the JMT/PCT and about 2400’ of elevation gain, and we wanted to get that climb out of the canyon over with as early as possible.
We were out of camp at 6:30, and back on the HST heading north for our last mile up Kern Canyon.
The view back down Kern Canyon in the early morning light truly showed when an impressive scour in the earth this canyon is (and did you know that it’s also a fault line? Interesting fact!)
Soon we reached the junction to start heading east again. Just seeing “John Muir Trail” on the sign made me giddy.
The trail here follows Wallace Creek for 3 miles, and a stunning 3 miles it was.
The view of the Kaweahs to the east kept getting better as the trail climbed higher.
Wallace creek was rushing next to us along the trail, and its canyon was quite beautiful and impressive as well.
Before reaching the crossing of Wright Creek, a tributary of Wallace Creek, I turned to take in the view behind us. The canyon framed the Kaweahs perfectly. As John Muir would say: it was another glorious day in the Sierra.
We stopped right before the crossing of Wright Creek to drink a liter of water and eat a small snack.
I was glad my appetite had returned to near normalcy. While eating my snack, I admired my grimy hands. Dirt had nicely settled into all of my fingernails, and my sun gloves were nicely dirt-stained (I highly recommend Sun Gloves for any backpacking trip at elevation – so many people don’t think about sun protection for their hands).
A huge part of me absolutely loves the Sierra dirt that manages to take up residence on both on my clothes, and on myself, during a big backpacking trip. I always end up with big patches of dirt engrained on both heels that take weeks to completely come off despite all scrubbing. Whenever I notice it in the shower it makes me smile knowing a bit of the Sierra is still a part of me.
Something about the dirt was making me feel incredibly nostalgic for the journey that was behind us.
Leaving our snack-time post on the west side of Wright Creek, we crossed to the other side. As had become typical, I had the luxury of walking straight through the creek, while Caitlin had to rock-hop to save the last remaining bandage that was currently covering her blister (which was still just as huge and dreadful looking as it was on day 1).
The trail climbed higher and I turned for one last peek to our east.
After one last small push uphill, there it was: the JMT junction. From this point on, the High Sierra Trail, John Muir Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail all share the same path.
Nostalgia and emotion welled up through all of me.
I have a vivid memory of the last time I saw this sign – yet, I don’t have any memory of the surrounding landscape, as I never really saw any of it. Last time I was here I was plowing through the night with my buddy Friz, on a 27-mile marathon-death-march to finish our last two days on the JMT in only one day. I remember this sign flashing in the light of my headlamp as our first indication of where we were and how much further we had to go – not knowing then that I was walking straight into the most physically miserable and exhausting experience of my life.
And here I was again, standing at this junction, with my pair of asthmatic lungs in much better working condition than they were 2 years prior. I was so eager to get another shot at this section of this trail. I was so eager for the retribution ahead.
And, with a suddenness that was quite shocking – I found myself merging onto the summertime-JMT-superhighway. Look both ways before you merge…
Holy crap. People. Humans. Everywhere.
I’ll tell you what: if you’re looking to mountains to find solitude, the John Muir Trail in July is definitely not the place to find that.
Within the first 5 minutes I saw more people than I had in the past 5 days. Big groups, small groups, solo hikers, boy scout troops. Everywhere, humans. Ew.
I crossed Wallace Creek and found a spot in the shade to wait for Caitlin. Two ladies that were hiking the JMT were camped nearby and were just starting their morning routine. I talked with them for a while, and we shared stories from the trail, and I listened longingly to them talking about their experiences on the JMT. I knew the anticipation and emotions they were experiencing as they approached the end of their journey, and I was so excited for them. Yet, the excitement I was feeling for them knowing they were approaching the end of their journey was much more than I felt for myself. Perhaps because I had been here before, or because the High Sierra Trail is so much shorter, or (most likely) because all I wanted was to keep walking – I wasn’t ready for the finish line.
I mentioned to them that we were planning on summiting Whitney for sunrise, and they were too. Whereas I was thinking of leaving Guitar Lake around 2:30 am, they were thinking about leaving at 12:30 am…which seemed way too early, but then, as I started to let it sink in it actually seemed like the right idea. My forecast for getting any sleep tonight was starting to look grim.
Caitlin arrived, and we said bye them, knowing we would surely see them again. Crabtree Meadows, about 4.5 miles ahead, was our next milepost for the day.
The last time I flew through this section of trail, the sun was just starting to rise. It was as sandy and barren as I remembered it.
The trail here hovers just below treeline around 10,800’, and the surrounding forest is almost entirely Foxtail Pines. The Foxtails are such beautiful trees, looking so similar to the famous Bristlecones (and they are closely related), but interestingly, Foxtails are endemic to California and are generally only found in this area of the Southern Sierra. They’re long-living much like their Bristlecone relatives, living around 3000 years – and remarkably, their needles persist for up to 20 years. One needle being nearly 20 years old is remarkable to me.
The dry landscape along the trail eventually gave way to beautiful Sandy Meadow, with a perfectly framed view of the Kaweahs and the Great Western Divide.
The Kaweahs had provided such a prominent backdrop for our journey thus-far, and now we would be leaving views of them behind and trading their vistas for that of Mt Whitney and her entourage of Eastern Sierra granite beasts.
Soon after passing the meadow, I hit a wall of exhaustion. I was hungry, the heat had drained me, and conveniently, I had just run out of water. With another 2 miles to go before water at Crabtree Meadows, I was less than thrilled. By the time I reached the trail junction heading down to Whitney Creek and Crabtree Meadows, I was completely beat.
Taped onto the post at the junction with Crabtree Meadows was a paper sign, which a few other hikers were reading. I peeked around them.
A missing hiker – last seen on the Mountaineers Route on Whitney two day ago. 68 years old. Devastating.
As I trudged down the trail to Crabtree Meadows, the first of many Search and Rescue helicopters I would see that day buzzed overhead heading toward Mt. Whitney. From that moment on, a somber mood overshadowed the day. Every hour or so, another helicopter flying low overhead would break the silence – a continual reminder that the wilderness isn’t always forgiving.
I heartily guzzled a liter of water from Whitney Creek and made myself at home in the creek-side shade and waited for Caitlin. When she arrived, she was equally exhausted.
It was only 1:00, and with barely another 3 miles left to camp at Guitar Lake, we were in no rush. Also, there was no shade to be found at Guitar Lake (it sits above treeline), and I was less than eager to rush up there to sit in the sun for 7 hours until sunset.
It ended up being a looooong break – 3 hours to be precise – and it was quite refreshing. Our neighbor Cormac from camp the night before showed up and joined us. We passed the time talking, eating, and laying back on our packs for some light snoozing. Cormac was debating whether to go out over Trail Crest or out at Cottonwood Pass. He had already done Whitney, so he wasn’t wanting to summit again, and the idea of exiting Cottonwood for a change of scenery was sounding appealing to him. We invited him to catch the sunrise from the summit with us, and after hours of debate over the pros and cons, he decided to head up to Guitar Lake with us (but wouldn’t commit to summiting).
Shortly after 4:00, when the sun had fallen a reasonable amount in the sky, we rose from our siesta and put our packs back on for the last few miles of the day to the shadow of Mt. Whitney.
We jumped back on the JMT-superhighway southbound.
Soon, she came into full view. The first good view of Mt. Whitney.
I pulled over at glassy Timberline Lake to take some photos of Whitney reflecting in the lake, and waited for Caitlin and Cormac. There were quite a few other hikers there, and we all started talking. Everyone was headed up to Guitar Lake, and a few of them were also planning a sunrise summit. And I thought we might have the summit to ourselves for sunrise…nope! From the sounds of it, there would be a headlamp highway heading up the mountain in the early morning hours.
The excitement in the air for the end of everyone’s journey was tangible.
I started talking with two older guys – Ted and Shahae. They were two of the nicest people I have ever met on the trail. At 70 and 78, I found it so inspiring that they were out on the trail. In talking with Ted, the last time he had been to the summit of Mt Whitney was when he was 17 – 61 years ago. He had come to the Sierra for a summer to help build the Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station, and he told me some great stories from that time. It was fascinating talking with them.
Caitlin and Cormac arrived and I introduced them to everyone. As I hoisted on my pack to continue along with them, all wished us well on the rest of our hike.
Caitlin, Cormac, and I all headed off again to finish the last push to the lake.
Despite the search and rescue helicopters still moving in and out of the area, reminding us of the grave situation on the mountainside in front of us, we were in great spirits.
We were now above treeline, and the green grasses and wildflowers lining the trail were beautiful.
The immensity of Whitney made us all appear so small as we approached.
Guitar Lake was as expected – meaning, there were a zillion other camps scattered around the shore. Part of me was nervous that we wouldn’t find a spot.
Luckily, there was a beautiful spot not far from the trail, big enough for all of us, and we happily took off our packs and relaxed.
Shortly after we settled in, the group that had been camped at Junction Meadows by us the night before arrived. We were glad to see their familiar faces, and knowing the availability of remaining spots to camp was slim, we invited them over to camp right next to us. Then we spotted Ted and Shahae heading our way, and they asked to set up camp with us. Before we knew it, Caitlin and I had acquired a camp full of new friends. It was a classic thru-hike experience…where you start alone, yet by the end you somehow end up with more new friends than you can count on one hand. It was wonderful.
Yet, despite the cheer that our new comrades brought with them, and the great conversation of everyone getting to know each other, the energy was still somber. Somewhere on that mountain in front of us was a missing hiker.
A helicopter flew into the basin as we were setting up camp, and hovered around one area on the south face for quite a while. We couldn’t help but stare and wonder if they were seeing something. The helicopter moved in very close to the slope and would hover for minutes, appearing to be thoroughly scanning the steepest sections of the southwest slopes. The energy of everyone camped in that basin was tangible. Everyone was watching, everyone was wondering – had they found him?
As quickly as it had arrived, the helicopter abruptly turned and left, and we spotted a search and rescue team descending the slope next to us. We watched them scramble down toward the lake, grateful for their tireless work, and everyone wondering if there was any news.
A guy we had met earlier talked with the SAR team, and he brought word back to us that they had found his backpack. Yet, still no sign of the missing hiker, unfortunately. They were still considering it an active rescue situation, as the weather had been clear and the days and nights had been warm enough that someone could have possibly survived several days exposed to the elements.
A couple other helicopters came and went as the sun sunk lower. Surely every single person camped in the basin that evening was as fixated as we were on the massive SAR operation unfolding in front of us. It was quite a thing to witness.
Eventually, the last helicopter took off for the evening and the sky resumed its silence. I couldn’t help but wonder if the man they were searching for was out there somewhere conscious of the returning evening silence.
Caitlin, Cormac and I had decided we would wake up at 12:30 and quickly pack up and head out. We all decided to cowboy camp so that we wouldn’t have much to pack up in the morning. Over our dinners, we all talked and laughed. We tried to talk Ted and Shahae into summiting with us at sunrise, but Ted was adamant about the fact that he needed his “beauty sleep”.
At sunset, Shahae came up to me carrying a wooden flute and songbook in his hands, and said that he and Ted like to sing a little “kumbaya” before bed every night and he wondered if it would be okay if they sang a bit – of course, we said yes – and he then offered me their songbook and invited us all to join them.
I struggle to explain the magic of this moment. To anyone that wasn’t there, maybe it sounds silly, or maybe it sounds ordinary – but I can assure you that as I write this I feel tears welling up in my eyes at the memory of what a special moment in time that evening was.
That evening as the alpenglow set on Whitney, as the day settled in for her slumber, a group of dirty, weary, hikers of all ages and walks of life, that up until a few hours before had all been strangers, came together in this one place in time to sing some songs together. With our rusty voices we sang some Joni Mitchell, some Bob Dylan, some Neil Young. We laughed, sang the wrong words, admired spontaneous harmonies, and didn’t much care if we were out of tune. And then, the songbook opened to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – and we all started in…
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky (as we all looked to the wide open sky above us)
Imagine all the people living for today…
I don’t know if it was the breathtaking landscape surrounding us, or the emotional end of our journeys, or simply the lyrics that resonated with us as they echoed around the basin. Or, perhaps, it was that we all found ourselves gazing upon a beast of a mountain, that at that moment looked so serene dressed in alpenglow – knowing that somewhere out in front of us was either a man who was scared and alone, or the body of a man and perhaps, in some small way, our voices were lifting his soul upward.
Perhaps it was all of the above.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
And as we neared the finish of the song, most of the eyes around me were shedding quiet tears.
The ‘kumbaya’ wound down with applause from our neighbors and our declaration that with it now being 8:00, we needed to crawl into our sleeping bags to get our luxurious 4.5 hours of sleep.
Thinking we probably wouldn’t see our new friends again, there were hugs, and words of gratitude and goodnights shared all around. And as twilight set in, we all cocooned ourselves into our sleeping bags for the night of breezy and restless sleep ahead.
It’s times and experiences like that evening that make life the golden treasure that it is.
Something that has proven to be remarkably true in my life is that somehow I go into the mountains seeking beautiful wild spaces and solitude, and rather than emerging with stories of the waterfalls and sunrises I encountered, I end up with stories of great new friendships. Some of my favorite friendships were made at the top of a mountain, or the bottom of a canyon. There’s a surprising measure of humanity to be found where you expect no one else to be. For this I am grateful.
Goodnight. See you in 4.5 hours.
More information on the on the search for John Lee:
- Insyo SAR – Multi-Agency Search for Missing Hiker on Mt Whitney
- LA Times – Body of missing hiker is found on Mt. Whitney during massive search effort
- Inyo County Sheriff’s Office Facebook – SAR Final Posting