July 23, 2016
Distance: 16 miles
Traveled: Guitar Lake to Mt Whitney Portal
“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir
That night (or at least for the short portion of it that I was horizontal), I got very little sleep.
During the four hours between 8:30 pm when I finally settled in for sleep, and 12:30 am when my alarm went off, I tossed in and out of slumber. We were cowboy camping, and at some point, after sunset, the breeze picked up. Despite my head being tucked into my Enlightened Equipment Hoodlum, I would still wake with every big gust that chilled the exposed portion of my face.
Early in the night I woke a few times and stared up at the endless river of stars above. That night at Guitar Lake was the highest elevation I had ever cowboy camped at, and waking and opening my eyes and having my vision immersed in nothing but the stars above was quite magical. They were so close and so clear…nearly within reach. I wanted to stare into the abyss and fly through the galaxy on my sleeping pad spaceship until sunrise, and I had to force myself many times to close my eyes and prioritize sleep. With little more than a few precious hours to sleep, there was little time to waste.
Then the moon rose. I cursed her as she crested over the surrounding peaks and shone on us like the midnight sun. A nearly full moon makes it dreadfully hard to sleep.
Finally, amidst tossing and turning, I grabbed my phone from my pocket and checked the time and saw that it was 12:20. Close enough. I sat up and noted the small parade of headlamps heading up the switchbacks. I crawled from my bag and decided to give my companions a few last minutes of sleep and meandered up the slope to pee before waking them up.
I woke them and we all padded around camp as quietly as we could, eating easy calories, and quickly shoving our belongings into our packs.
At just after 1:00 am, we were starting our march toward the summit of Mt Whitney. The end of our adventure on the High Sierra Trail was within reach.
Caitlin and Cormac were worried about how slow they would need to go. I didn’t much care about how fast we went and decided to just have them set the pace and I would take up the back. With a 5:45 am sunrise we still had plenty of time.
We weren’t far up the trail before we were already stopping to remove layers. There was no wind, and the night was surprisingly warm.
We marched, and talked, and marched, and breathed, and the time passed incredibly quickly. It was such a contrast to the horrible struggle the last time I was trudging up those switchbacks. There’s a bit of a novelty to hiking at night by headlamps. The night makes a hike that would otherwise be a miserable, endless, slog during the day – a magical experience without comparison. Time and miles seem to move so much quicker.
The moon was bright enough that after a bit that we were able to turn off our headlamps and hike by the light of the moon entirely. A guy moving at a quicker pace snuck up behind us.
“It’s so bright out here I need to put on my moonglasses so I don’t get a moonburn!” he proclaimed as he approached.
We all laughed pretty damn hard. Making moonburn jokes kept us largely occupied for the remainder of the walk up to Trail Crest.
Trail Crest (13,620′) totally snuck up on us in the night. Suddenly, after a surprisingly enjoyable, and relatively-easy hike (likely due to the perfect pacing of my excellent friends), we found ourselves at the 13,620′ pass.
Despite our pleas, Cormac decided he wasn’t up to summiting again and was going to just head down to Whitney Portal from there. He would wait for us at the store.
The timing of us all crossing paths at the end of our HST journeys worked out great. Cormac had left his car in Visalia and didn’t have a well-formed plan to get back to it. So, since we had to drive through Visalia to get back to Sequoia National Park to get my car anyway, we offered to give him a ride.
Cormac continued on down. Caitlin and I didn’t waste time throwing off our packs and filling our bear canisters with whatever unnecessary ounces we could squeeze into them, and we left the bear canisters at Trail Crest so we could summit with a lighter load.
We were so excited, and as the night was growing slowly brighter, we were feeling pressured to move as fast as we could (which at that elevation wasn’t very fast). Unfortunately, necessary stops for peeing and a snack slowed us a bit as well.
The pre-dawn light grew. As we rose above 14,000′ the sky above the western horizon glowed under an aura of blues, pinks, purples, and yellows.
We started rushing, and we knew we would miss sunrise on the summit by a matter of minutes, so we hustled to the last view to the East and watched the sun make its first appearance.
Magical is an understatement. The dawn of a new day. To think that for eons she has been standing here, silently watching the sun rise every day from her vantage high in the atmosphere. I’m convinced she hasn’t yet gotten tired of the view.
We crossed the last remaining sketchy snowfield and arrived on the summit 15 minutes later to catch the sun still merely minutes in her ascent for the day.
Sunrise from the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, 14505′ Mount Whitney. So rad.
Tears, hugs, relief, gratitude and so many emotions were felt up there.
Finally, after that tough last day on the JMT in which I couldn’t summit, I got my comeuppance. The taste of retribution on the summit of Mount Whitney that morning was quite sweet.
Friends we had met on the trail were up there, everyone was throwing out congratulations and well-wishes to others on the summit. The two girls we met the day before that were finishing the John Muir Trail, had found a bit of service and were Facetiming with their family back home from a perch overlooking the valley. Caitlin and I both well knew the sweet accomplishment they were feeling in that moment, and we were so happy for them.
And our thru-hike was now nearly complete as well. What a journey. Life, living, and sharing such an incredible experience with such a special friend is so rad.
After spending some time on the summit, we briefly explored the Whitney Shelter.
Leaving the Whitney Shelter and heading back down we spotted two familiar faces coming towards us on the trail. Ted and Shahae! Turned out that Ted didn’t need as much beauty sleep as he thought, and they had woken up quite early after all. It was so great to see them one last time and get to congratulate Ted on his summit nearly 60 years after his last. Those two were such an inspiration.
Filled with so much gratitude for having crossed paths with them on this adventure, we said one last goodbye.
Hiking back to Trail Crest, the landscape around us had transformed in the sunlight.
All appeared so different in the daylight that it was as if we hadn’t just been there a couple hours earlier.
I was hoping to get a good photo of Guitar Lake in full-sun from above so I could send it to my Dad (who is a musician, and would likely appreciate a lake shaped like a guitar), but alas, it was still in the partial shade by the time I got my last glimpse.
The entire remaining stretch of trail between the Needles and Trail Crest is so rugged and craggy and cool. Truly, that is the best was to describe it: super damn cool.
A mere 45 minutes after leaving the summit, we were back at Trail Crest throwing our bear canisters back in our packs. The infamously-sneaky Trail Crest Marmot was there, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same one I met in 2014 up there. The same marmot that I watched unzip several backpacks – root around – and emerge with some sort of snack and run down the slope to eat it. Learn this lesson here: don’t leave any food at Trail Crest unless it’s secure in a bear canister. Trail Crest Marmot is waiting patiently for your unattended Pringles.
Before leaving Trail Crest, we turned to take in the western landscape from which we had come one last time. The Kaweahs, the Great Western Divide, Kern Canyon, Guitar Lake, and beyond. I breathed in the depths of the southern Sierra wilderness, filling my cup. Breathing in the landscape that beckons me again and again…the mountains that I can never get back to soon enough.
As we headed down, I warned Caitlin that she probably wouldn’t see me again til Whitney Portal. By now she seemed to understand how I feel about going downhill – I love going super-fast downhill. I just love it. And honestly, I don’t really know how not to go fast.
I was barely 100 ft from crossing the Crest to the western side before I was bludgeoned by the sun. That damn sun. I stopped to shed my layers.
It wasn’t even 9:00 am, we were still at 13,600′ where being hot shouldn’t even be a concern, and it was baking. The heat of the sun reflecting off the granite was palpable, and it was so so so early. Consider this the official introduction the day ahead…
I continued on down the switchbacks, Whitney now laid out in front of me like a centerpiece. Sky Pilot Flowers burst from the barren talus all around. It was gorgeous.
The further I descended, the less that the beautiful landscape was the focus, and the more the inescapable heat dominated my attention. I pulled over at a spring bursting from the rocks – the water glacially was cold, and I drank all I could stomach and filled my 2-liter Nalgenes thinking 2 liters would be more than enough to get me the 9 miles I had left. The lakes on the way down are infamously polluted from the overuse of the campsites around them, so I wanted to avoid getting water from them at all costs.
I continued on.
The SAR helicopters arrived early, and the search for the missing hiker resumed. Seeing that first helicopter flying in from over the Owens Valley was a sad reminder that as we summited and cheered at sunrise, a man was still out there on that mountain somewhere. The helicopters would provide a soundtrack for yet another day. It would be the next day that we would hear the sad news that they had recovered his body from the southwest slopes. So tragic.
The heat. The heat. The heat. My umbrella was up, and though it made a difference, it was not enough. It was the worst. The absolutely worst. That it was this unbearable at such a high elevation led me to realize that it would only get worse as the sun climbed higher and I inched my way down closer toward the baking valley below.
The worst part was that there was absolutely no shade to be found. I was still far above treeline. The trees wouldn’t arrive for miles.
Finally, like an oasis in a desert, I spotted one small, scraggly, lone, Whitebark Pine clinging to life next to the trail. I fell against its trunk in complete gratitude and relief. I pulled off my pack, drank water, ate a snack, and thought of nothing other than how completely miserable and horrible this stretch of trail was, and how anyone that would go up it by choice surely must be mad.
Not long after I arrived our JMT hiker-friends and Caitlin arrived – all suffering in the heat and looking to cling to this small piece of shade with me. We all crammed in. The only conversation was: “This is horrible.”
“This trail is horrible.”
“It’s so damn hot.”
“I’ve been walking for over 200 miles, and there has been nothing as miserable as this.”
That summed up the day.
I left them to continue, with the rationale that the quicker I hustled, the sooner I would be done with a cold beverage in my hand.
The misery continued. It wasn’t even the heat; it was the trail itself. I was moving as fast as I could, and I did not remember the trail condition being such a nightmare the last time I was there. ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE TRAIL. No really. It’s horrible. It’s rocky, and unstable, and chiseled out of the mountain in the most awkward way. You have to carefully watch every step – it’s an ankle roll waiting to happen.*
* (“Guys! What am I, a savage? You expect me to walk on poorly-chiseled rock in the wilderness?” <– I attribute this ridiculous bad-attitude to the heat. Blame it on the heat.)
And ankle roll I did…. again….and again….and again…and again. And once you roll an ankle it becomes weaker and more susceptible to rolling. One time I rolled it so bad, I was convinced that was it – it was broken or sprained. Magically I walked it off. Rolled it again. And again. I was growing ever-more frustrated and pissed off with every roll. Pretty much every time I passed someone or took my attention off the trail for a second I would roll it. Frustrated yells of “FUCK!” started around the 4th time. This would continue down to the very last switchbacks where I rolled it one last time and yelled “FUUUCK!!!” so loud, and then looked and there was a family right in front of me. SORRRRrry…. (magically, there was no lasting injury from this roll-a-thon). I have never experienced anything like it.
The heat was unbearable, but I kept pushing ahead. I stopped briefly a few times but kept convincing myself just to keep going and get it all over with. Down. Down. Down.
Then, after hitting treeline – which is where I became convinced I surely couldn’t be that far from being done – I ran out of water. I ran out of water where there was absolutely no water to be found.
I kept going, thinking I must be close to the finish – but I soon realized I wasn’t close enough. I starting feeling super dehydrated and tired, and not knowing if there would be any water before the portal (probably around 3 miles away) was giving me major anxiety. I really tend to panic when I run out of water.
It was so. Damn. Hot.
Finally, just when I was convinced I might die, I ran into a hiker I had met the day before. I felt so awkward, but I asked him if he had a couple sips of water to spare and he was happy to share…I was so incredibly grateful.
Then, like an idiot, I walked around the next switchback to find a creek crossing right in front of me. I laughed. I filtered a liter and drank a liter in total relief, and when the generous hiker passed me he laughed at my pleas of dehydration 100 feet earlier. I shrugged and offered him some of my filtered water in return.
Putting my pack back on, I felt like a new woman with all of my freshly hydrated cells.
The trail was now a beautiful stretch of easy, dusty, dirt. I flew (in between ankle-rolls).
I knew I was close when I started running into the sporadic, completely ill-equipped for the heat, day hikers. Dazed. Dragging. Complaining kids trailing behind parents. The mother-in-law with her 16oz nearly-empty water bottle sitting on the side of the trail in the shade. The pummeling of “how much further to…” questions being thrown at me.
Trying not collapse from exhaustion myself, I told them all that only a crazy-person would continue hiking in this heat.
I passed a group heading to the summit just starting up the trail, carrying giant way-too-heavy packs, looking like they were on the verge of death.
Then I spotted a glimpse of the road. Then the parking lot. Then the smell of French fries and veggies burgers and ice-cold beverages wafted my way. And in the nick-of-time, before another ankle roll and while I still had a few sips of water left, I arrived at the Mount Whitney trailhead.
And there, with steps that transitioned of from dust to asphalt, passing through the Mount Whitney Trailhead, I finished my crossing of the Sierra Nevada on the High Sierra Trail. West to East. 76 miles of ever-changing splendor. 6 days of blistering heat, and remarkably no blisters.
Someone find me a refrigerator.
I found Cormac at the Portal. I took off my shoes. I devoured a veggie burger. I relished the novelty of sitting, and shade, and ice-cold beverages. We waited for Caitlin.
She arrived, we celebrated, and we moaned about the fact that, due to the construction on the road, our car was still many miles away in a parking lot in the desert below. Cormac had tried hitchhiking, but it turned out that no one wanted to give a guy a ride, so I decided to just give it a go.
I sat at the parking lot exit and waited. I sat and sat.
Finally, I saw a family leaving the parking lot and ambushed them, and pleaded, and apologized for how horrible I probably smelled, and they magically agreed to give me a ride.
After a couple minutes of me being in the car with them they rolled all the windows down…..SORRRRrrry.
Arriving at the car in the desert below the heat could only be described as completely disgusting.
Starting Caitlin’s car, the temperature read 110 degrees, arriving at the portal parking lot, the air had cooled to a chilly 102….at 8,300′ it was 102 degrees. Gross. No wonder the air felt like death.
The air conditioning kicked in. We threw our packs in the back. We bid farewell to those we had shared the trail with the past couple days. We were off.
Reaching the Owens Valley below we pulled off for the obligatory last look back at Whitney. From that vantage, she appeared so far away, seemingly unreachable within a day’s time. We marveled at her summit and the fact that not only had we been standing up there this morning…but we had actually walked from much further beyond. And the pre-dawn events 12 hours before – our full moon walk where with joked about moonglasses – that seemed like another day entirely
And there it was. That was it.
Cormac did most of the driving, Caitlin slept in the back. We stopped for coffee at a Starbucks and enjoyed the novelty of a real bathroom with flushing toilets and running water.
4 hours later we arrived at the hotel parking lot where Cormac’s car was parked. We shared hugs and goodbyes and parted ways. And then, long after nightfall, we found ourselves back in Sequoia National Park, back at my car at Crescent Meadows, back on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada where this whole crazy thing started.
Caitlin was going to drive straight back to Santa Barbara that night. Besides being too tired, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the Sierra yet. I needed one last night. That’s always how I feel about these mountains. I can’t break away. I’m never eager to leave. I always take one last look over my shoulder.
We said our goodbye. I thanked her for sharing such an incredible journey with me. The struggle, the beauty, the accomplishment – there’s not a soul on this planet I would have wished to share all of that with other than her.
That night the starry sky was crisp, and dark, and clear. I followed my headlights down the road to an empty trailhead parking lot surrounded by the Conifer Kings and crawled into the back to my make-shift bed. After lying for a bit in my claustrophobic car, I rolled down the windows. The mosquitos immediately infiltrated, and I didn’t much care. I needed one last night of drinking in the Sierra night air while I slept. That cup I filled at the top of Whitney – I needed to keep it full.
One last night breathing and drinking in the oxygen and ions of the Range of Light.
I feel it’s cliché to end with someone else’s words, but I find that often…usually….well, actually always, John Muir says it better than I ever could:
I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built; and rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray I may see it again.
Thanks for sticking with me through this.
Don’t hesitate. Get out there. Go get that moonburn.