JMT Day 20: Whitney summit, burger, and the end
August 23rd, 2013 Friday
Sometimes the ends of experiences are the hardest for me to record. I didn’t write a journal entry the night we finished the JMT. In the euphoric haze and culture-shock stupor of summiting Whitney and returning to civilization, I told myself I would write later.
I didn’t write the next day, or the next. Three months later, I wrote the date in my journal, and stopped there.
Now, six full months after completing the trail, I’ll resurrect this day as well as I can remember.
Russell and I were awake by the time our morning-summit friends Nell, Andrew, and Sasha roused us. Russell and I took turns trundling off into the dark with our headlamps to learn how the wag bags worked. I remember finding a rock for “cover” and thinking, “well, no one can see my lower half, but my upper half is 100% not blocked.” I could see headlamps blinking on and off in the distance, dotting the hillside around the lake as other hikers did their own wag-bagging.
We packed up and dressed warm — I put on my long underwear top and bottoms and my rain coat, with long pants and my customary long sleeve shirt. Over my thin liner gloves I layered the hole-y Smartwool socks as mittens — great double duty, socks — and my fleece headband kept my ears from freezing solid. The sky was starting to lighten by the time we started climbing around 5:30 am, and we didn’t use our headlamps for more than half an hour.
We had eaten breakfast in camp for warmth and energy, and stopped at the last trail junction for a morning snack. There were packs stacked around the edges of the trail; some hikers opt to take just a daypack, empty out the heavier elements, or ditch their pack entirely. Russell and I just brought what we had — my pack couldn’t have been more than 12 lbs by that point.
I hiked at the front of the group on the way up to the Whitney summit. My slow and steady plodding of the last 20 days kicked into high gear, and I had a sole focus: SUMMIT. There were places on the Whitney trail where I had to do some scrambling, using my hands and watching my foot placement carefully as I navigated around tilted slabs, and past gaping windows in the rock.
The summit snuck up on me in the end. One minute I was speeding through a boulder field, the next the ground had leveled imperceptibly and was now the top. Other hikers, including Jesse & Stephen from SF, were hanging out at the summit, taking pictures and videos, and ducking into the summit hut to stay warm. We took turns signing the trail register outside the hut.
Being at the summit of the mountain, the end of the JMT, felt bigger than I was prepared for. Though the summit felt more like a boulder field than the peak of a mountain (Whitney’s not the most peak-y of peaks), seeing the world laid out beneath me was undeniable and awe-inspiring.
It was windy and cold at the summit, and Russell & I headed back down after about 45 minutes up there. On our way up we had passed some hikers who had made it up for the sunrise: Alyssa & Will, Courtney & Devon. On our way down, we passed Scott & Becky and Robin on their way up. They weren’t the only ones though.
I had thought Guitar Lake was crowded, but there’s a quota on the JMT and the crowding is relative. Whitney is a major dayhiker destination, and though permits are also metered, the hikers were thronging on that day. I was impressed by them — the climb from Whitney Portal looked brutal. At 14,505′, Whitney’s summit has a 6,189′ elevation gain from the Portal, and that’s not counting the gain from the nearest town of Lone Pine, which sits in the Owens Valley below at 3727′.
Nearly 11,000′ in one day can be a killer, and some hikers choose to camp one night partway up to acclimate. On our way hiking down to the Portal, Russell and I met a sad fellow who had come all the way from Idaho to summit Whitney, only to be turned back by altitude sickness around 12,000′. What a blow.
The path down to Whitney Portal was down, down, and more down. Both R & I started to feel it in our knees by the end of the trip — so much impacting. That was the only time on the hike when I wished I had trekking poles. Almost.
It was over in a few hours, and we got to the general store and cafe in time to get a burger, beers, and advice on places to stay in town. The hostel was out of private rooms (just dorms left) so we opted for the Dow Villa Motel. The cafe let us use their phone to make a reservation, and Russell got us a ride down to the town with a pair of hikers who had a car at the trailhead.
We ended up leaving Whitney Portal in a rush as our ride was ready to head out, and with that, the JMT was finished.
Our motel room came with access to a shared bathroom & shower. Russell and I took turns scrubbing 10 days of dirt off our bodies, each using up a whole mini bar of soap without managing to get all the dirt off. I remember collapsing on the floor of the motel after that, feeling adrift and bone-tired in a way I hadn’t felt at the end of long days on the trail. My clean skin felt taut and dry, and the hot spot between my big toe and index toe choose that time to turn into an actual blister.
We pulled ourselves out of the room long enough to eat a mediocre meal at a diner in town, and find our friends from Maine to arrange a meet-up the next morning. Sometime in there, Russell & I bought cheap tourist shirts to wear in town so that we didn’t continue smelling like filthy hikers.
Breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe the next morning was well worth the long wait to get tables — and it wasn’t just the trail hunger talking. Next time I’d skip the diner and go there for any meal I could.
Our friend Aiko made the drive down to Lone Pine to get us the day after we finished. While we waited we ate ice-cream sundaes at an old-timey fast food joint, picked up burritos for the road at Bonanza Mexican Restaurant, and loitered in the park like vagrants. We lay on the green grass, up against our packs, and Russell caught me up on the plot of TV shows I had missed over the last few months.
We moseyed around the streets of Lone Pine with our packs, as the sky to the west grew yellow and a bitter taste tinged the air. The mountains that had been crystal clear as we hiked through them the previous day were now choked with smoke from a forest fire. Lucky us, for missing it by that much.
- JMT miles: 5.0 today, 211.8 total
- Total miles: 14.8 today, 250.6 total
Guitar Lake 11,488′ → Whitney Portal 8316′
I’m almost as impressed by the taking of so many photos each day and being able to label them as by the completion of the hike! Very inspiring on all accounts.
I took about 750 pictures on the trail; wish I had taken more. Labeling them is … not the most fun part. There are times it would have helped for me to have the GPS on the camera turned on, but it’s a real battery drain. How did you end up organizing or labeling your PY photos?
Congrats on finishing the trail journal! I’ve certainly enjoyed reading it!
My daughter & son-in-law are going to hike the JMT beginning on July 14. I plan on backpacking with them from TM to Reds Meadows. I read your gear list and wondered if there’s anything you didn’t bring but wish you would’ve in hindsight?
Nice to hear from you, Dave. I was pretty happy with what I brought. I might do a thicker (midweight merino wool) long underwear top next time through the Sierras, but other than that I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.
One thing I would do is take more pictures of everyday hiking life, like cooking and campsites, and the people I met. Looking back, I have lots of photos of views and scenery, but not so many of my new trailfriends, or the little tasks that kept me going.
Have a great trip!
Great pictures and great stories! So cool that you were able to detail each day. I did the JMT in July and only now am able to write about it. Keep it up!