This is the final installment in a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail (north to south) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015.
The entire series and additional photos are here.
Day 26: Thursday, August 13
Two Tarns to Whitney Portal via Mount Whitney (terminus of the JMT)
Wow. What a final night. It was a long one as we were pummeled by wind. We may have slept two fitful hours at most.
It wasn’t easy, but at 4 a.m. we slipped on what clothes we weren’t already wearing, most of what we had. We were close to 12,000 feet elevation and the temperature was hovering near the freezing mark.
Just as we were ready to unzip the tent and face the wind, a huge gust walloped the tent with a vengeance.
Then it was gone. That was it. It was the dying breath of this windy weather event that had been pelting us for three days, including on our traverse across Bighorn Plateau.
It was chilly but incredibly the air was still as we crawled out of the tent. Bracing ourselves for so many hours against the wind, we continued to expect it to return.
But instead it was a glorious morning. It was dark and the silhouette of the jagged eastern escarpment was piercing the starlit sky.
Meteors were intermittently streaking overhead, an event that had kept us entertained for the past few nights; the Milky Way was dense and bright.
In the direction of where we would be hiking, high up on the mountainside, there was a steady line of twinkling lights. Falling stars? Glowing planets? A freeway lineup of vehicles? No, these were the headlamps of hikers attempting to reach the top of Whitney in time to see the sun rise over the Owens Valley.
We had made the decision to skip the sunrise event. Looking at those sparkling lights way above us, it was obvious that this trail was steep and went high.
It was three miles or so and 1,500 feet of climbing to the intersection of the JMT-Whitney summit-Whitney Portal trails. But this wasn’t anything we hadn’t done in previous days, so one foot in front of the other, off we went.
We used headlamps for a brief time before nighttime relinquished its hold on the new day. This is a narrow, rocky, but extremely scenic trail.
The sun splashed its rays onto Hitchcock Lakes, which are nestled well below the trail against a sheer escarpment that was reflected in the glassy (ahhh… no wind!) water.
We had eaten a Pro Bar for breakfast, but Jennie was still hungry and it was affecting her energy level. The mom instinct kicked in and I handed over my allotment of the day’s food, our last, so that she could fuel. One caffeine-laced gel was all it took and she was back on track.
I loved this trail as it zigzagged up and around some stunning rock pinnacles. It’s an incredible feat of backcountry engineering.
We got to the junction before the sun did, but it was now warming the peaks around us. We left our backpacks here, grabbing just a bottle of water and our meager food stores for the two-mile journey to the 14,505-foot summit of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the Lower 48 and ranked number 11 overall in the U.S. after Denali (20,310 feet) and nine other higher peaks in Alaska.
As a family, we tackled Mount Whitney during a 23-mile dayhike in 2001 (our kids were 11 and 12 at the time). I recall the altitude affecting my energy level once I was over 12,000 feet, but on this day I was feeling no affects from the elevation. Acclimating over a month of hiking is a luxury for sure, and when traveling north to south on the JMT, the passes get incrementally higher.
I was also ecstatic to be hiking without a heavy pack on my back. After nearly a month of it being attached to me like an appendage, these four miles were heavenly. I felt like I could fly.
The day before, our trail friends had told us about the adverse conditions on the summit: cold and windy. Twenty-four hours later, upon our arrival, it was mostly clear, sunny, and 55 degrees. It would be a fitting farewell to the John Muir Trail.
As our morning view of the line of lights heading up the mountain attested, there were a lot of people on the summit. It was incredible to hear so many different languages being spoken. There’s cell service on this highest summit so there were a lot of one-sided conversations happening.
We signed the summit register, took a look inside the historic summit hut, had our photo taken at the summit sign, then joined the crowds on the easternmost and highest side of the pinnacle.
We lounged in the warm sun and took in the peaks around us, many close to Mount Whitney in stature. We stayed on top longer than we had intended due to the good weather. Or perhaps we were trying to postpone the end of this epic journey.
After a couple hours, we started our return trip to the junction. Let the circus begin.
Re-entry into civilization after a backpacking trip is never easy. But after a month in the backcountry and now on such a busy trail, this was unprecedented in our experience.
It felt like we had been transported to another planet. We began passing hikers clearly out of their comfort range, which meant any modicum of trail etiquette they may have possessed gets discarded during their high-elevation quest.
Some hikers were barely able to focus their eyes as we passed, some were physically ill, some were in excruciating pain.
Then there were others in crisp, clean, brand-spanking-new hiking clothes straight out of the pages of a Patagonia catalog. One person’s backpack still had tags on it, perhaps taking advantage of REI’s return policy once his one and only hike was checked off the bucket list.
Our sense of smell was also assaulted. There was the stench of urine along some of the rocky outcrops. There was the strong scent of soap and dryer sheets and other superficial scents, so noticeable after a month without such items. And when I retrieved my pack at the junction, someone had left their WAG bag next to it, cooking in the sun.
That was the final straw. My mood went from elated to disgusted.
There were too many people and not enough respect for this formidable yet sacred mountain. As we headed down, our last eight or so miles of a 225-mile journey, Jennie and I started cynically pointing out the folks who were “just doing it for the T-shirt.”
We were out of water and started looking for a source from where to filter. We went over Trail Crest (elevation 13,600 feet) from west to east and descended the infamous “99 switchbacks” to Trail Camp, a tent metropolis of those getting into position to hike the mountain from the east side.
The camp was nearly empty as we passed by during this late morning hour. Never ones to miss an opportunity, marmots had overrun the area, plundering like Attila and his Huns. Their invasion consisted of running in and out and under and over the colorful domed tents and gnawing holes into backpacks and other soft-sided items that were left unprotected from these chew-happy Sierra dwellers.
From Trail Crest to Trail Camp, we noticed a major downside to the WAG bags, of which we were given a hint by the one surreptitiously placed next to my backpack at the Whitney summit junction. People will leave their deposits in them, like the rules advise, but then they forget the most important part: carrying the bags out for proper disposal!
These portable-toilets-in-a-blue-bag dotted the trail or were thrown off into the talus as many fine, upstanding hikers chose not to haul them out as instructed. The bags are secure, won’t break open, and are odor-free, so it’s really not a big deal to have one in a pack. Folks just couldn’t accept the extra weight — and carrying their own crap, literally — in their packs. This mindset is mind-boggling, actually, and our moods soured even more.
Below Trail Camp was the first water, the outlet from the small lake, quite stagnant in this drought year, by Trail Camp. I imagined people washing off DEET, sunscreen, and other body products in the lake above as I climbed upstream to get above the trail and locate a spot with moving water. As I perched on a rock and set up the filter, I noticed a plastic bag stuck in a tree branch, litter in the stream, and an orange peel on the bank.
This didn’t help restore my faith in the human occupants of this planet where I was about to re-assimilate. I filtered the water but it proved hard for us to swallow. We are normally quite selective about our water sources and for the past month, we had been drinking some of the most pristine water we’d ever experienced.
We had been hungry; now we were dehydrated. We were also overdressed since we had worn extra clothing for our morning summit. We stopped at Outpost Camp, another backpacking camp for Whitney-goers, to change out of our summit clothes and into shorts and short-sleeved shirts.
We passed by Mirror Lake and arrived at the Lone Pine Lake junction, the boundary of the Whitney Zone and as far as hikers — whether out for the day or overnight — are allowed to travel from Whitney Portal without a permit. There were two people here lounging in the shade who changed our sullen moods to euphoric immediately on sight: my husband and Jennie’s boyfriend.
What a poignant reunion! We were victorious in our JMT quest and we realized we were excited to experience home.
After hellos and hugs, our first question was, “Do you have food?” It was surprising that they didn’t have much, but we didn’t think much about it as we gobbled up what energy-bar crumbs they tossed our way.
Our guys carried our backpacks for the final stretch of trail. Now we were the obnoxious humans as we all gabbed excitedly, happily, and loudly the final two miles or so.
We arrived at Whitney Portal, promptly tossed our WAG bags in the specially allotted receptacles (wow, that wasn’t so hard), changed into clean clothes in the restroom, and happily discarded some of our month-old dirty hiking duds in the trash that we never wanted to allow to touch our skin again.
Then the boys opened the back of the vehicle: There was an incredible feast awaiting. And beer on ice!
It was the most spectacular spread of food. All our favorites.
We plopped down on the asphalt in the middle of the parking lot and ate and ate and ate. As other JMT hikers came off the trail, we shared with them too.
There was an endless supply of fresh veggies and salad and grapes and pineapple and nectarines and strawberries and peaches and chips and salsa and dips and sandwiches and cookies… It was blissful decadence.
So this is it. The end of the journey along the backbone of the mighty Sierra from Yosemite to Sequoia national parks.
And here is a final contemplation:
We live in an age of great inequality. There are gated neighborhoods and private schools. And there are entire communities, right here in Tulare County, with water and food and personal-safety insecurities.
But what we all have access to is some of the most awe-inspiring, publicly owned wilderness on the planet. It belongs to everyone, can be shared by all, and is where we are all equal.
Equal with each other, that is. We’re all on our own to face the constant trail challenges of mosquitoes, bears, marmots, raging water, winter storms, steep precipices, and lightning storms.
But if someone is ready to test their fortitude, to be mentally and physically prepared, and offer the proper deference to nature and its challenging yet extraordinary elements, then they will be forever changed as they discover the magnificent splendor that no billionaire can lock a gate to and call their own.
And in fleeing to these wild places and living simply and respectfully upon the land, one also discovers what it means to be truly rich.