Day 19: 11.2 miles, 207.4 cumulative, Guitar Lake to Outpost Camp (10,370′)
This was the day. We would summit Mt. Whitney and complete the John Muir Trail. The culmination of months of planning and weeks of hiking. In the end we would climb 3000′ and descend 4000′ in one long and glorious day. I was elated to have made it this far, nervous about the climb to come, ready to have real food and a shower, and sad to be at the end of an incredible journey. Wow! Lots of emotions there…
Our hiker friends all wanted to watch the sunrise Mt. Whitney, so they headed out at 2 am. I didn’t relish the idea of hiking 5 miles in the dark…so we slept in. We knew we had a big day however so we were on the trail by 7. From Guitar Lake it was simply UP for the next 5 miles. The first 3 miles were switchbacks up the side of Mt. Muir. Steep, oxygen deficient, and cold. It was the west side of the mountain and we were never in the sun. It took us 3 hours to do this section, with great views of Guitar Lake as we climbed. At the top we reached Trail Crest and the junction between the trail onward and the trail up to Whitney. Nathan and I were exhausted and took a well earned break. We dropped our backpacks along with a dozen others, donned our down jackets and hats, and grabbed a day pack with plenty of water for the hike to the summit.
The two miles to the summit was tough. We were hiking from 13,700′ to 14,500′ and we were feeling the lack of oxygen. Even Nathan was out of breath. But the views were stunning. We were hiking along the top of a high ridgeline that ran from Mt. Muir to Mt. Whitney, and could see forever in both directions.
Eventually the trail ended in snow and so we had to scramble up through a boulder field. Hikers had left cairns everywhere to help us know which way to head since we couldn’t see the top. Finally we emerged on top of the mountain. The Summit Shelter built in 1909 awaited us, along with the trail register. We were the only Texans to sign so far that day.
Nathan and I made our way over to the eastern side of the summit to sit and rest and soak it all in…realizing our accomplishment. We had officially completed the John Muir Trail! Words can’t describe what that felt like. So much elevation climbed, so many rivers crossed, so much snow…but we had pushed through and this was our reward. Utter triumph! It was breathtakingly beautiful.
We rested, called loved ones, ate, walked around. We soaked in the views, taking pictures that could never really portray what we were seeing. We spent nearly an hour on top of the world not wanting to leave. But it had taken us 5 hours to summit from Guitar Lake and we still had many miles to go…so we headed down. At trail Crest we discovered that the resident marmot had chewed into a pocket in Nathan’s backpack. Well that was unfortunate, but apparently not that uncommon. After a break, we headed on.
It was nearly 9 miles from the trail junction to Whitney Portal, and descended over 5000′. We could see right down the valley we were hiking in, to the flat plains of California where the town of Lone Pine sat.
There are 99 steep switchbacks to begin our descent. It was rocky and steep and our bodies were worn out…I even fell at one point. We had planned on camping at Trail Camp, but it was crowded with weekenders and we didn’t want that for our last night. So we continued on to “the very next campsite.” Unfortunately the next campsite was Outpost Camp which was 2.3 miles and 1700′ down past Trail Camp. We were dead tired by then, our legs jelly. But it was a nice campsite with a waterfall nearby. Our last night on the trail. We ate some bars and candy (because that’s all we had left) and went to sleep.
Day 20: 3.8 miles, 211.2 cumulative, Outpost Camp to Whitney Portal (8330′)
Our last morning. It was surreal. I could hardly believe this was the end. Food was a huge motivator as we had been talking about what we were going to order at the Portal cafe. And so we packed up for the last time. We descended the final 2000′ over nearly 4 miles. It was a beautiful section and I was grateful for that. We passed dozens of day and weekend hikers, all smelling wonderful. After 22 days our clothes were filthy and we stank.
Finally we could see the Portal, and civilization. We were so happy – we had finished! And there was food…
It was a strange adjustment to being off the trail. Walking on a road was a weird sensation. Seeing cars. Suddenly having more to do than just walk all day. After breakfast, and talking with the other thru hiker we spotted (regular people seemed scary – i mean what the heck would we talk about??), we had to get to Lone Pine. Since everyone leaving Whitney Portal was going to Lone Pine 12 miles away, it wasn’t hard. We made a cardboard sign and sat by the exit until we hitched a ride.
We couldn’t check into our hotel until 2, so we walked around the town of Lone Pine for a couple hours still filthy and wearing our packs. Nathan and I hit a pizza buffet and saw a couple JMTers we had hiked with. We sat with them, grateful to still be able to talk about the trail with someone. Finally we checked in, picked up a package of clean clothes my husband had mailed to the hotel, and showered. I can’t possibly convey how good it felt to be clean and sitting on a clean bed for the first time in 23 days.
That evening we went out for burgers and beer. It felt strange to walk around without backpacks on. At dinner we looked through all the pictures and videos I had taken. What an incredible adventure. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have completed the JMT, and for my son who is the perfect hiking partner. I can’t wait to go back! I took a picture of Mt. Whitney from in front of our hotel…a perfect end to our journey.
As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.