Day 3: Mount Whitney Day Hike

Wednesday, July 27, 2016, 12 miles Map

By Squiggly with commentary from Square

Because we were located between Crabtree Meadows and Mount Whitney, we were awakened by the sounds of hiking poles passing our campsite starting at about midnight. By 2AM or so, there seemed to be a steady flow of people hiking, so by 3 AM Square and I decided to just get up and join the crowd.

Our plan was to leave our tent, and sleeping supplies, hike up Mount Whitney and then return to the tent and either stay at the same location for night 4 or pack up and get some miles on the JMT before calling it a day. So, we filled our packs with lunch, some snacks and water, and our down coats before setting off. {Square: Our packs were L-I-T-E! Wonderfully!}

I’ve never hiked in the dark before. I had my headlamp on and followed in Square’s footsteps trying to keep my feet dry, as there were several runoff crossings and muddy spots. We had about a mile or so in before we came upon Guitar Lake. At Guitar Lake it was like the stars were on the ground, as many hikers were camped all around the lake and all we could see were dots of light from their headlamps. We could also see the headlamps of those that were ahead of us on the Whitney climb; they were seemingly miles above us and it was a sober reminder that we had hours of climbing ahead of us.

Using the headlamp to hike was actually probably a bit of a safety blanket for me as we ascended Whitney. I could only see the two feet in front of me and I was concentrating so hard on where I put my feet that I didn’t bother to try and shine my light around to check out my surroundings, which, I would later find out, were a bit harrowing at times!

MtWhitney

For the 6 mile climb we had agreed to institute a hike for 45 minutes, then take a rest policy. We’d read that taking your time is critical and that staying hydrated and eating frequently was a good idea. So, by forcing ourselves to stop regularly, we would by default be eating and drinking each time as well. We hadn’t packed a real breakfast for this morning, only a couple of granola bars and other snacks to get us through until lunch. It was a long trek, but not steep, just a constant uphill grade. About 2 miles from the top the sun started to peak over the mountain and we were treated to some amazing views.

MtWhitneySunrise

There are times when you’re hiking that you’re miserable and your hiking partner is doing fine. And there are times when your hiking partner isn’t doing so hot, but you feel great. It is those times when you use each other to get through and keep moving. My miserable time is usually about 4-5 PM daily when I can feel my heart beating in my feet, my legs are tired and I just want to eat supper. Square rarely has a “cranky time” but when he does, the timing varies. This day, it was about 7AM. We were one to two miles from the top and Square started to drop behind. He admitted that he was having some mental/physical fatigue. I forced him to take a break. We talked a bit about the challenges that lay ahead. We talked a little bit about the challenges our Mothers had faced with terminal cancer and the resulting chemotherapy. We expressed gratitude and admiration for the strength that they had shown. It was an emotional time, but also rejuvenating. Sometimes, even sitting for 5 minutes is all you need to regain resolve and continue on. Sometimes, you need to sit, cry, eat a granola bar, question what the hell you’re doing, and then you’re able to move on. It’s all relative. {Square: Our niece had taken the time to draw us a picture of us hiking over a mountain before we left for this trip. It said “Just Keep Hiking”, in crayon, all over the picture.  My understanding is she spun this from a saying in the movie Finding Nemo where their mantra was “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!”.  For this particular difficult section, these words were my drum beat to the top.  Every step I whispered them to myself.  It was that difficult and that methodical.  Hiking is one of those “Mind over matter” activities, and sometimes grabbing onto a very simple phrase is the only thing that allows you to continue.}

For the last couple of miles, we passed folks that had been at the top of Mount Whitney for the sunrise and were then on their way back down. Each one said “You’re almost there! Keep going!” We summited Mount Whitney at 8AM. 14,500 ft! It was amazing in so many ways. There were people all around admiring the view. Rewarding doesn’t even describe it and the pictures don’t do the views justice in any way.  We signed the trail register to record our accomplishment!

TrailRegister

We had cell service, so we posted some Facebook pictures and may have texted some people. The details are a little hazy, probably due to the altitude, sleep deprivation, and exhaustion cocktail we were operating on. We talked to other hikers, some which were finishing their JMT journey. One girl called her mom and said “Mom, I’m on the top of Mount F*ckin’ Whitney!” She was with a group celebrating someone’s 50th birthday. They had carried mini bottles of champagne to the summit to celebrate. Once they headed down, their journey was over, and we could tell that they didn’t want it to end. They lingered on even after we’d decided to head back down.

While we were admiring the views (1,2,3…) a woman approached me and asked, “Are you Ladies of the JMT?” I said, “yes!” and we hugged like we were old friends. One of the facebook groups that I’d been relying heavily on for trail info is called “Ladies of the JMT”. It’s a great resource for all things trail related, but a safe space where women can talk about girl specific trail issues. It’d been decided that 2016 JMT lady hikers would tie a turquoise bandana somewhere on them or their body or packs while hiking the trail so that we could easily recognize one another. I had mine on my pack and Liz was wearing hers to shield her neck from the blazing sun. We chatted with Liz a bit and realized that she too was traveling northbound on the JMT and that she had her first scheduled resupply the same day we did. One major difference, she was traveling solo! It was so great speaking with her, and I was excited that there’d be someone we knew at the resupply location. She’d stayed at Crabtree Meadows the night before and planned to return there that night. Read more about Liz’s Mount Whitney experience.

LizWhitney

There were all types of people summiting the mountain that day. While we were sitting around enjoying the moment, 2 runners came jogging up. They laid down and one pushed a button on his watch and yelled “3 minutes!”. They laid there, gasping for air and I heard one of them say “I hate feeling like this.” Then the other one says, “3,2,1…let’s go!” and they hopped up and ran back down the mountain. We stood there in disbelief. We had just struggled to hike up the trail, and here they were running it.

Earlier that morning on our way up Whitney, when it was still dark, we’d passed a pack of hikers, 4 of them who were younger than us who were barely moving along the trail. As we got closer to them, and we realized they were moving so slowly we had created all types of theories regarding their speed that turned out to be false: “I think one of them doesn’t have a headlight that’s why they’re all bunched up together and moving so slowly” or, my favorite, “one of them is blind, so the others are helping”. No, it turned out, they were just taking their time! In fact, we’d hung out at the summit for about an hour, and when we started back down we ran into them, still working their way up the mountain. They were out for a 5 day trip that included Whitney. They were all in good spirits and it was such a joy to chat with them. 

On our way back down we talked to all kinds of people – one couple that were finishing the JMT and had gotten engaged on the trail, families with kids, old people, foreigners — you name it, they were there.  {Square: At about this time, we started to realize something: the JMT is the happiest place on earth!  With a majority of the folks at this part of the trail about to reach the pinnacle (literally!) and the end of their journey coming near, most were giddy with anticipation, had wonderful things to say about our journey ahead and were basically all smiles.  Truly, I have never been in a situation where so many random people were so connected and so happy.  It is easy to see why folks tend to go back to places like this.}

In full daylight the trail’s location and it’s potential dangers were very apparent. A lot of the trail is narrow and one wrong move could easily spell disaster. Areas that I had traversed earlier in the dark now induced my fear of heights. My legs were tired to begin with, but with the added tremors that come along with the fear of plunging to my death, I was a bit like a baby giraffe in certain areas. I’ve never been so grateful for hiking poles to add stability! Even with the shaky legs, the high of making it to the top, the amazing views on the way back down, and the excitement for the days to come made the first couple of miles pass quickly.

We decided to stop for lunch where the JMT trail intersects with the Whitney Portal trail. Many hikers that are finishing the JMT with a Mount Whitney summit will drop their packs at this junction to do the final miles to the top and then will return to the junction to grab their packs and exit the trail via the Whitney Portal (which I think is about an 8 mile hike down and includes 99 switchbacks – just brutal after climbing Mount Whitney!) This was our lunchtime view!

ViewTrailJunction

When we sat down to eat we were informed that there was a sneaky marmot in the area that was trying to get at the food in people’s packs. We didn’t witness the vermin, but we did pass the warning on to others. While were were talking with some other hikers at the junction, the guys that we gave food to the day before arrived. They were as excited to see us as we were them, and they raved about the food. They called us their “trail angels” and snapped a pic with us before they continued up. We were surprised to see them so late in the day when they still had a lot of miles left to cover. But the one guy stated that they weren’t morning people, so they preferred to sleep in, hang around camp, eat, play a game of chess, and then head out. It was a completely opposite approach to ours, but I guess that’s why the trail mantra is HYOH (hike your own hike), meaning, do it how you want to do it, not how others do.

After eating and chatting with a few more folks (some we’d met in Mammoth the previous weekend while we were acclimating), we continued down to return to our campsite. The sky was gathering clouds and it looked as though rain was inevitable so we decided that we better get off the mountain as to avoid being exposed during a thunderstorm. Right after Guitar Lake, we encountered a family of 3, the daughter was only 6 years old. She looked like a poster child for homelessness. She looked sad and tired, and man, she was diiiiiirrrrrty. The parents stopped us to ask how long it had taken us to summit, as they wanted to be there for the sunrise. They’d been on the JMT for 3 weeks and they said that while the little girl had been a trooper the entire time, she was ready to be done; she missed her toys and her friends. They had planned to summit Whitney in a bit less time than it had taken us – they had it down to a science stating that they could average 1000’ climb in x minutes. We wished them good luck and then continued back to our tent. We were within a half mile of our tent at about 3PM, and the sky opened up. Luckily the hail held off until we were back in our tent. We were grateful for the shelter, but there were tons of people still on Whitney, we wondered about their safety.

The rainstorm produced a lot of rain quickly, and the vegetation free area that we’d set up camp was now a pool of rainwater. Our tent was “floating” in a pond of runoff. I was very concerned that we were going to end up with wet gear, but luckily our tent worked like a champ and kept us and our stuff nice and dry. We then took a well deserved nap.

Square had hopes of packing up and getting a few more miles in, but much to my surprise he decided that we could just chill for the night and recover from pushing so hard the last 3 days. “We have to make up those miles at some point though, if we’re going to make it to our resupply on Saturday!” I didn’t care. I was so grateful for the time to tend to my ever growing blister population. I also finally had the time and energy to do some self care things like brush my teeth and hair and wash some clothes. We still had no appetites, but I was glad to have the time to organize my bear can and just sit and enjoy the evening for a change. It was lovely.

As we settled in that night we looked at the itinerary for the following day. No real pass to get over, only “Big Horn Plateau”. “Tomorrow will be an easy day!” Square said as he turned off his headlamp. “Good!” I replied, “I could use an easy day”.

 

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