JMT 2019 Day 20: 99 Switchbacks (and not one is fun)

September 23, 2019
Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal
Day miles: 15 mi
Cumulative miles: 215.5 mi

My alarm is set for 1:30 but I wake up at 1 AM to the sound of trekking poles clicking. I snooze until my alarm rings and promptly get up to pee and pack up. I made coffee before bed and put it in my thermos in my mostly empty bear can, and I went to sleep wearing my hiking clothes. I pack a little differently since I am wearing my puffy and long johns and pack a summit pack on top of everything. Inside my little Montbell Versalite pack are an emergency blanket, my rain pants and rain jacket, extra batteries for my head lamp, snacks and my coffee for the summit.

I start hiking around 2 AM. I start the climb but soon lose the trail because the light of my headlamp is too faint. The batteries are dying. I change the batteries and remedy the situation. (Side note: I hate the Black Diamond Spot headlamp I have. It has too many functions so the “smart” multi-touch control is not intuitive and despite a battery lock function to prevent it from turning on by accident in your pack, it seems to drain battery very quickly. I don’t use a headlamp often, and when I do it’s for reading or writing inside my tent at low brightness, but I always seem have to change the batteries in pitch black whenever I actually need to use the headlamp for night hiking.)

It does not feel cold when I wake up, maybe because I am already wearing my pant and puffy jacket, and maybe because the air is still cooling down from daytime. Right before the sun comes up is when the temperature is the coldest. As I hike I quickly delayer. I marvel at how absurd it is to be hiking at 12,000 ft in the middle of the night in a T-shirt. But as I climb higher the temperature drops and I re-layer. Occasionally, I see the light of headlamps that could be mistaken for stars, bobbing slightly and moving across the dark night above me.

It gets so cold that I stop to put away my trekking poles so I can put my hands in my puffy jacket pockets. My wool glove liners are inadequate. And then suddenly I am at Whitney Junction. It is just after 4 AM. Taking my summit pack, I head up the 1.9 mile trail to Whitney summit. The summit pack feels so light I check a couple times to make sure I remembered to bring my water bottle. The trail skirts the west side of the ridge and is full of large boulders. These must be from the many rockfalls/rock slides that have occurred over the last hundred years. We don’t do trail building like we used to (during the Great Depression). When the trail becomes unclear, I sweep the surroundings with my headlamp and always manage to find it again.

Surprisingly, no one passes me the entire climb up the Whitney trail, though I did see some headlamps bobbing below me. Finally, my headlamp reflects off a white granite wall of the Whitney Summit Shelter. I switch my headlamp light to red and stumble inside. Inside are five other people freezing their asses off. Three of them had the foresight to bring their sleeping bags and they still look cold. It is 5:40 AM. The horizon is beginning to glow. I put on my rain pants and rain jacket over my hiking clothes and sip my coffee, which is still pretty warm but doesn’t seem to have any effect warming me up.

When we can see light through the window, we all head outside to watch. I sit on my Thinlight foam pad folded into a sit pad to insulate me from the cold granite but it still gets really cold, so I pull out my emergency blanket. It is unwieldy because it is so windy on the summit, but I gradually manage to gather it around me and it does help. But after a while my toes still get so painfully cold I give up and go back to the shelter to rewarm, jumping up and down out of the wind. I meet another solo JMT hiker, Justin, who comes in to warm his hands by doing pushups. His phone is dead, so when we head back out and the sun does come up, I take some photos to send him and he takes some of me in return.

There is a sheet of clouds over the mountains to the east across the Owens Valley making the sunrise dramatic. The Sierras light up in light gray behind us. It is too cold to take many photos or watch for too long, so everyone heads back into the hut to rewarm. I eat my breakfast Probar while trying to recover feeling (besides pain) in my fingers and toes. Justin takes a great photo of this, not flattering but real.

I sign the summit register, but it’s almost too cold to write. The pen is nearly frozen and my hands are shaky. I don’t remember what I wrote. I begin to head back down at 7 AM. At the junction, I repack and switch to dry socks to warm my feet. Everyone seems slightly shell-shocked. After a bit, one group leaves and we all overhear a member of the group go “Why is there another uphill?”

It’s a short climb to Trail Crest. Once on the east side of the ridge, it is significantly warmer — sunshine and no wind. But I’ve still got 99 switchbacks (and not one is fun) to Trail Camp, followed by 5 miles of steep rocky down, down, down. I can see why these last 8 miles of trail to Whitney Portal aren’t part of the JMT. They are of a completely different character, of getting somewhere fast. Who’s idea was it to end such a beautiful trail with such an unrelenting sufferfest?

Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, so it is extremely popular with peak baggers near and far. 150 permits are issued per day for day-use and overnight climbs. After the remoteness of the JMT, it is jarring to see so many people. There are Silicon Valley achievement-oriented tech-types in full outfits of expensive brand-spanking new gear; Chinese, Arab and European tourists doing it as part of their Grand Tour of the United States; ordinary families huffing and puffing along that clearly aren’t going to make it… And JMT north-bounders, carrying fully-loaded packs uphill. Respect.

I meet Suki on the way down. We start chatting and she offers me a ride to Lone Pine. Trail angel! (We’ll exchange info and meet up for Korean food in LA post-trail.) I eat my lunch at Outpost Camp while she packs up her tent. She hiked all the way up to Trail Crest today but wasn’t feeling it so she turned around. I tell her that based on the conditions this morning on the other side, she probably made the right choice.

Finally, we reach Whitney Portal. About 8 meters from the end of the trail where it’s nice and well-paved, I roll my right ankle for the third time on this hike. I hobble over to weigh my pack on the scale at the portal. Then I hobble to a pit toilet. I managed to make it all the way down without having to poop in the no poop zone and didn’t end up using my wag bag! I think my body was confused by the alpine start. It is about 2:30 PM when I finish the day’s hike, the entire JMT and the journey I have been on for the last three years. I have no grand epiphanies, no sense of great achievement, all I want to do is make sure my car is still in Lone Pine, take a shower and eat a salad.

JMT 2019 Day 19: A Beautiful Day

September 22, 2019
Tyndall Frog Ponds to Guitar Lake
Day Miles: 11.5 mi
Cumulative Miles: 200.5 mi

When I woke up in the middle of the night to pee, two pairs of eyes reflected the light of my headlamp. The movement looked low and prowling. But when I turned up my headlamp to full brightness, it was just a pair of deer. Yay! Not mountain lions. Still, I stowed the trekking pole I had left leaning against a tree under my vestibule, both as a potential weapon and to prevent deer from stealing it to lick the salt off the grips.

In the morning, as I was almost packed up and about to stuff my tent into its stuff sack, my camping partner Janine and I were treated to a coyote symphony/cacaphony that sounded like it was coming from Diamond Mesa. The evening before, I read in the Wenk book that it you camp on Bighorn Plateau (about a mile and a half south), you likely hear coyotes early in the morning. Janine had borrowed the book and read the same section and we agreed it was uncanny. Again, I highly recommend bringing the Wenk guide book on the JMT, it is worth the weight to enrich your experience.

Big Horn Plateau was unlike any place else on the JMT. Dry and desert-y with 360 degree views of the surrounding peaks, grand vista because they were so far away. Having exited Kings Canyon NP over Forester Pass, the scenery was very different from the previous week. I spent almost a whole hour on the plateau taking it all in, including a 20 minute yoga session with the best views ever.

I followed the trail down into beautiful foxtail pine forest, the trees growing out of sandy patches between granite boulders.

Then, I took a snack break on a rock outcropping with expansive views before the trail drops down into the Wright Creek drainage. Janine passed me and I said, “The trail is too pretty! I’m never going to get anywhere today!” I took a third break in a lovely meadow and then lunched on the banks of Whitney Creek right after Crabtree Meadow.

There is so much variety in the scenery in this stretch of trail. How does the trail know I had just complained the day before about being scenery-ed out? It makes you just want to say “screw Whitney!” and keep hiking south on the PCT.

I found a quiet and excellent campsite on the bench and tarn just above the famous Guitar Lake, which was much less marginal that I expected for my last night on the trail. Guitar Lake is the last good spot to camp west of Mt. Whitney, so it is very crowded with hikers staging sunrise climbs of Mt. Whitney. Guitar Lake is at 11,500 feet. Because of overuse and the high elevation, you must bag and carry your poop out if you are heading west to Whitney Portal from about 2 miles east of Crabtree Meadow. The problem is there’s no tree cover around Guitar Lake and campsites behind every boulder so it’s not clear where one is supposed to deploy their wag bag. Do you poop inside your tent for cover then? I discuss this problem with a group of three High Sierra Trail hikers that are the only other party to camp on the bench that night. (The High Sierra Trail cuts east-west across the Sierra and also terminates at the top of Mt. Whitney.) I offer the HST hikers some stroopwafels and they are super happy, incredulous that I have extra food, since they packed really light. I’ve had too much food this whole trip! I try to convince them to climb Mt. Whitney for sunrise. We lounge on a dip in the granite on the edge of the bench shaped like a sectional couch and watch the sun set. Then I retire to get an early night for my early start.

It will be nearly 15 miles from here to Whitney Portal and 3000 feet up and 6000 feet down. The only other time I’ve done something like that was attempting to climb Grand Teton and the 6000 feet down from the lower saddle of Grand Teton after the whole scrambling/climbing part really killed my feet. I’m expecting a sufferfest.

JMT 2019 Day 18: The End is Nigh

September 21, 2019
Center Basin Junction to Tyndall Frog Ponds
Day miles: 10.5 mi
Cumulative miles: 189 mi

When I started hiking in the morning, my glove liners were wet from stuffing my frosty tent into its stuff sack. This made my hands painfully cold for the first 15 minutes of hiking, even after I took off my wet gloves and put my spare hiking socks on my hands instead.

I climbed out of another U-shaped glacial valley, left the last of the trees and began the steady climb up to Forester Pass. According to the Wenk book, after you leave the last tree, you are still 2000 vertical feet below the top of the pass. I was leapfrogging with familiar faces I had camped with or met coming over Kearsarge Pass the day before. When the sun finally came up over the ridge, I took a yoga break and stretched on some granite slabs. Across the trail, another hiker cooked herself breakfast. Then, I continued on. I felt like I was moving slower and slower.

Finally, I reached the top of Forester Pass. It was a veritable party at the top. After the cold morning, it was warm and not windy at the top! Usually it’s too windy at the top of a pass to linger for long. But this time, it was so nice that everyone was hanging out. I enjoyed my lunch.

Following a 40 minute break, I started my descent, passing a steep couloir. After a few long, rocky switchbacks, the trail mellowed out at the headwaters of Tyndall Creek. Of course, every time I come over a pass like this, I have to poop, which is a problem because tree cover always begins a ways down. This valley lacked the little islands of white bark pines I usually rely on and there were no trees until lodgepole pine habitat starts.Thankfully, I made it. Then I was only a couple miles from my planned campsite at Tyndall Frog Ponds. I scout out a beautiful lakeside camping spot and camp with a friend from Mt. Williamson Motel.

Tomorrow, there are no more big passes, just the set up for Whitney and the following day is the grand finale. It has come to the time where I wish I could stay on the trail forever. At the same time, I am ready to be finished. Shoulder season is full upon us. Nights and mornings are cold. I have hiked 16 days, but I don’t feel like I have gotten any faster or stronger. Sometimes I feel like I have been spoiled for amazing scenery and am not easily impressed anymore, but there are still small moments of indescribable beauty — a butterfly flitting downstream — that I would never notice if I weren’t out here moving so slowly, for so long.