8/12/2018 Guitar Lake –> Mt. Whitney –> Whitney Portal!
I woke up at 1 am, just as I had planned. (Take that, guy who said I’d sleep in!) This was one of the only times that I set an alarm throughout the whole trip. I had heard from many different people that finishing the trip with a sunrise summit of Mt. Whitney was the way to go, and I wasn’t about to miss it, even for the comfort and warmth of sleeping in. I ate some breakfast, cheerios with powdered milk, trail mix, and an energy bar, and packed up my campsite.
Before long I was on my way up the trail. It was quiet and still, and I was the only one awake and moving. I passed several tents as I began to climb, heading toward the summit. There is something so special about hiking in the dark. You can’t see what is ahead of you, or what has already passed. It is just you and the little circle of light just in front of you, and that’s it. At one point I turned off my headlamp and stared up into the darkness, trying to figure out where the dark mountain in front of me ended and the stars began.
The mountain in front of me was so much bigger than it had initially seemed, and I could barely see where the sky began. I turned my headlamp back on and kept on heading up the mountain, sipping handfuls of water from tiny streams along the way. I had enough water treated on me (I was carrying a gallon of water) but I just felt like I needed to take some of the water that the mountain was sharing with me at that moment. If I got giardia (or some other parasite) now, it wouldn’t matter, I’d be sleeping in my own bed tonight and be back to the comforts and medical attention of “real life” soon enough.
Every so often on my way up, I turned around and looked behind me into the darkness. Eventually, several other hikers started making their way up and I could see their headlamps bobbing in the dark below me, like tiny stars in a reverse sky. I reached the switchbacks leading up to Trail Crest, the point where the trail up from Whitney Portal meets the JMT and veers off to the summit of Mt. Whitney. I had heard that these switchbacks were long, and oh man were they! I started to feel, once again, like I was in switchback purgatory, except this time I was in the dark, and unlike the many other switchbacks I had climbed on this trip, I couldn’t see how close I was getting to the top. I got lost in abstract thoughts, one step after the other, closer and closer to my final destination.
Before I knew it, I had reached Trail Crest. I got there an hour and a half before the sun would start to rise. From Trail Crest, it is only two miles to the summit. I took off my pack and unclipped the brain from it. I have an awesome Osprey Ariel AG 65 pack, which comes with a removable brain (the top part of the pack, for those of you who are non-backpackers). The brain comes off and unzips to form a day-pack, and I had prepped it the night before with everything I thought I would need at the summit, so I took it off and took off my jacket, then left the rest of my pack there and headed up towards the summit.
By the time I had gotten my pack off and situated, a few of the other hikers had made it to Trail Crest as well, and there were two who had come up from Trail Camp on the other side who quickly made their way up and out of my sight. Without my heavy pack on, I was going very fast, flying across the trail, following other people’s footsteps as they appeared in my headlamp circle and trying not to think about the steep drop-offs that I was rushing past blindly. After a bit, I realized that I was heading downhill, which didn’t feel right. I was supposed to be summitting and going up, not going down! I stopped and pulled out my map. I realized that the hikers who had reached Trail Crest just after me were following me, and I tentatively called out to them,
“um…I think we’re going the wrong way…”
They didn’t have any maps, so we looked at my phone screen and discovered that we were off the trail, but only slightly. We rock scrambled in an upward direction until I found the trail again and called them over to me. We laughed it off and continued along the trail, although a little bit faster this time, as the sky had started to get a bit lighter. We talked a bit as we walked and I found out that they were from Seattle, and had done the JMT in only 14 days! (or it would be if they could finish by 1pm that afternoon). I fell behind them and approached the summit just after they did.
Being up on top of Mt. Whitney was surreal. I expected to cry, and while I felt emotional, no tears came. Although, I have to say that the tears are coming now that I’m sitting here writing this and remembering it! It was so crazy to be up there, facing the stone hut and seeing the geological survey marker and the plaque, and all of the other things that I have seen hundreds of times in my research for my trip, in picture form online. I took it all in, then went over to the hut to sign my name in the summit register at the top. I had no idea what I was going to sign next to my name in the comments section. I ended up putting “alta alatis patent”, latin for “The sky is open to those who have wings”, one of my favorite quotes and something that I felt was appropriate for this summit.
I headed to the edge and forced myself to look down. It was far, but I couldn’t really fathom how far it actually was. I could fathom how cold it was however! I was wearing a shirt, a fleece pullover, and a down jacket on top of it and I was still freezing! One of the guys at the top had brought his Jetboil and was making hot soup and passing it around (my hero!) I took some pictures and waited for the sun to rise, hoping that it would add just a little bit of warmth to the mountaintop. I talked and laughed with the other people that had made it to the top, we shared stories and took pictures, teeth chattering and cheeks getting red from the cold and elevation.
There were low hanging clouds that began to glow as the sun worked its way up and through them. It simultaneously seemed to take forever and only took a few moments before the sun broke through the fog, glowing victoriously over the new day.
Many cell providers have service up on top of Mt. Whitney but unfortunately T-Mobile doesn’t, or at least didn’t where I was sitting. I borrowed one of the guy’s from Seattle’s phones and facetimed my parents! They were just waking up and heading towards Whitney Portal to come get me, they were in the dark so I couldn’t see them but it was so amazing to hear their voices after more than 19 days without them. I told them that I still had about 11 miles to hike and would see them sometime that afternoon, about 12 or 1 pm!
I took some more pictures, and had someone take pictures of me, posing up at the top, sitting on the ledge overhang, expecting to feel fear but just feeling calm and accomplished. I then set my phone down for a moment to adjust the way I was sitting on the rock and heard something sliding. NO! Was that what I thought it was?? I looked and sure enough, my phone was GONE. It had fallen down somewhere in between the large boulders that make up the top of the mountain. I was in shock, trying to stay calm and think clearly while my brain was muddled by elevation and elation.
I asked the guy next to me if I could use his phone as a light. I shone it down into the crevice and could see the corner of my phone, about 2 and a half feet below me. Phew. I reached down, down, down between rocks, patting the cold stone, trying to feel for my phone, sifting through pieces of trash and plastic that had been left behind by others. Finally, my hands reached something that wasn’t cold stone or discarded trash and I pulled my phone up and out of its rocky potential grave. Relief flooded over me as I stashed my phone safely in my backpack and out of the reach of the rocky chasms surrounding me.
I stuck my hand back down into the crevice and fished out some of the trash I had found earlier and stuffed it into my bag. I don’t think I will ever understand how someone could make the journey up to this peak and see all of the natural beauty surrounding them and decide to just leave their trash on this mountain.
The group up at the top took shots of whiskey, vodka, and other things that we had brought and discussed our plans for getting home. Two of the hikers had a friend who was a pilot and owned a small plane, and he’d be meeting them at the bottom and flying them home! No fair! We jokingly asked if their friend could just fly up here and pick us up so we wouldn’t have to make the long walk back down to Whitney Portal but one of the other guys, who is apparently in the Air Force, told us that the airspace above Mt. Whitney is protected and that you can’t fly there, to my understanding it is for emergencies only! Interesting!
It was getting lighter and as the sun continued to climb, so did other hikers. More and more people began to arrive to the summit, and the other sunrise summit-ers and I decided it was a good time to start heading down. We headed back down the way we came, going slower this time and not taking any wrong turns (thankfully!). We made it back down to Trail Crest, where there was quite a crowd gathering by that time. I put my backpack back on (it felt like it weighed 10,000 lbs after carrying around my daypack all morning!) and began to head down the mountain.
I was excited at the thought of 11 miles of downhill, but soon learned that this was not actually as nice as it sounded. It was very rough on my knees! Going downhill is nice, but going from 14,505 ft to 8,374 ft in just 11 miles is very very not nice. My knees shudder and start to scream at the thought of it, even over a month later. I have been asked a lot what my favorite and least favorite parts of the trail were and the descent from Mt. Whitney to Whitney Portal is the very top of my ‘least favorite’ list. I now understand why many people I asked said that they would “never again” attempt to do Mt. Whitney in one day and I don’t blame them!
I was only a few miles into the descent when I realized that I hadn’t seen anyone else passing me by, going down or up for quite a long time. I pulled out my map and saw that I was off the trail somehow! No way! I retraced my steps back to where I had gotten off course and found that I had been walking half a mile in the wrong direction, still going down but heading towards a lake instead of the portal. Feeling discouraged, mad, and a little dizzy I decided to sit down and eat something, as I hadn’t had anything but some trail mix and a few sips of soup up on top of the mountain. It had also gotten a lot hotter, so I switched into shorts and took off my fleece and stashed them in my backpack.
I pulled out my last meal from my bear can. It was Mountain House beef stroganoff, I had hydrated it the night before but was only able to eat a small portion of it. I also made myself a chocolate shake and ate an energy bar, my last one. The beef stroganoff was good even though it was cold, and my meal gave me some energy to get down the rest of the trail. I watched as a few hikers passed by me (going the right way) and I followed behind them.
I had gone about 7 miles when the pain in my knees was enough for me to stop and sit down and take some ibuprofen, even though the only thing I wanted at that moment was to get down the mountain and see my family. As I kept going, I saw more and more families, day hikers, and non-backpackers and became aware of how sweaty and dirty and awesome I looked (and smelled). It was just like entering the Tuolumne Meadows ranger station area, but this time I was proud of the weird looks I got from people and the ibuprofen began to kick in, so I hiked faster, eager to get down to my family.
The pain mostly went away when I ran, so I began to jog hoping to get down faster. Some tourists called out “What are you running from?” and I answered,
“Nothing, I’m just running towards the beer waiting for me at the bottom of this hill!”
They began to freak out, “WhAt!?! THereS a BeAr on tHe Hill??”
“Uhhh no, I said a BEER…I did see a bear a few days ago though! But that was like 50 miles from here”
Smh. I kept running, amused and secretly hoping an actual bear would appear.
The downhill seemed endless. I switched between running and walking. I got to pet an adorable husky. I talked to a dad who estimated I had a half a mile left to go. He said it had taken them 3 hours to get to that point from Whitney Portal. I questioned his logic and looked at my map, I was about two miles from the portal. Two miles might as well have been two hundred, it felt so far.
Eventually I came off of the final set of switchbacks and onto a mostly flat but still downhill stretch. I could see the parking lot. I was ready to fall down. I talked to some nice ladies who were from Southern California and were really eager to talk to me about my trip. It helped get me through the last section. Suddenly I could see the walkway in front of me, and my family waiting! I hurried as fast as I could, knees yelling and face beaming, into the arms of my family.
I was crowned with a lei of snickers bars, lovingly embarrassed by videos and pictures being taken (my family could give the paparazzi a run for their money), my mom bought me a beer (I told the beer/bear story) and bundled up into the car towards Yosemite, where we would go to pick up my car that night. It felt so surreal, to be driving towards my starting point, the landscape flashing by out the car window. In just three hours we would be parked in the spot where I had started walking, 19 days and 250 miles before.
And just like that, my long walk was done.
Thank you for joining me on my journey.
Stats: Coming soon!
3 Comments Add yours
Emma, this has been an extraordinary journey and I’m so happy to have traveled with you. Thank you for sharing your story honestly and from your heart. I’ve known you for over 24 1/2 years but feel closer to you than ever before. Wonderful stories!
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Dear Emma, I have thoroughly enjoyed every piece of your amazing trip and story! Your writing is wonderfully descriptive and made me feel like I was there with you. The pictures are amazing! I am so glad you took the opportunity to experience this!
Thank you, JoAnna Moffitt
Thank you so much! I’m glad you are enjoying it 🙂