August 13, 2015
2 mi to summit + 11 mi to portal, 221 miles total
Whitney Bivy Camp to Whitney Portal
My alarm was set for 2:00am, but I was too exhausted at first to get up. We finally struggled out of our warm sleeping bags at 3:00am, and discovered that the condensation inside our tent bivy had turned to snow overnight.
The stars above us were still amazing, and from far below we could see little beams from headlamps making their way up the mountain in a thin line.
We got ready as quickly as possible, trying to move to keep warm. We hiked up to Trail Crest junction where we dropped off our packs and just took a few essentials: headlamp, snacks, warm clothes. It was a final two miles to the summit of Whitney and we were doing it in the pitch dark. It was a strange sensation climbing a mountain without actually being able to see the mountain. Having summited before, I remembered the sheer cliffs, the gaps in the mountain where you could see all the way down to Owens Valley 14,000 feet below, and the narrow, rocky trail to the top. It was almost easier to navigate in the dark because you didn’t realize quite how high up you were. Unfortunately, my headlamp was dim and dying, and I had to keep closely in Courtney’s wake to be able to see at all. At one point my tired eyes were hurting, and when I rubbed them, my contact popped out of my eye! I had a tense few moments where it hovered on my gloved fingertip, ready to blow off the mountain at any second. But somehow I managed to get it back in my eye and continue up the trail.
The two miles felt like longer in the dark, and we were exhausted, and starving, and freezing by the time we reached the top. It was only nearing 5:00am and sunrise was still a few hours off. The top of Whitney was covered in granite slabs, and besides the small structure built at the top, there was hardly anything to protect against the wind and the cold. The temperature was well below freezing, and even wearing every layer we owned, we were quaking with cold. We huddled together like penguins near one of the larger slabs of rock, wishing we had brought sleeping bags to sit inside.
It was painful waiting for the sunrise. There were a lot of other hikers up there with us, some who had spent the night there – a feat I couldn’t imagine accomplishing. We were all quiet in anticipation of sunrise, the only sound the bouncing of feet as people tried to stay warm.
At long last the sun broke the horizon over the valley below, and the beauty of it was breathtaking. It felt amazing to be at the top of the world at the first moment of the day.
As the sun lightened the top of the mountain, we stayed to take a few pictures, but the cold was driving us to keep hiking. We warmed up a little in the mountain hut and then hurried back down the trail, watching the sunlight touch the lakes below Whitney.
Courtney and I had been taking videos at the top of every pass this trip, and we had been looking forward to taking one on top of Whitney. Unfortunately, the extreme cold drove us off the mountain quickly, and we were already back on the trail when we remembered to take a video.
When we reached Trail Crest junction again, the sun was fully up and we took a few moments to strip off our fifteen layers of clothing. Then we began the descent… the ten miles down to the portal, the trailhead where most dayhikers from the western half of California had to start to summit Whitney. I didn’t envy them this task. We had come from the JMT side, and had a mere four miles to summit Whitney since we were already at 10,000 feet. The hikers who start from the portal start at 8,000 feet and have to spend twelve miles hiking up to the 14,500 foot summit. Brutal!
There were 99 switchbacks in the first two miles. I gave sympathetic smiles to everyone I passed who was hiking up them. It was a beautiful hike, but relentless. I fell behind Andrew and Courtney and my feet began aching. The ten miles seemed to stretch into hundreds, and it took hours to finally reach the trailhead.
When I met Andrew and Courtney at the portal, they had already found the burger joint there and we ordered lunch. After devouring our huge meal we congratulated each other, let our tent dry in the sun, and contemplated our next steps.
Courtney and I were getting picked up by our cousin Jacob tomorrow, but had nowhere to go tonight. Andrew invited us to stay with his parents in their hotel room for the evening, so we caught a ride into Lone Pine and spent the evening with Andrew’s family before crashing on the floor, camping in a hotel room.
The next morning we met Heather, Jennifer, and Chris for breakfast and a final goodbye -- it seemed hardly possible that we were already finishing our journey. It had seemed to last forever, and at the same time, hardly a blink of an eye. But we had made great friends and great memories, and that was something to treasure.