JMT - Day Twenty One

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.  

 L to R: Brittany, Courtney, Heather, Chris, and Jennifer

L to R: Brittany, Courtney, Heather, Chris, and Jennifer

JMT - Day Twenty

August 12, 2015
13 miles today, 208 miles total
Tyndall Creek to Mt. Whitney bivy camp

Courtney and I left early and made it eight miles along the flat, rolling terrain before taking our first break. The environment is much different here at the southern end of the Sierras, much drier and sparser.
Courtney and I reached Crabtree Ranger Station early in the morning and went down to the meadow to find the privy and have lunch. We took the time to repack our packs and waited for everyone else to catch up. Usually Andrew reached us in less than an hour, even if he had left camp much later than us, since he was a fast hiker. But hours went by with no sign of them. I got worried that they had passed us on the trail without stopping, so I went back up to the junction and wrote their names in the dirt, pointing toward the ranger station. Even so, it was another hour before Andrew finally caught us.

Together the three of us hiked up to Guitar Lake; it was a grueling trail in the afternoon heat and the swim in the lake was a much needed reprieve. We had lunch by the water, Mt. Whitney hovering closely behind us, and waited for the girls. My stomach was giving me trouble today and I picked at my food, not very hungry.

 L to R: Heather, Andrew, Courtney, Brittany and Jennifer

L to R: Heather, Andrew, Courtney, Brittany and Jennifer

Guitar Lake was swarming with campers and people ready to summit Whitney in the morning. We finally found the girls on the far side of the lake, trying to find a decent campsite among all the granite. Courtney, Andrew and I were still sticking with our plan to bivy camp on Whitney tonight, so said goodbye to Heather, Jennifer and Chris, not knowing if we would see them again. We were planning on hiking all the way to the portal tomorrow, and they weren’t sure if they would have time to make it. We hoped we could meet for a burger at the end of the trail. After goodbyes, Andrew, Courtney and I and took to the trail at 4:00pm, headed up Mt. Whitney in the setting sun.

 Photo courtesy of Andrew

Photo courtesy of Andrew

The switchbacks were easier than expected, particularly after the trials of Glen and Forester Pass the past few days. But it was still very steep and gained altitude quickly, so we took it slow. After two miles we reached the bivy camp just below the Trail Crest junction. It consisted of a small, flat space dug out into the side of the mountain, surrounded by slabs of granite that other hikers had piled up around the site. We reached it just as the sun was going down, and the view of the valley from 13,000 feet was spectacular. Instead of pitching our tents, we decided to cowboy camp, though Courtney and I laid out our tent like a bivy to help keep us warm.

 Photo courtesy of Andrew

Photo courtesy of Andrew

We watched the magnificent sun set and then crawled into our sleeping bags dressed in all our layers. It was shockingly cold at this altitude, but wrapped in my jacket, sleeping bag, and tent, I was very cozy. The Perseids meteor shower was tonight, so not only did we get an amazing sunset, but we stayed up watching the shooting stars above us as we drifted off to sleep. It was one of the best evenings of my life, and I tried to stay awake to savor it, but sleep claimed me.

JMT - Day Nineteen

August 11, 2015
11 miles today, 195 total
Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek

Courtney and I, knowing we had a difficult pass to summit this morning, got up at 5:30am to beat the heat. The wind howled through our tent, making it difficult to pack up in the darkness. Nonetheless, we were on the trail by 6:30am, much earlier than usual for us, and early enough that none of our campmates were awake, yet.

It was five miles to the top of Forester Pass and we took it slow, though the first few miles were pretty gradual. In fact, compared to Glen Pass yesterday, this hike was a piece of cake. The hard part was the wind: it was gusting at what seemed like hurricane speeds, making my nose run, my face freeze, and buffeting me so hard that I was continually trying not to fall off the mountain. As we ascended higher and higher, the trail grew narrower and the wind fiercer. At several points Courtney and I had to crouch against the wind because it threatened to toss us over. We successfully reached the top in 2.5 hours and celebrated with lots of photos.

The wind and the cold being still brutal, we hurried down the south side without waiting for the others. At the bottom of Forester Pass we sat to wait for Andrew, marveling at the terrain. It was so different on the south side, as though Forester were the wall that separated the mountains from the desert. The trail here was flat and dusty, and ran straight into the mountains where it suddenly soared 13,000 feet in the air.

When Andrew caught us, we hurried along the next three miles, which were flat and sparsely populated with the beautiful red-barked Foxtail Pine trees.

We stopped at Tyndall Creek for lunch at noon and then went the last mile to our camp. Since it was only 1:00pm we considered trying to cover a few more miles, but we wanted to wait on the girls and see how they were feeling. Since we were so close to the end of the trail we didn’t want to leave them.

When Heather, Jennifer and Chris caught us it was 3:30pm, and they were exhausted. We agreed to stay and pitched our tents in a little copse of trees. We made dinner, shared another dessert, and went on a little side hike to a small pond. We stayed up late talking about our plans for Whitney – we debated between summiting at dawn (a feat that would require us to get up around 1:00am) or just hiking up midday. The pros of summiting at dawn were that we would have more time to hike out the ten miles to Whitney Portal (rather than camping halfway down, which we heard was a bad idea), but the cons were that we would have to get up very early and hike the brutal four miles to 14,500 feet in the dark.

 L to R: Chris, Heather, Jennifer, Brittany, Courtney and Andrew

L to R: Chris, Heather, Jennifer, Brittany, Courtney and Andrew

Heather and Jennifer decided they wanted to just wake up normally and summit, potentially taking another day to reach Whitney Portal. Andrew, Courtney and I were still debating when I read an interesting tidbit in one of our JMT guide books: there was a bivy campsite halfway up Mt. Whitney! This would allow us to cover half the climb the night before, and we wouldn’t have to get up so early to summit at dawn. Andrew and Courtney agreed this sounded like the best course of action, and we went to bed excited yet lamenting the fact that our trip was almost over.

JMT - Day Eighteen

August 10, 2015
11 miles today, 184 miles total
Arrowhead Lake to Bubbs Creek

Courtney and I left camp at 7:30am. We wandered through the beautiful Rae Lakes, enjoying the sunrise in such gorgeous terrain. We passed Heather and Jennifer quickly, and after two miles we had reached the base of Glen Pass.

It didn’t look too bad on the elevation map, and remembering how brutal it was climbing the other side, I figured this side would be much easier. Unfortunately, the switchbacks went on for two miles up a sheer cliff, and it turned out to be the hardest pass we had summited, yet. I took each step slowly, but it felt like the torture would never end. Occasionally I glanced back down the trail, where Heather and Jennifer were little dots below me. When I finally reached the top, the trail walked along the spine of the mountain, overlooking the Painted Lady before it dropped down the south side. When Heather and Jennifer caught us, we rated Glen Pass the worst, ate snickers bars, and looked down at the dotted lake valley. We tried to name all the peaks on the horizon; one of the distant red mountains was Pinchot Pass – and it seemed impossible that we were so far away from it already.

 From Glen Pass, looking north

From Glen Pass, looking north

 From Glen Pass, looking south

From Glen Pass, looking south

When Andrew reached us, we started down the four mile descent through more desert-like terrain and then into the forest. Heather and Jennifer parted ways with us at the Kearsarge Pass junction; they were meeting Heather’s husband who was going to join them for the remainder of the hike. They would camp with him tonight and then hopefully catch up with us tomorrow.

Andrew, Courtney and I continued down to Vidette Meadow to have lunch, and then went another four miles along Bubbs Creek. It had grown very hot again, so Courtney and I stopped to go for a swim in the creek before reaching camp. The camp had a beautiful view, and even a metal bear vault for stashing our food! The presence of more established campgrounds was an indicator that we were growing very close to our destination of Mount Whitney, and the end of our journey.

Courtney and I set up our tent and went down to the creek to collect water. To our great surprise, Jennifer, Heather and her husband Chris caught up with us around 5:00pm! It was great having the whole crew together, and we were impressed Chris was able to cover so many miles his first day out. Even better – he had packed in whiskey and oreo pudding! So we made dinner and enjoyed the treats, staying up until the late hour of 8:30pm laughing and telling poop jokes, until at one point Andrew rolled his eyes and said, "in my whole life I don't think I've heard as many girls fart as I've heard in the two weeks I've been with you guys," which of course only made us laugh harder.