[to the summit of Mt. Whitney and back to Crabtree Meadow, ~15 miles hiked]
Before bed, I’d set up everything I possibly could for my roundtrip to Mt. Whitney. Because Cyn planned to zero (i.e., hike zero miles/take a rest day) at Crabtree, I could leave my non-essential things in camp with her and hike with a significantly lighter pack. In my pack, I placed: two liters of water, sunhat and sunglasses, windshirt, rain jacket, puffy jacket, thin wool gloves, water treatment drops, journal and pen, headlamp, leukotape (for blisters/hotspots), pocketknife, map, phone (for photos) and our emergency beacon. At the top of my bear canister, I packed a plastic bag of food for the day, and slipped my lip balm inside it (all “smellables” must be stored in the bear can overnight). And instead of changing into my clean sleeping clothes as usual, I slept in my hiking clothes, to help me actually get up and going before dawn.
When my watch beeped at 4am, it was so cold out that I could barely peel the leukotape off the roll to pre-tape a few likely hotspots on my toes. Cyn sleepily raised her head and asked, “So you’re really going?” Yep. I grabbed my fleece shirt for hiking in the unexpected cold, told her I had no idea what time I might be back — late afternoon, maybe — and promised to be safe and cautious. Leaving camp, I crossed the meadow with only my headlamp to light the way, and gingerly picked my way across the tangle of logs that formed a bridge over the creek. Because these logs felt incredibly sketchy in the dark, this was actually one of the most nerve-wracking things I did all day! Shortly after, I hit a junction and turned east, taking my first steps on the actual JMT. It was 5am, and the sky was just barely starting to lighten.
The trail was beautiful in this minimal light, and it felt kind of magical to be the only person out. But early morning is primetime for animals, so even as I soaked up the gorgeousness, I was on high alert. I hiked briskly on the fairly gentle incline, and tried to sing to make my presence clear to any nearby bears (actually, I couldn’t think of any songs and just defaulted to la-la-la in a wandering, improvised tune) — apologies to still-sleeping hikers in the tents I passed during this time! Solo hiking in the dark is not really my bag, I decided here. But I was soon able to turn off my headlamp, and then arrived at the lovely Timberline Lake.
I wanted to summit Whitney while the air was still cool, so at Timberline I took only one quick photo, promising myself I could linger more on the return trip. I swapped my fleece for a windshirt here and headed on, eating my breakfast bar while walking. The trail wound through some flat expanses of granite, creating a few fun little puzzles as I searched for where it picked up again on dirt. I’d been going steadily but gradually uphill so far, but then descended as I approached the iconic Guitar Lake. (I remember thinking I’d be unhappy to climb back out of here on my way back in the afternoon!)
I reached Guitar Lake by 6.30am, and saw other people for the first time: a pair of hikers packing up their lakeside campsite in the distance. At almost 11,500 feet elevation, this was the highest I’d ever hiked, but my lungs and legs felt good, so I hurried on, wondering when the real climb would begin. I noted with surprise that the perimeter of the little tarn just past Guitar was frozen — I was wearing only a thin cap and my windshirt for warmth and felt fine. The trail got steeper and rockier, and at times a stream ran right through it, but this too was more often ice than water. I enjoyed the game of hopping along rocks in the trail to keep my shoes dry, and I also occasionally checked behind me for that pair of hikers, who were just far enough back to motivate me to push a little, making it another game to stay ahead of them. (They never caught up to me, and at the end of the day I felt a little disappointed to have never met them!)
For about a mile after Guitar Lake, I felt my legs and breathing settle into a steady pace. The trail conditions became rougher, with more rocks to navigate and tall stone steps to climb. I tripped a few times, and realized suddenly that climbing was functioning as a form of meditation. It required me to focus only on the present moment — the step in front of me right now, the breath I inhaled and exhaled as I placed my feet — and each time I let my mind wander away from that moment (to wonder how far I’d gone, to imagine the steps ahead), I stumbled.
I’d hiked at about two miles an hour so far, but my pace dropped off to about half that in the last 1.5 miles to the Trail Crest junction. The trail was more challenging, the elevation was greater, and the climb began to feel endless, a sign that my mental game was slipping. I trudged quite a bit of this, often stopping before big steps up to take a few fortifying deep breaths first. Once, when I thought I must be very close to the junction, I allowed myself to check my phone’s GPS app, and was horrified to see that I still had nearly a mile to go. I started to count the long switchbacks, and talked to myself out loud, promising a snack and an electrolyte drink once I hit the junction. Fortunately, there were many beautiful flowers along the way, including the exquisite and fairly rare sky pilot, which is only in bloom for a couple of months and only found in the Sierra Nevada above 10,000 feet.
Despite exciting views down and pretty flowers alongside me, I was really struggling on the final bit to Trail Crest. Finally, I spotted the junction marker in the distance and felt a huge sense of relief wash over me. With a goal in sight, I marched steadily up the last switchback to drop my pack triumphantly at the junction. It was 8.30am. I put on my puffy jacket immediately, but even that wasn’t enough to keep me warm once I stopped moving — the morning sun hadn’t yet made its way here, and Trail Crest (elevation: 13,650 feet) was freezing. With cold, fumbling fingers, I tried to photograph a marmot, but it ducked away as two day hikers approached from the Whitney Portal side of the mountain. Covered in sunscreen and carrying a can of oxygen about the size of a water bottle, they continued right on up as I hurriedly ate my nearly-frozen snack. Then it was time for the real deal: 1.9 miles up to the summit.
I’m not sure if it was the snack, the quick mental rest, or a desire to warm up my body, but I crushed the first half mile after Trail Crest, just skipping from rock to rock with ease, like I’d spent all my life hiking at over 13,000 feet. And actually, my lungs continued to feel remarkably good all the way up, but the trail got increasingly complicated: sections of slippery scree, stretches of loose talus, and big boulders to pick my way over/around/through. My pace slowed again, but I was no longer in a hurry — it was truly gorgeous up there, and this might be the only time in my life that I’d be there.
Lots and lots of people on the trail now — many coming down, and many others heading up alongside me. Most, I could see by the permits dangling from their small packs, were day hikers coming from Whitney Portal. Not too far from the top, we had to traverse a stretch of packed snow. This was not my favorite part, to put it mildly, and I took many deep breaths once I’d passed it (but didn’t really feel relieved — I could only think how I’d have to do it again on the way down!). Later, a few smaller patches of snow made it extra difficult to navigate some large slabs of rock. I was stymied by one particularly tough section, and seeing my hesitation, a hiker near me offered advice: “I stepped down right there.” I looked at the rock he pointed to, which did indeed seem the logical option, but told him, “This step isn’t made for short legs!” Without missing a beat, he replied, “Well, we all have butts. I have no shame about using mine to slide down.” Right-o, I’d totally forgotten about that possibility. I inched down on my butt, got back on track, and threw a grateful thanks over my shoulder to him.
Once past these obstacles, I held a steady, unbroken pace the rest of the way up. As I passed one hiker who was coming down, he told me I was almost there. “See those people at the second turn ahead? When you get there, you’ll be able to see the hut.” Awesome. Just when I reached that point, I passed another hiker who’d passed me much earlier and was now off to the side to catch his breath. He recognized me: “Wow, way to finish strong!” I didn’t break my stride, but said “See you up there!,” and silently thanked my Crossfit coaches (past and present!) for teaching me the delicate art of simultaneously pushing and pacing myself.
And then, the summit. Wow. I went directly to the trail register and entered my name — formally, this is the southern endpoint/startpoint of the JMT — then checked my watch: 10.39am. I’d climbed nearly 4,000 feet over 7.6 miles, in five and a half hours. It felt like a tremendous accomplishment, particularly as my first big, challenging solo hike. I now stood at the highest point in the contiguous U.S., and felt truly awed by the 360-degree view of mountain ranges spreading out below me, as far as I could see. I leaned against the summit hut and cried.
After a few minutes, I made my way to the slabs near the edge, trading cameras with the guy who’d said I finished strong, so we could each have photos of ourselves up there. I had another snack (my first Snickers bar of the trip — I’d packed these as rewards to eat atop each of the high passes), wrote some quick notes in my journal, and took in the views.
I didn’t stay up top very long — maybe 45 minutes — because I had a long return trip and didn’t want Cyn to worry about me. But also because there were several other folks up there, and some of them were pretty loud, and some were loud and chasing each other across the rocks or jokingly lifting each other up near the edge, and it just wasn’t my scene. So I took a few last photos and started to retrace my steps.
Descending took longer than I’d anticipated. I pulled over repeatedly to yield right-of-way to hikers coming up, noting the wide range in breathing abilities: some seemed fine, others were clearly struggling tremendously with the thin air. Further down, the talus felt even more unsteady than before (but I always feel less stable when descending), and I approached the snow patches with some dread. They were slushier and slipperier now, and I was glad to be finished with them. Later, as I slowly navigated a rocky section, some guy behind my right shoulder said, “I’m just gonna sneak by you here…” and then skipped past me on the outside (!) like some kind of magical mountain goat. Meanwhile, I slid on my butt a few more times — with no shame at all. The sun was now baking this side of the mountain, and incredibly, though I kept descending, Guitar Lake never seemed to look any closer.
Finally, overheated, super thirsty, and with aching knees, I arrived at Guitar Lake. I met a few southbound JMT hikers who were setting up to finish with the Whitney climb tomorrow. They said they could tell I was just a few days in, because I looked too clean (note: I did not feel clean). At the lake outlet, I stopped for another snack, treated a liter of water, and soaked my buff in the cold lake before putting it around my neck. Ahhh.
Climbing out of Guitar was actually pleasant — my knees and legs were so relieved to stop going down for a while. After that, I had a gentler downhill, retracing my path from the early morning, noticing how different everything looked in full afternoon sun. When I occasionally couldn’t find the trail because big granite slabs or streams obscured it, I just looked for the holes made by other hikers’ trekking poles, and followed those until I was on track. Despite the heat, I tried to keep a quick pace, worrying that Cyn was starting to worry.
As I approached Crabtree Meadow, a pack train passed me (this meant I had lots of fresh horse poo to avoid for the last mile or two), and I crossed paths with some of the hikers we’d met at Guyot Pass, who congratulated me on a successful summit. Then, over the log bridge (far less sketchy in the daylight) and back to our tent, where Cyn had indeed been just starting to worry. It was 4.40pm — I’d been actively hiking for almost 11 hours and felt both exhausted and overstimulated. I inhaled a giant dinner while Cyn and I recapped our days for each other, and then gratefully crawled into the tent. I felt proud to have completed such a tough and beautiful day on my own, but looked forward to having my hiking partner back for the rest of this trip. “Gonna sleep so hard,” I scribbled in my journal, and then did exactly that, passing out just before dusk.