Day 21: Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal
Our last morning on the JMT, our alarm went off at 5 a.m. This was no ordinary last morning. We woke up on the summit of Mt. Whitney, having slept at 14,505 feet. It was a truly extraordinary sensation to step out of the tent and be looking down on everything around us.
We left the tent set up and hauled out our sleeping bags, heading over to sit at the true summit of the mountain, looking east across the Owens Valley to where the sun would rise.
Dan was anxious to get to the summit as the sky was already starting to change colour. As he rushed over, he stopped suddenly, staring at someone who looked very familiar. We both had the same reaction upon seeing our friend Joe, saying, “What the #&%$ are you doing here?!”
After the initial shock had worn off and we’d shared our greetings and hugs we learned that our original ride from the trailhead had fallen through. Joe & Kristie had been somewhat in charge of making the arrangements for us and had felt rather guilty and worried about perhaps leaving us stranded. So instead they had decided to make the long drive up from San Diego and meet us. Kristie was unable to hike to the summit and stayed the night in a hotel while Joe hit the trail around 11 p.m, reaching Trail Crest with plenty of time left over to reach the summit before sunrise.
We settled in together to watch as the sun made it’s slow climb above the peaks of the distant mountain ranges.
Once the sun was well and truly up we made our way back to our tent to pack up. We enjoyed a bite of breakfast in the shelter and then hit the trail down off the summit.
It was really great to have company for the hike down. We had lots of catching up to do, even though it had only been a week since we had last seen Joe.
We reached Trail Crest by about 8 a.m, just as the first day hikers passed us. This point was the first time we would be on the east side of the divide, and also meant lots of sun exposure for the rest of our descent.
From the peak of Trail Crest we descended down a nearly 1500 foot talus slope, traversing back and forth over 2 miles down nearly 100 switchbacks.
I felt so good, with a nearly empty pack and the knowledge that a shower and real bed were at the end of the trail.
As we descended we were treated once more to amazing wildflowers, including wonderfully fragrant sky pilots and alpine mountain sorrel.
The rest of our descent was a bit of a slog. We took a short break just beyond Trail Camp, at the base of the switchbacks. There were many more people on trail by this point, many of whom were looking quite beat up from the climb they had already completed. Apparently about 100 people per day receive permits to attempt the 22 mile return-trip day hike to the summit of Mt Whitney. Joe believed that only about 60% would actually reach the summit.
The next section had us descending a rocky, staircasy, granite trail alongside Lone Pine Creek. I slowed down a bit, letting the guys get out ahead of me, as I navigated my way down the big steps.
I was so relieved to reach the tree line that I almost hugged the first foxtail pine I saw. Unfortunately the shade they offered was pretty sparse, but I took the little bit that I could!
I met up with Dan and Joe again around beautiful Mirror Lake. Joe reassured me that the trail would get easier, and that we were halfway down from Trail Crest. Only 4 more miles to go!
The last couple of miles involved long, easily-graded switchbacks through less familiar vegetation, including fern bush, mountain mahogany, corn lily and currants. I don’t really remember much from that section, as I had to maintain a pretty narrow focus to be able to continually put one very sore foot in front of the other.
In the last mile we caught glimpses of the parking lot and the truth hit home. We were done. I had successfully hiked over 200 miles, climbed over a dozen high passes, and summited the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
Needless to say, I was rather overwhelmed, emotional, and teary-eyed as we reached the parking lot. I had been through so much over the last 9 months of fighting off depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. I suppose I had never truly believed that I would reach the trail, let alone finish it.
I certainly couldn’t have done it without the amazing and unconditional love and support that I received from my husband, my parents, my sister, my in-laws and all of my friends near and far. They were my cheerleaders through this journey, and I’m glad that I’ve been able to share it with all of them.
Thank you to everyone who has followed along on our adventure on the John Muir Trail. I hope that our journey has inspired you to step out on your own adventure, whatever and wherever that may be.
Lisa & Dan