Day 20: Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit
After the bizarre excitement of the afternoon it was almost a relief to get back on the trail, plus I was quite anxious to prove to myself that I could summit Mt. Whitney.
We broke down our temporary camp at Guitar Lake and were on trail by about 4pm. Over the next couple hours we would hike 4.5 miles and gain over 3,000 feet of elevation.
Looking at the map I had mentally split our climb into roughly three distinct sections. The first thousand feet of elevation was a more gradual climb through some small tarns above Guitar Lake. The trail did have a granite staircase section but it was relatively short-lived. We then reached a bench overlooking nearby Hitchcock Lakes.
Then the real work started. The next thousand feet of elevation took us up a couple dozen long switchbacks to reach the Mt. Whitney Trail junction. Slow and steady was our mantra for that climb. We also really enjoyed the views west as the late afternoon light slowly changed.
We took a short snack break at the junction and then shouldered our packs once more for the last push to the peak. Our last thousand feet of elevation gain was split into two sections: a mile of scrambly flatter route through the “needles” along the distinct ridge south of the peak and then a last mile of gradual ascent as we circled onto the summit.
The terrain felt very other-wordly along that ridge crest. We had finally left the wildflowers behind, seeing the last traces of them around 13,500 feet. The trail was in such a state of disrepair from many years of wind and erosion that it almost felt like we were travelling cross-country.
The magnitude of the terrain was also hard to take in. We were standing above nearly everything around us. I felt very small as I looked down through one of the “needles” at the Owens Valley, 10,000 feet below us.
The last half mile of trail took us in one long, circling switchback to the summit. The trail was steeper than the ridge line section, but was a bit easier to navigate through the rocks. I was definitely struggling with the effort to make the summit, and came pretty close to throwing a full-blown hissy fit about 5 minutes before the metal-roofed summit building came into view.
Instead, I got to feel amazingly proud of myself for pushing through and making it to the official end of the John Muir Trail.
We made it to the peak around 6:30 pm, having taken well over two hours to hike the 4.5 miles to the summit. The views were absolutely incredible. It was rather hard to take it all in! I sat for several long minutes at the USGS summit marker, looking north and east.
Eventually we got our tent set up on a sandy spot surrounded by rock walls on three sides. It was probably one of the best protected sites on the summit, hopefully offering us a bit of warmth and protection from the wind later in the night.
Sunset from the peak was absolutely incredible. We sat on a slab of rock near the edge of the north face, looking off to the north and west. With the help of our guide book we were able to pick out the Palisade Range as well as Split Mountain, where we had been a week earlier.
The sun set through a thin bank of clouds that helped to enhance the colours and the light. It eventually dropped through a small notch in the peaks of the Great Western Divide.
We moved back to the north-east side of the summit to watch as the last traces of light disappeared from the Owens Valley.
As the evening breeze picked up, most of the other hikers who had watched sunset started on their way back down the trail. We stayed out to watch the light change a little bit longer and then snuggled down into our tent, with the alarm set to wake us 5 a.m. the next morning.
Our last night on the John Muir Trail was truly out of the ordinary.