Tuesday 13 th August 2013
Guitar Lake to Lone Pine via Mt Whitney summit – 14.5 miles
I am sure that we had more sleep than our minds were letting on but the anticipation of getting up at 2am to break camp for the last time kept us wide awake for most of the night. I for one was definitely awake before my alarm went off.
The careful organisation of the previous evening meant we packed up easily in the dark and were on our way before 3am. Despite only being able to see a few feet in front of us the path was fairly easy going to begin with allowing us to become accustomed to the darkness. It wasn’t long before the gradient increased dramatically and we started climbing up seemingly hundreds of long, steep switchbacks. Climbing something of this scale in the pitch black was a strange experience, it acted as somewhat of a safety net as we couldn’t see how exposed the path was or what was below us. When directing our head torches off the path the beam disappeared into an unbroken abyss – this gave us a fairly good idea. In the distance we could see the pin pricks of light from other hiker’s head torches moving backwards and forwards on the switchbacks above.
As we approached Trail Crest (the point where the J.M.T joins the path from Whitney portal and turns northwards across the pinnacles towards the summit) a hint of light was creeping into the sky and the outlines of the surrounding mountains started to appear.
We reached the ledge traditionally used to leave your rucksack behind for the final section, as the summit path brings you back the same way. We decided to swap some heavier items out of my pack into the other’s so that we could put all the valuables into mine, leaving two rucksacks behind. By the time we were organised and ready for the final push, rays of morning light had bathed the surrounding cliffs in beautiful pastel tones. To our horror this unveiled the sheer magnitude of the gradient we had just blindly ascended. As we moved from the junction ledge to follow the summit path we were dizzy with the void of emptiness to our left and also the excitement of what lay ahead. Daylight soon flooded the canyons to the west and 3,000ft below we could see Guitar Lake, now a small droplet on the valley floor where we had departed from just three hours before.
To the right of us the view east was blocked by rocky pinnacles, every now and the gaps between them would send bright orange sunlight flooding through. The landscape seen through these rocky peepholes was amazing, for the entirety of the trail our views had been never-ending High Sierra mountain ranges, but here at the very eastern edge they came to an abrupt end dropping dramatically 10,000ft down to the desert floor of Owens Valley.
The path from the junction to the summit is roughly two miles long, the first mile and a half of which, although rocky, was fairly easy going. At base of the summit buttress the path turned right and zigzagged up through boulders for the last half-mile. I didn’t want this journey to end, far from it, but the eagerness and anticipation of being so close to the finish made this last section feel like it took ages. Eventually the summit shelter came into view, gleaming in the early morning sunlight. We walked side-by-side for the final few steps up to the summit marker and stood around it with our hands in the air to count down…
5 – 14 years of dreaming
4 – 13 1/2 years of planning
3 – a journey of 5,796 miles
2 – 3 weeks of hiking 227 miles
1… we’ve done it!
What and incredible and fitting place to complete this epic trail. 14,500ft above sea level on top of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. The views were breath-taking. It was well worth the very early morning start to make it up here at 7am, just as the sun’s rays were bouncing off towers of rock all around us. You could see for hundreds of miles looking North, and to the West over the spectacular High Sierra mountain range that we had just spent the last two and a half weeks trekking across.
We shook hands, embraced and congratulated each other and set about taking the obligatory series of summit photos before sitting down for a couple of snacks. There was another group of three friends at the top, two guys and a girl, who we had passed a number of times along the trail so we sat with them for a while sharing stories and taking photographs.
This was the finale of the John Muir Trail, but 6,000ft below the sickeningly sheer edge of the Whitney summit was Whitney Portal, an eight mile walk, the terrain which looked steeper than anything we had done so far. We reluctantly set off back along the Pinnacle path to where we had left our packs. We left the J.M.T for the last time through one of the gaps between the pinnacles onto the eastern side of the Whitney range not looking forward to the knee crushing descent ahead of us. None of us had ever experienced a descent quite like this, it was relentless, switchback after switchback – in some sections they were only a few metres long quickly and painfully dropping us hundreds of feet in relatively short periods of time. The trail on this side of the mountain was much busier as climbing Mt Whitney on a one or two day hike was a very popular route from the portal.
We passed numerous groups on their way up, all of whom commented on our specially made ‘PEAK13 John Muir Trail’ t-shirts thinking we were part of a team. As repetitive as this conversation was I was warmed by the enthusiasm shown in congratulating us on completing the trail and how amazed they were that we had come from so far away to do it. In fact this could be said for pretty much everyone we met on the trail.
With the steepest sections complete but still half of the mileage left we stopped by the Whitney base camp for a rest and some food. You could tell it was far busier this side as the marmots were a lot more confident around us sniffing out our food. It was heads down and full steam ahead now as we were struggling with this jarring downhill slog and just wanted to be sat down at the finish with a beer in hand. At times I was trying to walk too quickly and a lack of concentration from exhaustion led me to trip and fall over a couple of times. We’d had enough and sadly this last section turned into an unenjoyable slog to the end. We reached Whitney Portal just before midday and instantly treated ourselves to a huge bowl of fries and a couple of cold beers. We were joined by a couple also finishing the J.M.T who we had spoken to a couple of times on the way down, they very kindly offered us a ride down to Lone Pine saving us from needing to hitch.
It was a very surreal experience being back in civilisation, especially the small one road town of Lone Pine, complete with saloon bars and motels. We checked into a motel and now we finally had phone reception, I made an emotional call back to Amy to tell her we had finished safely and were all OK. We set about washing our clothes and enjoying what must have been one of the longest showers ever, no human should ever turn water that colour!
First on the list after freshening up and sorting our kit out was a trip to McDonalds which Luke insisted would be his treat to say thank you for all the help with his feet and the encouragement to keep going. Second on the list was of course some well earned beer, so we strolled down the blisteringly hot road to a traditional saloon bar complete with western style swing doors, pitchers of beer and juke box.
We celebrated the success of our journey by sinking a few whilst playing pool, enjoying being able to relax on comfortable chairs and not having to pump water through a filter to drink. We crossed over the road to a busy Mexican restaurant for dinner after which Luke ducked off back to the motel to call Colette and put his head down. Chris and I didn’t want this day to end; it was and always will be the day that we completed a 14 year old dream, so we pushed back through those swing doors, flipped a coin in the juke box and ordered another pitcher of beer…………cheers! AB