Miles 205 – 211 (plus 11 down to Whitney Portal)
One last sleepless night. At 2:30 I decide that I have had enough tossing and turning and it is close enough to my planned 3 am wake-up. I have only six miles and 3,000 feet up to the top of Mt. Whitney and the end of the JMT. And I am excited. I extricate myself from my tent one last time and quietly stow away my gear. There are a few headlamps bobbing around guitar lake from others who are doing the same. And there are a few already weaving up the switchbacks above the lake. I have a Cliff bar for breakfast and I’m hiking by 3 am. As I mentioned yesterday, I won’t have another water source for 10 miles, so I’m loaded with as much water as I can carry. Two and a half quarts (about 5 pounds). I can feel the additional weight as I begin the ascent. I’m slow. Slower than usual. Fitter, younger hikers blow by me all morning. When I started, there were about 3 headlamps on the trail above me. By the time I am near the top there are about 10 ahead of me.
It is sometimes difficult to stay on the trail in the dark. I have to stop and swing my headlamp around occasionally to make sure I’m not about to follow a drainage ditch off into the black oblivion. The moon has set and the sky is full of stars. I look up occasionally to savor the view. They are so crisp, so clear…so clean. When will I see the Milky Way again?
I check the map periodically and guess as to where I am and how many more switchbacks I have to go. The air is thin and getting thinner. My breathing is quick and my footsteps slow and methodical. I finally make the three miles to the trail junction (the trail that takes you the last 2 miles to the summit) at around 5:30. There I ditch my pack (I’ll pick it up on the way down), grab a few things I’ll need for the summit, filter water (from a “dirty” bottle to my “clean” one), and before I know it it is 6 am. As I make my way toward the summit I am feeling super light without the burden if my pack. But, there is still the issue of the thinning air and my breathing is still laborious with an audible wheeze. At one point a hiker is coming down and I give the standard “good morning”,but the words barely come out in a rasp that sounds a bit like an aging Kathleen Turner after a smoke break.
Trail junction…1.9 miles to go (actually took this on the way back down…when it was light)
I stop at the “windows” (keyhole breaks along the ridge that look down into the Owens Valley) and as I had hoped, I have cell reception. First I text my wife. Later I look and see I have a voicemail from her. I stop and listen. Then it occurs to me…duh, I can call her! It’s nice to hear her voice and to share the view with her as the sun begins to change the sky into a multitude of colors. I don’t make it to the top before the sun rises, but I didn’t expect to. It is beautiful to see the sun squeezing above the horizon, lighting up the eastern faces of the mountain tops which cast shadows onto the western ridges beyond. Working from the horizon up, the western sky goes from purple to orange to yellow to blue.
The western sky at dawn
Sunrise through a window
Sunrise over Mt. Hitchcock
I continue on the final mile to the top thinking about the final steps of my journey. I imagine what it will be like to pass the stone shelter and take the last few steps to the top of Whitney and the end of the trail. Tears begin to drip down my cheeks. It is an emotional experience. I am mostly filled with joy and pride. I fucking did it! I am a bad…ass…mother…fucker…even with the tears. But there is also a little sadness at reaching the end. As a blogger I have been following (Carrot Quinn) would put it, “thru-hiking will break your heart.” The journey is almost over…then what?
The weird thing is that when I actually reach the top, when I actually take those final steps, it is strangely unemotional. As cliche as it sounds, it was not the destination that was driving my emotions, it was the journey. It was the 15 days in the wilderness. It was being surrounded by unimaginable beauty. It was the struggle and the endurance. It was not just the final step, but every step.
At the top, as I had planned, I hand my iPhone to another hiker to capture some video of me channeling my inner Walt Whitman as I “sound my barbaric YAWP!”. A sound that means nothing. A sound that means everything. Today, I feel like a fucking barbarian god! Yes, it was a little dorky, but it made me feel good (and it got a chuckle out of the other hikers at the summit). Here’s a link to the video: YAWP!!!
Top o’ the world, Ma!
Me and my shadow. Top of Mt. Whitney.
Mt. Hitchcock, Hitchcock Lakes, and Guitar Lake
The aptly named Guitar Lake
Trail Crest pano
Hitchcock Lakes and the Great Western Divide (from Trail Crest)
I hung for a while at the top chatting with the other hikers, taking photos, and watching the sun climb higher. Well, it’s over…so, what the hell do I do now? I guess I go down. 11 miles and 6,200 feet down. I sign the log with my name, my trail name (Zpack), city, and one word…”YAWP!”. Then I head back to the trail junction where I pick up my pack and head down the infamous and monotonous 99 switchbacks down to trail camp. Fatigue is starting to kick in. The next couple miles of trail is some of the worst I’d seen on the entire journey. Big steps. Uneven, jagged rocks. I have to be careful where I place every footfall and the trail is just brutal on my knees and feet. Then it descends to more switchbacks and the cruelest sight…a black ribbon snaking up from the Owens Valley below…it is a road! I haven’t seen one since Red’s Meadow, 170 miles ago. But, the sight of the road is not cruel because it signifies the end of my journey. It is cruel because it is close, but not close enough! You know what’s at the end of that road? Whitney Portal. And you know what’s at Whitney Portal? The burger and beer I have been dreaming about for miles! It is the force, stronger than gravity itself, that pulls me down this mountain. Each tenth if a mile ticking off agonizingly slow. Suddenly I am filled with the desire to be done. Get me the fuck off of this mountain! Burger! Beer! But, before long my feet do touch asphalt. And it is over. Civilization begins to creep back into my life. It is strange and comforting and easy and overwhelming.
End of the line
The place of burgers and beers
I order that burger, add the cold crisp lettuce and tomato, and savor every bite. And I wash it down with a Lagunitas IPA. And I am in heaven…
The stuff dreams are made of!
I hitch a ride into Lone Pine with a woman traveling alone. She seems uneasy and when she jokingly asks me, I assure her that I am not a serial killer (despite my appearance…and smell).
At my motel, I stand in the shower and watch the dirt run down the drain as the soap and water begin to strip layers of trail dirt off of my body. It feels so good that I repeat the process with a hot bath. Soon, I am gloriously clean! I look at my body in the mirror. Bearded, sun damaged face and neck (despite the sunscreen and bandana draped under my hat), hair worn off of my calves and inner highs, noticeably thinner,but still flawed. How many more miles…how many more hours of walking would it take to lose the man boobs and see some abdominal muscles, I wonder?
The motel has a laundromat, and I wash everything. I wear my rain jacket and wear a towel around my waist like a skirt as I make my way to and from the laundromat. Feeling a little awkward as I walk past the guests hanging out by the pool…
My brother-in-law has very generously driven up from San Diego and will drive me to LAX in the morning for my flight back to Virginia. We head into town for pizza and a salad. Looks like my appetite is back. He asks about the hike and it’s weird, but it is difficult for me to put it into words. I don’t have any harrowing tales of mountain storms or bear attacks or life-threatening experiences. I feel like I could talk about the trip for hours with someone else who has been there. But, I find it difficult to share the experiences I had in a meaningful way with those who have not been. How many different ways can I say “It was awesome!”?
Back at the motel, I watch a little TV in the bed…just because I can. And then…sweet Jesus…I sleep! Good, hard sleep. The first I have had in weeks.
The view from my motel. 11,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Whitney (on the right).