9/5/09; Distance Traveled = 15.0 miles
“Steve. Steve.” It is just after midnight. Jon and I crawl out of our sleeping bags and size the situation. The full moon is bright; the granite everywhere reflects with a silvery glow. Choices…start hiking now and huddle at the top in sleeping bags until sunrise or catch a few more hours sleep and start up around 3:00? We opt for more sleep.
I wake to the sound of hikers passing. “Jon, what time is it?” “2:30.” “Let’s do it, there are people hiking already.” We break camp quickly, snack, and set out. My body rebels; I’ve had too little sleep and my eyes are unable to bring the shadows into sharp focus. I feel lightheaded, almost motion sick, and need my hiking staffs for balance.
The trail climbs gently, trending southeast, along the base of Mt Whitney beneath its massive shadow rift moonlit west wall. High above move the tiny lights of three hikers. Soon, we too are climbing the switchbacks. The breeze, then wind increases with each step. My lightheadedness is gone, and now I fight cold. We hike fast, pushing it to stay warm.
We stop at the summit trail junction for a brief rest and to don our last layers; the wind is piercing and chill. Below, the lakes shine like black glass. The moon’s image appears an iceberg floating upon the upper Hitchcock Lake. Mt Whitney is hidden by the pinnacles, minor peaks lining the mighty, crenulated Sierra Crest. We follow the trail north and peer east through each crenel. Out there, somewhere, beyond the gray sky, in a race to the summit, is the rising sun. Who will get there first?
We summit as the glow and colors of dawn appear on the horizon, but rather than celebrate our triumph we cower and seek shelter from the wind. The Smithsonian Hut is unlocked and we enter, escape the cold, and join 5 others seeking refuge while awaiting the sunrise. We warm a few minutes and then it is time.
Outside, we witness a miracle:
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.
Behold the glory of God! Behold the rising sun! I stand atop Mt Whitney, the acme of an epic journey. The White Mountains are silhouette beneath a ribbon of orange. The Great Western Divide radiates in day’s first light. Now there is celebration. Now there is joy. Jon and I congratulate one another, and chronicle the moment in pictures and entries in the summit register. We have witnessed today’s creation and we have hiked the John Muir Trail!
Adrenaline spent, the cold presses in, and we again take shelter in the Smithsonian Hut. Ann Marie and her friends are there preparing breakfast; Jon and I do likewise. Ann Marie shares cheese and crackers, complements of the Food Friends, Jed and Maggie. Her friends recount tales of their PCT thru-hike and describe how much easier despite the wind is the hike up Mt Whitney in September than on June’s mostly snow covered trails.
The full bloom of morning brings more and more people. Jon and I, with Ann Marie, encounter a stream of them on our way back to the summit trail junction. Most have hiked from Trail Camp and Guitar Lake; among them, Jed and Maggie, with whom we stop for one last visit. We reach the trail junction a few minutes before 9:00. Jon makes a second sat phone offer. Ann Marie accepts and wakes her son; she is more comforted than he is appreciative.
As we wait I hear my name. Coming up the trail is one of the Japanese hikers and right behind him, Ryan. “Steve!” “F—–g Ryan!” I call back. We share tales of the last few days and Jon gets in his long awaited digs, but the reunion is brief; daylight is burning and all are anxious to continue. More goodbyes; Ryan heads toward Mt Whitney, Ann Marie and her friends toward Guitar Lake, and we toward Whitney Portal.
The trail climbs a short distance to 13,650 foot Trail Crest Pass and then starts down a stretch of one hundred switchbacks. We stop every few turns to shed layers and let at least 100 summit bound people pass. The descent ends for a short distance as it wanders through Trail Camp, an austere, vegetation free, and altogether unattractive place.
The Mt Whitney Trail is a series of mile long moderate to steep switchbacking downhills interspersed with short level sections. Below Trail Camp the first of these skirts a small attractive meadow. The narrow bands of green straddling Lone Pine Creek are perfect contrast to the white granite and the first significant vegetation since Guitar Lake. Then it is down again past a few stunted trees to lovely Mirror Lake, and then one final hot slope lined with Fennel Salami bush (bush chinquapin) to Outpost Camp.
The final 2½ miles are unrelenting down with continuous views of Whitney Portal. Don’t bother tracking progress with each switchback; you never get closer until you arrive. Fortunately paragliders riding thermals off the canyon walls offer a diversion. At length we encounter day hikers and fishers making for Lone Pine Lake; we are getting close. We wait our turn at a one-way crossing of Lone Pine Creek, and then follow the trail as it leads above and past Whitney Portal to a final big looping switchback and then at long last, the trailhead.
But we aren’t finished yet. A short walk brings us to the Whitney Portal Store. The store boasts a large array of tourist garb and Mt Whitney memorabilia, but more importantly a refrigerator full of beer and a grill. We each grab a Lagunitas brew and order a double everything but the bun burger, “The Moose”, with fries. Celebratory burgers and beer; not exactly gourmet, but still a worthy post hike meal and conclusion to an epic hike.