Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal…and on to Bishop

Total JMT Miles — 2.5
Elevation Loss — 1680 feet

Mt. Whitney (far right, far back) and Mt. Russel just visible from my campsite

This is it. The end is near. There is no way I can stall any longer the completion of my trip. I know all this as soon as I wake up at Pine Lake on day 20. It’s bittersweet, this last morning camped above 10,000 feet. I don’t want to leave, but I am also ready for a shower, to make coffee without my hands being so darn cold, and especially to spend the night in a bed and not a tent. I consider this while still in the tent waiting for daylight to come, and realize that I have spent 23 nights in a  row in a sleeping bag and tent, counting the days driving down, and that’s more than plenty.  Crawling out one last time, I can see that the clouds from the day before have cleared, again, and I know it’s going to be a gorgeous day for my grand finale. The bulk of all my hiking is done. I only have 2.5 miles of steady downhill to reach the Whitney Portal. Then it’s a relative hop, skip, and a jump (with a fair number of details) back to civilization. I am not sure how I feel about that part, and it weighs heavy on my mind.

As I drink coffee, eat breakfast, and gaze out at the lake, I am not sure how to make the most of these last moments. I know it will be awhile before I wake up at a mountain lake again, and having it entirely to myself just adds a layer of sadness to my pensiveness. I let myself think ahead just a bit. Will I backpack again before summer turns itself over to fall? I’d like to think so, but I know realistically it probably won’t happen. And even if I do manage to squeeze in one more overnighter after I get back to Bellingham, I know it won’t come close to this experience of utter solitude at a high mountain lake. These moments will have to tide me over for a good long while. I do my best to fully embrace my surroundings and soak it all in.

From Lone Pine Lake campsite

First light beams off the peaks, and I can just see Mt. Whitney in the back. I think back to yesterday’s summit, and reflect on how far I have come. I do a quick run through of my entire trip as I sit there by those perfectly still waters with the sun turning the mountains all kinds of colors.  I pull out my journal and try to write. I am certain my greatest feeling of the moment is gratitude, for all aspects of the trip and that it went so incredibly well. I pinpoint my greatest uncertainty as not knowing how to share my story with friends and family. And I identify my greatest fear as the challenge of integrating back to civilization. I try to sort out some of what each of those last two will look like. Both seem like very challenging tasks. Finally I decide I to trust myself, be present in all the moments of the day as they unfold, and not try to second guess how I will do with either of these things. One step at a time, I tell myself, and the first steps are down the trail and out the Whitney Portal.

I am on the trail by 8:30. It’s sunny, the day is warming up, and I shed  layers as I go. I am dropping elevation quickly, and the trail is one of open, steep, and dusty switchbacks. I remember this part from last year, and it’s partly why I wanted to camp at Lone Pine Lake. Last year these last miles literally seemed to never end, and I didn’t want it to be like that this year. Since it’s all I have to do and I am fresh from a night of sleep, I cruise right along. I greet the folks coming up, getting a “late” start on Whitney, at least compared to the many people who begin the day hike to summit Whitney from the portal in the dark.

At the Whitney Portal, either Bill or Jim in back

It takes me no time to get down. As I get close to the end, I start looking for someone to give me a ride into Lone Pine. It’s 12 miles, and I certainly don’t want to walk! I encounter two older men towards the bottom of the trail.  I ease up close enough behind them to eves drop. I want to know what they are up to before I spring on them my request for a ride. I learn that they have been out on a simple overnighter and are headed back to their car then back to town. Sounds good so far! I get close enough to talk to the one behind. “Good morning!” I say. “I overheard you say you are headed back to town. I just finished the JMT and I need a ride into town. Is there any way I can hitch a ride with you and your buddy?”

“Go ask Bill”, the one says. “He’s in charge!” I thank him, ask his name (Jim), and move past him. He is friendly, seemingly harmless, and just the kind of guy I was hoping to run into to ask for a ride.  I catch up to Bill.

“Hey Bill! Your buddy Jim says you are the one to ask for a ride. I have just finished the JMT and could use a ride into town. Would it be possible for me and my pack to hitch a ride with you guys?”

Bill turns around. “Of course!” He looks skeptical. “You did the whole thing?  You look pretty good for just finishing the JMT! How many days were you out?”

That makes me smile. “20 days” I say.  I am sure they would probably give me a ride even if I was frumpy and smelled bad, but my last painful jump into Lone Pine Lake, clouds and all, ensured that I am not too bad.  I decide it pays to look and smell semi-decent on the last day of a long back pack trip. If nothing else, it makes me feel better about asking for a ride.

At Whitney Portal…all those warning signs, I am glad none of that happened to me!

We make arrangements to meet at their Jeep Cherokee. I am thrilled! I weigh my pack as I exit the trail for good. It’s down to 38 pounds! My pack has lost 20 pounds on this trip. That makes me feel good, and I am all smiles as I take it off the hook. There are two other men, younger than me, waiting to weigh their packs. They have just finished a five day trip. They are astounded that my pack still weights 38 pounds. “How much did it weigh to start? What the heck did you have in there? What the heck do you still have in there?” they ask.

“I don’t know.” I laugh. “Too much. Way too much! But it got me through three weeks, and I am just ecstatic to be done!”

The two older men are hanging around during this exchange The younger backpackers ask how I am getting into town. I nod in the direction of the older guys. “These two offered me a ride. Or rather, I asked and they took pity and said yes.”

The younger guys look at the older guys. I can see the wheels turning in the heads of the younger two. “I hate to ask”, says one, “but is there anyway WE can get a ride into town too?”  The older two look at each other, shrug, laugh, and say sure, we can probably make it happen.

And that is how I end up heading into town with two rather stinky hikers (who have NOT recently been in a lake!), our three backpacks, and Jim and Bill in the front seats. Because Jim and Bill also have a bunch of gear, complex stuff like fishing gear, sleds to get out of the sand if one gets stuck (Bill, it turns out, lives in the desert), plus their backpacks and other gear, the logistics of getting everything in is technically complex. The front passenger seat is taken up not only by Jim, but several fishing poles and the huge sled that had been in the back seat. I sit in the middle of the backseat, stinky hiker on either side, and all three of us hold our backpacks on our laps as there is no where else to put them.  It’s a humorous situation, and thankfully we all approach it as such. I am so relieved to have a ride, I don’t complain.

There is road construction on the 12 mile section to Lone Pine, and we sit a lot. Thankfully with windows open! It takes us an hour to get there, and Jim and Bill drop me off at a Mexican Restaurant on the corner where I plan to have lunch. It’s the same place that Gregg and I ate when we first arrived in town last year after JMT 1, and I know they will happily accept me and my backpack. I call a happy goodbye to the backpackers I’ve been sandwiched between, and heartily thank Bill and Jim for the ride. I prepare to sit outside the restaurant until it opens at 11:00 am.

Despite all that the morning has held, it’s only 10:50. I spend the next 20 minutes texting friends and family that I am out safely. I have been without cell service since Red’s Meadow on day 5 of my trip, so it’s been awhile. I call my sister Kari for an update on my mom. She was put onto Hospice care just before I left, and, while I am certain I would have heard if she had died while I was gone, I want to make sure I didn’t miss that or anything else of crucial family importance. Kari and I talk for long enough for me to learn that basically things are just as they were before I left.  It’s weird being out of touch for so long then to suddenly be back in it.

The restaurant is late opening, and the gal comes out very apologetic at 11:10 to say they are ready for me. I haul in my pack and find a booth.  I am the only one there besides the skeleton staff. I’ve been in communication with Dave, who lives in Bishop, an hour away, to say that I am eating and will be ready to go by noon. I have 50 minutes to order, eat, and be ready for a ride. I enjoy every minute of it! I order a diet coke, and drink it and two refills while eating chips and salsa and waiting for my chicken fajitas with extra salsa and hot sauce. Everything tastes so good, and I relish every bite.  I also get to wash my hands and face in the bathroom with hot, running water — before and after I eat. So much luxury I can hardly stand it! I briefly imagine that the restaurant staff thinks I am nuts appearing so grateful for all the small things. But I AM grateful, and I am sure they get just-finished JMT hikers often enough that my strange behavior doesn’t seem all that strange.

Right on schedule Dave arrives to get me. Talk about service! This is the same Dave who has been involved in two food drops already, and I am scheduled to stay at his house with him and his girlfriend Michelle for my last two nights before driving to Vegas and flying home. The hour drive back to Bishop with Dave is fun, and I get to fill him in on the last five days of my trip since I last saw him at Kearsarge Pass with food on Day 15. We talk about what our respective plans are for the next two days. Since it’s a Monday, both Dave and Michelle will be working. I tell Dave I would just love a ride to his house, for laundry, a shower, and maybe internet connection. And that I will probably rent a car the next day so that I can get around, specifically and ironically, to do a long day hike. I explain that I need to ease myself back into normal life, and the best way I know how is to head out on a long day hike! He questions if that is normal, but we both acknowledge it’s normal for both of us, this desire to be out in the mountains as much as is humanly possible.

Dave, Michelle, and Gigi at Bishop Pass. This is the pass I decide to hike on my one full day in Bishop. Photo courtesy of Dave Grah

Dave drops me at the house. He instructs me on the laundry, and heads back to work. I start laundry, shower, and get organized in Dave’s daughter Olivia’s room where I will sleep. Olivia has gone back to college since I saw her last, after food drop #2 (Day 10). I check out her bed, which is a twin, but it will do and it sure beats a tent! After my shower, I head outside to lie in the hammock. It’s 100 degrees in Bishop, and I can feel the heat. I am actually glad the hammock is in the  shade.  I take a book, my phone, water, and pillows. I lie there, alternately reading, napping, talking to my kids on the phone, and texting, until Dave and Michelle get home at 5:30. They have brought fixings for a simple dinner, and the three of us (plus Michelle’s dog, Gigi!) spend the evening eating, chatting, and relaxing. I brainstorm with Dave what day hikes I can do over the next two days, one near Bishop and one on the way to the airport in Las Vegas. I am in no way ready to commit to just hanging out for two days, and I am relieved to have a plan of action.  I am ready for and in bed by 8:00, my standard bedtime for the entire JMT. I go to bed thankful for real pillows, and excited for some more adventure the next day.

Highlights of the day

The ride into Lone Pine from Whitney Portal

This whole situation made me smile. First, there were the circumstances and ironies themselves. I was worried that I would be too “stinky and gross” to ask for a ride into town. How ludicrous this was in and of itself, as I was really fine. It was a total needless worry (remember that file from Day 1?) AND, I ended up crammed in a back seat with two guys much riper than me, and I honestly didn’t care! But the BEST part of this whole thing was that it reminded me of when I moved to Blaine from Bellingham about 10 years ago. My kids were teenagers, and we took one last load to our new home from our old home. The distance was only 19 miles, but for that 19 miles we had SO MUCH STUFF crammed in the car, there was literally no room for anything else. In the back seat were my daughter Shannon, our Golden Retriever Lily, and a whole bunch of stuff that wouldn’t fit in the hatch of my Subaru Outback. In the front passenger seat were my  son Kyle and Shannon’s friend Julia, double buckled and with stuff at their feet. Literally, there was no room for anything else in the car. We drove like that to Blaine, with me constantly worried that I would get pulled over and ticketed for having two kids (14 and 16) in a single front seat,  and absolutely no visibility out the back as the car was jam packed to the roof.  The Jeep Cherokee headed into Lone Pine was not THAT bad, but it was close in terms of how tightly all five of us and all of our gear were packed in.

Appreciation of everyday amenities

There is nothing better than three weeks in the wilderness to bring about immense appreciate for those things I often take for granted. Each time I ran water, used soap, washed a dish, sat on and flushed a toilet, ate food that wasn’t “backpack food”, washed clothes in a machine, showered, and slept in a bed I felt extremely thankful. I remembered from JMT 1 that the novelty of these things took awhile to wear off, and I reveled in the simple pleasure associated with doing all those things. Anyone who has travelled in a foreign country where amenities such as these are not available, or spent time in some other environment where everyday luxuries aren’t available will appreciate this.

Sharing the victory with family and friends!

Some of this was via text, some by phone, and with Dave and Michelle in person. It felt great to say “I did it!” and to really grasp the significance of that. Sharing with others who matter to me that I had completed the JMT solo started to solidify the achievement. I still wasn’t sure how to recap the trip, that was too much to expect in less than 24 hours from completion. But to have done it, and to have had it be such a success, and to let others know this, was a start.

Lesson of the day

Coming to the end doesn’t mean it has to end!

There were two parts to this. The first was that it was apparent and important to recognize that I didn’t have to get to that place of summary and conclusion  just like that.  I could say “I did it”, and when people asked how was it, I could give basic information without having to make sense of it all right then and there. I saw that I could let things sink in gradually, and figure out how and what to say, both in the immediate and the time to come. Just because I finished didn’t mean it was done…the processing was (and still is) ongoing.

And secondly, I made the all-important decision before going to bed on Day 20 that I would theoretically extend my trip for two more days until I returned to Bellingham. That way, I could both ease back into life more gradually, AND forestall any great conclusions until I had a couple more days to process.

Readers, I hope you will stick with me for two more posts. Then I promise I will somehow bring all of this to completion! 

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