Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Tag: Mt. Whitney

Day 20 John Muir Trail

Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal…and on to Bishop

Total JMT Miles — 2.5       Elevation Loss — 1680 feet

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.

Morning light on Mt. Muir from Lone Pine Lake

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

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.

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 the Whitney Portal, either Bill or Jim in back

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! 

 

Day 19 John Muir Trail

Arctic Lake Outlet to Mt. Whitney to Lone Pine Lake

Total JMT miles  —  12.1            Elevation Gain/Loss  —  +3035/-4495

First light on Guitar Lake

I wake up earlier than usual on this last full day of my trip. I will officially complete the JMT proper today, and hike most of the way out of the wilderness before spending one final night at Lone Pine Lake, just 3 miles from civilization. I am saddened by this reality but ready to take it on.  I am up and out of the tent even before first light. I want to get as early of a start as possible without feeling stressed. I am not in any real hurry, but I also don’t need to hang around for any reason. The summit of Whitney awaits!

As I prepare to depart, I can see a steady throng of people hike by just off in the distance, all headed towards the Whitney summit. At first it’s a constant stream of headlamps.  When first light emerges, the headlamps gradually disappear but the people keep coming. I eat breakfast, pack up, and get ready to join the masses. It’s a perfectly clear, crisp, morning and the sunrise colors are stupendous. It’s a perfect day to summit. I am completely ready by 6:45, my earliest departure time on the trip so far.

Looking down on Arctic Lake and peaks behind

Morning light reflected off Guitar Lake

Psychologically, I prepare myself for the people I will encounter on this day. The park service issues 150 permits to day hikers on Whitney, and then there are all the people who summit in conjunction with backpack trips (not only the JMT, but also other permitted trips in the area). Despite it’s daunting 14,505 foot summit, Mount Whitney in August is a busy place!  Surprisingly,  by the time I am headed up the switchbacks from Arctic Lake to Trail Crest, where people dump their backpacks to summit with less of a load, I don’t see any people. Not a one. Clearly, everyone is ahead of me. I climb that entire three mile section in utter solitude.  It’s quiet, eerie, peaceful and surreal.  But such is the nature of summit expeditions. Everyone wants to get up and at ’em, and I feel behind schedule already even though it’s barely 7:00 am!

Just before Trail Crest, I hear someone call to me. “Hey Kathie!” I don’t at first recognize the voice or face, as it’s all covered in hat, scarf, and other cold weather gear. “It’s Emily!” Now I can recognize solo hiker Emily, who I haven’t seen for two days. She slept right at Trail Crest (elevation 13,460), and has already been up to the summit to catch the sunrise from there. Now she is packed up and ready to head down. I am impressed at her organization and determination to make Whitney at sunrise and camp right out in the elements just below it. We chat for a moment, and I hear about her last couple of days and share details of mine. I am quite sure I won’t see her again, as she will be down long before me, and headed for hamburgers with her family.  I wish her well on the hike out and in her future, and tell her I am extremely glad to have met her and that I am impressed with her confidence and ability at the tender age of 21! She thanks me, wishes me well, and says I’m not too shabby either for a 50-something. She snaps two pictures of me, and we say our goodbyes.

Just below Trail Crest, where I found Emily

At Trail Crest, the trails from north and south merge. One comes up from Guitar Lake (where I have come), and one comes up from the Whitney Portal. Here, action definitely picks up. It’s two miles and just over 1000 feet elevation gain to the top from here. 30,000 hikers try for the summit each year; 10,000 make it. All 10,000 aren’t here today, but plenty are! I have an instant flashback to other wilderness experiences I’ve had in my life where it seems, from the environment and surroundings, that there simply should not be so many people present. The wild and extreme surroundings and the numbers of people simply don’t make sense together.  But alas, it is what it is, and I am determined to make the best of it. I dump my pack at Trail Crest. I plan to take only some food, water, my camera, an extra layer of clothes, and basic toiletries to the summit with me. I make sure to put all of the rest of the food in the bear canister to keep the marmots out. Marmots stand watch 24/7 here, and they keep a constant eye out for careless food security.

Similar to previous times both this year and last, once I am rid of my heavy backpack, I get into serious cruise mode. The final two miles to Whitney isn’t technical, but it is exposed, and people get cautious. It’s also relatively thin air, and that gets to people too.  I move past everybody, and no one passes me. I am not rushing to summit, it’s just what happens. I pass people in tennis shoes, sandals, and even one woman in flip flops! There are people in tank tops and some wearing enough clothing to tackle Everest! There is such a diverse array of clothing, levels of experience, and comfort vs. obvious discomfort with this last section of trail that it makes for great people watching.  But it’s difficult to navigate passing all those going up and those coming down. It’s simply a lot of people traveling up and down a narrow, rocky, and sometimes very exposed trail.

Hitchcock Lakes and Mt. Hitchcock from summit trail

Same view, slightly different lighting. Mt. Chamberlin in background

Since this is nearly the end of my journey, I want to make sure to enjoy every step. I feel conflicted as step by step I close in on the summit. I feel like I am reaching a pinnacle in more ways than one, and that life will never be quite the same once I have finished this trek, and I am not sure if I am ready for that.  I know there is nothing inherently life changing about the summit itself, since I reached it last year. But what it represents this time, at the end of this magnificent solo trek, feels momentous.

Summit Hut

But the heavy introspection soon gets tedious even to me, and I lighten up and finish it off. What greets me is the summit hut, the huge summit register, and throngs of people milling around the thankfully large area, toasting their success with miniature alcohol bottles and rampant photo and video taking. It’s predictable and yet totally spectacular, because the views really are circumferentially breathtaking!

I find Ginnie and her crew right away, and get in on some picture action. I have them take several of me, and offer to take group photos of them. It’s fun to feel a part of something — although I am not in their group photos, I still feel welcomed at the fringes. I am sure I could insert myself into a photo with them, but what would be the point? I have come this far alone, I will stick to my solo guns on the summit as well.

Photo time!

You can get a sense of the size of Whitney’s summit from this photo…

I try to take it all in before heading down: the fact that I have done it, the fact that I did it alone, and the fact that I did it without serious incident or accident or anything going wrong. It is a weird feeling, being up there like that, knowing how much went into the trip, all the planning and organization, and to have it all go off so well, but to be done. I keep thinking I should keep going. I know I don’t want it to end.

So while I do turn around and come down after an hour on top, I am grateful that I have only decided to go as far as Lone Pine Lake instead of all the way out. The first 100 plus switchbacks down from Trail Crest are tight, steep, and relentless. I am back with my backpack, and I remember how little I like this part of the trail. I move down a step at a time as quickly as I can, ignoring all pain in my arthritic knee and just getting it done. As soon as I am off of that section, I feel I can breathe again. I stop at what’s called Trail Camp, a large, crowded, popular campsite for hikers coming up from Lone Pine to summit in two days…or those doing the JMT South to North. There is only a small water source, and the sanitation of the place scares me. Too many people camp here, and it just feels dirty and over used. But I stay long enough to eat my lunch, write in my journal, and begin my trip reflections in earnest. I see Ginnie and her crew again, and consider hiking the last few miles with them, to pass the time. But I don’t seek that out, they start down ahead of me, and I start out alone.

Headed back down, just below Trail Camp

Just below Trail Camp, I catch up to one of Ginnie’s crew, Mike, a “trail parent” to her mixed up group. He starts up a conversation, explaining that he is slow because of a bum knee. I can relate, and I am in just the right mood to continue it, and we end up hiking out the last three miles together.  I have to say it makes that stretch of trail go very fast, and a part of me wonders why I didn’t hike with others more on the JMT. But I also know if I had done it the whole hike, it would have made me crazy. It’s a fitting way to spend the last miles of the last full day, and I happily say goodbye and part ways with Mike at the turn off to Lone Pine Lake. Alone again, I look for a campsite.

I had expected Lone Pine Lake to be busy with day hikers, as it is so close to the Whitney Trailhead. But there are only a handful of youngsters just getting out of the lake after a swim when I arrive. I walk past all the obvious campsites and go around to the far side of the lake. I believe there is camping there, and I don’t want to be in anyone’s obvious path. I am still seeking seclusion. I find a spot, which is large and open and just above the lake, where people have obviously camped before. It’s a bit more on the beaten path than I would like if someone actually walks around the lake, but I take it. By now, the typical afternoon clouds have come in, and I am less enthusiastic about the swim I was so looking forward to. I do it anyway, but it’s cool and windy and I am and out quick as a flash. Dressed and warmed up,  I set up camp, and wonder how to while away the hours until darkness. It’s only 3 o’clock when I arrive, and my quick dunk and setting up camp only takes a short time. I have almost finished my book, and I find my thoughts being overtaken again by some heavy introspection about the trip being almost done.

Afternoon clouds obscure my sun for swimming at Lone Pine Lake

I see just two more people all afternoon. One guy who comes through my site tries to tell me I can’t camp at the lake. I assure him that my JMT bible says I can! He looks at me skeptically, and I worry that I am doing something wrong. But I stand my ground and choose to stay. The next person is a female, heavily, accented, who inquires “Are you Kathie?” This totally and understandably surprises me! “Ginnie sent me.” She explains. “I am headed up Whitney, from the Portal, doing JMT South to North. I meet nice woman Ginnie on the trail, she tells me you are camped here and how nice you are! She says to come find you.”

I am impressed that this woman has come here to find me, but I am unsure what she needs. The site really won’t hold us both…it could, but I would rather not camp with a stranger on this last night. The reason I didn’t go all the way out was because I wanted one more night alone to sort out my thoughts, etc. All this is on my mind as I finally say, “Yes, Ginnie. She is sweet too! What can I do for you?” I don’t know how else to phrase the question, to try to figure out what she wants or needs from me. We chat for a bit, and eventually it comes out that she is also doing the JMT solo, and has some uneasiness about this. Some part of her wants to camp this first night with someone, or near someone, and she has settled on me! We also discuss options farther up for her, like Trail Camp, 3 more miles up trail, where I assure her there will be plenty of  people. She wonders if she can make Trail Camp before dark, and I tell her I am confident she can. I also tell her she is welcome to stay with me, and make sure I am in the correct headspace for this once I make the offer. I watch her waffle as she tries to figure out what to do.

Eventually, she re-shoulders her backpack, deciding she will go on. I am semi-relieved, but also touched that Ginnie, who I really don’t even know, thinks highly enough of me that she would send a solo female hiker my way for some reassurance or guidance or something. I hope I have offered it. I wish the woman, Anna, well, and off she goes.

Campsite at Lone Pine Lake

The lake now is utterly quiet, and I have the place completely to myself. It’s still early, way too early to call it a night, but I am restless and tired of writing and thinking. I simply don’t know how to make better sense of the end of this trip at this point than I have done in my journal writing so far.  I know more sense will come in the days, weeks, months, and even years to come. For now, on this last evening alone on my trip, I just sit and watch the sun dance in and out of the clouds and reflect off the nearby peaks, and try to embrace as much of the actual experience as is humanly possible. Everything about this trip thus far has been magical, and this last evening is no exception. I feel a sense of deep peace and complete appreciation for the entire adventure. I enjoy a final embrace from mother nature as she works her magic color schemes as the light fades around me. It’s truly a perfect ending to a perfect trip.

Highlights of the Day

Solo hike up to Trail Crest

Early morning sunlight on Mt. Hitchcock

Sometimes, I gear up for something that I think will be emotionally taxing for some reason, and then, when it doesn’t happen, it’s just such an unexpected relief. I fully expected people on that first 3 mile stretch, as the previous year Gregg and I had encountered a bunch. Starting off heavily clothed, that meant stopping to shed layers, and the people we’d pass would re-pass us, and we would then have to pass them again.  And getting rid of the morning coffee also proved difficult on the entire stretch of trail from Arctic lake to the summit of Whitney. That’s what I was expecting. To get that full three miles completely alone as the morning sun gleamed off all the surrounding peaks, it was simply beautiful, calming, and completely peaceful. A great way to start the day.

The summit of Whitney

Mts. Muir, Newcomb, Mallory, Le Conte, and Langley from Whitney summit…Just five of the multitude!

The time on the summit was precious. Last year, I was caught off guard by the numbers of people, and that people were drinking and celebrating at 9 or 10 am. This year, I didn’t expect otherwise, and so I wasn’t thrown off at all. The views were similar from year one to year two, as smoke had mostly cleared out in year one. But let me tell you, the views from a summit that high never disappoint, and to wander all around and look out from each direction is an experience that every human should have!

The last three miles of hiking…with someone!

I am not sure why I so enjoyed hiking with Mike for that last three miles, but it just really felt good to connect with a human on the level that we did. Partly it was because we were both of similar age, and both addled by a combined multitude of orthopedic injuries. It started out with him dumping his orthopedic woes on me, as I am a good listener and I definitely get it. But, as I felt brave enough to share some of mine with him,  it shifted to more even ground, and we were able to have a mutually uplifting and encouraging hike, as opposed to a suffer fest about all our ailments! I was able to talk with him about my probable upcoming knee replacement, and some of my thought processes in coming to that decision, which I hadn’t really talked to anyone about until that point.  It felt like a good and solid connection for that hour and some until we parted ways, and left me with a smile on my face.

Lone Pine Lake…alone

Parting shot of final campsite

I started the day alone and ended it alone. And it was very fitting to be camped at Lone Pine Lake! Again, like the start of my day, I had no expectation of solitude at the lake, and was unexpectedly blessed with such. I could not have asked for a more beautiful setting for my final night. I was close to civilization such that the morning’s hike would be a walk in the park. But clearly enough away that I got to experience one final night of just me and the mountains and chipmunks and whatever other wildlife joined me and my thoughts and introspections.

Lessons of the day

The recurrent theme and contrast of time alone vs. time with others

This day was similar to the whole trip which is similar to my whole life…the quest for balance between time alone and time with others. For whatever reason, on the trail and in life in general, I have a need for vast amounts of time alone. And yet, within that, I also am deeply drawn to people and conversations and connection and feeling a part of something much bigger than myself. This day had it all — time alone, and time with many, and the noticing of that and seeing how I can and do flit in and out of it all. The entire day just fit in so well with the big picture of  my life. I don’t have the balance mastered, and I still long at times for one when the other is missing, but I do understand how important both are for my well-being, happiness, and very survival.

It’s simply impossible to sum up something as big as the JMT in one final day

I stayed at Lone Pine Lake to try for closure or ease the challenge of re-adapting back to “real life” by one more night. But I realized that it can’t happen in a time-compressed fashion. Processing the trip, and getting all there is to get out of it, takes much longer than the end of the day on which it finishes. While it was a heavy thinking day, I was also able to eventually let the day be and just take it for what it was…the last day of a fantastic trip that will likely take years to finally settle into my life. And I found that thought reassuring, the knowing that I didn’t have to have it all figured out by the end of the last full day. There is much writing about and pulling together still to come!

Day 18 John Muir Trail

Lake South America Junction to Arctic Lake

Total JMT miles — 11.8        Elevation gain/loss  —  2070+/1410-

I awake early this morning, hours before daylight, with a keen awareness that the end of my Great Journey is inconceivably near. This time tomorrow, I will be headed up to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the “official”  end of the John Muir Trail.  While the trail officially ends on the summit, you still have to hike out the ten miles to the Whitney Portal and back to civilization. Nonetheless, tomorrow I will be done with the official trail, and the next day I will hike out of the Sierras for the completion of my trip. I lie awake in the early morning darkness considering how I want this day to look. I feel reflective, contemplative, and aware of the slightest beginnings of sadness. I make a pledge to myself before I leave the warmth of my tent to enjoy and embrace each and every minute of this last full day on the JMT proper, whatever may come to pass.

Again it’s cold at the campsite, and I struggle mightily to get myself packed up without freezing. Thankfully, I have hand warmers for each of my last two super-cold mornings, and I enjoy the small amount of warmth they exude inside my gloves. I do all my morning tasks while deep in thought, and I want to slow down time so that the day never ends. It’s an easy day in miles, just under 12, to hike above Guitar Look, to the outlet of Arctic Lake, guarded carefully by Mt. Whitney herself. There is nothing particularly challenging about the day, except my reluctance to start it. I know that once it starts, it’s conclusion is the inevitable outcome. But eventually cold and the need to move forces me to turn it on, and I get packed up and move out.

Craggy trees to start my day

Craggy trees to start my day

First up is a bit of forest, and I move quickly to warm up. I am grateful that there is some elevation gain here to get the blood flowing. Soon the trail opens up, and I emerge onto a flat barren of sand. The views are vast and open, and I can see peaks in all directions. The trail crests at what’s called Bighorn Plateau, a place named after a long ago sighting of sheep off to the east.  My book says it’s uncommon to actually see sheep here, but coyotes and soaring birds of prey are commonly sighted. It’s a pretty magical place on the whole. Last year we took off from Bighorn for a quick jaunt up Tawny Point for a full panorama; I consider that side trip briefly, but after the previous days challenges on the Lake South America Trail, I decide I don’t feel like going off-trail. But the views are fantastic, and I take lots of pictures.

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau

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Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

Mt.Hale (foreground), Mt. Whitney (back, right), Mt. Russell (back, left)

Mt.Hale (foreground), Mt. Whitney (back, right), Mt. Russell (back, left)

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

Leaving Bighorn Plateau, I drop into the Wright Creek drainage. It’s a minor elevation drop with multiple stream crossings adding to the magical surroundings. I am once again walking in a wonderland of meadows and creeks, surrounded by peaks, and I feel blessed and lucky with each step. I am really enjoying myself, and feel as if I am walking on air in spite of the weight of my backpack. The trail goes up and down repeatedly. None of it is difficult. Soon I come to the place where the JMT and PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) split for good. Prior to this, the JMT largely follows the much longer PCT, but at 202 miles in,  I head east toward the summit of Whitney to finish off the JMT, and the PCT heads south towards the Mexican border. Briefly, I wish I was on the PCT just so my journey wouldn’t be so close to an end. I let myself entertain for a moment the idea of doing such an adventure in the future. Realistically, I know I won’t, as 2650 miles is just too much,  and I have no desire or inclination to be out on the trail for five months in a row! But it’s fun to day dream on this already dreamy day, and I let my thoughts wander along with my feet.

In no time I am at the junction to Crabtree Meadow. The JMT actually bypasses this gem, by you can enjoy it if you head a mere two tenths of a mile south. Crabtree Meadow, just 3 miles from where I will camp and 7.5 miles from the summit of Whitney, has ample camping, food storage boxes, a ranger station, and even a sit down toilet! It also has a lovely creek that runs through it, Crabtree Creek,  and a great potential lunch spot that I discovered last year when I left the trail to find water. All morning I have looked forward to having a long lunch in this meadow by the creek, and I am ecstatic to actually be here.

I immediately pull off my boots, socks, and get down to as few clothes as I can — jog bra and shorts. I plan for some serious sunbathing and relaxing. It’s only noon, and I have nothing else to do this afternoon but complete the three miles to Arctic Lake outlet. I figure I deserve a good long break. I eat slowly, taking in the views. No one else is around, which amazes me. After I eat I lie back and let the warm sun sink right into my weary body. I wonder if it is a mistake to get so relaxed mid day with a handful of miles still to cover. But I can’t help it. I am in heaven. It’s far and away the most relaxed I have been on this trip. The time with Dave, Oliver, and Olivia, (Day 10) when we spent much of the day in camp, I was relaxed, but it was just cold enough that I had a hard time totally letting go. Here, the sun at 10,700 feet feels fantastic, and I seriously don’t want to move. I consider just camping here for the night.

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

Instead, I pull out my journal and write, to capture the essence of where I am. Here is what rolls off the pen:  “Midday at Crabtree Meadow — So peaceful, sunbathing, eating lunch, boots off, and I could not be happier. I am liking this day because it is SO relaxing, I can barely stand it! When I think of what I could possibly feel stress about right now, there’s nothing. I have a great lunch spot, I am alone in the meadow by this lovely creek, with just a little farther to go today and ample time to get there. The weather looks good, and all seems to be totally in line for a relatively relaxing and easy summit tomorrow. I have enjoyed this trip beyond belief. I have gotten so comfortable with myself in all ways out here. I have seen bobcats, a coyote, deer, marmots, and tons of small critters. I have blessedly not seen a bear! I am absolutely loving this trip so far, and I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I am completely in sync in all areas of my life right now. There is simply no other place I would rather be than just where I am.”

It’s hard to top that, and it’s hard to leave. But I want that coveted spot up above Guitar Lake (most people camp at the lake the night before summiting Whitney). Last year Gregg and I made the extra half mile push up above the lake, and the views down to the lake were spectacular, as well as the fact that we were well away from all people. Since I am still seeking solitude, I push on from Crabtree after a fantastic two hour break.

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Timberline Lake

Timberline Lake

West side of Mt. Whitney

West side of Mt. Whitney

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Whitney's getting closer!

Whitney’s getting closer!

Look closely and you can see the helicopter...

Look closely and you can see the helicopter…

Some clouds come in, and the air is noticeably chillier. I am aimed straight at Whitney as I hike, and I have a sense of my destiny emblazoned in my soul. I know how it all ends. I am starting to become more okay with things ending, and in particular I am ready to be done for the day. My legs are feeling especially fatigued, as if they know the end of their responsibility on this trip is drawing near. I tell them to hang in, we are almost done! Thankfully, the miles pass quickly, as I head past Timberline Lake and on towards Guitar. Between these lakes, I first notice helicopter activity. I start paying attention, assuming it is some type of a mountain rescue. Last summer, I had a front row seat to a helicopter rescue of a dead body in the Enchantments, outside of Leavenworth, WA (see Day 2 Enchantments). I am instantly taken back there. I hope it’s not a dead body, or any body for that matter, that they are currently rescuing. But the helicopter keeps on circling and circling. I don’t like that the noise breaks up the quiet, and I don’t like what the helicopter may represent. This stays on my mind, the first time I have let worry creep into my head all day. I try my best to let it go, as I ascend the last bit up to Guitar Lake.

When I arrive at Guitar, friends from Day 13‘s rainstorm, Ginnie and Tracy, call a hearty “Hey Kathie!!” I feel like a celebrity! Their group has grown, to about eight in all, and I immediately drop my pack for a quick hug and hello. These are the gals that set up tent so closely in the rain, then we hiked more or less together until Mather Pass on Day 14. I lost track of them after that, and I am really glad to see them.  I ask them about the helicopter. “Just training sessions,” they assure me. “They have been at it all afternoon!” I am relieved about that. I ask them their plans for the morning. They expect to leave to summit by 5 am. I tell them I am headed up to camp at Arctic Lake outlet, and don’t expect to be on the trail quite that early, but that inevitably we will run into each other on the summit. This makes me super happy, as I have lost track for good of my former comrades Ashley, Rob, and Marcus, and I would love to at least be on the summit with some folks I feel like I know well enough to celebrate with.

I do the last distance to Arctic Lake outlet on a high. There is no sad mountain rescue at hand, I have encountered friends I will see on the summit tomorrow, and I will be at camp and set up in plenty of time to enjoy the sunset over Guitar Lake.  I am in for a surprise, though, as, where last year there were just two other campers up above Guitar, this year, there is a throng. At least 20 backpackers are there, evenly spread out over the meager camping spots available. I am determined not to let this discourage me, and I set about trying to find a perfect spot for myself. I wander amongst the open slabs of rock, with their shelves on which one can barely fit a tent, and look for a spot away from the others. Eventually, I find one, and it’s actually pretty perfect. It has a ledge up above the flat rock below, which makes a built in table for me to spread my stuff out. It even has a seat off to the side of my tent slab, for writing and reading. It’s all rocky and exposed, and I know it will be cold, but it looks down over Guitar Lake, and it’s away enough from others that I don’t feel like I am right in anyone’s back yard. It’s more than good enough, and I happily begin making myself at home for the night.

Guitar Lake from my campsite

Guitar Lake from my campsite

The evening passes slowly, after an early dinner. I still have hours before darkness, and I finish a book and then do some more writing. Finally, I can’t think of any reason not to, and so I get into the tent even before the sun goes down. I think maybe I will get that early start in the morning after all, depending on what time I wake up and get moving.

Highlights of the Day

Hanging out in Crabtree Meadow

I am not sure why it took me until Day 18 to achieve complete relaxation on the trip. But for my time at the meadow, I was there. Surprisingly, I only saw a few other people the entire time, and mostly, it was just me by the creek, enjoying the peaceful sounds of water dancing as I rested, ate, and wrote. Perhaps it was my intentionality to enjoy the day that created in me such a sense of peace. Perhaps it was that I was so close to the end of my trip that there was just plain not much left to worry about. Perhaps it was that my body finally said, “Hey! We deserve a break here!”, and I listened. But for whatever reason, that time in the meadow was not only a highlight of my day, but also of the entire trip.

Campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

For whatever reason, my sense of being relaxed and accepting of everything continued into the evening and my time above Guitar Lake. I was just plain not stressed out.  About anything. I kept thinking there must be something I should worry about, at least I could get nervous about summiting in the morning. But even that didn’t do it for me. I just felt calm, cool, and collected, and very at peace in my environment. Like I fully belonged there and was one with my surroundings.

Lessons of the Day

When the pieces fall into place, it simply feels great.

I came on the trip to relax into being by myself in the magnificent beauty of a somewhat extreme mountain environment. I wanted to feel peaceful and calm and a part of that world. I wanted to be comfortable and at ease with myself and my natural companions of weather, animals, lakes, creeks, and stark mountain peaks surrounding me on all sides. I wanted to feel at home here. I finally got that in spades on Day 18. I was finally and completely at peace. Everything about the day was just like magic. I HAD fully and completely embraced all parts of the day, and it felt just great.

The realization that I was going to make it finally set in.

This wasn’t so much of a lesson as a realization. As I write and reflect back on this day, the magic largely had to do with knowing I was going to make it.  I knew it with a certainty that was as complete as my peace — I was going to complete my solo trip of the John Muir Trail. I let the magnitude and emotion of that really started to sink in on this day. Nothing stood between me and the end.

 

 

 

 

 

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