Sunrise At Mount Whitney…
We made it! After leaving Guitar Lake at 3am and hiking the last five miles in the dark, we arrived at the summit of Mount Whitney just in time to watch the sunrise.
What an incredible end to our JMT journey and our summer of hiking! Thank you to everyone who supported our ‘Summer 700’ – it’s now complete! Well almost – it’s just 10 more miles back down the mountain to rejoin ‘civilisation’ and order ourselves a burger!
After 27 days on the JMT, we proudly stand on the top of Mount Whitney at sunrise!
Day 27 – Guitar Lake to Mount Whitney to Whitney Portal (15 miles) – Wednesday 24th September 2014 – ‘Back To Civilisation’
We lay, wide awake, long before the alarm went off softly at 2am. Whether it was the trepidation of hiking up a mountainside in the dark, or the excitement of a burger waiting for us at the bottom, we were both eager to get up, get warm and get going.
Wayne set about boiling some water for hot chocolates, with the addition of a Clif Bar that we’d saved for breakfast, (a good boost of energy before we set off), while I packed away everything inside the tent. Despite the majority of people around Guitar Lake getting up at similar times to make their way up Mount Whitney, it was eerily quiet, with just a blanket of stars for company.
We wondered if we were actually the last ones to get on the trail after seeing a procession of headlights snaking their way up the mountainside far off in the distance. We knew at once that it was the ‘Big Group’ up ahead with a couple of miles head start on us, as Jimmy had known of a small creek beyond Guitar Lake where the group could get water and camp, which wasn’t on our map. Both he and the other group leader had advised us to continue up the trail a while beyond Guitar Lake to beat the crowds. But we decided against this, as for once, we wanted to be amongst all the other JMT hikers making themselves at home around Guitar Lake, purely to experience the whole ‘vibe of anticipation’ that was permeating through everyone as we were so close to the finish line.
At 3am we were packed and ready to go. We checked on Katie and she too was ready for the strenuous task that lay ahead, complete in her now customary ‘crocs’. Despite having hot drinks and wearing hats and gloves, the early morning chill had gone straight to our bones. It didn’t take us long to warm up however as we began powering up the mountainside switchbacks being led at a brisk pace by Wayne. Our head torches shone brightly, allowing us to see a few feet ahead of us as we watched out for rocks and boulders that littered the trail. At some points it seemed like we were walking along a knife edge with sheer drop offs, so I was glad to be the one in the middle. Although hiking in the dark can be more tiresome as you have to concentrate more,
Carefully following the trail using our head torches.
We often think after coming back down the trail in the daylight that it’s much better to find your way in the dark as you can’t actually see what lies ahead and the possible dangers you may be facing. Mount Whitney was one of those times. One foot wrong and you could find yourself heading straight over a cliff edge as you have to navigate thin sections of trail. There are even ‘window’ openings at particular sections that allow you to look down onto Lone Pine. But at least in the dark we couldn’t see how close to the edge we actually were or take any notice of the quickest way down!
We continued on what seemed like a never ending snake of switchbacks, with the inky black sky turning to a deep navy blue, with a smudge of orange haze appearing on the horizon as we looked back. We desperately wanted to reach the top of Mount Whitney for sunrise. Leaving camp at 3am left us approximately 3 and a half hours to reach the summit before the sun came up. We thought that was plenty of time to hike just 5 miles. But it was one of those hikes that when you looked up and thought you were almost there, another set of switchbacks seemed to appear out of nowhere and what you thought was the top wasn’t the top at all.
Incredible views from the trail in the twilight hour.
Slowly, but surely making my way up Mount Whitney.
I was getting stressed, was struggling to keep up with Wayne’s pace and was almost ready to give up when the mountain hut suddenly came into view. I turned back and shouted to Katie ‘We’re almost there!’ to give her some encouragement, hoping that she didn’t feel like I did just a few moments earlier. All the while Wayne was racing to the top to try and get his tripod set up before the great big ball of flames we’d been so eager to see burst above the horizon.
He got there just in time but decided to savour the moment instead of missing it whilst getting set up for a time lapse. Myself and Katie, a switchback or two behind, reached the top just as the sun winked at us. The wind was howling and it was perishingly cold up there – but we had made it!
‘Bathed in gold’ – The sun rises over the horizon.
‘X’ marks the spot – A geolocation marker at the top of Mount Whitney.
Just in time for sunrise!
We experience the wonderful ‘range of light’ that John Muir quoted.
The top of Mount Whitney is the official end of the John Muir Trail.
The ‘Big Group’ who had already been waiting there for around an hour (thank goodness for the mountain hut for some respite from the wind) were busy getting their backpacks on ready to head down now that they’d glimpsed the sun. Jimmy who was dancing around to keep warm, congratulated us on making it to the top. It was great timing for us because after the ‘Big Group’ left, there were only 9 of us left, which meant we had our choice of spots for ‘selfie’ photographs! I had hiked with a Union Jack in my pocket for the entire 26 days and finally saw fit to take out the flag for our picture on top of Mount Whitney. We were so elated, anyone would have thought we’d reached the top of Everest! After some more photos near the JMT plaque, we signed the ‘Visitor Book’ and took some respite in the mountain hut.
It’s official – we’ve reached 14,496 feet – our highest point to date.
Showing off now with another ‘selfie’!
Signing the all-important ‘Visitor Book’.
The mountain hut on the summit of Mount Whitney.
It was inside the hut that we met Mike, an awesome guy, quiet and unassuming, whose hike to the top of Mount Whitney today had been his sixth pilgrimage. We were wowed by his determination and spirit. His hike was in honour of his friend who had sadly died of cancer, whose ashes had been scattered into the wilderness from Whitney’s summit, his favourite place. Therefore Mike makes this journey every year as it’s such a special place to him. Thought-provoking stuff. And here we were rambling on about what burger and sides we’d be choosing when we got down the mountain. Mike didn’t hold it against us, and even waited while we ate the said burgers to give us a lift into Lone Pine, 12 miles down the road.
After having reached the summit of Mount Whitney, the designated ‘end-point’ of the JMT, what we’d not given much thought to was actually coming down. From the top it is 10 miles to Whitney Portal, the exit point from the wilderness and re-entry into civilisation. Then it’s a further 12 miles to Lone Pine, the nearest town (where our motel was booked). Had Mike not offered us a lift, we’d already decided that we would hitch a ride.
With bitterly cold winds at the top, we soon set off back down the mountain so we could warm up.
Heading down… We had literally hiked up a boulder field.
Stopping for a breather with Katie and keeping my eyes firmly on the trail.
It was definitely more nerve-wracking seeing the trail in daylight!
A section of ‘up’ even though we’re coming down!
The last 10 miles down Mount Whitney were probably the most gruelling on the entire JMT! We were descending from an elevation of 14,496 feet at the top of Mount Whitney to 8,316 feet at Whitney Portal. And boy did we know about it as we began making our way down what seemed like an endless set of switchbacks.
Only 8.7 miles to Whitney Portal. We’d not really given much thought to coming back down!
Trail Crest – is considered the most spectacular vantage point of the entire Mt Whitney Trail. In our opinion it’s the perfect place to take that well deserved break.
We finally overtook the ‘Big Group’. We were determined to beat them down to Whitney Portal as we wanted to order our burgers before there was a big queue!
Looking across at the Mount Whitney southern ridge.
After passing the trail junction to Lone Pine Lake, we set a good pace of 3 and a half miles per hour. Not only was the thought of a cheeseburger and fries urging us on, but I was also desperate for the toilet and determined not to have to use my WAG bag now at this late stage of the trail. Day hikers slowly meandering uphill dressed in t-shirts and jeans passed us in bewilderment at how fast we were coming down. We shouted back excitedly “We’ve just come down from Mount Whitney after completing the JMT! There’s burgers and beer waiting for us at Whitney Portal!” Enough said!
When the worst is over, now they decide to put safety barriers in place!
All smiles as we head back to ‘civilisation’.
Emphasising the ‘pack it in, pack it out’ rule.
Passing ‘Consultation Lake’ on the way down.
The route down seemed never ending…
The trail bursts into life as we get below tree line.
We rushed down the final section of the mountain at lightning speed, leaving Katie and Mike to catch us up. Finally reaching the bottom and the long awaited Whitney Portal, Wayne was thankful to remove his backpack at last, while I was simply grateful that I hadn’t shat myself! I spied the pit toilets and couldn’t get my own pack off quick enough. Ah the relief!
Down, down down…
It still looked so far away! But Whitney Portal is hidden amongst the trees at the bottom!
Being desperate for the toilet certainly gets you down the mountain quicker!
Then it was onward to the General Store & Cafe where we ordered burgers with ‘everything’, (fries accompanied as standard), plus we indulged in a beer straight from the fridge. Heaven! My appetite was insatiable however and I could have eaten the whole lot again.
A sight for sore eyes – we’d been dreaming of this moment for days! At last we reach the Whitney Portal Store & Cafe.
Wayne happily sups on an IPA and models his hiker beard in its final stage.
A mouth watering sight!
Literally ‘heaven’ on a plate!
Whilst wolfing down the best treat of the trail, we were joined by Katie, Jarred and Mike. Katie was coming with us to Lone Pine and as it was also her birthday, we said we’d go out for drinks that evening to celebrate her becoming another year older as well as successfully completing our thru-hike. Jarred was staying at Whitney Portal in the backpackers campground for the night and planned on heading to Lone Pine the next day.
After Mike kindly dropped us off at our motel in Lone Pine, the first job we needed to do was to collect our suitcase and additional box of belongings from the Post Office. True to their word, the rest of our possessions needed for our road trip in a few days time, sent from Merced almost a month before, were there waiting for us behind the post office counter. That’s excellent service for you! (We think Royal Mail need a few tips from the Americans).
Next we were off to the liquor store to buy wine, then finally to the pharmacy to purchase new razors and deodorant!
We stayed at the Mount Whitney Motel. (Photograph taken the following day when Wayne had de-haired).
After searching through all the TV channels back at the motel for BBC World News (no such luck), lounging out on the double beds (we had one each), and catching up with messages from back home (we finally had wi-fi), we set to task on a mammoth cleaning mission! It was great to have an endless supply of hot running water and it felt good to scrub the sweat and grime from our skin. We paid special attention to our feet and armpits and they were soon smelling like roses once again! (And we didn’t have to resort to using scouring pads after all!)
I was excited at having a hairdryer in the room and being reunited with my make-up bag, so then set about preening in style in front of a large mirror with a glass of vino in hand. The laundry pile could well and truly wait until tomorrow!
We met Katie at 7pm agreeing that we’d undertake a ‘bar crawl’ of Lone Pine, not realising there are only 2 bars in town! But that didn’t deter us. The bars were like proper ‘cowboy saloons’ so Wayne and I were in our element, myself posing with a cardboard cut-out of John Wayne and merrily stepping through swing doors! I even got to pose with a real life ‘gun’, while Katie took it all in her stride. Being an outdoorsy girl from Montana this is everyday life for her. I hope she didn’t think us ‘English folk’ were weird as we got quite giddy having only known this stuff in the movies!
Jake’s Saloon’ is one of the two bars in Lone Pine.
Cheers! And a ‘Happy Birthday’ to Katie too!
Swing doors totally rock!
Looking less like a hiker now the beard has gone!
Guns and cowboys – how exciting!
Showing off the tan and the new waistline!
It was then time for our second feast of the day. We live by our word and promptly ordered a ‘family’ size pizza with various toppings. With our huge hiker appetites it didn’t defeat us. We gorged on it all, with not a single slice left to take in a doggy bag for breakfast. (Note, this was only shared by Wayne and myself. Katie had ordered her own medium sized pizza!)
You can’t beat a ‘family’ sized pizza after hiking for 27 days!
By then we were tiring as the long day had inevitably caught up with us. So we retired back to our motel room filled with jubilation at achieving our third thru-hike and looking forward to sleeping in a bed! Even the wilderness has its limits!
Waking early the next morning having been used to getting up at sunrise each day, we lay in bed reminiscing about the highs and lows of the trail and the different characters we had met along the way. Then it was time for a bit of tallying up! We had noted down everything we had eaten, drank, seen and used for the entire 27 days. You may find some of what we recorded interesting, if not surprising.
After 27 days on the trail our ‘First Aid’ tally stood at zero Ibuprofen and only a single plaster (band aid) had been used when Wayne cut his toe. So our ‘training’ and preparation hiking the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast trails in England beforehand had stood us well and certainly made us trail fit. We didn’t suffer from a single blister between us – praise be to Salomon for fantastic trail shoes!
Throughout that time our top ten food/ drink items consumed between us (in descending order) were: 200 mini-chocolate bars (Milky Way, Twix, Musketeer & M&Ms), 78 cuppa soups, 62 ‘energy’ drink sachets, 60 Clif Bars, 60 tortilla wraps, 52 cereal bars, 52 hot chocolates, 22 packets of instant noodles, 40 teabags and 26 bottles/ cans of beer. (We certainly made the most of having access to beer at VVR, no wonder our bill was $300!)
In terms of other essentials, we used up 4 medium and 2 mini gas canisters for cooking, 9 AAA batteries for our head torches and 3 toilet rolls for when nature called! (Wayne has certainly mastered the art of using only a few squares of toilet roll at a time, compared with the copious amounts he used to get through at home!)
Our wildlife tally remained at zero with regards to bear spotting, but we did see a total of 54 deer and one eagle (well, we think it was an eagle). Plus we saw hundreds of different ‘trail bandits’!
(If you’re interested in totals of anything else specific, then please send us a message and we’ll reply personally!)
‘Hiker hunger’ persists! The following lunch time in Lone Pine.
So what next? An American Road Trip is imminent and then I expect we’ll be enjoying a long rest from camping over winter. We’re accomplished 3-season hikers. I don’t think we’re yet prepared for too much snow! We can test that theory though as we make our way north into Colorado to the Rocky Mountain National Park in a few weeks.
If you already had intentions of hiking the John Muir Trail, or have only just heard of it, then we hope we’ve inspired you to go for it. We thoroughly recommend it as an epic thru-hike. Please keep following our adventures and if you have any questions at all regarding the JMT, we’ll do our best to answer them!