September 11th, 2017
Unfortunately the wind has some other ideas about my restful evening. Just for some perspective the area that we choose to camp on, due in part to the great rocks surrounding us, is also unfortunately on a granite slab. Meaning there is no dirt to pound stakes into and with basically free standing tents held up with the help of one central pole and trekking poles, we can only secure our tent corners down with loops of rope over rocks. Literally as soon as the sun is down at 7:30pm, the wind starts up real strong. And this wind is a different kind of fucked up, this wind has something to prove. This wind has some real strong opinions and it’s gonna let us know what’s up.
There was only one other time I had been in wind this strong and it was on the beach at Bear Harbor on the Lost Coast Trail. I thought that was bad, it was gusting super hard and blowing the tent walls around something fierce, but I also had Sarah in the tent with me, helping secure things. Now I’m alone in the middle of tent with no help.
This wind is assailing us with everything it’s got, and it is mean. It’s very tricksy this wind, it stops all together for a little while, things seem peaceful, almost too quiet, and I would just start to fall asleep, when BAM, BAM, BAM it’s back! And the tent wall is hitting me in the face and lifting the rocks off my tent loops, collapsing the corners of my tent even further onto me. I get out several times to fix them, pile more rocks on the ropes. I check Gray’s tent while I’m out and add more to her rock piles too. She yells out thanks through her tent wall, I’m a foot away and I can barely here her over the wind. This is not looking to be a pleasant evening, to say the least.
And it turns out to be a bit ridiculous. The wind finally gives up the charades of lulled moments and shakes our tents like a pissed off ghost whom you wronged in a past life. I start to worry that my tent doors are going to get ripped off, or that a house might fall on me… I look at my watch and it is around 2:30am. I’m now ready to give up on any hope of sleeping and I hear Gray Gardens rustle around in her tent too. I call out above the wind to ask if she is awake. She immediately says, “Yep”, so I ask “Do you just wanna say Fuck it and get up now?” “Definitely”, she replies.
So we pack up our shit in the pitch black, hoping nothing is going to blow away, and start hiking at 4am. The trail away from Guitar Lake immediately starts climbing along the basin. We truck along the first tarn with only our headlamps lighting a small patch of light a few feet ahead. The stars and moon are glittering in between pale clouds, which are being whisked across the sky by the wind. We watch other headlamps bob along the mountain far above us and as we climb we can see lightning strikes in the clouds to the West on the Kaweah Range… just a little worrisome.
As the sky lightens, I start to see some of the beauty stretching out to infinity below. It’s hard not to stop constantly and just stare, but it is also very, very cold whenever I pause to rest, so it ends up being more pleasant to just keep moving at a slow pace.
Whenever I hit another switchback I wait to see Gray Gardens little light moving along on the switchback below me. Her headlamp battery died shortly after we started hiking so I worry about her. She luckily has a little inflatable solar lantern that seems to be working okay that she attached to her chest strap, all MacGyver like. The wind keeps coming in gusts but seems a bit more mellow as the sun comes up and we keep chugging along. The cold keeps increasing though as we gain elevation, even without the wind. We pass a few other hikers on the way up, all trying to push their bodies into tiny leeways of rocks to stay warm while they catch their breath. We say good morning but don’t linger, we have a long day ahead and limited time to get up and down this thing. We finally hit the trail crest and the last 1.9 miles up to Mt Whitney as the sun is just barely hitting the Eastern wall.
We drop all our none essentials with everyone else’s at the trail junction and continue on up. There’s lots of talus and the windows offer great views to the Owen’s Valley far below. The top is awesome but super cold, so much so that our phones will not turn on, even stowed in our puffy jacket pockets, so we did not get any pictures on top of Mt. Whitney. ☹️ We made it though and it was so rad to be up on top of a place I’ve seen so many pictures of and fantasized about seeing myself! We do not stay long on top, as there is still a long way down to go, and we are freezing our butts off. I put my phone into my underwear in hopes it will decide to turn on later so we can get photos of the trail crest at least.
On the way back to the trail crest junction we watch scary looking dark clouds start moving our way from the Kaweahs, the same ones we watched spit lightning early this morning sooooo time to get the F off this mountain. Luckily when we hit the trail crest and our bear cans etc. my phone decides to work and I can take a few awesome photos.
As we look back the way we came I am a little glad we walked up in the dark. The trail is a bit sketchy in a lot of places and not wide at all. I’m not scared of heights normally but I was having a hard time in a few spots, and of course my messed up brain started thinking about how many people fall off this mountain every year, or get hit by lightning etc. so not helpful.
Luckily the way down the Eastern side is a lot more chill and a much wider trail. It’s also full of a LOT more people, like so many people, wow. A Sensory overload amount of people. As we passed these packs of people on the famed 99 switchbacks, we were definitely feeling glad to be doing down instead of up. Oofta that looks rough!
A handful of hikers seemed to know the challenge of what they were doing but a lot of people had no clue. We got asked multiple times how many miles it was to the top. Ummmm this is just casually the highest MOUNTAIN in the lower 48 states and you don’t know how many miles it is to hike to the top? Hello??? People die here!
Some had very little water or snacks with them, no layers, or day pack at all, no sense of the dark clouds gathering over the summit they were trying to reach. Not a good idea to try to hike this without being a little prepared and it made me really concerned about a lot of them. I hope that a lot of them made the wise decision to turn around and try another time, unless they were prepared to get stuck somewhere on Mt Whitney, not safe at all.
I tried not to hyperventilate any time someone walked by with only a small plastic water bottle and nothing else. I instead focused on enjoying the views on the East face of Mt Whitney looking down into Lone Pine. There are even a few Pika’s hanging out right along the trail and one of them nibbled on my pant legs!!! I again almost died with pure joy right then and there on the trail.
We passed a few trail camps and lots of Marmots, who were clearly used to getting people snacks and had no fear of us. The trail is just a steady downward trend and our knees really started not feeling it. We are both also super exhausted from not getting any sleep last night, thanks mean wind! So the way down was starting to feel a lot harder than the way up this morning.
Needless to say it was a long trek out and we were stoked when we finally hit the portal store, just as it started to rain. We bought sodas and snagged the last table under a big umbrella outside, with a few other hikers who were finishing the JMT. Two hikers were trying to hitch hike to Lone Pine in the valley and we’re having a tough time finding a ride for the longest time out in the rain. They finally did get one and we heard the other hikers lament how long it took them and their own prospects for catching a ride down.
I had a few bars of service on my phone so I found the number for the shuttle service in Lone Pine and was able to contact them and they were able to come pick us up! An older gentleman arrived in a van about 45 minutes later and the few other JMT hikers joined us to make it an even cheaper and a more enjoyable ride. We chatted up a nice couple who were finishing up 25 days on the John Muir Trail who are from Nashville, TN. I was very jealous of their amazing trip and I hope to be in the same position as them in a year or two! The best advice they gave us is to not rush it, they realized that after the first week when they got their trail legs, they were just flying by everything and not seeing it. So they decided to slow way down, take long lunches at lakes, stay at any camps that spoke to them. I loved it and we told them about how we took our time too and it really made it more enjoyable.
The rain is pounding as we head back into town in our safe little van family and the mountains are so socked in with clouds you can no longer see them. Lightning and thunder flash too. I am so glad we started earlier than planned and got off the mountain when we did! I am also super worried about all the other people whom we saw on the way up. I hope they got to a safe place or turned around.
All too soon we were getting dropped off at the Dow Villa Motel where we had already booked a room and went to eat a burger at the Grill next door. The rain continued all afternoon and into the evening. We ate more glorious town food (Mexican for dinner!) and walked around the 4 block long downtown in the spurts of rain. At one point all the power went out for a while and I got a flash flood warning on my phone. Yikes.
The lightning flashed outside our hotel room windows and we felt VERY thankful to be inside watching House Hunters reruns on the hotel TV. It was a pretty crazy end to our trip and I snuggled into my giant, fluffy, dry bed feeling grateful. The Sierras are such an indescribable trip and experience. I can not wait to go back and do the whole John Muir Trail!!!