JMT, Day 4: Summiting Mt. Whitney

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Guitar Lake>Summit> Guitar Lake>Crabtree Meadows5.0 to the summit + 5.0 back to Guitar Lake + 2.7 to Crabtree Meadows = 12.7 total

By the time we wake up and get going, most everyone camping at Guitar Lake has cleared out. We are impressed that so many people broke camp without waking us up. We pack only our essentials and hit the trail by 5:45 am. It’s 3.1 miles to the junction at Trail’s Crest, and we are eager to get going. The sun is already up, but the basin of mountains surrounding us is blocking the sun’s rays, and it’s a chilly start.

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The trail takes us around Guitar Lake and then past a pretty tarn right above the lake. This would have been a cool place to camp had we known about it. Next time…

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The trail then snakes it’s way through a pleasant meadow and the hits the rock wall that we have to get to the top of. We start switchbacking our way up. At first, each turn comes quickly, but, the higher we go, the longer they get. Some of the switchbacks feel like they will never end. They must be almost a quarter of a mile long!

Along the way, we get distracted by the views of Mt. Hitchcock and the perfect reflections in the Hitchcock Lakes below. We also take note of a couple of high altitude perches for intrepid backpackers to set up their tents at the end of a few switchbacks—what a crazy place to sleep for a night!

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There are also the most beautiful blooms of lavender Sky pilot, which we later learn only grows at these high elevations when the conditions are just right. We seem to have struck Sky pilot gold, and the scent of these beautiful blossoms is to die for. Passing by them smells like hiking through a field of lilacs on steroids!

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We finally make it to Trail’s Crest where we pick up the 1.9 mile trail that will take us right up to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Continental United States. We stop for coffee and tea before attempting the final leg and congratulate the hikers who pass us coming down who have already summited. They have huge smiles on their faces, which makes us all the more eager to get going.

This trail to the top starts out simple enough. We switchback up through the barren, rocky landscape until we come around the backside of the peak. Once there, we are skirting the back of the mountain on a high, rocky ledge, and the scenery around us is striking. The rock formations are really unusual and remind me of the fancy sandcastles I used to make all the time on the beach when I was growing up in South Carolina—lots of tall turrets with fancy drippings made by letting the really wet sand drip through my finger tips. I wonder how these were formed.

Every so often, there are narrow chutes giving a vertigo-inducing view hundreds of feet straight down below. Here the trail is extremely rocky, and we pick our steps very carefully as to avoid an unfortunate slip. A marmot greets us after making it through the most treacherous parts. He is so at home at this altitude, in this rocky environment. We try to take a page from his book. Chill out and enjoy the incredible views!

We round a corner and run into Greg from Team Alabama who is resting against a rock. He tells us that Will is at the summit, but that he started feeling really off from the altitude and decided to turn back just a few hundred yards shy of the summit. He looks a bit disoriented, and his eyes seem overly dilated. We advise him to drink a lot of water and to wait for Will if he starts to feel any worse. Poor guy! We hope he is able to get through this okay.

We have to cross a few small snowfields before the frustratingly long push to the top. But, suddenly, the summit hut is in view, and we are there taking in the crazy, beautiful views all around us.

The other hikers who are already here are spread out among the steep, rocky ledges, and we join them, finding our own perch where we can enjoy our trail lunch. We take tons of photos from the top before signing the trail register and then start making our way back down to Guitar Lake.

We are retracing our steps, but we don’t mind because we are finally and officially on the JMT! Down we go—past the snowfields, past the steep, rocky ledges, past the junction to Trail’s Crest and down all the crazy, long switchbacks to Guitar Lake.

We are curious and want to know how many of these switchbacks there are, so this time we count as we head down. There are 11 super long switchbacks and 18 short ones.

Finally, we arrive back at Guitar Lake and stick our feet in the Arctic Lake outlet creek for as long as our tired little feet can possibly take it. The water is so cold it almost hurts! The scenery here looks so lush and green in comparison to where we have just been.

We filter some water for drinking and have a snack while we watch some Golden trout work their way up the creek. It’s so cool how the fish get in formation and fight the current just a couple inches at a time. It looks really tough. I stand up, and the trout see me. They turn and swim downstream twenty feet or so lightning-fast, and I feel badly for making them lose so much ground—they worked so hard for it!

We would love to hang out more, but we need to pack up our camp and move 2.7 miles back down the trail to stay overnight at Crabtree. We leave by 5:30 pm and are happy to make it back to a campsite just shy of the meadow by 7:30. We set up our tent, chat with some of our friendly neighbors and take in the view from our campsite before making dinner and filtering for tomorrow.

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By 9:30, we are in bed. As eventful as today has been, we have our longest/hardest day ahead of us tomorrow, and we are looking forward to some well-earned rest. Good night!

4 thoughts on “JMT, Day 4: Summiting Mt. Whitney

  1. I am jealous of your young lungs and young thighs and young quads and.you two are amazing to be able to hike and stop to photograph such beautiful scenery. THANK YOU for sharing. Truly splendid!! Enjoying all the entries.

    1. Hiking at high elevations like those in the High Sierras is definitely a humbling activity. We find that the photography really helps to make us go slowly and acclimate, but it is definitely tough work. Mind over matter, mind over matter!

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