Thru-Hiking the JMT: Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney

Sunrise Panorama on Whitney

Day 22 on the John Muir Trail…

Technically, this day begins at the end of Day 21. We went to bed early last night, sleeping lightly for a few hours and waking to our alarm at 11:30 PM. We ate Clif Bars and packed up our sleeping gear and tent. Donning our headlamps, we made one final check to make sure nothing was left behind. We headed up the John Muir Trail towards the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states — Mount Whitney – 14,505 feet above sea level.

John Muir Trail Day 22
Distance: 16 miles
Cumulative Distance: 222.23 miles
Total Ascent: 4,201 ft
Cumulative Ascent: 60,597 ft
Harrison Map Sheet 1
The moon was behind the mountains, but the sky was cloudless tonight, and the stars shone brightly. We hiked along the trail, keeping close together and taking our time. In the darkness, we had to be extra careful.

Our headlamps did a great job of illuminating our steps. As we climbed higher, we could see other headlamps down below, bobbing up and down as other hikers started out in the wee hours of the morning. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought to get a very early start on Whitney.

We hiked along, our heads down and our eyes on the trail for several hours. Our pace was slow, but steady. Suddenly, I practically walked into the Whitney Trail Crest junction sign!

Whitney Trail Crest Junction, 3am

We were shocked! The climb went by quickly. From here we thought we would wait for sunrise, then hike the last 2 miles to the summit in daylight.

We dropped our backpacks and pulled out our sleeping bags. It was cold up at the crest, especially since we had stopped hiking. We sat there and tried to sleep, but it wasn’t going to happen. Soon, we had hikers who were coming up from Whitney Portal marching past us in the darkness. We decided if they could handle the trail in the dark, we could too. Besides, we weren’t going to sleep.

Joan en route to Mt Whitney

So we packed our sleeping bags and left our backpacks near the junction. We took a fanny pack and water, slack-packing to the summit. And along the way there, the sun rose.

Sunrise

Turning around, I captured this view looking west toward the sun-kissed mountain tops.

Sun-kist Mountain Peaks

The trail was treacherous, but we took our time to be safe. By the time we reached the shelter on the summit, we no longer needed our headlamps at all. We headed for the true summit, and greeted a few other hikers who arrived just before us.

Jeff & Joan atop Mount Whitney

Our thru-hike on the John Muir Trail was complete! We hiked the entire JMT, from Yosemite to Whitney. We were standing on the summit of the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states. We learned new things about ourselves and each other, and expanded our understanding of what we were capable of.

Our mission was complete. But our journey was not yet over. We still had to hike 10.6 miles down to Whitney Portal, where we had parked our Xterra three weeks earlier.

Summit Register?
JMT-JeffI have one regret about our summit of Mt. Whitney… we forgot to sign the summit register! We had seen the aluminum “desk” next to the shelter, but I didn’t realize that the top opened. And so we never signed the register. Doh!
We hung out at the summit, resting, snacking, taking photos and basking equally in the warmth of the sun and in our sense of accomplishment. Finally we decided it was time to head down.

In our original itinerary, we had planned to stop at Trail Camp below Mt. Whitney, but before Whitney Portal. This would leave an easy six mile hike out on the final day. But we had opted to shave some miles off previous days, so to stick to our original exit schedule, we were hiking all the way out to Whitney Portal.

First, we headed back to the Whitney Trail Crest. Our packs were waiting for us, undisturbed by other hikers. In fact, a number of other backpackers had also left their packs here, since you have to come back this way in any case.

We hoisted our packs one more time and began the descent.

As we hiked down, we passed what seemed like a hundred people hiking up to Whitney. There were some solo hikers but most were in groups of 2, 3 or 4. Most of them carried day packs rather than backpacks. We wound our way down the infamous 99 switchbacks, including an icy patch with a handrail for safety. There was no snow on the trail though.

Looking back, it was hard to believe that we were “up there” just a few hours earlier. Wow.

We were up there? Today?

Descending from Mt Whitney with a full backpack was challenging, even though we weren’t carrying much food at this point. We descended 6,300 feet over those last ten miles. It took a toll on our bodies. Our feet were swollen and sore. Our joints creaked and ached. But the thought of a cheeseburger and beer at the Whitney Portal Store kept  us moving.

Finally we could see the Whitney Portal parking area. We must be close. We placed bets on how long it would be before we were there. “30 minutes!” I announced confidently. I was wrong by about an hour.

That last stretch winds down along the longest, slowest switchbacks ever designed. There were times when I swore we were actually moving further away from our destination. Like a desert mirage, it tantalized us with promises of greasy food and cheap calories, but we never seemed to get any closer.

Finally we saw a sign of “civilization.” Ironically, it was a sign declaring (to those hiking in the upward direction) that they were now entering the John Muir Wilderness. But for us, it meant we were getting closer to civilization.

Signs of Civilization

We made it to Whitney Portal. We ate that cheeseburger, and drank that cold beer. And it was good.

Un Cerveza, Por Favor!

Trail Map: Guitar Lake to Mt Whitney to Whitney Portal

The John Muir Trail official ends on the summit of Mount Whitney, but we still had to hike down to Whitney Portal where our car was parked. This map details the route up to the top of Whitney, as well as down to Whitney Portal.

JMT Day 22 Photo Gallery

Click on any photo to view a larger version. You can also leave comments on any photo.

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Our thru-hike on the John Muir Trail is complete, but the story is not finished. Watch for details on gear, food and what we will do differently next time.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks, Traci. I find that anytime you are in the wilderness for more than a few days, “real” food always tastes so much better. You gain a new appreciation for everything. Even the seats in my Xterra felt luxurious.

    No special permit was required for parking at Whitney Portal, and it was free! You have to pay attention to the signs though. Some parking is only for folks using the campground.

  2. Alex says

    Many thx for an awesome story – I realls enjoyed reading it for the last two days. Great pictures, too ! Looking forward for the next posts on gear and stuff :o) Cheers from Austria !

  3. Stephanienola says

    Wow! So inspiring! I’m planning on hiking the JMT in Aug 2014. Thanks for all the great info and motivation!

  4. says

    Thanks, Stephanienola! August is generally a good time for the JMT. If you have any questions about preparing for the hike, check out the other resources in the sidebar and feel free to ask me anything in the forums.

  5. Ray Murray says

  6. Jaime Soto says

    Thanks for posting the details of your trip. It’s very helpful in helping my wife and I plan our next trip. My wife and I hiked the section from Reds Meadow to Happy Isles in 2011. We are looking to hike the rest of the trail (Reds Meadow to Whitney Portal) in August of this year.

  7. says

    Nice to read your JMT trip. I did the JMT in 1995, and your story and pics bring back many memories. I am now 61 yrs old and tempted to do the JMT once more. Thanks for the writeup.

  8. says

    Last year I hiked Happy Isles to Independence. This year we are back on the trail with the plan of completing Forester and Mt whitney. Please elaborate on what do you mean by treacherous on the trail from Guitar to Whitney.i.e How wide is the narrowest part and are there parts that have steep drop offs on both sides. I have a fear of heights but found nothing from HI to Kearsarge that bothered me. What should I be prepared for? .

  9. says

    Kathy, sounds like you’re well prepared. It’s not mountaineering — it’s just a hike. You do have to watch your footing, as you would on many of the trails you’ve already hiked. But it’s not a technical trail — no ropes or any special equipment. There is no spine where it drops off on both sides, so keep your eye on the uphill side of the trail. ;)

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