August 29, 2014
John Muir Trail (JMT)
Day 26 – Guitar Lake (11,470ft) to Mt Whitney summit (14,505ft) and back down to Outpost Camp (10,370ft),
Camped at Outpost Camp.
We wake at 4AM to a clear, star filled sky with no trees to obscure the Milky Way views. Surprisingly it’s warmer than it has been the last couple of nights. We do our normal morning routine – coffee, hot cereal and pack up – by head lamp.
On the trail by 5:30 the sky is already lightening. Distant peaks to the west soon start to glow. However, the trail up remains in shadow until we are well past the Mt Whitney Trail junction.
Up from Guitar Lake the trail first climbs a knob to another small lake before hitting the first set of switchbacks. The trail is rough in places, including rocky stairs, but for the most part well graded. Higher up, long well graded switchbacks lead to the junction.
As we climb the sky continues to brighten and one by one the first rays of light hit the surrounding peaks. The lit peaks of the cliff facing the trail reflect in the dark water below. I try numerous times to capture the magic, but never quite get it.
Three hours from camp we finally reach the junction. Many hikers have passed us and are well on their way to the top. Like most through hikers we leave our backpacks at the junction and take only food, water and valuables in a daypack.
The trail traverses a rocky but not too steep section of amazing peak formations (the trail even heads down for a short distance). Past here we can see the true summit way off in the distance past a couple of shark tooth peaks covered in talus. Although the trail continues to be quite rocky the grade is not too steep. The altitude, however, beats me down and my progress is slow.
Nearing the summit, gentle switchbacks traverse the wide top up to the shelter and true high point behind it. It’s difficult to tell just which rock is the true highest point.
The views are incredible, as one would imagine. So many distant peaks and mountain chains with rugged formations and high mountain lakes seemingly suspended in the foreground. The valley to the east is shrouded in haze, much like the day we spent Independence. High clouds streak the sky and hang on the horizon, but nothing threatening. This cloud pattern lasts for the rest of the afternoon and dissipates somewhat before dark.
When we summited at 10:30AM there were about 30 hikers at the top. A number of through hikers that passed us going up had already started the descent. You don’t have the place to yourself but it’s not crowded either. The large, relatively flat top with vistas in all directions can support a fair number of hikers. Don’t forget to sign the register in front of the storm shelter.
We take our time exploring the rim, carefully peeking over the edge and taking in as much as possible.
Past the junction, where we pick up our backpacks, the trail climbs up to the trail crest, about 10 minutes, before descending down a very, very long set of well graded albeit numerous stone-stepped switchbacks.
The descent is monotonous, back and forth down the mountainside, until we finally are off the talus face and start down a picturesque canyon. The very steep and stony track is hard on the feet.
We pass Trail Camp alongside a tarn and keep descending through beautiful molded pinkish granite slabs. The track continues to be steep and rocky.
Past Mirror Lake, Outpost Camp is down one last set of switchbacks.
A creek runs through the camp with a waterfall in the corner. The highly used camp is nice enough but lacks privacy unless you arrive early and scrounge around for a good site. We were told (after we set up camp) that there are some nice spots by the waterfall.
Although we have less than four miles to go tomorrow, I’m happy to be resting my feet after the day’s long hard descent. Still can’t believe we summited Whitney today. Woohoo!