John Muir Trail Day 17
Day 17 began at about 12:30 am. I opened my eyes and could see the headlamps of my neighbors dancing around like fireflies through the side of my tent. Dave, Ken and Krista planned on taking off around 1 am so that was them breaking down their campsites. I didn’t like the idea of spending too much time sitting on the top of a very cold, dark mountain waiting for the sun to rise so I planned on taking off around 2 am. The excitement of the moment did not allow me to keep my eyes closed for too long in an attempt to get some extra sleep so I spent about an hour watching the headlamps until they eventually stopped dancing and headed one by one past me up to the trail. Once my neighbors were gone I turned on my headlamp and slowly started the process of breaking camp for the last time.
I started on the trail right at 2 am. I was glad to see that the wind from yesterday had died down because it was fairly cold. As I looked up I could see a few dots of light making their way up the mountain. The Milky Way was as prominent as ever as more stars were in the night sky than I have ever seen in my life. I was really missing my high resolution camera again.
Even though I have a nice headlamp I’m still limited to a channel of light ahead of me. As I made my way up the switchbacks I could tell that I had eventually reached a steep dropoff at almost all times but I could only see the ledge and then blackness beside me with the occasional dots of lights from hikers below me. The trail was fairly steep but still reasonable and I was grinding my way up with a good pace.
I passed a young lady who was on the side of the trail putting on extra clothes just after I left camp at Guitar Lake. She was now hiking about 20-30 feet behind me for quite a while so I stopped and asked if she would like to pass. She said that she liked my pace and so we joined up. Her name was Laney and she had just graduated from the University of Iowa where she was on the cross country team. She was hiking the JMT northbound. She started from Horseshoe Meadows so this was just her third day on the trail.
Oddly enough, this was the first time that I had hiked with anyone on the trail, besides with Sandy at resupply points. I had a tenancy to hike faster than most uphill and slower than most downhill and flat areas (of which there were almost none). Although I only knew her by her voice, since shining your headlamp into other hikers eyes was instinctively a very bad idea, we shared several stories and also shared a once in a lifetime experience together.
The further up we climbed the more disoriented I became. I’ve always had a very good sense of direction but that was definitely out the door on this hike. At times it seemed like the cliff’s edge was facing east which I knew was impossible. The good thing was that once we were up on the side of the mountain there was no losing the trail. Even though we could not see how far the dropoffs were I knew that as one side of the trail became more of a wall that the other side was also likely a wall straight down.
As we rounded a corner we ran into another hiker standing against the wall. It was Lexi. Her eyes were even more bugged out than they were in camp the previous day. She obviously has a problem with heights. I asked if she was alright and she said she was just resting. I asked if she wanted to join us and she said she had to do this at her own pace so we marched on.
Shortly after passing Lexi we came to the trail junction. From there it is about two miles to the peak. There were several backpacks lying along the side of the trail here which I had expected because everyone claims this is the thing to do. I had thought this out in advance and decided I would just leave my bear canister here and take my pack up with me. Without my pack I no place to hold water as well as all of the other items in my pack that would likely come in handy. While packing I knew I would be doing this so I stuffed my sleeping pad and stove in the bear canister. My pack felt like a daypack without the bear canister so I instantly loved my plan after a few steps.
Immediately after leaving the junction the trail got very interesting. The ledge became more prominent and we kept running into places that required the use of our hands to negotiate our way through the rocks. Several times I would stop and ask my hiking partner to back up a bit so that we could go through it with my GoPro running. I felt like an excited little kid at this point. I was also quite disoriented. It felt like we were going due east at one point for a while which was impossible. We could see headlamps up to our left where I thought was to the west so it looked like they were suspended in midair.
There were a couple of windows between the sharply pointed ridges called the Needles that gave us a quick view toward the east. Although our vision was quite restricted and I was disoriented on my direction we knew we were at one of the windows when the wind suddenly hit us from the right.
After passing the first window we caught up with the headlamps that were once suspended in the air in front of us. It turned out to be Dave, Ken and Krista. Ken was leaning against the wall beside the trail and had a blank stare on his face. He didn’t look good at all. I asked if we could help and Dave said they just needed to rest for a while. We moved past them but about one minute later Ken came rushing past us. We caught up to him again a few minutes later sitting on a rock beside the trail. Dave was right there behind us and told us not to worry about him and he would take care of him. Needless to say, Ken was behaving quite erratically.
As we moved on I looked back and noticed two headlamps behind me. I called out asking who was with us and it was Krista. I could sense we were in the last mile at this point. I turned to charge up the last of the trail but given how Ken was behaving I stopped and I asked them if either of them were experiencing any altitude sickness symptoms. I was riding a big wave of adrenaline at this point and felt no ill signs of the altitude but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making things worse for them. They both said they felt great. It was on now!
A short while further the trail cut back to the right and I noticed that there was not a drop off any more. I then looked around and could see stars off to my right for the first time. There was still a hill in front of us but I recognized that we had finished climbing across the ridge and were now making our way up the backside of Mt Whitney. I lost the trail in between the rock slabs briefly at one point where it switched back and I didn’t but the ladies pointed out the right way and we were off again. I knew that the trail led directly into a rock hut so I kept looking for it ahead of us but in the dark I could only see the silhouettes of the large slabs of rocks that ahead of us. The wind started hitting us in the face and the temperature seamed to be dropping so I knew we were getting close but we just kept walking through the rock slabs for longer than I expected.
Then with no warning the hut stood right before us. There was a girl sitting next to the door who told us that it was locked. I asked her if anyone else was up at the peak a short distance further and she said she was with two guys but they went on to find a place to pee. After dropping my pack I looked at my two female hiking partners and said, “I don’t care if I run into a couple of guys peeing so I’m heading up there.”
The actual peak was a short distance past the hut. There was no trail any more, only large slabs of rock to walk over. It was still 5 am so there was no sign of any light coming from the horizon so we were still totally dependent on our headlamps. I could see some headlamps off to my left but I knew the peak was to the right more so I headed over the slabs to where I thought the high point would be. It was a little slow going because I would run into dead ends that required risky leaps or climbs so I would double back a little and make my way to where ever looked higher than I currently was. I first found the plaque but I knew that wasn’t the official peak. The peak was signified by a small round brass marker embedded in the rock. I found the marker shortly after the plaque but I quickly realized that there were spots higher so it couldn’t be the official marker. I stepped on the only rock I could find that was higher and there it was. I made it! I gave out a whoop and then very quickly realized that it was extremely cold. There was a constant breeze coming from the east that made a big difference in an already low temperature.
After sharing the moment with the people around me for a short period of time I realized that I was going to need to find shelter quickly to wait for sunset. I made my way back down toward the hut. I had left my pack on the west facing wall which was protected from the wind the most where I planned to nestle into my quilt. Just then I heard Dave’s voice from around the corner shouting that they got the door open.
When I entered the hut there were about four people in there already. Two I did not recognize and Dave and Ken. The room was quite small and had a small slab of rock to sit on along the south wall next to the door. Ken was sitting on the slab and I walked over to Dave and shared the northeast corner with him. There was a door that led to the other half of the hut along the western interior wall that was locked. The ladies came in right after me and curled up on the floor next to me. It was still quite cold but at least we were out of the wind.
Ken apologized to me for how he acted and was saying that he had no idea what went wrong with him. He seemed to be doing alright now. Dave asked me if I signed the register out front because the pen was froze so he had to push really hard to get it to work. I told him I didn’t think I would. I don’t imagine someone would be looking through the register at some point and say, “Holy crap, Steve Hansen was here!”
After about 15 minutes it was getting more crowded in the hut than I was comfortable with so I went out to see if the horizon was starting to light up yet. It was. I went over to my pack and pulled out my quilt which had a hole in the middle of it held together by velcro. I undid the velcro and slipped my head through the hole creating a big warm poncho around me but while doing so I fogged up my glasses with my breath. When I tried to wipe my glasses clean I discovered that my breath had frozen so it wouldn’t come off.
I then walked over to the leading edge of the peak facing the east and set up my GoPro to do a timelapse of the sunrise. After about 15 minutes of watching the slowest sunrise in the history of time I noticed Laney walking down from some slabs to my left. I could tell she was freezing to death so I asked her if she could keep my quilt warm for me as I walked around the peak taking some low light photos.
As it became lighter I could tell there was a thick layer of smog down in the valley which was taking away from the experience. As it became clear that the sun was nearing an appearance the crowd got a little thicker around the peak as the hut cleared out and more people made their way up from the trail. As I was taking pictures a mummified figure behind me said my name. She said she was Ashley and upon further review I believed her. Not long after that the sun started peeking up through the smog.
Dave walked up and offered to take my picture for me. He insisted on me assuming the victory position so he gave me Krista’s poles and had me pose in front of the sunrise. I then asked him to take a photo of me showing the Needles to the south. I then offered to do the same for him and he said he already got his photos. I extended the same offer to Ashley who was standing nearby since I knew she only had a low battery phone when we met on Pinchot Pass. I took some photos of her and had her give me her email address.
The cold was intense. I gathered up my GoPro and thanked Laney for keeping my quilt warm for me and headed back to my pack laying against the west side of the hut. As I was stuffing my pack I noticed Dave, Ken, Krista and Lancy heading down the trail. I thought for a moment of catching them but I knew I would just slow them up so I set off at my own pace.
The whole way up I kept thinking how incredible it will be when I could actually see what I’m walking through. Incredible does not sufficiently describe it. As I was walking down from the peak I noticed for the first time that I stood above all of the surrounding mountains. Technically, I knew this was the case all along but this was the first time I took it all in. The trail first lead over to a great overlook to the north. The sunrise gave the mountains a deep golden color which made this view down into the lakes and valleys below and endless view beyond even more stunning.
The trail then made its way back down through the rock slabs to the west and then turned back towards the ridgeline I came up. This was such a cool place. Looking south the sun was shining through the Needles on the ridge and looking to the right gave me views back down into the valley I hiked up from. Walking past each of the windows between the Needles was a unique moment. I would get hit with a blast of wind and sunshine at the same time. The view through each window went almost straight down the eastern slope.
As I made my way back down the ridgeline the slope to the west became more steep and the trail became more sketchy. It required more climbing up and down rock formations. There were some sheer dropoffs in places so you had to stay alert but I’ve found that walking along sheer dropoffs makes me naturally very alert so my alertness wasn’t a problem. Occasionally I would force myself to stop focusing on that next foot placement to rest and take in the view to the west. I could see Guitar Lake now which was pretty dang cool. For about a mile I would go from a window to a sketchy trail with steep dropoffs to a rocky pointed precipice then back to a window and repeat. This was one of the coolest miles of trail I’ve ever hiked. I knew I was missing something special in the dark.
There were several people at the junction when I arrived at about 9 am who all seemed to be in the same group and they were in the middle of a rousing conversation. I dropped my pack and reloaded the bear canister. The hike up to Trail Crest was pretty steep from there but not too long. I knew this would be the last uphill of my JMT adventure so I tried to enjoy every step. I know this sounds weird but I was looking at about an eight mile downhill finish that I knew was going to be hard on my joints.
I was met with a strong gust of wind and a shot of sun as I reached Trail Crest similar to the experience I had at each window along the ridge. When I reached the high point I dropped my pack again and removed my outer jacket and replaced my beanie and Buff with my hat now that I would be in the sun. Looking down into the valley below me I could tell this was going to be a long walk home. It looked like a very long way down but I knew I was only looking at the top third of the canyon from there.
The trail from Whitney Portal to Trail Crest is famous for having 99 switchbacks. Looking down I swear I was looking at all of them even though I could only see a portion of the trail. I tightened up my knee supports and accepted my fate as I set a reasonable pace down the hill. There were more and more people coming up the trail at this point. There were some with day packs who probably started in the middle of the night and some with no pack who probably camped overnight in the valley below me. There were very few full backpacks coming up the trail this time of morning.
Going down the switchbacks was tedious and monotonous. There were sections where they were only about 20 feet long. I went along a section of trail that had handrails which I thought was odd since the trail was wide and the dropoffs got much worse above me. After some reflection I realized that there was a little water on the trail and the cliff to my right from a small spring that probably makes this quite treacherous when it freezes.
After finally reaching the valley below I was very relieved to be on fairly flat ground even if it was for just a short distance. Most of the people who I knew had passed me by now. I was now passing Trail Camp which had a small lake with several tents that were pitched all over the place. Ever since Trail Crest I was running into more and more people coming up and this was probably the crowdest point. The trail then started going down through a large granite section. Then, as I looked up from the trail there was Sandy right in front of me.
My immediate thought was that it was illegal to even day hike more than two miles up the trailhead without a permit. For a minute I put that aside and embraced my wife. She was wearing her daypack slung over one arm and quickly informed me that she had a couple Diet Mt Dews for me. My first question for her was how far her GPS showed that she had come. She looked it up and proudly proclaimed that she had hiked up 6.3 miles. This was horrible news. I was thinking it was closer to 4.5 miles left. I had to sit down.
We went over and sat down on a rock with a partially obscured view of Consultation Lake to our south. I told her she needed a permit to be here and she told me she shared her story with some nice people who just happened to have an extra permit which she turned to show me was attached to her pack…but there was no permit attached to her pack. It must have fallen off.
After finishing my drink and changing my socks we headed down the trail. It was sure nice having my hiking partner back. We were only on the trail for about ten minutes when we ran into the group who gave her the permit. When she told them she lost it they said they knew because they found it on the trail. They then reattached it to her pack and we were legal again which worked out well because we ran into a large group of forest rangers coming up on horseback just about ten minutes later.
When we reached the sign requiring the use of a permit beyond that point Sandy took me over to a rock next to the trail. There were several small pebbles placed on the rock creating kind of an interesting mosaic pattern. Someone must have been bored. That’s when she told me that when she saw the sign and couldn’t go further that she wanted to take the trail over to nearby Lone Pine Lake but she was afraid I would pass by so she wrote, “Steve I’m at the Lake” with an arrow on it with the small pebbles. It was like one of those 3D photos. As I stared at it for a while the words suddenly appeared. I got a pretty hard laugh out of this. I’m sure glad those other guys walked up on her with an extra permit as she was creating this art project on the rock. This plan had a few holes in it.
The last few miles of the trail descended down through a thick forest with several streams. The end was near. I had been walking in the woods for 236 miles and it was coming to a close. Earlier in the morning and over the entire previous day I was dealing with some strong feelings that I did not want this to end. Now that my knees were swollen I knew I was done. I still had some mixed emotions but it was clear in my mind now that I needed this to end.
With about a quarter mile left we passed a family going the same direction. They all stopped and said, “Is that him?” I really do love how Sandy can make instant friends on the trail and I wish I had that ability. But is was a little embarrassing as they all stopped and congratulated me for finishing the JMT. Shortly after passing them I could see the timber structure that designates the trailhead and the parking lot below it. I walked through the structure expecting to feel a sense of completion and accomplishment but it never came. I mostly felt exhausted and that I was still hiking the JMT since nobody was there to take the pack off my back.
A short trip through the parking lot later though, I was standing behind our car. Now I was done. I took my backpack off and tossed it in the back of the car and yelled, “Get off my back!” I put on my flip flops while sipping a cold Mt Dew and as I stood up I felt as light as a feather. I still had some unfinished business. The Whitney Portal store had a burger there that I have been dreaming about for days.
As we were walking up to the store I noticed several people sitting at the picnic tables beside it. Then we heard a rousing, “Steve” come from the picnic tables as if I was Norm walking into Cheers. I walked up and there was Dave, Ken, Krista, Ashley, Rob, Lexy and Brooke along with a couple people I hadn’t met yet. I looked at the burger sitting in front of one of them and said, “I’m getting me one of those babies” and walked in the store. We spent the next 40 minutes or so enjoying the company of the same people who stood next to my on the top of Mt Whitney just a few hours earlier and Guitar Lake the previous day. It was a great way to finish the adventure. That burger went down easy. Thus ended the last and final day on the JMT.
Here’s what GaiaGPS showed:
Distance: 16.67 mi
Ascent: 3,393.25 ft
Here’s Google Earth’s side of the story:
Distance: 14.9 mi
Here’s my YouTube video of day 17 on the JMT: