“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
On July 31, Conor and I embarked on an awesome and challenging and beautiful adventure: to hike the John Muir Trail, starting at Yosemite National Park and ending at the top of America’s (lower 48 states) highest peak of Mt. Whitney (14,500 feet). It was an amazing journey that took us 23 days, climbing more than 50,000 feet and walking more than 238 miles. Along the way we saw wondrous landscapes, met really cool people and battled the elements along with our own physical and mental limitations.
A note about names and places: if I got your name or information wrong, please send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll correct it! Also, I’ve tried my best to identify the flora, fauna and landscape of the trip, but wouldn’t be surprised if I got some of it wrong – if you see an error, please let me know. Thanks!
PREPARATION AND LOGISTICS
A LOT of preparation goes into a journey like this. After multiple tries, I secured a wilderness permit well back in February. From that point we started gathering and testing our equipment while arranging travel and lodging. My gear and clothing was as follows:
Osprey Aether 70 Pack (with Rain Cover) – The same pack I’ve been using for eleven years now. It’s comfortable and big enough to fit everything I need.
Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent (with titanium stakes) – An ultralight tent, big enough for me and all of my stuff. It held up extremely well in heavy rain and hail storms and sets up super easy, even on solid granite.
Montbell Spiral Hugger Sleeping Bag with Thermarest Sleeping Pad – This bag is REALLY warm! At times, it was a bit too warm and I just used it like a big blanket – but it’s really roomy and stretchy. I can sit up crosslegged in it and even get dressed inside it on those cold mornings.
Snowpeak Stove (with two fuel canisters) – It has the electronic ignition which is nice, and seemed to use less fuel than my trusty MST Pocket Rocket. It worked flawlessly on this trip and was the only stove we carried.
Titanium Cooking Pot – Holds 3.5 cups, which was a bit too small for this trip.
Bear Vault BV500 – Mandatory on the JMT, this bearvault was large enough to hold eight days of food and doubled as a camp stool.
Insulated Cup / Titanium Spork
Dromedary 5 Liter Water Bag / 1 Liter Nalgene Bottle / 16oz Platypus
Steripen Water Purifier – I love the Steripen, which uses UV light to sanitize the water, and have been using this particular one for seven years. Unfortunately, it broke on day eight of this trip.
Sawyer Mini Water Filter – I brought this as a backup to the Steripen, and we ended up depending on it almost exclusively for about 13 days. Works well and is super light, but takes forever to pull water and the bag started springing leaks near the end of the trip.
Nikon D600 Camera / Batteries / Charger / Chest Harness / Chips / Gitzo Tripod / Lens Cloth - This camera is HEAVY really HEAVY! But it was so worth it for the images I was able to capture. The chest harness did not work well at all, since it restricted airflow to my body too much. I stopped using it after day 2.
DeLorme InReach Satellite Communicator – Worked wonderfully for the first half of the trip, and then inexplicably stopped working, with the error message of “This device has been damaged and can no longer send or receive messages”. Bummer.
Nomad 7 Goal Zero Solar Charger – I used the solar charger for my InReach, iPhone and headlamp batteries. It performed really well and held up to the abuse of backpacking.
Petzl Tikka XP2 Headlamp – A terrific little lightweight headlamp – operates at super bright, which was essential for our night ascent of Whitney, and has a dimmed mode for inside the tent.
LL Bean Pack Towel / Toilet Paper / Duct Tape / Small folding knife / 50′ paracord
Maps and compass
Journal and pencil
REI Trekking Pole – Has a spring loaded shock absorber and performed well. I used the pole for about 80% of the hike.
North Face Venture Rain Jacket / REI Down Jacket / Beanie / Kuhl Shorts / Kuhl Pants / TShirt / Kuhl Long Sleeved Shirt / Two pairs of wool socks / Two pairs of sock liners / Two boxer briefs / Tilley Hat
Boots (Possibly the most important piece of gear) – Solomon X Ultra Mid GTX Ultralights
First Aid / Emergency Kit: Neosporin, bandages, gauze pads, tape, moleskin, ibuprofen, Advil, alcohol pads, Imodium, sunscreen, bug repellent, purifier tablets, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, firestarters, lighters, patch kit
Yes – we had a LOT of Sawyer products which made me think of my great friend Tom often throughout the trip.
Conor carried a similar collection of gear, with the notable exception of his somewhat vintage Kelty pack, and of course THE HAT – a ratty, falling apart Cardinal straw hat, which was one of the hits of the trip.
My initial pack weight was 45lbs and Conor’s was 50lbs – pretty heavy from all the photography gear, but we felt it would be worth it (and it was).
For our food plan, we decided to go with Oatmeal and dried fruit each morning. By the halfway point, we had traded all of our oatmeal for Clif bars and Protein bars (Larabars were our favorite), washed down with coffee (Starbucks Via).
Lunch each day was trail mix and Beef Jerky – awesomely made by George in Wisconsin – GREAT JERKY! So good, we did a Jerky toast to George on top of Mt. Whitney! We augmented this with protein bars and random goodies (like Peanut Butter Oreos) given to us by strangers and friends.
Dinner was freeze dried, cook-in-the-bag meals, mostly from Mountain House, which were by far our favorites.
We also planned to stop at some of the resupply points (Red’s Meadow, Vermillion Valley Resort and Muir Trail Ranch) to eat a few meals and raid the hiker boxers for extra food and that worked extremely well for us.
Journey to the Trailhead
“Going to the mountains is going home.” ― John Muir
Our plan was to leave my truck in Lone Pine, California, catch a shuttle ride to the trailhead, walk the trail back to Mt. Whitney Portal and hitch a ride from there back down to Lone Pine.
We drove eight hours from Phoenix to Lone Pine and stayed at the Dow Villa Motel. It’s a nice little place with lots of character. John Wayne and many other celebrities have stayed here while shooting films, and the lobby and halls are filled with memorabilia and cool vintage photos.
Amazingly, we had a view of Mt. Whitney from our room – a massive imposing and scary beast of a mountain looming in the threatening clouds. It seemed impossible that we would be standing at the top in three weeks!
We took a stroll around this little town, which is primarily a base of operations for people who are adventuring in the surrounding wilderness. Pizza and beer for dinner, then a massive breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe which was fantastic.
It was an absolutely beautiful day with lots of clouds looming over the top of Mt. Whitney. It was hard to believe that we would be standing up there in 23 days!
Soon our shuttle driver, Paul, from East Side Sierra Shuttle arrived and we embarked on the drive up the mountain to the trailhead. Paul was incredibly friendly, knowledgeable and punctual. I highly recommend his services if you need a ride in the area! We drove through heavy smoke from the surrounding fires and wondered what kind of impact they would have on our hike. Some of the roads were closed due to the fire. We drove through a heavy rainstorm that seemed quite encouraging and then through some heavy construction areas, all the while gleaning info about the area from Paul. THANKS PAUL!
We finally arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center and checked in, holding our breaths that all the paperwork was in order after so much planning –
and then FINALLY – the Ranger handed us the permit and a WAG Bag for each of us – to be used to dispose of human waste in the rocky areas such as the Whitney Wilderness.
We quickly set up camp in the nearby campgrounds, which was becoming quite crowded due to the fires trapping people there.
We spent the day exploring the area, including a very risky climb up Lembert Dome, in which I thought the hike was going to end before we even got started! The altitude must have clouded my judgement, because before we knew it, we were high up the side of the mountain face, without climbing gear of any kind – DUMB!
That night, we enjoyed an awesome sunset in the meadow and then caught a fireside lecture by one of the Rangers about the Lodgepole Nutcracker and his symbiotic relationship with the White Bark Pine.
We even learned a little song, which I sang at least a hundred times in my head as we trudged along in the coming weeks:
The gardener’s voice is scratchy
his feathers black, white and gray
he’s gathering seeds from the white bark pine
and caching them away.
DAY ONE – IRELAND LAKE
Miles Hiked: 12
Total Miles: 12
Campsite Elevation: 11,000 feet
Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you. – John Muir
We decided to begin the day with a big breakfast at the Tuolumne Lodge – the last “real” meal we would have for quite a while. We shared a table with a kid named Matt and his Grandfather, and three very nice ladies from Petaluma, CA. They were incredibly interested in the journey we were about to embark on and it was fun to chat with them about it.
FINALLY. At 9AM, we hit the trail!
It’s a perfect day, deep blue sky with patchy clouds and a gentle breeze. We start hiking through Lyell Canyon and the beautiful grassy Tuolumne Meadows, weaving in and out of the forest and following along the happily flowing Lyell Creek. Like all of the streams and lakes we encountered on this trip, the water is crystal clear, bracing cold and loaded with fish. We stop along the creek a few times to take a break, soak our feet and just take in the breathtaking surroundings.
Even though it’s just our first day on the trail, we’ve decided to take a detour to check out Ireland Lake. With our Irish heritage, how could we resist?! But it would mean adding an additional twelve miles, climbing 1,800 feet, camping at a very high elevation and then descending down the next day. I was VERY hesitant to take on all of that on the first day, while we were still getting acclimated to the elevation, but Conor persisted and prevailed.
It was BRUTAL.
The hike up left us gasping and struggling to trudge along. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath and slow my heart. By the time we reached the top plateau, we were completely whipped. But the landscape was stunning and absolutely unique to anything else we saw on the entire journey. It was as though we had entered a rural Irish countryside, with gorgeous rolling hills of grass, pocked with boulders and stones.
On the horizon, we could see where the land ends abruptly with a cliff-like downhill slope of grass… the edge of Ireland Lake.
Ireland Lake is a classic alpine lake, tucked into the base of big curving range of the Cathedral Mountains, with Amelia Earhart Peak (11,974) looming over the east end. There were no shrubs, trees or plants of any kind other than the long grass.
We set up camp fairly high on the hill on a sliver of horizontal space and I hiked down to the lake to pull some water.
My altimeter read 11,000 feet, and just moving around, standing up, etc. made us both dizzy. We both needed to sit down frequently to avoid blacking out, but the scenery was so awesome and incredible, it was well worth the effort. We saw just two other people coming into the area that day, and they camped further down the lake slope.
DAY TWO – DONAHUE PASS
Miles Hiked: 12
Total Miles: 24
Campsite Elevation: 10,400 feet
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” – John Muir
It was a perfectly clear sky last night, with a new moon, excellent for star-gazing. I rose at around 2am and shot some starfields.
The fullscreen image of this is pretty awesome!
At about 6am, the morning sun rose above the far range and shone through the puffy clouds and directly into the door of my tent (I always sleep with the tent door open unless it’s raining.) I quickly grabbed a couple shots and then just stood there, bathed in the morning light, meditating and soaking in the immense gratitude I was feeling for the privilege of being able to be in this spot at this moment.
Here I was, in one of the most scenic locations on earth, removed from all external distractions, ready take on the next three weeks of adventure and wonder… and all with my Son. Incredible! This feeling of gratitude and privilege would be the recurring theme throughout many, many moments in this trip and I still feel it while putting this trip report together now.
We ate breakfast high on the bank overlooking Ireland Lake. Oatmeal, with dried fruit. Today, the first day, it was tasty and warm and good. But Ohhhhh! how we would come to hate the dreaded oatmeal by the end of this trip!
We returned to Tuolumne Meadows the way we came and resumed traveling along the John Muir Trail. The descent back down was long and hot and at the first opportunity, we shed clothes and jumped into Lyell Creek to cool off, rinse a few clothes and have some lunch. A family of mallard ducks wandered by as we lazed in the sun.
We resumed hiking and quickly came upon the uphill section toward the first pass, Donahue (11,056). The weather was still nice, but the trail was STEEP and we struggled mightily with our heavy packs. We finally made it well up the mountain and gratefully stopped for the day about 600 feet below the pass, next to a large rocky bench.
That night was another fine night for stars and this time I set up the tripod and played with a variety of techniques. I finally settled on a 30 second exposure, with about 2 seconds of shining my headlamp on the surrounding trees, the images turned out great!
DAY THREE – THOUSAND ISLAND LAKE
Miles Hiked: 9.5
Total Miles: 33.5
Campsite Elevation: 9,840 feet
“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir
We enjoyed a lazy morning at camp before setting out to conquer the first pass of the JMT – Donahue. It was a hell of a climb, with desolate barren granite switchbacks leading us back over 11,000 feet, but we did just fine. At the top, we looked back to enjoy wondrous views of Yosemite Valley, and then turned around to see even more stunning views of the next alpine wilderness we were about to descend into, the Inyo National Forest.
We rambled down the hillside and onto the plateau, which was strewn with boulders as though a family of giants had been here and their children forgot to put their toys away. This is also known as the Ansel Adams Wilderness in honor of one of my role models, photographer Ansel Adams.
Wildflowers line the path as it travels alongside Rush Creek. We we stop for lunch and a quick nap, the marmots are especially fearless and come quite close, hoping for a snack.
We made our way across the valley quite easily and then began the next climb up Island Pass (10,205). As we crested the ridge, we encountered a lot of smoke that had drifted into the valley from some nearby fires. Very sad, because this is one of the most scenic points of the trip so far, but everything was in a haze and at times it was a bit difficult to breath.
By the time we reached Thousand island Lake, we were SPENT. Completely wiped out from the accumulated hiking and elevation strains. We pulled water from the lake and made camp on an awesome little grassy knoll overlooking the lake that Conor found – he’s getting to be VERY GOOD at finding perfect campsites!
But the smoke.
As we retired for the night, I contemplated the possibilities of exiting the trail if it got much worse. The news from other campers was that we were in no danger from the fire itself, but if the smoke got much worse, it would not be an enjoyable experience. I was really nervous about what kind of conditions we would find in the morning.
DAY FOUR – SHADOW LAKE
Miles Hiked: 8
Total Miles: 41.5
Campsite Elevation: 8,737 feet
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” – John Muir
This morning, the skies were overcast and cool, but the smoke had dissipated a bit. It was a perfect day for hiking. We enjoyed a lazy breakfast by the lake and then packed up and headed out.
We crossed the lake’s outlet on a bridge made of large logs, the first of many of these we would encounter on the trail.
We enjoyed wonderful easy hiking past the three “gem lakes”, Emerald Lake, Ruby Lake and finally the awesome Garnet Lake, a miniature version of Thousand Island Lake, with Mt. Ritter (13,143) looming high above.
From there it was an easy descent down to Shadow Lake and that’s where we setup camp. It was early in the day, so we had a chance to wash our clothes and go for a good long swim.
We were just starting to settle down for a relaxing afternoon, when the wind strengthened and rain started spitting down. Soon it was a downpour of rain and we scurried into our tents, quite content to just chill out and wait out the storm.
For the next three hours it rained. I reviewed the maps and guide book, wrote in my journal and napped.I took stock of my physical condition – so far no blisters and everything was working well! I had been concerned about my left knee, which was damaged running a marathon two years earlier, but so far it was holding up well. All systems good!
Conor’s tent was about twenty yards away and I could hear him playing harmonica (which he did frequently throughout the trip). The gentle patter of rain on my tent with the soothing mellow sounds of the harmonica were sublime indeed!
DAY FIVE – RED’S MEADOW
Miles Hiked: 11.5
Total Miles: 53
Campsite Elevation: 7,840 feet
“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir
It rained ALL night, with the winds whipping up to what seemed like gale force, bending our tents to the ground, but everything held up well and we stayed warm and dry. In the middle of the night, the rain fly of my tent was flapping so violently that I had to go out in the biting rain (wearing just boxers and boots) to reposition the stakes and tighten things up.
Western Mountain Aster
We ate a quick breakfast and loaded up our soaking wet clothes and tents. Now the packs were really heavy, but most of the day was a gentle soft downhill hike to Red’s Meadow and the Devil’s Postpile National Monument. This section was rather long and monotonous, but provided a wonderful time for reflection. The corridors of my mind were more interesting than our surroundings and it became a nice meditative march for the next few hours.
We set up camp in a community area, eager to try some of the local food and raid the hiker resupply box there. We soon met a really cool couple from Vermont, Dave and Carol, who camped near us. For the remainder of the trip we would leapfrog each other and enjoy sharing campsites from time to time. They had the idea of grabbing the shuttle into Mammoth and since we had the afternoon open, we decided to check it out as well.
The bus was noisy and crowded with tourists of every age and nationality. Kids were chomping on junk food, people were jostling about… the spell of the wilderness had been broken. Things turned around quickly though! We arrived at the Mammoth Ski Resort and found a Bavarian restaurant – and FEASTED! Plates of wild boar sausage, Belgium frites with gravy, flatbread pizza and Guinness. Okay… perhaps the hassle of the bus was worth it.
After a quick stop at the Red’s Meadow General Store, we returned to camp and met a bunch of people that evening while hanging out around a campfire: “Hotflash and Mayo” from Alaska, Jo from Iowa, Lana and Adam from Perth, Australia, Seth from St. Louis, Forestry Expert John from just outside Yosemite and Neil and David from nearby California. It was a big friendly group and we all enjoyed each others company. Conor and Neil played harmonica while we feasted on Pineapple Upsidedown Cake that David’s wife had made and brought for us. Unfortunately we also discovered that one of the tripod legs was missing – it had fallen off during the long walk through the forest – bummer, but I was able to insert my hiking pole into the shaft and make it work just fine.
DAY SIX – DUCK LAKE OUTLET
Miles Hiked: 13.5
Total Miles: 66.5
Campsite Elevation: 10,150 feet
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” – John Muir
We started the day with breakfast at the cafe with Dave and Carol. We had great conversations, the food was terrific and we were relaxed and feeling good. We scored a few more goodies from the Hiker Box – Double Stuff Oreos, Carol’s Trail Mix and a tube of Peanut Butter.
Before we started hiking for the day, we said our goodbyes to the new friends we had made. Adam (the Aussie) had blown out his knee and could no longer continue on the trail. They were obviously devastated after all of the planning and preparation and travel involved, but they were determined to make the best of it by car camping and sightseeing around the USA for the next month or so. When I asked him about his resupply at Muir Ranch, he brilliantly retrieved the claim ticket for their box and gave it to me! SCORE! Now we were looking forward to not only our resupply bins, but the mystery package from Australia – THANK YOU ADAM AND LANA!
By they way, knee injuries and ankle injuries were very common during this trip. Nearly every day we heard news about someone who had to been evacuated by helicopter because of a misstep or blown knee. I vowed to myself to really focus as intently as possible on every step of the trip, especially during the tricky rocky stuff.
We began the day with a side trip to Rainbow Falls and it was really cool – a 101 foot waterfall drop. From there we hiked through the burned out section of the forest remaining from the Rainbow fire about fifteen years ago. It was a desolate landscape, but filled with many different kinds of birds.
From there, it was up, up and up to the base of Red Cones, where we took a break. Seth soon joined us and was struggling about whether to continue or not… he had not made any resupply plans and didn’t really know where he was going to get more food. Eventually he stood up and said – “that’s it. I’m bailing.” He wished us good luck, and then turned around and walked back down the mountain.
We traversed a gentle hill through the forest and emerged into the Upper Crater Meadow – the entire area is volcanic and there are craters and volcanic rock everywhere here. We took another break to make the greatest trail snack ever: Peanut Butter Oreos!
Just then, who emerges from around the bend but our new friend Seth! He had changed his mind and was continuing on, but with no idea of how he would get supplies. I gave him a peanut butter Oreo and wished him well on his journey and as he walked away, I asked, “Hey what’s your trail name?” To which he replied, “People call me Plan B”. HAH! Good luck to you Plan B – hope you made it!
We eventually reached Duck Lake and it was a gorgeous location for camping – surrounded by massive looming mountains with the roaring rapids of Duck Creek flowing nearby. It was here that one of our most important pieces of equipment failed – our water purifying Steripen! Without it, we were reduced to using the Sawyer Mini filter – which works fine for one person, but is extremely slow for two people and awkward to use. Regardless – you have to work with what you have so we made it work.
After dinner, I made a nice cup of Lotus green tea and watched the sun disappear, then slumbered in my tent to the sound of the rushing water.
DAY SEVEN – SQUAW LAKE
Miles Hiked: 9
Total Miles: 75.5
Campsite Elevation: 10,400 feet
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir
Today we hiked to Purple Lake and stopped for lunch and a swim, then continued on to scenic Virginia Lake. After a mild stroll up and over the rise, we stood looking down on Fish Creek in a valley far far below us. The trail was nicely graded, but switched back on itself along an extremely vertical face – not for the faint of heart!
Fish Creek is lush, shady and loaded with wildflowers. We tried to stop for a break, the bugs were pretty bad, so we pressed on to Squaw Lake, hoping for a campsite with a western exposure for some sunset shots.
Along the way, we ran into Dave and Carol, and they ended up camping near us at the lake in a perfectly situated site, protected from the wind and atop a smooth rock outcrop perfect for viewing the sun go down.
At this point we had come up with trail names for Dave and Carol: “Gadget” and “Trail Mix” and they seemed to like them okay. Just moments after we set up tents, a storm unloaded on us with plenty of hail and lighting!
Dave and Carol
Sitting high on the mountain, with no tree cover at all, we were fairly exposed, but the heavy part of the storm never really nailed us. We all waited it out and by around dusk, the skies were clearing and we enjoyed a nice sunset – It wasn’t as epic as I hoped for, but did give us nice colors in the sky.
I sipped on a lotus tea and snapped shot after shot, then retired to the warmth of my awesome bag. It was a bitter cold night, but I was quite comfortable and slept well.
DAY EIGHT – VERMILLION VALLEY RESORT
Miles Hiked: 15
Total Miles: 90.5
Campsite Elevation: 7,643 feet
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” – John Muir
It’s yet another beautiful day! We summited Silver Pass fairly easily and were joined by many of the people we had met over the previous days – it was a party up there!
Conor and I lingered at the top for a while after everyone had left, and that’s when we met “Jane Muir” from Santa Cruz. One of the most interesting characters out there, Jane was traveling solo and working on a book – I believe it was to be about the history of the JMT and early pioneers of Yosemite Valley. We would leapfrog Jane over the next few days until Muir Trail Ranch, where she stayed on – perhaps she’s still there!
Our plan was to hike to Edison Lake and then catch a ferry ride to VVR, a place I had visited before and known for their awesome food. However, when we arrived at the lake, it was much drier than I had imagined and the ferry was no longer operating. We debated the merits of making the 6.5 mile journey, and when Conor heard that they have beer and great food – that was it – we were going! I imagined it would be a lovely stroll around the edge of the lake but NOOO this trail was brutal and climbed high up on the ridge above the lake before finally leveling off. We were tired, hot, ready to quit, but now committed to keep pushing on.
A storm started building behind us and we quickened our pace, seemingly just barely outpacing the storm.
We arrived at dusk to a friendly crowd of people gathered around a campfire. They invited us in and gave us a free beer – a nice cold Newcastle Brown Ale – YUM. We raided the Hiker Box for more goodies, found a spot to set up our tents just outside the cafe and then enjoyed a glorious and well-earned feast!
Roast pork with cherry BBQ sauce, potato hash, steamed veggies, apple and cherry pie. All washed down with more Newcastles and a Gunness. It was now dark when we wandered out to the fire and there was just one person sitting there – Hotflash! She and Mayo had made it there earlier in the day and were heading out bright and earlier the next morning. We hung out with her and few other campers for a while, then called it a night.
DAY NINE – BEAR CREEK
Miles Hiked: 8.5
Total Miles: 99
Campsite Elevation: 9,200 feet
“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” – John Muir
We started the day by wolfing down sausage gravy and biscuits at the fantastic VVR Cafe, then caught a ride from Russ, one of the regulars, to the trailhead for the Bear Creek Trail. We would hike about eight miles on this to return back to the JMT.
The trail ran alongside the absolutely beautiful Bear Creek, brimming with scenic waterfalls and swimming pools.
We stopped at one of the more inviting pools and lingered for a few hours, washing our clothes and ourselves and then lying in the sun on big rocks.
The trail was rugged and muddy – not nearly as nice as the JMT, and the rain started coming down to make things just a bit more challenging. We passed through the darkest, most ominous forest I had ever been in and it seemed like a movie set for a horror film. Still, we pressed on and made it back to the trail late in the afternoon. We were pretty beat and found a spot for the tents next to the creek. The rain was coming down lightly as we setup and we ducked inside them to wait out the storm.
Through all of the challenges so far, Conor has been doing remarkably well – in fact I think he is thriving and getting stronger and more excited with each passing day. He is incredibly well-suited for this type of adventure!
DAY TEN – ROSEMARIE MEADOWS
Miles Hiked: 5
Total Miles: 104
Campsite Elevation: 10,015 feet
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” – John Muir
I woke early and strolled along the creek shooting some of the rapids as the sun came up.
It was a glorious day to hike – perfectly clear blue sky and cool – the opposite of the rainy gray day before. We had just a short distance to cover today, wanting to get to a campsite early in the day and have some time for exploring. We arrived at the bucolic Rosemarie Meadows by around 1pm and setup at the edge of the trees, overlooking the meadow.
I found a mysterious triangular hatch well away from any trails – it appeared to be made in the seventies and I guessed it must be something for the forest service to measure water levels or something like that.
We then saw giant storm clouds forming over the mountains and heading our way. It was almost as if the clouds were jealous of how awestruck we had been by the mountains and lakes – and now they were out to say “you think all of that is majestic and powerful? Wait until you see this!”
And with that, it UNLEASHED. For hours it rained while lightning flashed. The thunder was so deep and loud and reverberated so intensely in my chest that it’s hard for me to describe the sensation and power of the experience. And the the HAIL hit – at first just pea sized rat-a-tat on the tent, then relentless sheets of marble sized ice balls, slamming against the tent walls with such intensity and volume that it roared like a motorcycle engine. How incredible that the paper-thin walls of the tents could hold up to such an intense assault?
But they did, and once I realized my shelter wasn’t going to be shredded, it was actually quite exciting to experience.
Around 6pm, it finally stopped, the skies cleared, and we cooked dinner. After being stuck in our tents all afternoon, we weren’t quite ready for bed, so we strolled along the creek and into the woods until it was too dark to continue.
DAY ELEVEN – SALLIE KEYES LAKES
Miles Hiked: 6
Total Miles: 110
Campsite Elevation: 10,400 feet
“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir
We woke to a crystal blue sky and frost on the grass as the sun emerged from behind the range. It was another light day of hiking, so we ate a relaxed breakfast and charged the InReach with the solar panel before packing up and heading out.
We made good time to Marie Lake and then up to the top of Seldon Pass (10,880), which is one of my favorite passes and the most scenic.
From there, we dropped down to the Sallie Keyes Lakes and found a terrific campsite on the southeast corner – one of my favorite spots of the trip. We quickly went in for a swim and it was a great day for it – sunny and clear and warm. We could see large trout swimming near our legs in the super clear water and wished for some fishing gear!
We spent the afternoon exploring the area surrounding the lakes here, but the elevation was getting to both of us and it was difficult to go far or move quickly. The view from our campsite was sublime though, so it was nice just to sit and enjoy the day. An American Eagle swooped down over the lake – it was majestic!
My back and shoulders are starting to hurt from the demands of the hike, but tomorrow we’ll be at Muir Trail Ranch for resupplies, food and hot springs! We’re both excited and anxious to get there to recharge our batteries just a bit.
Sallie Keyes Lake
DAYS TWELVE AND THIRTEEN – MUIR TRAIL RANCH
Miles Hiked: 7
Total Miles: 117
Campsite Elevation: 7,790 feet
“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray, where nature heals and give strength to body and soul alike.” – John Muir
Today is Emma’s birthday and we’re thinking about her as we hike through some friendly woods.
We come across a partially sawed log that someone had carved eyes and nose into a log, so we added some stones for his teeth. Happy Birthday, Emma!
We descend down, down, down to our resupply point and destination for the next two nights: The Muir Trail Ranch! We pick up the buckets that we’ve sent ahead, filled with our resupply food.
We also receive a package from home, filled with more goodies and some Jameson Whiskey! Finally, I hand the Aussie’s claim ticket to the “Bucket Girl” and she emerges from the shed with a large box… what could possibly be in there?! This was starting to feel like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined!
We spread out everything on a large picnic table and take stock of what we have: Adam and Lana’s bin is packed with goodies! Freeze dried meals in varieties we haven’t seen before, Clif Bars, stove fuel, candy bars, etc. THANK YOU ONCE AGAIN!
The cabin we’ll be staying in isn’t quite ready for us, so we start eating stuff right there – gorging on candy bars, chips, whiskey, fruit bars. One of the nice ladies at the ranch emerges with lemonade and chocolate chip cookies for us. This is hiker’s heaven!
Marjorie gives us a tour of the place – and we’re assigned to cabin 7, sitting alongside a little creek – it’s awesome. The Muir Trail Ranch is a family-owned ranch which caters to the needs of backpackers and fishermen. They have log cabins and tent cabins, two hot springs which have been converted into a kind of peaceful Japanese garden type of spa, a comfy lounge and a dining hall. Guest enjoy a big hot breakfast and dinner each day, and can prepare a lunch for themselves.
Mellow dogs and cats roam freely.
No locks or keys on any doors.
Horses whinnying predawn.
Endless platters of food.
Everyone here, the guests, the staff, the hikers passing through, are all super nice and interesting people. This is like a secret magical world. One of the first things I did was to check out the hot springs baths – it was incredible. Hot water streaming in through a little channel and then filing a large stone “tub”, with a second pool for washing with soap. It was enclosed and private, but open to the woods, so you can soak in the hot water and look out at the surrounding mountains.
We meet up again with Dave and Carol and then meet Jim and Jan, from College Station, Texas, the “Three Bettys” from nearby California, professional singer Jesse, Melissa, Lauren and Karen from Austin and of course Kelly, from LA. Kelly ended up meeting up with us numerous times from this point forward and eventually summited Whitney with us.
Dinner the first evening was Italian Pork Chops and the following night we enjoyed Beef Pot Roast with mashed potatoes, corn and salad. The food here was fantastic and plentiful and Conor REALLY enjoyed it!
On our second day, we hike zero miles. We just hung out at the ranch and enjoyed a really relaxing day of reading, napping, exploring the forests, and visiting with fellow hikers. It was a great day and definitely recharged us!
DAY FOURTEEN – EVOLUTION LAKE
Miles Hiked: 17
Total Miles: 134
Campsite Elevation: 10,800 feet
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.” – John Muir
It’s another perfect day in the High Sierras! Last night, Conor joined some of the locals and had a late night adventure to the hot springs lake – they had a great time and it was good for to to connect with a younger crowd for a change of pace.
Unfortunately, my DeLorme inReach is BROKEN. I woke this morning to find a message stating “this device has been damaged and can no longer send or receive messages”. This is devastating news because I was depending on the device to provide updates about my Mother’s health (she was going through a tough recovery from a broken hip). I emailed a message back home to let Debi know we had lost communications, but now that was starting to eat at me and take my focus away from the trail.
There was not much I could do about it though, and so we set off for Evolution Lake, my favorite lake of the trip.
It was a long hike with some fairly strenuous uphill through Kings Canyon Wilderness, but then mellowed out considerably as we passed though McClure Meadow and Colby Meadow. Conor had hiked on well ahead of me and I was enjoying the solitude of the forest walk, when the silence was broken by a women’s voice yelling “Strawberries on the trail! Strawberries on the trail!” and when I rounded the corner, I met up with five young women wading in the creek, all very pretty, and all naked! They were obviously enjoying how shaken and surprised I was, but wouldn’t let me shoot a photo “I promise it won’t end up on the internet!” I gave them a golf clap for brightening my day. Thank you for that!
We made the final steep climb up to Evolution Lake and found a nice site near the lake. Whipped up a little dinner and called it an early night. The lack of communications was eating at me, and now our water filter was beginning to clog. We discussed options for exiting the trail at Bishop and perhaps replacing the device and water filter, or bailing out completely. To exit and resupply and then return would require three days of hiking and about 6,000 feet of climbing. I knew that if made it to bishop, it would be unlikely that we would return.
Once again, I tried to put all of that in the back of my mind and just enjoy the magnificent alpenglow on the mountains surrounding Evolution Lake… but it was still there.
DAY FIFTEEN – LE CONTE CANYON
Miles Hiked: 14
Total Miles: 148
Campsite Elevation: 8,750 feet
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” – John Muir
With the InReach and Steripen both broken, and the backup water filter starting to clog badly, our plan at the start of the day was to exit at Bishop Pass, ending the trip.
We solemnly packed up without eating breakfast and proceeded south along the edge of the lake. We soon came upon Jim and Jan, who had been camped there for two days. Jim was very sick and they had contacted a Ranger for help. Now they were just waiting to find out how that help would arrive, perhaps a mule train to take them back down to Muir Trail Ranch?They assured us that they were fine and help would be there soon so we proceeded onward. Despite his illness, Jim agreed to let me shoot a quick photo of them before we left.
Less than fifteen minutes later, we heard the sound of a helicopter! Soon a bright yellow rescue copter was landing on the beach, next to their campsite. About an hour later, we watched it disappear over the range, heading toward Bishop. Jim – I sure hope everything turned out okay – it was great to get to know both of you!
We passed the beautiful Saphire Lake, then Wanda Lake and made our way up the other-worldly landscape of the Evolution Basin. It seemed like we were walking on Mars or some other distant planet, and distances were incredibly deceiving – Muir Pass looked like a short walk from here, but it was miles away.
We finally crested Muir Pass (11,955) and joyfully embraced the Muir Hut! To me, this pass and hut are symbolic of the trail itself – if you can make it to the John Muir Hut, then you have succeeded. It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment!
We looked back at the wondrous views and then noticed that our old friend Sanchio was here, having a bit of lunch at the base of the hut! We had met Sanchio well back at the Vermillion Valley Resort and hiked with her for a few days. A 71 year old Japanese woman, doing the trek solo – she has moxie!
As we descended down the backside of the pass, the weather was still beautiful and the scenery here is just jaw-droppingly awesome… but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad could be happening back home. The lack of communication was eating away at me and detracting from the adventure just a bit.
We ate a long lunch at a pretty little lake LOADED with tadpoles and frogs.
The trail continued to descend down into the valley until we finally reached the trail junction to Bishop Pass. This is where we would have to exit. There was a guy named Andrew sitting on a log next to the junction and I asked him if he knew if there was cell service on the other side of the pass (6 miles and 3000 feet of climbing from here). He replied, “I don’t know, but I have a satellite phone you can try if you want to – it probably won’t work in this canyon though.” What? Are you kidding me! I fired up the phone and it connected almost instantly! I was able to find out that my Mom had made a fantastic recovery and was now home and back to her old self. Everything else at home was just fine, and we were okay to keep going if we wanted to. YES!
Andrew – you literally saved our trip. Thank you!
We proceeded down the trail just a little further and made camp next to the raging Kings River. Conor built a fire while I pulled water – the filter was still barely working and we still had purifying tablets if needed. We toasted a shot of Jameson to Andrew while relaxing by the fire. Numerous bats were flying overhead, the air was cool and fresh, the roar of the river was soothing…
We were back on the trail.
DAY SIXTEEN – PALISADES LAKES
Miles Hiked: 12.5
Total Miles: 160.5
Campsite Elevation: 10,679 feet
“ The sun shines not on us but in us. ” – John Muir
Unbridled from solving our equipment and communication issues, we got started early and happily along a pleasant downhill stretch through the most fragrant pine forest yet. Chuckwallas were everywhere, scurrying along in front of us and sunning themselves on the rocks. We found a nice swimming hole and bathed while washing our clothes. We then proceeded through another pine forest and on to the base of the climb to Mather Pass, a notoriously challenging section of the trail known as “The Golden Staircase”. This section climbs 1,700 feet in three miles. Granite switchbacks wind and weave through massive boulder fields and it seems impossible that there’s actually a path to the top.
The Golden Staircase kicked my ass! My chest started aching and I feared the worst. The sun was beating down and I wasn’t drinking enough water. I was suffering from heat exhaustion, dehydration and the elevation was taking a toll. I began stumbling as I walked. I started daydreaming about my friends sitting around drinking whiskey and toasting to memories of me: “Well at least he died doing what he loved.” This was a bad situation and we were only about halfway up the staircase.
Fortunately, Conor recognized how much I was struggling and convinced me to stop and get under a shrub that was the closest thing to a shady spot we could find. I rested there for a good while and tried to hydrate. We continued upward, but it was with great effort to just get the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other. I trudged along like this for hours – with frequent stops because of the chest pain.
We finally reached Palisades Lakes and a spot to camp. I set up my tent while sitting down because the altitude and combination of everything else was making me so dizzy. After a quick dinner, I retreated to my tent – I think it was about 6:50pm, but I was spent. I feel asleep almost instantly, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day.
DAY SEVENTEEN – LAKE ANNA
Miles Hiked: 12.5
Total Miles: 173
Campsite Elevation: 11,050 feet
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir
It’s another beautiful cloudless day! I’m feeling ten times better this morning as we start the climb up Mather Pass (12,100). Conor was decked out in some sort of goofy mountaineering outfit, which brightened everyone’s day who saw him! We took the climb slowly and steadily and made it to the top just fine by around 11am.
The views on the south side were breathtaking! We stayed there for a long time, resting, eating lunch and soaking in the views.
The lakes below looked like little puddles and it was hard to believe we had just been their earlier in the day – it’s amazing what you can accomplish by just putting one foot in front of the other! I really believe that the effort required to do this trail is only 20% physical and at least 80% mental. If you can summon up the willpower to keep your body moving even when it’s physically drained, that’s what it takes.
After a quick descent, we walked through a long dry, surreal plateau and then dropped into the woods. We saw a doe and two fawns walking in front of us for a little while. They seemed unconcerned by our presence.
We made it to a small unnamed lake just north of Marjorie Lake and that’s where we found Dave and Carol again! They kindly offered to let us share the beach for camping, and Dave had a cleaning plunger for the Sawyer filter, so we were able to clear our filter as well!
Since the lake had no name, Dave and Carol decided to name it after their granddaughter, Anna. It’s a pretty little lake, ringed on one side by a steep range, then falling off to the north with nice views. A few boulders were strewn out into the water as though they had been placed there by a zen gardener. It seemed perfectly fitting to me.
Then speaking of Zen, who should happen along, but our good friend Kelly (who owns a school of Zen Meditation) strolls into the area and sets up camp on a little perch above us! It was nice to reunite with these very cool people and we all caught up with each other as the sun started to set.
DAY EIGHTEEN – BAXTER CREEK
Miles Hiked: 12
Total Miles: 185
Campsite Elevation: 9,200 feet
“Doubly happy, however, is the man whom lofty mountain tops are within reach, for the lights that shine there illumine all that lies below” – John Muir
I emerged from the tent to a very cold morning (38 degrees) at sunrise and saw Kelly sitting motionless and crosslegged on a large rock above our campsite. All five of us departed camp at about the same time and we climbed Pinchot Pass (12,130) together. We summited much quicker than I anticipated and found more friends at the top! Woody, Marrissa, Lauren, Karen, Kyle and Tim were all there and we had a chance to reconnect for a little while. The views on both sides of this pass were wonderful, but we had a long way to go today, so we didn’t linger long there.
It was a long and BRUTAL descent down! Steep, high, rocky steps tortured our knees while the direct exposure to the sun kept the heat blasting on us. It was not a fun trip and now my chest was hurting again – constant aching and pressure that worried me big time, so I slowed my pace and told Conor to stay kind of close in case I needed some help. I was starting to think about exiting the trail because of this issue.
We reached Road’s End junction at about 4pm and crossed an amazing suspension bridge. It had a few slats missing or broken and that was a bit of a concern, but overall, this thing was extremely well built and cool looking.
The temptation to camp here was great, but we wanted to get some of the climbing out of the way so we continued on up the hill to where Baxter Creek crosses the trail and set up camp there, overlooking a really nice waterfall.
Dave and Carol joined us there. Conor built a fire and was soon playing harmonica. We all had a relaxing time eating dinner and trading stories about hiking and then hit the tents. That night, as the sky was darkening, I captured one of my favorite shots of the trip, Dave and Carol’s tent.
DAY NINETEEN – VIDETTE MEADOWS
Miles Hiked: 12
Total Miles: 197
Campsite Elevation: 9,500 feet
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh-and-bone tabernacle seems transparent as glass to the beauty about us, as if truly an inseparable part of it, thrilling with the air and trees, streams and rocks, in the waves of the sun,—a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal.” – John Muir
It was a nice warm night with excellent stars! I was thinking that my chest pains might be from overusing my hiking pole, so today I’ve decided to only use it sparingly, for balance or falls. We’ll see how it goes.
We wander past Arrowhead and Rae Lakes and they are beauties. A few satisfied clouds lazily drift overhead as we start the long climb up Glen Pass (11,978). This was the toughest pass of the trip so far – high elevation with super steep trail and large boulders and steps to navigate. I popped a couple Advil and ate some GU, put my head down and got into a nice easy rhythm all the way to the top.
The views were awesome up here and we belted out some COOOOEEES into the valley far below, hearing our echos reverberate at least five times. We were feeling quite pleased with our accomplishment here and the thought of Mt. Whitney just a few days from now is starting to seem real and doable.
We descend down the north side and head toward Vidette Meadows. At one point in the steep section, Conor took a fall. I heard a noise and spun around to see him tumbling – it looked like an octopus falling down a flight of stairs – there were arms and legs everywhere! FORTUNATELY he was able to control his fall pretty well and only ended up with some minor abrasions on his forearm and hands.
We soon run into Woody and the cousins and he let’s me use his InReach to send a message home. He also shared some of his whiskey which was very generous and nice! We continued on just a bit further, swam in Bubbs Creek an washed our clothes, then setup camp in a nice level forested clearing. There are many deer here, and they wander amongst us like we’re part of the herd. Conor builds a fire and starts playing harmonica while I heat water for the meals. I didn’t experience any chest pain today so now I’m fairly convinced it was the hiking pole and pulled muscles the whole time. Whew!
DAY TWENTY – TYNDELL CREEK
Miles Hiked: 13
Total Miles: 210
Campsite Elevation: 10,900 feet
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over. The highest peaks burned like islands in a sea of liquid shade. Then the lower peaks and spires caught the glow, and long lances of light, streaming through many a notch and pass, fell thick on the frozen meadows.” – John Muir
It was a cold morning as we prepped for the toughest pass of the trip, Forrester (13,200). We ate chicken and rice with a probar for breakfast and headed out in an all-business manner. We passed a pack group just finishing their breakfast and they gave use a little bacon and grapes – nice!
It was about seven miles to the top and we attacked it with determination and patience. Before we knew it, we were at the TOP! A nice accomplishment and the first time either of us have been above 13,000 feet. A man named Craig loaned me his phone and I was able to check in with home – all was well – keep going!
Heading down the other side was scarier than hell! Steep and highly exposed, this is not for the faint of heart or anyone with a fear of heights. Various points were made from stone bridges cleverly engineered into the side of the cliffs.
At the bottom, we met up with Woody, Kyle and Tim resting on a grassy knoll and we celebrated the climb.
It was an easy walk down to Tyndell Creek from there and we made camp near the creek at about 10,900 feet. The elevation was really nailing both of us here form some reason, and we set up our tents while sitting on the ground – standing up brought instant dizziness and near blackouts. There was a chill in the air as we prepared dinner, a clue to the conditions we would be entering into tomorrow as we get nearer and nearer to the final destination, Mt. Whitney.
We retired early and it was still very light outside, so laid on my back and watched the “bug circus” overhead – four layers of bug activity: a few unfortunate ones inside my tent trying to get out, which were smushed… another group on the outside of the netting trying to figure out how to get in, more on the inside layer of the rain fly trying to get out, and then the silhouettes of bugs on the outside of the rain fly, trying to get in. Yeah, that’s the level of entertainment at this point.
It was a bit of a sleepless night but I enjoyed the sounds of the low roar of the nearby creek, with the mellow hushing of wind through the trees. I gazed at the bright stars overhead, framed by branches, and saw a nice shooting star bursting across the sky.
DAY TWENTY ONE – GUITAR LAKE
Miles Hiked: 13
Total Miles: 223
Campsite Elevation: 11,400 feet
“Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled, and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy-laden year … give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.” – John Muir
Last night I wrote a song:
The pass is upcoming
the trail is getting steep
the memories of this climb
you will always keep
When you arrive at the very top
just enjoy the view
then turn around
and enjoy some more new.
We woke to a chilly but perfect day. We met up with Kelly and he hiked with us for the entire day. We moved quickly across roller coaster hills with high anticipation – eager to finally get to our “base camp” of Guitar lake, from which we would attack Whitney. We enjoyed spirited conversation with Kelly all day and it made the walk go by quickly.
Most of the day was pretty easy, but the final few miles were steep and high in the air – it was getting more difficult to breathe. Massive clouds were forming in the west as we setup camp – again from a seated position. We were pretty tired from the effort and both laid down for a nap in our tents.
We took a little stroll around the area – it’s stark and mean and even though we can’t see Mt. Whitney from here, we knew it was looming just behind the monstrous ranges surrounding us. An eagle soars overhead, impossibly high in the sky. I’m tired, very tired, and my legs feel weak. Tomorrow will be a serious challenge.
DAY TWENTY TWO – MT. WHITNEY!
Miles Hiked: 15
Total Miles: 238
Elevation: 14,495 feet!
“To the timid traveler, fresh from the sedimentary levels of the lowlands, these highways, however picturesque and grand, seem terribly forbidding — cold, dead, gloomy gashes in the bones of the mountains, and of all Nature’s ways the ones to be most cautiously avoided. Yet they are full of the finest and most telling examples of Nature’s love; and though hard to travel, none are safer. For they lead through regions that lie far above the ordinary haunts of the devil, and of the pestilence that walks in darkness.
True, there are innumerable places where the careless step will be the last step; and a rock falling from the cliffs may crush without warning like lightning from the sky; but what then? Accidents in the mountains are less common than in the lowlands, and these mountain mansions are decent, delightful, even divine, places to die in, compared with the doleful chambers of civilization. Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand.“ – John Muir
All of the previous trips, all of the planning and preparation, all of the expenses of traveling and equipment, all the hardships of being away from home, the infinite number of steps up and down passes… has all led us to this. A chance to climb the highest mountain in the lower 48 states of the USA.
I suggest to Conor that we should wake up at 2AM and try to make it to the top to see the sunrise. He loves the idea, and shares it with Woody, Kyle and Tim. Kelly joins us as well.
I’m so excited and more than a little scared that I can’t sleep a wink. I lie in my tent and listen to the howling winds. 10pm… midnight… 1pm… finally I can’t take it anymore and wake Conor up at 1:45am. It’s time to go.
We fire up our headlamps and pack up our gear. I look up at the sky and say a silent prayer of thanks. It’s incredibly clear, with just a sliver of a moon. Somehow we’ve survived the treacherous terrain that claimed so many others, the high altitude, the pounding on our bodies and joints, somehow… we made it!
Our adrenaline is pumping. We eat a couple GUs washed down with water and start walking toward Woody’s campsite. Kelly is already up and packing his gear. The guys are also up and packing.
Our headlamps are tiny pinpoint dots in the vast dark landscape as we start the climb up. It’s an incredible feeling of excitement which is amplified by the fact that we’re doing this at night. I stop and look back, and the night sky seems to be completely enveloping us – I’m actually looking down at some of the stars on the far horizon. Even thought my light is very powerful, when I shine it over the edge, it illuminates nothing, so I know we’re high on an exposed ridge line.
About an hour into the hike, we hear a low rumbling thunder, but it’s not thunder… it’s a rock slide! It get’s louder and louder and we realized it’s happening directly across from us, on the other side of the canyon. Everyone stands still in silence. I’m sure everyone was wondering “what if?” at that point.
We reach the trail crest, where we can drop our packs and take just the essentials up the final two miles and 1,500 feet. We’re now above 13,000 and I’m having difficulty breathing. From my waist up to my neck feels like a boa constrictor coiled around me and tightening. I’m moving pretty slow so I give the thumbs up for the guys to go ahead. We can start to see a little bit of color over the horizon. Getting to the top for sunrise is going to be close.
My top priority of course is to not die, second is to get to the top and the third is to make it there by sunrise. So I fight the urge to pick up the pace, my body just won’t allow it. I catch a few pre-sunrise shots along the way, including a nice one showing Lone Pine far, far below with Venus and Mars in the night sky.
I hear the guys jubilantly yelling and know they’ve made it to the top. I keep pressing on and join them just as the sun is cresting the horizon! A bottle of whiskey is passed around. High fives, embraces, yelling into the air, WE’VE DONE IT! The views are stunning and breathtaking, but nothing compared to the immense feeling of joy we’re all experiencing!
It’s cold REALLY COLD. The water in our bottles is freezing within twenty minutes. We duck into the shelter hut for a bit of warmth and a snack. My fingers are frozen stiff but i know I’ll never be here again for the rest of my life so I head back out to the edge and shoot as many photos as I can.
With frozen fingers, we struggle to sign the register, take in a final look around, and then start the long 11 mile, 6,000 foot descent to the Whitney Portal, where cheeseburgers, fries and beer are waiting.
Conor and I do a beef jerky toast to George for supplying us with the awesome jerky and then I put the camera away, tighten up the pack belt, and head for the bottom. Now we just want to finish!
The canyon is absolutely beautiful and we make it down without incident. We all gather around a large picnic table under a shade tree and start feasting! Beers, cheeseburgers, BLTs, fries, doughnuts. It’s the perfect way to finish this, with so many of the new friends we’ve made on this adventure. It was the trip of a lifetime, made infinitely better by being able to do it with my Son.
I would especially like to thank my wife Debi for managing the household and animals and providing information about my parent’s health – allowing us to drop off the grid for such an extended time. THANK YOU!