Touchdown in a silver convertible

Atop the highest point in the continental U.S., one thing is clear: I am not ready to leave the woods. Fortunately, having arrived two days early, I have the luxury of sauntering. The moment I reached the top, Whitney’s irresistible, powerful magnet loosed me from its lure. No more the singular, pinpoint goal. Free to amble, adrenaline dissipates, and a lazy expansiveness oozes in to replace it. The horizon spreads in every direction. This afternoon, I’ll drink in views, sidle along in a trance, and ponder impending transitions. The new moon slices the sky. The world awaits.

/

Going down the 97 switchbacks from Mount Whitney, all the little corners smell like pee. About 150 people per day get passes to hike here, in addition to thru-hikers. It’s like the interstate, but without McDonald’s bathrooms.

ice
One cove boasts a private overhang… but it’s coated with ice from last winter.

I take it slow, nursing a bum knee that I’ve denied for the past week. No reason not to baby it now. My plan for transitioning back to town reality includes a none-too-subtle metaphor: as I gradually descend in elevation, I will wean myself off the thin, wild air of living in the mountains, back to breathing in the valley of regular life.

97 problems and Vitamin D deficiency ain't one.
97 problems and Vitamin D deficiency ain’t one.

The trick will be to see how much of the wildness I can carry down with me, make part of the good regular life I am glad to have. It is two vertical miles from the Whitney summit to the town of Lone Pine. That’s a long way to coax a wild animal. If it is to survive, there will have to be an expansive refuge for it to roam, a preserve within my heart.

/

More immediately, there’s the challenge of finding camp amid so many people. In the Mount Whitney Zone, you can’t pitch just anywhere. To reduce the environmental impacts of such traffic, there are but a few designated places to sleep. The highest, Trail Camp, is plastered with tents along every conceivable surface, boasts no shade, and raises the question: where would one go to take a dump? (Not that you’d bury it: everyone gets a wag bag on their way out of Whitney Portal, with strict instructions to “pack it out.” The last toilets were removed from the area in 2007.) Outpost Camp is prettier, with a rushing brook and some shade, but with the same crowding and private-time puzzle.

Troy and Moira, whose nap I accidentally interrupt by clamoring under their shaded boulder for a lunch break, graciously tip me off to Lone Pine Lake, less than a mile past Outpost, which delivers on their promises that it is stunning and secluded. (Why secluded? Because it is a tenth of a mile off-trail. That’s right, friends: a tenth of a mile is all it takes to weed out the crowds.) It is the prettiest tarn I have ever seen. Its far edge spills into the horizon. Best of all, it’s open to camping, but only three other people take advantage. I watch the stars from the open tent flap, and eight hours later, the sunrise. The tent faces away from Whitney, toward the world of people. Reassuringly, even from the world of people, one can usually see the sky.

lone pine lake
Sometimes two skies.

/

Whitney Portal is a bustling hub with large campgrounds for tents, families, and RVs, summer homes, a stocked fish pond, and a general store. (Oh yes, and bathrooms… as well as redolent disposal vaults for hundreds of packed-out wag bags.) Waltzing in mid-morning, I’m amazed they fit all this into a gap between mountains. The diner serves pancakes the size of hub caps, but I cling to my camp food. As long as I don’t eat town grub, I’m still in the wilderness, right? But it’s back to a numbered campsite today, with water from a pump and a bear-proof locker for food.

The gateway at Whitney Portal, where it all begins (or ends).

My neighbors and I chat about hikes ahead and behind. Some are going to attempt the One-Day Whitney Challenge. As for me, in the interest of dipping my toes into that other reality, the Lowlands, and because I just can’t not hike yet, I decide to walk the Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail this afternoon. It’s an out-and-back, eight miles total, a path crudely cut in 1881 to get mule trains, expeditions, and other early travelers from the valley to the portal. It hasn’t seen much traffic since the CCC paved a road in 1933, but it used to be the only way up.

I leave my tent pitched at the campground, and the heavy bear can in the vault. With a superlight pack and only one pole (the other is busy holding up my tent), I’m surprised to feel nerves as I descend, gradually leaving behind the familiar ecosystem of lodgepole pines and Stellar’s jays in favor of sparse scrub, then downright desert.

Nopal (prickly pear)
Nopal (prickly pear): something you don’t see in the High Sierra.
Total change of habitat
Toto, I’ve a feeling we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

What have I done? This trail goes all the way to the valley floor! Walking through the hot, exposed landscape, my water’s warm and nearly gone. I’ve bet the farm that a potable pump will be available in the lower campground where the trail ends. I’m in luck. Squinting under my bandana, I turn to hike back to the Portal, and the view of Whitney, framed by foothills, floors me. That is one looker of a mountain. Could I really have been on top just a day ago?

Oh, you stone. I love you.
Can you fall in love with stone?

It’s so far away, here in the flatland among these alien cacti. As I reclaim each of the 2,700 feet I lost on the way down, tides of hormonal emotion flood in, such as I haven’t felt since high school. (They’d bowl me over just sitting in class. These days it takes a major elevation change, apparently.) It was a shock to come all the way down today, but it proves the cliché that distance maketh the heart grow fond.

/

While my last humble dinner of beans and freeze-dried veggies stews, I chat with a six-year-old girl and her dad. (“At last, a girl!” she shouted upon spotting my magenta jacket. “There are so many boys around here.”) They’re going rock-climbing in the Arizona Hills tomorrow. She darts around the campground like an elf, investigating everything, while her father cooks.

As I meet new people, I wonder about folks I expected to see again but haven’t. For instance: Jennifer and Oliver, where are you? The friendly Mississippians camped in high style, their packs stuffed with small luxuries: they’d catch and roast perch and cook spiced couscous… and that was just lunch. They hiked early and late so as to meet more fox, and in the afternoons lazed on riverbanks to watch children splash like otters. It was Oliver’s first time in the woods, and Jennifer’s 50th birthday present to herself. Will I ever know if they finished?

Last camp dinner, last sunset in the pines, last this, last that. I’m verklempt. It’s time to get outta here before I melt into a puddle of syrup capable of soaking through a plateful of giant diner pancakes.

/

Next morning, I borrow a Sharpie and write the words “Lone Pine” on the back of a Moose Drool box. Not five minutes of shilling with my makeshift sign, and a fellow gives me a lift. He and his buddy aimed for Whitney today, but his knees gave out, so he’s killing time while his friend summits. We coast down the coiling CCC road in his silver convertible, looking forward, looking back. Goodbye, Whitney Portal.

Hello, town!

To Mount Whitney!

Each day the clouds seem to gather earlier. Yesterday, seven raindrops tapped my face as I skirted Sandy Meadow: change is coming. And after clearing the high curtain of the Kings-Kern Divide via Forester Pass, I’d seen a first glimpse of… could it be? That far, hunchbacked peak in the clouds, framed by nearer heights?

Obviously so. It's got bright red markers above it.
Obviously. It’s the only one with bright red lines around it.

A few miles later, the PCT splits off and continues south to Mexico. The John Muir Trail is on its own for the last few miles. Goodbye, imaginary thru-hiking J. See you for real in five days!

/

It seems I accidentally mailed my soap home, so from here on it’ll be either dust baths or plain-water scrubbing. Then I lose my water treatment, leaving the little bottle of bleach by a distractingly pretty brook. Evidently I’ll now also be carefully sourcing water from springs, or tiny streams that no dirty human shoes cross, and carrying extra in case of a dry spell. Absent-mindedness increases as the last mountain eclipses all else. From camp at Crabtree Meadows, I can see Orion scaling Mount Whitney as the night sky spins.

When day breaks, I’ll follow.

/

Pre-dawn motions are surreal: fold the tent, press air out of the pillow, stuff the sleeping bag, for the twentieth time. Summit Day. What is there to say, really? A goal, a peak, dreamed of for a year, only eight miles away. What’s the use of narration? You know how this goes: up, up, up. So let the photo essay begin.

pika
The animals are afoot this morning: pika, deer, marmot, duck…

deer

Guitar Lake
Two miles closer, I pass Guitar Lake, the traditional base camp for summiting Whitney, and begin the climb in earnest.
Looking back into the valley
It’s steep and exposed. I’m hauling extra water, and my pack pulls at my shoulders. But the view behind…
Ditching gear at Trail Crest Pass
At Trail Crest Pass, I reach the spur to Whitney. Everyone leaves extra gear at the junction, carrying only what they’ll need for the summit.
whitney sign
I ditch my bear can and an extra liter of water. Lighter, and excited by the sign, I fairly fly up the hill.
view
…except when I cling to large rocks, peering off sheer drops along the ridge. Choose those footsteps carefully.

Aside: There are a ton of people up here.  Daily, 150 people get permits to hike in the Mount Whitney Zone. Some of them look like the walking dead, slowed by elevation sickness and exhaustion. This is why: last night they camped at the Whitney Portal, and got up at two in the morning to start hiking. Wearing headlamps in the dark, they climbed 6,200 feet of elevation up 97 switchbacks to the summit, and now they’re going all the way back down in one day, a 22-mile round trip. Sounds harder than a thru-hike to me!

So we negotiate not only the terrain, but each other. We slowly pick past one another at wide spots. Those coming down nod knowingly at the energy of those going up. “Boy, you’re grinning from ear to ear,” says a descending day hiker. I didn’t realize I was smiling, but it’s no surprise.

The Nebraska Boys, four good-natured Midwesterners also finishing a thru-hike
The Nebraska Boys, four good-natured Midwestern thru-hikers, are grinnin’ too.
almost
Whitney’s ridge, now in view…
shelter
…and there it is! The little shelter on top, people swarming around the famous view. I am doing this… right now…
IMG_20150911_110256785
Did it! Done!
log
And official: signatures in the trail register.

I savor a Snickers bar, basking against the sun-warmed bricks of the shelter. People throng past in vibrant insulating layers, but my eyes are fixed on a deep blue space beyond, a space of grateful, jubilant disbelief. It’s all downhill from here. And that’s not bad at all.

/

So here we are, together on the peak. Thank you for reading this story. Knowing folks wanted to hear it has been an excellent push for writing, a reason to live the journey again, even more reflectively: to invite others onto the trail. It’s been a treat. Your comments have been so thoughtful and kind.

Mount Whitney is not the end. There will be more writing, for instance, a post about the 97-switchback hike down to Whitney Portal. (The John Muir Trail ends at the summit, but it’s still two vertical miles above civilization, and there’s no zip line.) Ever-popular hike statistics are on the way, as well as the tale of the kick-ass women I meet on the journey home, a quest to find just one beautiful thing in Reno, Nevada, a sitcom wrap-up of lessons learned… and then I’ll keep writing, albeit less often, about other jaunts, and non-hiking adventures too: there’s a Day of the Dead piece in the works, I happen to know.