Day 5 – Sunday, August 15 (Kern Hotsprings to Junction Meadow) – Last night I had a dream, that when I returned home, JoAnn had bought a new house and moved us into it in my absence. “It was such a great deal, honey!”
Sunday… in fact, the last Sunday of my sabbatical. Jon made his fabulous fresh ground coffee, and I had a breakfast of polenta with pork sausage (tangy!). Today’s objective… hiking up the Kern Canyon. This was a fairly mild day… only a thousand feet of climbing over seven miles or so.
There are a number of smaller creeks feeding into the Kern all the way up canyon, so the biggest challenge on this section were the number of creek crossings. A few of them were a bit tricky… the water is still pretty high for August… so we had to be careful. The elevation is fairly low, and for most of the day you are in the sun, alternating with a few shady sections. Thirsty. I just seemed to be thirsty all the time. Even taking in six or more liters of water a day, I’m always thirsty.
After on last tricky stream crossing (this one the most difficult), we found ourselves at the Junction Meadow campsite. This is a shady spot right next to the Kern, with lots of great spots. As we settled in, we met a guy name William from Austin, who was travelling very light. He hung out with us for an hour or so and we talked about lots of different things from Alaska, to legalization of marijuana, to California politics, to the absence of actual bears in the backcountry.
We headed to bed early, as we had a long day coming up.
Day 6 – Monday, August 16 (Junction Meadow to Guitar Lake) – We knew this would be a long day, as we climbed out of the Kern Canyon and headed east towards Mount Whitney. Though I was really tired, I also knew we were on the last stretch of our trek. The HST climbs out of the Kern Canyon and then connects with the famous John Muir Trail. The next part of the trail was another of my least favorite parts of the trail. Between the JMT junction and Crabtree meadow, it was hot, dry, sandy. And I was thirsty. A lot. Dry. I thought we’d never get to Crabtree. Finally we arrived at that last junction… filtered more water… and headed up towards Mount Whitney. We passed gorgeous Timberline Lake, and were starting to get views of Mount Whitney, our penultimate goal for the trip. At last, in the late afternoon, we arrived at windswept Guitar Lake, and staked out a couple of granite slabs for the night. Guitar Lake has earned it’s name from it’s shape. But really, the body is awfully big and the neck a bit short, so we thought “Gitarron Lake” was a better fit.
We agreed on a 3:00 am wake-up time for a 4:00 start. Our final day would be the longest of all, and I wanted to allow plenty of time. We were rewarded at this campsite by a stunning show of sunset and alpenglow, at the most stunning campsite of our trip.
Day 7 – Tuesday, August 17 (Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal) – I had set my alarm for 3 am, but woke at 2:30, so got up and puttered around and made oatmeal. I woke Jon at 3:00 and our day began. After a hasty cup of coffee and packing up by headlamp. We were on the trail by 4:00.
I love hiking by headlamp… everything is cool and quiet. We could see headlamps on the switchbacks above us, and some climbers had started even earlier than we had. As the sun slowly rose, the granite changed colors, and the jagged peaks of the Kaweahs glowed in the distance.
The first time I tried to climb Mount Whitney in 2001 (from Cottonwood Pass), I turned around a half an hour from the summit due to a gathering storm (thunder & lightning & hail). So I’ve had unfinished business with Whitney for nine years! At this point, I was still a bit ambivalent about going to the summit, just wanting to get the whole thing done. But Jon (thanks, buddy!) encouraged me to go for it. We dropped our packs at the trail junction and headed up.
The trail to the summit is precipitous, rugged, and spectacular. It was cold and windy, but the weather was clear, so I had no reason to turn back this time. We pushed on and at around 8 am we hit the summit. Finally…. tired… but happy to have made it. At 14,497′, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
But our day was far from over. We had a 2 mile scramble back to our packs, and another eight miles to Whitney Portal. We climbed up to Trail Crest, and then tackled the infamous ninety-nine switchbacks. We encountered a number of day-hikers headed for the summit… still shining and clean, looking like they’d stepped out of a L L Bean catalog.
The hike out seems to just go on forever. Even when you get off of the switchbacks, you still have hours to go to get to Whitney Portal. Even Jon, who had been ultra patient through most of the trip, was getting irritated. Finally, twelve hours after we started, we found ourselves at Whitney Portal, having completed 72 miles of hiking, with over 18,000′ of climbing.
We stumbled to the Whitney Portal store and ordered our bacon cheeseburgers and fries (cooked in peanut oil… yummm)… plus those fizzy adult beverages (Lobotomy Bock 10.8%!!). My friends Kim and Robin picked us up and drove us back to Bishop for showers, sleep, and a drive home back to Sacramento. I was finished… had done what I set out to do, and smiled.
Big thank yous: First and foremost, to my indefatigable companion on this trek, Jon. Thanks for your positive attitude, encouragement, and good sense of humor… couldn’t have done it without you. To Frank for accompanying us on the first part of our journey. To Kim for picking us up at Whitney Portal. And to Holly for getting us back to Sacramento. Each of you made this possible.
If I had it to do over again: 1) I’d use a hydration bladder instead of water bottles. 2) I would definitely had done more training hikes. 3) I’d take more snack food. 4) I would’ve spent the third night at Big Arroyo crossing, and done a longer fourth day (tackling that ugly traverse in the cool of the morning).
Kit for all of you gearheads:
Osprey Aether 60 backpack
MontBell UL Super-stretch #4 sleeping bag
Mountain Hardwear Batray 2 tent
Big Agnes Insulated Air-core sleeping pad
Thermarest z-rest sit pad
Feathered Friends Geoduck down pillow
MSR Superfly canister stove, Primus kettle
Bear Vault food storage canister
Katadyn Hiker water filter (chlorine tabs for backup)
Merino wool t-shirts (Ibex & Smartwool x2)
Smartwool merino wool zip-t
Arc’Teryx Rampart shorts
Arc’Teryx Rampart pants
Point 6 hiking socks (2)
Vasque Breeze LT GTX boots
Arc’Teryx Gamma LT softshell jacket
MontBell UL Down Inner Jacket
Black Diamond Alpine Cork carbon fiber trekking poles
Complete trip photos here!