John Muir Trail- Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal
Mileage- 14.0 miles
Elevation Gain- 4022 feet
Elevation Loss- 7159 feet
Our eighth, and last, day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Guitar Lake to the Mt. Whitney Summit and then to a Whitney Portal exit… and this day was nothing short of a MONSTER. We knew this day was going to be long and grueling. Mentally we had been preparing for days, but I had never put in 14 miles with a pack nor had I ever tackled over 4000 feet of elevation (especially at the altitude…remember I am from 650 feet above sea level in INDIANA!) in a single hike. I am in above average physical condition and in pretty good hiking shape, but I am also over 40 and I recognize that 40 is a bit different than my 20’s and 30’s. I knew that I would be able pull of this day with no problem, but in the back of my mind I wondered how long it might take me. Once we had our gear prepped and everything in it’s place, we went to bed. We wouldn’t be summiting Whitney early enough to see the sunrise (and we were all cool with that), but we were awake and geared up before sunrise using our headlamps to guide our path.
The first half mile from Guitar Lake is harmless; it’s just positioning you for a series of twelve-ish switchbacks over a couple of miles. While the cool morning air at altitude was crisp and refreshing, it didn’t take long for the perspiration to make it’s first appearance. To be really honest, I don’t like elevation to start my day (hahaha). I prefer to have my morning coffee, which I didn’t get to have on this morning, and to begin with a nice leisurely hike. Anyway, this is not leisurely. It’s five miles of up. Five miles of up to the highest point in the lower 48, at that. But man, the views as the sun came up were something else. It was cool to look down on Guitar Lake and see how it got it’s name. The skies, again, were clear and a marvelous blue.
At the top of the switchbacks is Discovery Pinnacle, which is the highest rock formation above the switchbacks. It is close to this location where one can drop some gear and begin the final 1.9 mile climb to Whitney summit. I took a few heavier items out of my pack (i.e. bear can, etc.) and left them at this location. I still carried my pack with everything else in it. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving all of my gear and pack at this location. There were just so many people passing that a person could potentially pick through your pack. I didn’t think, however, that they would be interested in my heavier junk so I left that stuff there. The trail hugs a ridge line with impressive views both eastward and westward. The jutting rocks formations and the perfectly placed Tetris rocks were equally awe inspiring.
It is a beautiful sight when the Survey Hut comes into view. This is where you can sign the Mt. Whitney trail registry. The other guys were ahead of us and Ryan and I were a bit winded. We decided to chuck the packs at this point behind some rocks. Our logic was that if someone wanted to steal our heavy packs and lug them all the way out, they could have them. We picked up the pace and headed to the top. My watch had been calculating the oxygen level throughout the previous days and I was really curious to see how it would register as we approached 14,500. You can see the picture below… 57% of the oxygen level that a person would have at sea level. I could feel it for sure.
When I got to the top it was a really emotional experience that I am not sure I can adequately put into words. All of the months of days prepping, studying, and working out. The long, strenuous days that tried us physically, mentally, and emotionally. The inability to see or speak to our families for eight days. The beauty of this glorious creation day after day that left me in awe and completely speechless. The accomplishment, the achievement, of fighting through adversity to top Mt. Whitney. The view from the highest point in the lower 48 with great friends. And then for my phone to hit a signal… and texts and voicemails from my family to begin pouring in… telling me that they miss me… and love me. My God, it all came together and I cried. What a beautiful, wonderful life. I don’t take any of it for granted.
And as much as I wish our trip ended on top of Mt. Whitney, the reality was that we had close to ten more miles of hiking down over 7100 feet. Did you get that? Do you understand that? 7100 feet! When we hiked Grand Canyon… that was close to a mile (5200 feet) down. This was a gargantuan dive. In fact, there is a series of switchbacks that I called “Death by a Million Switchbacks,” because they never end. I promise you have never done that many switchbacks in your life. All I can tell you is that we got in a zone and just went for it. I took a few pictures, but I was so focused on getting to the parking lot at Whitney Portal I didn’t take any time for anything (except pumping water one time where the trail crosses Lone Pine Creek). If you don’t have an opportunity to hike the entire John Muir Trail, let me recommend this eight or nine day hike from Bishop to LeConte to Whitney Summit. Make it a bucket list trip and resolve to do it while you have the legs. You won’t regret it.