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September 23, 2014 / Comments (10)

Day 15: 97 Switchbacks Until the End

*This post is from my 2014 JMT thru hike. I began 7/25/14 and finished 8/8/14. This is the last post of the hike! Missed the beginning? Read it here!
By mid afternoon I will be in a car on my way to Lone Pine. I will pay for a bed at a hostel and eat at a restaurant. By mid afternoon I will no longer be on the John Muir Trail.
I don’t sleep very much. I hear John ask for the time, but I know it’s still early. When I leave my tent it will be the beginning of the last day on the trail.
At 3:00 I hear Andy and Kayla unzip their tent. Today’s the day we hike Mount Whitney. I grab my headlamp out of my shoe, throw on my trail runners and secure my gaiters. My shelter is covered in sand so I simply stuff it in an external pocket in my pack. I’ll clean it in town.
As I pack up, I look up toward Whitney. I see a series of lights slowly moving along the base. By 3:30 we join them as we make our way over to the trail.
 Although I hadn’t slept much, I have a burst of energy. I break often, though and look toward the sky. The moon is almost full and the stars are shimmering. I get a preview of the meteor shower that will happen in a couple of days. Dozens of shooting stars fly across overhead.
The trail twists more than I thought it would. I rely on my headlamp to lead me around each turn, only giving me a preview of the next 20 feet.

It isn’t long before I reach the trail crest. Others have left their belongings and continued up to the summit. I unpack my bear canister, but keep my Mariposa on. It’s been a trusty pack and I want to bring it on the entire length of the trail.

The sun begins to rise, but the trail swings left, blocking the sun for quite some time. I bear right and go off trail, climbing over a few boulders and take a seat to watch the sun rise.

The last two miles are long, but not in an agonizing “I don’t want to be doing this anymore” way. The summit is so close, but I have many switchbacks to hike, building the anticipation even more.

There are large patches of snow that people wrote notes in. Someone is celebrating their birthday atop Whitney! I pass a few more people and make the final push to the summit. My hands feel frozen tucked into my jacket sleeves. Breathing is more difficult, but I still feel great at this altitude. I pause when I see the summit building. The wind whips around me and the sun warms my face. I feel so small up here. It feels like another planet. I think back to when I was planning this hike and how many people doubted me. This ultralight packing gal from New England made it to the summit of Mount Whitney the long way. I’m actually here. I feel a little overwhelmed by the experience and for a while I don’t think about this adventure coming to an end.

I see John and run over to him. We congratulate each other and he asks where Andy and Kayla are. Kayla had told me to go ahead when I tried waiting for her. Andy stayed back so they could finish together. We go into the summit building with a handful of other hikers. I pull out my wool socks and stick my hands in them. John and I play a game of “who can open their hand faster”. We’re so cold I think we both lost.



We swap stories with the other hikers in the building and wait for numerous people to investigate the weather outside. Eventually I warm up enough to take in the views.

Andy and Kayla make it up to the summit and we cheer in celebration. This hike was very different than what I expected. I was prepared, but also surprised. I finished a day earlier than I thought I would and with a trail family. I never thought I would be hiking multiple 20 mile days or never getting my Muir Trail Ranch resupply. I didn’t realize how much hiking in New Hampshire would prepare me for this high altitude trail. The terrain, elevation gain, and monsoons were not seen as an obstacle because I had prepared so much. Some may argue that you can only be successful if you’re a seasoned Sierras hiker. Others say it’s a trail for everyone. With enough research, preparation, and the right mind set, you’ll be fine.

After we take some photos there isn’t much to do but hike down out of the cold. I officially completed the JMT, but I still need to make it down. And it’s a long way down. From the summit of Whitney I hike back down to the trail crest to pick up my bear canister. I see two guys I met on Glen Pass and they ask how long it took me to get to the top.

“Three hours,” I reply.

“There’s not way I’m doing that!” he replies.

“It was three hours from Guitar Lake,” I clarify.

I find out later that they decided not to hike up to the summit.

I see the sign pointing toward Whitney Portal. Before I begin my descent, I look back at where I came, seeing what I hiked in the dark for the first time. Satisfied, I begin to hike down. There are 97 switchbacks from here to Trail Camp, losing 1,600 feet in 2.2 miles.

As we hike down, we contemplate what we’re going to eat. We had joked about our first meal throughout the trip. On Forester Pass, this meal evolved into and burger pizza inside a taco. It still sounds good. 87 more switchbacks to go… okay, I actually didn’t count!

Looking back up the switchbacks

The further I hike down, the hotter it gets. It reminds me of my first day on the trail. I don’t realize how close Whitney is to Death Valley until I can see it. I eventually slather on sunscreen from one of the three bottles I picked up along the trail and packed out. Unfortunately I was too focused on hiking down to slather it on before I got burned.

One mile before the Whitney Zone boundary I stop for a break. A ranger is making his way up the trail and starts up a conversation with me. Eventually he asks to see my permit. The first time I’m asked for a permit, I’m no longer on the John Muir Trail!

I spend the rest of the descent thinking about food and how these day hikers plan on summiting the highest peak in the lower 48 with one water bottle per group. As I try to wrap my brain around their logic, I see a much older woman with a heavy external frame pack.

“Did you just finish the John Muir Trail?” she asks.

“I sure did!” I respond.

“I am so proud of you!” the woman exclaims.

We talk for a bit and she tells me this is her 30th hike up Mount Whitney and when she was younger she thru hiked the John Muir Trail twice! She enjoys taking young adults, mainly from her church group up. Today she’s hiking it with her niece.

“I just go slow and steady,” she tells me. “I see all these hikers pass me in the morning with almost nothing and I’ll see them hiking back with their heads down an hour later.”

She’s definitely the coolest person I met on the trail.

When I get down to Whitney Portal I buy two patches as a souvenir and a chocolate milk. I know, I didn’t see that coming either.

Andy, Kayla, and I plan on hitching a ride to Lone Pine where Kayla’s car is parked. John had made it down earlier and is nowhere to be seen. We do not have any luck getting a ride as no one is leaving. Andy calls John and finds out he actually got a ride with the DC crew in the shuttle service they had set up before the hike. Kayla gives John instructions to get into her car so he can pick us up. She realizes that she was almost out of gas when she parked in Lone Pine. We walk down the road while
we wait so he doesn’t have to go uphill as far.

John makes a quick U-turn as he arrives and we hop in with the car still running. As soon as the doors slam, we drive to the closest gas station. Kayla’s car is old and the ac does not work. We drive with the windows down to enjoy the hot Sierra “breeze” and air out our stench. We’re off to Lone Pine.

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Last modified: December 6, 2014

10 Responses to :
Day 15: 97 Switchbacks Until the End

  1. Peter Allan says:

    Thanks, Allison, I really enjoyed your JMT series. I’m planning to hike Onion Valley to Whitney Portal over four days in June. We were planning ultralight and stoveless, and your experience makes that certain.

    Can you tell me what the permit process is? I’m told I can apply 6 months before on Recreation.gov. Is that before the entry date or the exit date? We already have plane tickets, so getting our dates is critical.

    Did you carry bear deterrent spray? We’re thinking one can for our group.

  2. Hi Peter,

    It is 6 months before your start date. I used hellofax.com to send my permit request. You only need one permit for a thru hike. Flexibility is key, but you should be fine with onion valley as your top choice. I will be writing up a post of all the critical information (like a guideline) for the JMT very soon.

    I did not carry any bear spray. I actually never saw a bear! Your best bet is to be diligent about storing your food and other smelly items in a bear canister. That will be the best way to deter a bear or other critters. Good luck on your planning!

  3. ksiyoto says:

    Peter-

    Bear spray is actually illegal in Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia. I’m not sure about the legality in the national forests either.

    The bears in the area are fairly timid, and scare off easily. After I read up on the issue, I realized I didn’t need any protection.

    Just follow the recommended food storage practices. Hiking 161 miles from Tuolumne Meadows to Road’s End, I only saw one bear – 30 minutes after I arrived at Roads End. And it was small enough that I could have eaten it. Meat!

  4. Peter Allan says:

    Thanks for the info. Skipping the bear spray saves 312 grams and shipping hassles, but adding a rain jacket adds more back. My alternative for rain is a fresh coat water repellant on a Patagonia down shirt, and a Space Emergency Bag converted to a poncho. I think Allison’s experience with rain was unusual, but still worth preparing for.

  5. I just talked to a friend who finished the trail earlier this month and had one day of rain on a 12 day hike. Even a $1 poncho in each resupply might work well. If you rip one, you’ll have another down the road. If you don’t need it, in the hiker barrel it goes!

  6. I savored this for a few days before finishing, I didn’t want it to end. Your journey was amazing Allison, thank you for sharing it with us all!!

  7. andifree says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I enjoyed it ever so much!! I too am a NH hiker and am hoping to hike the JMT in 2018 to celebrate my 50th!! For now I will just keep plugging away on the 48 and I am going to start my winter list this year!!

  8. Thank you for the detailed blog, it has been entertaining and insightful to read! My girlfriend and I are already preparing to hike the JMT in 2016 after I graduate from grad school. The goal is keeping me grounded during the day to day minutiae and endless work. I will likely refer back to this as the time gets closer and we start planning. This was a great supplement to the “cold hard facts” I’ve had no trouble finding info about… miles, elevation, stream crossings, passes, permits, bear canisters, etc. Your writing (and pictures) help to visualize what it’s really like out there. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks for the kind words Chris! If you are looking for more of the planning info as you get closer to your hike, I made one! It’s great to have a hike like this to look forward to! I’m already thinking about the next big adventure! http://www.trailtosummit.com/2014/09/the-ultimate-john-muir-trail.html

  10. Tom "QuickSilver" Clark says:

    Allison,
    I enjoyed your JMT story & photos. You made good time, even with the bad weather. I started on Aug 15, 2014, and was able to miss most of the rain. Thought you might enjoy seeing the trail through my eyes.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGKPH8dk59I

    Tom

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