It’s our last night and we are so close to finishing the JMT! I could not get over the fact that we were literally sleeping 3,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48, and would be standing on top in just a few hours. My mind was whirling! One moment I was so thrilled to be finishing and the next I was sad to see our JMT adventure coming to a close. Then nervous about making the summit. Then proud that we were really going to accomplish this at all, much less in only 7.5 days. Then overjoyed. Then tired and sore. Then happy. I think I eventually landed on just feeling overwhelmed. Between the altitude (at an elevation of 11,500 feet) and the rollercoaster of emotions, sleep was more of a distant hope on the horizon than a realistic possibility.
We did not have to feign sleep for too long though with a 3am wake up call right around the corner. The alarm went off and from there on out it was go time. Tent down, water purified, Snickers consumed…all in record speed! From here on out it was up and up and then up some more!
Hiking in the dark really changes the dynamic. For whatever reason, I have always liked hiking in the dark. It’s so peaceful and calm. There does not seem to be the same frantic rush or hustle and bustle that can result from hiking in the daylight. The only sign of anyone else on the trail is the glow of headlights above or below you. Just your breath and the star-filled sky keeping you company. (And boy were there a lot of stars out that night! Amazing!)
We kicked it into high gear right away, only stopping a few times to adjust our layers. Having stared at the maps long enough over the course of the week, I knew that we had 5 miles to gain 3,000 feet before we reached the summit. The middle section of the climb was about a mile of switchbacks in which we gained about 1,000 feet, which is fairly steep. I was not particularly looking forward to this section so you can imagine my surprise when we reached the Trail Crest junction where our JMT route up the backside and the day hike route up the front from Whitney Portal joined. I knew that this junction marked the end of the switchback section and the start of the final 2 miles, but I was still waiting for the tough switchbacks. Confused, I asked Ron, “Wait, I thought we still had to do the switchbacks. Where are they?” When he told me that we were done with them, I was simultaneously thrilled and shocked. While I was busy dreading them, we had already cruised up them. We were making incredible time! (Apparently my nerves the night before were totally without reason.)
I felt absolutely superhuman as we practically jogged up the last 2 miles towards the summit at 14,496 feet. Perhaps it was our joy as we neared the top or maybe it was the balanced breakfast of candy bars that we downed earlier, but we absolutely floated, not at all feeling the effects of the thin air at altitude. It was magical!
We rounded the top only to be greeted by a thick cloud cover. Great view! (Insert heavy sarcasm.) Although we joked around, I was definitely heartily disappointed about the reality of coming all this way and not getting the opportunity to witness our coveted sunrise. But John Muir was not done with us just yet! Within minutes of reaching the summit, the clouds began to lift! Lit from beneath by the rising sun, the clouds were on fire with light! Magnificent does not even begin to describe this sight! The craggy peaks glowing, the distant lakes shimmering, the clouds flaming…it was all so much more than we could have possibly imagined. There really is no way to explain how I felt standing up there on top of Whitney (we are on a first name basis now) that can truly capture the happiness, awe, and enchantment of the moment. All I know for certain is that we were exactly where we were supposed to be at that moment in time.
After a quick summit dance (captured on video) and officially joining the ranks by signing the summit log, we started the long decent. Emphasis on the LOOOONG! Ten miles of downhill, dropping 6,000 vertical feet, is a lot to ask of the body…especially after over a week of marathon length days. Switchback by switchback we made our way down in the scorching heat towards Whitney Portal where we new we had cheeseburgers waiting with our names written all over them. It’s quite possible that the only thing that kept us moving was the promise of a shower and a full belly in the near future as we continued to make hundreds of switchbacks. (Literally hundreds.) But we did it! We did it! We did it! Immediately upon reaching the trailhead and completing the JMT I started to bawl. Really understanding the magnitude of what we had just done, a whole rush of emotions slapped me right in the face. I was overwhelmed with happiness, pride, painful knees, the heat index, excitement, and overall awe that I simply could not stop sobbing.
Once I finally pulled myself together again and we successfully inhaled our well-deserved cheeseburgers, fries, ice cream cones, and pizza, we spent the night watching trashy reality TV (a rare treat) and sanitizing ourselves via the leaky Mount Whitney Motel shower. Never before have curtains with paint splatters and giant slashes in them, floral sheets, and a rattling air conditioner been welcomed with such open arms. It was glorious!
All in all, our JMT experience was truly priceless. I would not change a single thing. It was perfect in its imperfections and epic in its challenges. It was moving, breathtaking (not just due to the altitude), and spectacular. In a word, it was unforgettable.
Check out all of the images below: