After scrupulous planning over the last year, my hiking partner, Anna and I set out from LA on a hot Friday afternoon to make our way to Lone Pine, California, where we would begin our journey. The night before, we crammed everything (and then some) in our packs, slowly removing gadgets we didn't need until we had a decent...ish weight. We were starting with 11 days of food for our first leg, filling our bear canisters to the brim with all we could possibly fit. Twas' a challenge. Our backpacks both ended up weighing about 43 pounds upon departure...without water.
Bracing ourselves and our backs, we took a train to Lancaster (the hottest place I've actually ever been) and a bus to Lone Pine where we checked in to Whitney Portal Hostel, which felt more like a hotel. We ran across the street for our last decent fried food meal at the Mount Whitney Restaurant and walked around town. Lone Pine is actually pretty charming in all its nothingness. We bought strawberries and spent the evening watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony on our room's little television. Our roommate in the hostel, Kelly, ended up having the same exact starting point/date as us, making the idea of our trek feel a little less daunting.
We stepped outside to look at the stars and we noticed the moon was just a cute little sliver. It was comforting to know the moon would be making its journey to fullness the same time we were making ours.
The next morning we grabbed our permits early to head up to Horseshoe Meadows (our starting point being Cottonwood Pass) so we could spend an evening at high elevation in hopes it would make the first few days easier on our bodies. The city of Lone Pine is at 3,700 feet while Horseshoe Meadows sits at a whopping 9,600 feet. We shoved myself and Anna, both our packs, and an Irish rock climber in Kelly's Subaru filled with all her life possessions so she could drive us to the permit office before ditching her car. We got everything we needed and used flush toilets for the last time. Anna and I took to the scorching hot road, easily hitchhiking up to Cottonwood Pass. (Not that easily...it took us three separate car rides). We spent the evening taking it easy among the pine trees and doing a little yoga while our ears popped. I remember feeling so uncertain about what was to come, but also capable. I believed I could do it. We were doing it.
Day 1: In the morning, we packed up and began around 8AM. We wanted to make it 14 miles to the campground at Lower Rock Creek Crossing. The Cottonwood Pass trail began with ascending switchbacks almost immediately. We took our time, keeping a strong first-day-excitement pace and made it the 6 miles to Chicken Spring Lake for lunch. There we saw Kelly and met two other women, a mother/daughter duo hiking from Cottonwood Pass to Mt. Whitney. So many ladies!
Anna and I were ecstatic thinking about the shimmering alpine lakes we were going to enjoy throughout our trip and once we hit Chicken Spring Lake it became real. We ate our tuna with beaming faces and continued the way towards Rock Creek. Mid-afternoon, we slowed our pace as we began feeling the toll our packs and the altitude were taking on our bodies. Here, I started feeling a little over my head. But that's where adventure lies, right?
We made it to Lower Rock Creek, which was lovely (go another half mile after passing the ranger station junction for the best campsites). We soaked our feet in the icy water, made dinner, and faded into a deep sleep.
Day 2: The next day, trail fam was formed. We continued with our ascent over Cottonwood Pass before dipping into Lower Crabtree Meadow. Along the way up we met Jason, a lanky surfer dude also doing the JMT! The meadow was lush and gorgeous so we took our time eating lunch (nutella) and filtering water. Our goal was to make it to Guitar Lake, which was a bit of a climb and a real struggle for us on that last mile between Timberline Lake and Guitar Lake. With extremely heavy packs, that was my first moment where I thought I wouldn't possibly make it up there. I was losing confidence with every step. Slow and steady, we made it to Guitar and found Kelly and Jason.
Anna and I took our first dip in an alpine lake, which was freezing and magical at the same time. Jason had this guitar made for backpacking, which he strummed all night while we sang and watched the sun set over the mountains. I truly think there's nothing finer than playing a guitar at Guitar Lake. The painful climb was worth this moment of celebration and revelry in the beauty surrounding us. We went to bed with early alarms set to summit Whitney the next morning. We all decided to hike up for sunrise. Strength in numbers and multiple headlamps! My adrenaline was already pumping and it was kind of hard to sleep.
Day 3: Already awake, my alarm set off at 1AM. I slept in my summit layers, brushed my teeth and we began our 5.5 miles to the top of Mount Whitney. It was a 3000 foot climb, and we felt like we had an early start, but looking up into the sky I could see little flashes of headlamps on the ridge line, blending with the stars. As a team, we took the hike slowly, although we were highly energized. We stopped every 15 minutes or so to keep our bodies in check with the drastic elevation gain. I could feel my heart skipping beats, trying to catch up to where I was taking it. There are a total of 25 switchbacks on the way up and we eventually saw the little lights of Lone Pine in the distance. We made it to the summit at 5:30AM, gasping with revelation in our capabilities.
We joined the crowd at the cliff's edge, marveling at the horizon line that hadn't yet shared the sun. It was FREEZING so we huddled on a boulder under Kelly's sleeping bag (god bless her for bringing it) and waited for the sun to rise. It was absolutely glorious once the sun appeared. Not only did we have this wide expanse of sky before us, but on all other sides, there were mountains reflecting the yellow/pinkish light.
After our blood officially stopped pumping because it froze, we took shelter in the hut up there. Inside were a handful of Southbound JMT hikers that were finishing that day and discussing their first meal once they made it to Lone Pine. Although it was only Day 3 for me...I was envious.
We finally regained courage to leave the hut and began down the mountain for a victory nap. We made our way, getting distracted by the views and passing the next round of summit hikers. Looking back, I think I preferred hiking in the dark so I couldn't see how far up I had to go. It looked disheartening and never-ending in the daylight, to say the least. Anna and I took a break before returning to camp, admiring Guitar Lake from afar. We felt so tired and so capable.
Returning to camp, I tried sleeping but the sun was beating down hard, making it impossible. This is where I started feeling what Mount Whitney did to my body. I felt like a jellyfish with broken tentacles. I took an icy dip in the lake, ate half a block of cheese, and passed out. Guess that's the remedy. Write that down.
After waking up from a nap that felt like 10 hours, the others were leaving. Anna patiently waited while I packed everything in my sleepy stupor, fumbling around camp. We began the descent back to Crabtree, which was only a few miles. It was fun passing the hikers ascending toward the lake; they were asking all these questions about Whitney and the distance from the lake. It felt like I was officially a part of the JMT community. I had input to share and a huge summit under my belt.
We made it to Crabtree and the feast began! Anna and I planned a Thanksgiving style dinner for the day we hiked Whitney. We made mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cobbler. After consuming everything in sight, we spent the evening admiring our day's events and sipping whiskey. The four of us planned our next day and crashed into our tents.