Timberline Lake to Whitney Portal
Approximately 12.8 miles. Cumulative: 213.4 miles.
I keep forgetting to mention the airplanes. There seemed to be a lot of them going overhead during the nighttime hours. They were loud. The first few nights I’d wake up a few times to the roar of a jet engine. I got used to it, but it was more common, or at least a lot noisier, at higher altitudes.
The morning air was crisp and chilly, the coldest since I’d camped at Evolution Lake. It was refreshing after the heat of the day before. As I broke camp, a few early hikers hustled by up the trail, hoping to catch the sunrise from on top of Mt. Whitney. I soon followed, but I was going too slowly to catch the sunrise. I was only about three miles from Trail Crest, but I’d have to climb 2,000 feet to get there.
But first, I came to Guitar Lake. If you’ve ever hiked M. Whitney, you’ve seen this iconic lake far below you after you pass Trail Crest.
The climb up to Trail Crest was very deceptive. If I looked up, it seemed I was almost at the top, but with every switchback, I didn’t seem to be getting any closer. And then, when I saw just how tiny the hikers above me looked, I resigned myself to the fact that this was going to be a long slog.
But even though the ascent was hard, the scenery was fantastic. I rested often, snacking and sipping water. I had two full bottles, but I didn’t know when my next chance to fill up would be. I knew of a good place where Lone Pine Creek crossed the trail down to Whitney Portal, but that was a fair distance below Trail Camp, at least five miles from where I was.
I enjoyed being in the shadows most of the way up to Trail Crest. The footing here was probably the most harrowing, aside from Glen Pass. It would have been really easy to fall right off the side of the trail in more than a few places.
It took time, but I finally made it to the top of the climb. I still had a short distance to Trail Crest proper, but I had one last time for a panoramic look back at where I’d spent the last 13 days.
And one last look at Guitar Lake.
As you approach Trail Crest, the wind really picks up. It’s one of those places where one side of the pass is warm and temperate in the sun. But once you hit Trail Crest, a cold wind from the north side whips up the slope to catch the unprepared and make them realize just how unprepared they are.
Just before I got to the trail junction, it was pretty crowded with many day hikers trying for the Mt. Whitney summit, and a good majority of them were unprepared for this cold wind. One Whitney hiker, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt and carrying nothing but a water bottle, complained how cold it was; she didn’t think it would be like this.
I stood there for a moment considering my options. I’d summited Mt. Whitney twice in the past, so I decided to skip it this time. I was tired, sore, and just wanted down from this mountain. And I still had about nine miles to go.
Then came the descent of the so-called 99 switchbacks. I’ve never counted them, but there are many of them. I did look over at Mt. Whitney, about two miles to the north. I could see people standing on the summit.
Then back to the 99 switchbacks. It was very busy that day, and I encountered large groups of hikers after every switchback on the way down. Some were prepared. Some weren’t. Most were day hikers going to Mt. Whitney, but a few were north-bound PCT hikers coming in from a Lone Pine resupply run. There was even a pair of hikers doing the JMT south -to-north (opposite of what I had done).
As I finished the 99 switchbacks, I slipped on a loose patch of scree. I reached down to brace myself, and, well, this happened.
If I’d had two poles, this probably would not have happened.
And then, Trail Camp. I saw a lot of nice campsites along the John Muir Trail during the last 13 days. Trail Camp, however, is not one of them. It’s a cesspit. I know some people who see it as essential to summiting Mt. Whitney, but if you can, I recommend skipping it.
I mean, you’ll have to contend with this.
Then it was down. I crossed paths with more than one hiker who was ascending with an Aether 70 or Baltoro 75 or some other massive pack. They were decked out in the latest mountaineering boots like you’d use to climb Mt. Everest. When I asked if they were doing the PCT said, no, just going t Trail Camp.
I’d hiked with a 30-pound pack and a pair of light hikers for 13 days. What the heck were they carrying for an overnight stay?
The last three miles or so from this sign down to Whitney Portal is my least favorite stretch of trail in the Sierras. There are a lot of switchbacks, but they don’t drop very much, so it’s frustrating to make a turn and then hike along parallel and almost at the same level before you made the turn. Yeah, maybe that doesn’t make much sense. But trust me, it was frustrating.
To compound this frustration, you can hear the noise, smell the food (real food!) cooking, and see the Whitney Portal Store below. I couldn’t get down fast enough.
I finished a day sooner than expected, and since it was a Friday, I had no one to pick me up. The wife had reserved a room at the Best Western in Lone Pine for Saturday, so my plan was to go there and try to check in a day early. But how to get there …
Lone Pine is 11 miles down the Whitney Portal Road. I certainly didn’t feel like walking it, and a shuttle service was something like $80. The girl at the Portal Store recommended I hitch a ride. I’ve never hitched a ride in my life, so I was wary about that. Who would give a ride to a scruffy, dirty, man? But it’s endemic to the culture of the area, and I got a ride from a man and his daughter. They were from Anaheim and were hiking to Mt. Whitney the next day.
They dropped me off at the hotel. I thanked them, wished them luck the next day, and offered them some money, but they turned me down. I remain very appreciative of their kindness.
I was a bit dismayed that the hotel was half a mile outside of Lone Pine proper. I was really hungry, and knew I’d have to go into town for dinner. I really didn’t feel like walking.
I managed to check into the room a day early, which was great. The staff at the Best Western were really hospitable. I took a long, hot shower, then did some laundry, and thought about dinner.
Now that I was clean a little rested, the walk to downtown Lone Pine didn’t seem too daunting, and besides, I didn’t really have any other option. So I walked to the Pizza Factory and ate a whole pizza.
As I walked back to the hotel in the twilight, I told myself I never had to do hike the John Muir Trail again. But I was lying. I’d do it again tomorrow.