“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days…Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” John Muir, 1901, from “Our National Parks”
Most backpackers have felt it, that moment of quiet exultation when you’re sitting somewhere in the back country and you’re gifted with a moment of glorious wonder, of abject humility, at the display before you. In our case, it was an August evening in our camp next to Crabtree Meadow in the southern Sierra Nevada, looking east to the sun setting on Mount Whitney, 14,505’, and its companion spires. The meadow grass and the peaks caught the sun and glowed like soft burnished 14-carat gold. Our breath a bit tight at the challenge of our hike to the top the next day, we sat silent until the alpenglow died and the sky transitioned to black-violet, the peaks ghostly on the horizon.
It was the end of the second day of a 14-day sojourn on the John Muir Trail. We had chosen to start our JMT trek from the south at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, cross over New Army Pass to the PCT, and then tackle Whitney from the west to give ourselves a better opportunity to acclimatize. We would then proceed north over the succession of dramatic high passes that make the southern Muir Trail so singular and spectacular, before leaving the trail at Evolution Basin 11 days and 146 miles later. (We would return to complete the trail to Happy Isles in 2012, 5 years later.) My mountain-man brother and his family would graciously transport us to our trailhead and day-hike with us on our first day, and then return two times to bring resupplies further north.
We were raring to go as my brother’s car carried us up the winding road from Lone Pine, with occasional glimpses of Mt Whitney and the jagged pinnacles to her south. However, by the time we huffed our way to High Lake (11,560’) 7 miles along, well behind our vigorous young nephews, we were seriously questioning our ability to complete the long venture ahead. Yes, my husband John and I were fanatically fit and regularly fast-hiked strenuous routes in our Washington Cascades; however, having violated all common sense by rushing up to 11,000 feet after two pack-less teen boys, we were seriously…bonked. Setting up our tent well back from the rocky lakeshore, we picked our way bleakly along the lakeshore among the granite boulders and wind-polished Foxtail Pine skeletons, looking up to the pass with little energy and even less optimism.
However, the morning of our second day dawned with the kind of cloudless, lake-reflected spectacle that the high Sierras so often deliver in the summer. Miraculously, our spirits matched the day as we awoke with boundless energy. Breakfast, pack-up in a flash, and to the top of 12,385-foot New Army pass by 8AM.
The omens improved still further when my husband, whose shredded Mariner’s cap had finally given up the ghost the day before, came upon a nearly new Columbia hiking hat at the PCT junction. (Bless you, whoever you were – sorry for your loss!) The remaining 13 miles to Crabtree meadow camp were a slog of endless ups and downs through dry forest with limited views; but focused on our goal we made it and set up camp with energy to spare.Our Whitney summit morning dawned clear blue, and with lunch and water loaded we set off from camp by 5:30AM, shortly joining the Muir Trail proper. The route to the base of the Whitney massif passed just north of a series of lovely lakes – Timberline Lake, rimmed with white granite rock and deep green conifer; some unnamed milky blue tarns, and finally popular, tree-less Guitar Lake lined with colorful tents.
Here the trail made a southward turn and took us gradually, then more steeply, up the boulder-strewn western face of the massif, before turning due east in a series of switchbacks grinding steadily to 13,450’ Trail Crest. Here we met the even steeper trail coming up from Whitney Portal on the east side. Resting on the narrow ledge at Trail Crest with a crowd of fellow hikers, granite wall to our backs, we fed our eyes on the vista looking west: the Hitchcock Lakes directly below, bright blue pools in stark white granite; Guitar and Timberline lakes glinting to the north and west; and rows of peaks in hazy green and granite marching to the western horizon.
From there we turned due north. The path flirted with the ridgeline, ascending gradually across kitty-litter-granite sand, rocks and pick-hewn steps. The pinnacles to the southeast of Whitney were stark companions. To our right, close enough to scrape a careless elbow, a wall loomed up 50 to 100 feet, and sometimes disappeared altogether leaving a dizzying gap into a misty abyss stretching down-down-DOWN into the Owens Valley to the east. Our tortoise pace began to pay off as we passed some of the gung-ho young hikers who had undoubtedly run up from Whitney Portal at dawn, now doubled over, head in hands, retching from the altitude and exertion.
After about an hour’s walk along the ridge, the trail wound around the north side of Whitney peak and climbed over and around boulders toward the top. It was a bit anticlimactic when we finally found ourselves at the summit plaque and the padlocked Smithsonian Hut Shelter (a puzzling sign on the door warning not to shelter there during lightning storms).
The top of Whitney at 14,505’, a gently sloping, broad platform of snow-smoothed, frost-heaved blocks, was very different from the monumental spire that we expected of such a high granite peak, let alone the highest peak in the lower 48. It looked like a broad hilltop whose entire eastern half had been crudely torn off, leaving ragged, nearly vertical ridges and defiles in the rock stretching hundreds of feet down to the hazy green-brown Owens Valley below. We learned later that the tops of Whitney and a few of the other high peaks along the eastern Sierra crest are in fact the remnants of immensely ancient hills, formed over 80 million years ago and then raised intact in the series of massive uplift events that created the high Sierra crest. The action of glaciers and avalanches on the eastern side of the massif did in fact wear the ancient hill nearly in half. Only the immense size of the original hill left us any space remaining today to call a summit.
Despite the vertiginous drop to the valley below, the boulders along the eastern summit cliff were mobbed with jubilant visitors, many celebrating their completion of the Muir Trail from the Yosemite Valley. After successfully placing a cell phone call to our offspring, we were swarmed by others whose cell service had failed them – all wanting to call their mothers to report their safety and accomplishment.
By then it was noon. The ominous lightning-hazard warning on the summit hut still echoing in our minds, and gray clouds gathering, we decided to head back to the relative sanctuary of lower ground. With little difficulty we worked our way back down to Trail Crest and pounded the steep switchbacks to the shore of Guitar Lake. Heavy drops began to fall as we neared Timberline Lake, first sporadically then in a full deluge.
The dry trail surface rejected the heavy offering of rainwater, and ephemeral streams built under our feet, rushing with us downhill. But the storm soon passed, and by the time we reached Crabtree Meadows sunrays were glistening on the meadow grasses. We were grateful for the sun and remaining daylight to dry wet socks and raingear. From our camp that night, we savored our hot trail dinner and another sunset display on Whitney, now feeling the satisfaction of a good day’s work and the camaraderie with the peak that came from having shared its space and the views from its solemn summit.
 Most hikers headed for Whitney summit start from Whitney Portal trailhead, 8200’, making for a punishing 6300’ climb. The way is very steep and exposed, often hot on a summer day, and even over two days this approach leaves many with debilitating altitude illness due limited acclimatization. The Cottonwood Lakes trailhead in the Golden Trout wilderness, at 10,400’ elevation, is an excellent alternative approach to Whitney for those who have an extra day. The trailhead, 25 miles and 55 minutes from Lone Pine, is much less crowded than Whitney Portal, and you avoid the Whitney trail lottery going this way (though you do need a trailhead permit for Cottonwood Lakes and an exit permit to go out via the Whitney trail, and these are limited – see http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/Inyo/Passes) . This approach offers several lovely, aquamarine, trout-filled lakes, a view-filled high pass, and glorious Crabtree Meadow, one of the prettiest camps along the entire John Muir Trail. To reach Cottonwood Lakes trailhead from Lone pine, take US-395 south for 4.5 miles to Lubken Canyon road, 3.3 miles to Horseshoe Meadows road, and from there just over 16 miles to Cottonwood Lakes campground and trailhead.