September 9, 2002 31º-51º @UTY
I was up early; and except for the water bottle in my bag still had to deal with some freezing. And since I had pretty much used up all the food, breakfast was a bit skimpy. But I anticipated the pizza slices at the store at Whitney Portal later that day. I found it a bit hard to believe that I could even consider returning to civilization that very day, with hot and cold water on demand, sit down toilets, all the food I could want, and hot, running showers.
We bugged out at around 7:45 or 8:00. We had originally thought we’d pack up and take our gear on up to the summit in order to keep the allegedly ferocious marmots out of our stuff, but we decided to take nothing up on the summit run. I drank as much water (at least thawed water I could find) as I could to prehydrate, because I wasn’t going to carry a bottle. We secured our gear, then proceded up the trail. The final approach to Mt. Whitney’s summit is a trail hewn right out of the side of the sharp knife-edge one sees from the road miles below. Sometimes you’re so close to the ridge you can see highway 395 through gaps in the boulders to your right. You pass Mt. Muir (14,105′), Keeler Needle, and then the trail begins to wind around what looks like a long, flattened hill. Until you reach the end of the trail, and see the famous stone hut: you’re at the summit, (here. here, and here). (Me on the summit. And a bird) We were the first ones up that day. We looked at the “official” trailhead marker; this was, after all, the end (or beginning) of the John Muir Trail. Also was the offical USGS benchmarks for the summit of Mt. Whitney. Actually, it seemed there were a dozen or more of them. They must put a new one up every year. After a few minutes a couple of other folks arrived. One was a young man from Brazil who had slept in his car and started up the trail at 2:30 a.m. He took a couple of pictures of us on the summit. I took a couple of him. After not too much more tiem on the summit, we headed back down. For me at least, the summit was somewhat anticlimactic. It marked the end, of course, and it was a beautiful summit, but this hike hadn’t been about peak bagging.
We got back to Camp 20 at about 10:30, loaded up, and headed down the steep trail, infamous for its 119 switchbacks (the number varies according to whom you read). Todd hurries ahead; I would meet him later at Trail Camp. While trekking down the steep descent, I pass dozens of aspiring Whitney summiteers heading up. Some in remarkably good shape, some I fear won’t make it anywhere near the summit. Somewhere along this stretch, my bootheel slides on a slippery steep downhill section of trail and I fall. I bang a knee. I recover ok, but I am a little pissed and a little amused: I fell on the trail on the second day, and here I am three weeks later and I fall again. Oh well.
I meet up with Todd at Trail Camp, where we briefly discuss the increasing number of hikers and campers and the rather sloppy tendencies of the campers at Trail Camp. The descent along the trail down to Whitney Portal seems to go on forever. You’d think one would have learned patience after 220 miles, but the 6,000′ foot descent proves to be a test. I remark to Todd that you can tell we’re getting close to civilization by the number of families we’re running into. At one point, a young chap with a British accent asks me “how far is it to the lake?” Which one? I ask. “The one this trail goes to.” Well, I was going to explain to him how I’d just walked 220 miles, and passed about five hundred lakes on this trail, but just then his folks came up and I think I said something like, “Oh, about two miles.”
Down, down, down we went, through ever thickening forest, and ever warming temperatures. At one point I heard a car horn honk. And then at a spot on the trail overlooking the Whitney Portal area, I could see the parking lot and my truck. Finally, the last switchbacks passed and we walked out of the backcountry into a trailhead (“roadhead,” as Colin Fletcher more accurately calls them) at about 4:00. We go to my truck, and I see that it’s not been abused by bears. We strip off pack and boots, and replace with lighter gear.
We head back up to the store and I go to the cafe. I’m a bit troubled to not see “pizza” on the displayed menu, but I don’t worry because I’ve seen with my own eyes people eating pizza there. The proprietor asks my pleasure, and I mention I’m looking for pizza on the menu. “Oh,” he says, ” we don’t have pizza. I mean, we do sometimes, but that’s usually for employees. We don’t sell it by the slice.” Uh-oh. Three weeks of anticipation wiped out in a sentence. He senses my disappointment. “Well, uh, how many slices do you think you’d want?” I tell him I’d eat two, and Todd, obviously overhearing, allows that he’d also eat two. “Well, sure, O.K., I’ll put in a pizza. It’ll be a good twenty minutes or so.” We don’t care.
I’m telling you, that pepperoni pizza was the greatest pizza in the history of the world. While we’re eating our pizza outside, we see who else but Fisherson and Fisherdad, reunited. Turns out Fisherdad had had to spend an uncomfortable night without his gear, but obviously all ended well. We chatted a while, and it seems they were wondering how easy it was to hitch from the Portal there into Lone Pine. I told them if they hadn’t had a ride by the time we left, I’d give them a lift, but I figured the hitching potential is pretty good along that stretch.
One thing I still kick myself for is the fact that I took no pictures at the end. No snaps at the cafe, with pizza slices, or showing off my new, trim waistline. Oh well. The store proprietor was extremely nice and helpful. We chatted a bit and he told me about his previous place on old Route 66; I asked him for suggestions for cheap motels for the night, and he said you won’t find them in Lone Pine. He suggested driving a bit farther, and staying in a place like Ridgecrest. This turned out to be an excellent suggestion. Motels in Lone Pine and Bishop and similar “resort” areas tended to be of the $60-80 variety; Ridgecrest, possibly because it was a heavily military area, was a more reasonable $30-40 type place.
We got a couple of rooms, then went to the grocery store to load up on junk food. I favored Pringles and Onion Dip, with some chocolate milk and Diet 7-Up and cheap canadian whiskey. (Not all at once, mind you.) Next, I took a shower. A long shower. Possibly the longest shower I’d taken in ten years. After recovering from the ecstacy of a new bar of soap and a fresh washcloth, I realized that my calves were caked with a semi-permanent potion of glacial Sierra dust, which seemed to not come off. After much scrubbing, I finally got the cement-like concoction off of my legs. I spent the next two hours watching ESPN. I was stunned (and pleased) to see that the new Houston Texans had beaten Dallas. I noted that OU had beaten Alabama. I watched some Dodger baseball.
And then I realized it was all over.