Day 19: In Which We Finally Figure Out Which Mountain Is Mt. Whitney And Learn to Properly Appreciate Shade

Daily: 10.4 miles
Trip: 205.4 miles
Camp: Guitar Lake

It’s about 1pm and we’ve got a camp established at Guitar Lake in the shadow of Mt. Whitney. Actually, we’re just one mile from the summit as the crow flies. Unfortunately, we’re not crows.

We’d planned today as a recovery day after the recent hard push over the high passes. And it, for the most part, worked out as we’d planned. Our morning hike took us across the Bighorn Plateau, a dry, rolling area reminiscent of Wyoming. After that we went up and down over a few more ridges, then started up towards Whitney.

We’ve been playing a game out here called ‘Where’s the Pass?’ Remember that we have yet to summit a single peak on this hike! The hikes over high terrain have gone for the lowest possible points – the passes. And passes, somewhat counterintuitively, are tough to see. Sometimes they’re hidden by other peaks and ridges. Sometimes distance is just too tough to judge and we can’t guess where the low point will be. The mountains are so big and craggy that we’ve been unable to tell exactly which gap will be the pass until we’re almost on top of it.

You might think it impossible to play ‘Which Peak is Mt. Whitney.’ Actually you might wonder how incompetent we are and be puzzled why we haven’t died in the woods. You might want to say ‘It’s the highest point in the continental United States. Just look up, you fool.’ I’d love to tell you we knew which peak was Whitney back when we were in Yosemite, 200 miles ago.

We’re professional idiots, apparently. It took us until we got to Guitar Lake to be sure. And we cheated – we asked some guys who had just hiked down from the summit which one was Whitney!

So our tents are up. It’s almost 90° at 11,500 feet. I’m laying down with sunscreen on in my tent because there’s no shade for miles and I’m afraid I’ll burn right through the sil-nylon. I’m frying, hoping for breezes. I can go hang out in the freezing cold water of Guitar Lake instead, but then I start shivering. Not the comfortable hang-out afternoon I was hoping for, but at least we’re getting some time off our feet!

Tomorrow’s summit day, so all food is fair game. We’ll hit the summit by late morning and then just work our way down to the mountain to the burgers that are calling our names. Turns out my brother is a little light on food, so I’m able to share some trail mix and nuts to both help him out and lighten my load. Yay!

Late in the afternoon, something strange happens. We’ve met a few JMT thru-hikers along the trail, but probably less than 20 over 2½ weeks of hiking. Now hikers start coming in. At first we think it’s a group of friends who are meeting at Guitar Lake to hike Whitney. But they keep coming and, by the time we go over and talk to a hiker named Aragorn, there are over a dozen JMT thru-hikers camping out near us. Turns out these hikers have built up some solid friendships and had a much more social hike than we have! What an amazingly different experience on the same trail, just a day or two off our pace! These guys are planning on watching the sunrise from Whitney in the morning, so they have a 2am wakeup and will be hiking well before we’re up. Perhaps we’ll see some of them on the way down!

Day 20: In Which We Summit Mt. Whitney, Complete the JMT, Suffer Through a 6,000 Foot Decent and Finally Get a Hamburger