John Muir Trail Journal, Part 3: Hungry Bears, Frosty Nights and A Sunrise on Whitney

In this final 77 miles on the JMT, I hike up and over Mather, Pinchot, Glen and Forester Passes, meet some cheeky bears and hikers, and finally finish my journey at the summit of Mount Whitney; the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S.

Day 9: La Conte Canyon to Woods Creek, 22 miles

The day begins straight away with climbing towards Mather Pass, and it’s a strenuous one.  It had been a chilly night camping next to the creek, but I was still able to get a decent (and warm) amount of rest.  The sun hasn’t yet peeked its shining face over the mountaintops, and I spend the first few miles hiking up a frigid, shadow filled ravine beside Palisade Creek.  On reaching the top of the ravine and Lower Palisade Lake, the sun floods La Conte canyon with warm light.

After skirting the mirror like lake, the trail leaves the alpine meadow and becomes an otherworldly moonscape.  The air is thin, and my lungs sting from the sharp inhales of icy air with every labored step towards the pass.  I pass several campers on the way, crammed into tiny bivy sites and shaking the ice from their gear as they break camp.

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Early morning climb up towards Lower Palisade Lake
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Outflow for Lower Palisade Lake
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Near Mather Pass
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Switchies near Mather Pass

When I reach the top of the pass, I’m thoroughly out of breath and chilled to the bone.  My nose has also been running relentlessly, but we won’t get into too much detail over that.  I waste little time lingering about, and start my long descent on the somewhat precarious scree covered switchbacks.

Once I’m off the switchbacks, I’m making good time hustling over the level ground and towards my next big feat: two Sierra passes in a single day.  The weather is looking good; sunshine and no evidence of impending thunderstorms ahead.

I run into more PCT hikers on flip-flop journeys, as well as loads of JMT hikers going northbound.  The trail descends through more meadow, following the Kings River down into a valley.  I have some trouble with fording the south fork of the river when some shock cord on my pack gets caught on a tree branch and nearly pulls me down into the water.  It gets my heart racing, but also gives me the rush I need to make it back up the trail.

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I stop near Lake Marjorie to filter some water and have an early lunch, and also to watch an NPS crew perform an impressive practice rescue from a cliff.  The marmots and chubby ground squirrels sunbathing were an added bonus to my lunch time events and left me in a good mood.

The climb towards Pinchot Pass is just as demanding as Mather, however I’m doing this one during the heat of the day.  My concerns of snotty nose have now been replaced with buckets of sweat filling my shoes and arse chafe.  I feel gross.  Thankfully, there’s not a soul around.  I stop at the top of the pass for a much-needed breather and to chug a liter or two of electrolyte laced water.  I discover that my nose is bleeding and the wound on my knee has reopened from the constant movement.  Nothing to do but keep going.

I’m really starting to feel the pain on my way down from Pinchot; my feet are screaming bloody murder at me and my knees aren’t much better.  To add to my discomfort, my skin is sunburned and my arse chafe feels like tiny razor blades.  I want to stop and my body is cursing me for every footstep that I continue to take, but I feel this strange need to keep pushing onward into the evening.

The trail plunges down into a canyon along the south fork of Woods Creek, and after 22 miles hiked, I’m completely spent.  I can’t move another muscle, so I find a camp along the creek with several others already there lounging in front of their tents.  I pitch my tent and go about making dinner, which has become quite the chore when I’m this exhausted.  While I’m waiting for my noodles to finish cooking, I shove offensive amounts of junk food into my face to keep me satisfied.  I go to bed just as the sun is disappearing, and pop some ibuprofen to help me relax a bit.  The sound of the creek is like a lovely lullaby, and I doze off.

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The trail follows South Fork Woods Creek

Day 10: Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek Campsite, 21 miles

I’m ready to finish this trail, so I’m up at dawn and gone in a flash.  With my current pace, I should be able to finish in three days if I push it: Glen Pass, then over Forester and up Whitney, then a day up and over Cottonwood Pass to finish.  The nights are getting colder now, and the creature comforts of town are calling to me.  I dream of the things I want to eat when I’m done, and that list includes ice cream, onion rings, tacos and beer.  This is all the motivation I need.  The weather is looking good again, but I’m still several miles from my next pass, Glen Pass, and I want to get up and over before any ominous Mordor-like clouds move in during the afternoon.

I cross a bouncy suspension bridge over a creek, something I’m not a hugely excited about, and the trail leads me through fragrant pine forested meadow until I reach the shore of Dollar Lake.  Here, the meadows open up more from the woods, and the rolling green meadows meet the rocky bases of glacier carved mountains.  The sun sparkles on the surface of the green-blue lakes like sapphires, and I think I might be in paradise.

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I meet another hiker on the trail along Rae Lakes, and he’s stopped dead in his tracks and staring into a campsite.  I look towards the site, which is filled with hikers sitting around eating, and see what the other hiker sees: a bear is lumbering along the shore.  It cuts up into the camp, and the group is blissfully unaware of its presence.  It checks out their bear canisters, then makes its way onto the trail, heading right towards us.  I clap my hands and yell, but it goes unfazed.  My companion does the same, only a bit louder, and yet another hiker joins it.  We’re causing quite a commotion, and looking rather foolish it seems, to the bear.  It finally leaves the trail before reaching us, and heads up the hillside and into some trees.

Further on, I pass a couple more JMT thru-hikers on my way up to Glen Pass.  They comment on my speed, and I’m left flattered and also a little embarrassed.  The climb is still difficult, but it seems that it’s either getting easier or I’m more acclimated to the thin air now.  I charge up it with surprising ease.  At the top, I meet some weekend warriors and have a quick lunch, then head down the other side.  Near the junction for Kearsarge Pass, I see a handwritten note left by a ranger begging people to be “Bear Aware” and keep their food contained in canisters.  Apparently, the area is teaming with bears.  Huh.

After a fairly long descent down some dusty trail and another hand written bear warning, I find myself climbing again up to Vidette Meadow in the evening.  My hiker hunger is complaining relentlessly and the weather seems to be taking a turn, so I stop just four miles short of Forester Pass to make camp and fill the bottomless pit that is now my stomach.  I get to cooking immediately, before pitching my tent, and yet another bear makes an appearance just as I’m adding a packet of tuna to my noodles.  Oh good, company.  I shout at it, but it casually doesn’t give a shit and skirts the perimeter of the campsite.  I finish eating and pack it up, not wanting to deal with the situation on my own.

I hike another mile or so and find an open spot in a large campsite already occupied with a group of retired women.  They seem nice enough and welcome me to the neighborhood, although I think they resemble a posh, modern-day ultralight coven.  Or silver-fox hiking viking babes.  Cool.  They also mention they have seen a bear, and sure enough, it makes itself known by scurrying past as I’m on my way to get water from the nearby creek.  I feel better knowing I’m camping with a group, and they’re keeping a tidy area as well.  I meet some hikers coming down from Forester Pass, and they say it’s totally socked in at the top.  I feel good in my decision to wait it out, not wanting to be caught up there in an icy cloud with zero views of the surroundings.

I fall asleep rather quickly; not even a hungry bear can keep me awake now.

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Day 11:  Bubbs Creek to Campsite Above Guitar Lake, 21 miles

Maybe fate is real, the planets were aligned or a higher power was looking out for me; perhaps my trail namesake Artemis?  Who knows, but on this day, I was lucky enough to meet two amazing, kind thru-hikers that granted me a huge favor and were the greatest companions to end the trail with.  In the end, the trail provides.

I woke up when it was still dark outside; the sound of ice shattering around me as I crawled out of my tent.  The chill stung my face and hands, and I quickly grabbed my bear canister and retreated back to the warmth of my bag.  I made some coffee, a task done with little movement so that the precious heat from my bag wouldn’t escape.  I lay there under the soft glow of my lantern, hands clasped tightly around my piping hot cook pot now filled with sugary sweet instant coffee.  I wonder why I love this so much.  Am I insane?  Probably, yes.

I go about breaking camp; disassembling my tent with numb fingers and one of my camp mates wonders if I heard the bear last night.  I hadn’t, but they had to scare it off around midnight or so.  The sky is brightening, and I take off towards Forester Pass.

The climb is enveloped in shadows, but it doesn’t take me long to warm up on the ascent.  I’m only a few miles from the top, but this is the granddaddy of Sierra Passes at over 13,000 feet in elevation, so I still struggle a bit with the thin air.  I have to climb over a treacherous snow field near the top, but ultimately make it without too much trouble.  The air is clear here, and the sun is shining.  I’m all alone and it’s quiet and peaceful.  I remember climbing it the year before on the PCT from the other side, up a nearly 90 degree snow-covered slope and using an ice axe across the infamous Chute.  I was proud of myself then, and I am now too.  It’s a pleasure to see the trail in a new light, free of snow, in a different direction and with more self-confidence that only thru-hiking could bring me.

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The climb up to Forester Pass

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The top of Forester Pass at around 13,000 feet

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The trail down is long and tedious, meandering across alpine tundra for several miles.  It’s a slow descent, and to be honest, I’m a bit bored with the scenery here after the first mile.  Things liven up again once I ford Tyndall Creek and I run into the two hiker dudes from the previous day.  They had come over the pass the night before, in the dark; a brave decision in such icy conditions.  We chat a bit while filtering some water, and they take off ahead of me while I hold back to eat a second breakfast.

I cross more open, barren landscape, but the ancient twisted bristlecone pines and towering mountains keep me satisfied for the time being.  After zigzagging through more forest, I finally catch up to the two JMT thru-hikers again at the trail junction for Mount Whitney. They ask if I’m going to summit, and I explain between bites of a Little Debbie that I am, but as I’m on a PCT permit, I won’t be able to go down through the Whitney Portal.  One of them, Ryan from Tulsa, offers to let me hike on his two person permit with them.

“I came here to do this trail with my buddy, but he quit on day three with hip pain.” His southern accent is both charming and sweet.  His companion Cory, who he met just a few days prior on the trail, is from upstate New York.  They’re kind and good-humored, and I’m honored to be a part of their crew.  We decide to hike up past Guitar Lake and make camp where we can, as Cory wants to summit Whitney early the next morning to catch sunrise.

I’m excited to be hiking with new friends, and the climbing seems less labored as we discuss the trail, hometowns and other various topics while we put the miles behind us.  We reach Guitar Lake early in the evening, fill up on water and then head out again.  A mile or so in, we find a few nice spots among the boulders just big enough for three tents and with a fantastic view of Whitney.  We sit around in the dirt, eating our dinners and extra food that we’ve all been lugging around since our resupply.  We agree to wake up ridiculously early, and head to bed with full bellies.

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The trail junction for Mount Whitney

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Guitar Lake

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Sunset above Guitar Lake

Day 12:  Campsite Above Guitar Lake, Mount Whitney Summit, exit through Whitney Portal into Lone Pine, 13 miles

My alarm rings at 3:00 am, and I think I may have lost my damn mind.  The tent is covered in ice again, and I give it a good shake when I go to make my morning cup of coffee.  Cory is up and energized first, wandering around camp and making a hot breakfast.  I’m envious of his vigor, but the warmth of my bag is too comforting and I stall as long as I can.  Ryan shows no signs of life.

I layer up, wearing my sleep tights and puffy around camp and decide to hike in them as well.  It’s the coldest I’ve been on the trail, and not even the coffee is helping.  With frozen hands, I break down my camp and shove everything into my lighter-than-ever pack.  Ryan finally wakes up and gets ready at a crazy speed.  We head out into the dark, with only our headlamps dimly lighting the way.

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We get to Trail Crest, the junction for the Portal, only a half an hour before sunrise and ditch our packs beside the trail.  I take only my phone and a protein bar, and we hurry towards the summit.  The mountain teases us near the top with spectacular views of a sparkling Lone Pine down in the Owens Valley, a crimson sunrise and just a sliver of a moon above.  Cory rushes to the summit just as the sun dawns, with myself and Ryan close behind.  There’s only a few more people there, bundled up in sleeping bags and hiding away from the wind behind boulders.

The sun floods the summit with warm light, and we’re all glowing in sunshine and happiness at 14,505 feet.  We have a peek inside the mountaineering hut and sign the trail register before the frigid wind drives us away, then gleefully make our way back down to our packs at Trail Crest.

We pass crowds of people on their way up to the top, and some are in incredibly good spirits while others seem to really be struggling with the elevation.  At Trail Crest, there are loads more people gathered, and our packs are practically buried by more hikers’ things.  We have a quick snack and chat with other hikers loitering around the area, then begin our long journey down into Lone Pine, shouting “burger! beer! tacos!” as we go, to help keep us motivated.

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The sun dawns at the top of Mount Whitney
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A proud moment
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The mountaineering hut on the summit of Whitney

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Hikers gather at Trail Crest

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The trail down is arduous; we’re ready to be done and the ten or so miles from Whitney is long and hard, both physically and mentally.  The constant downhill is killing our knees, and the sun is beating down on us hard.  It seems to take all day, and our victory cries for various greasy foods is getting more strained as we go.

We finally reach the parking area by early afternoon, having actually made pretty good time in the end, and beeline it to the store.  There, we each purchase ice cream, chips and a beer, and go about celebrating our completed thru-hike.  I make a sign for hitching into to town, and we head out to the entrance area to find a ride into Lone Pine.

It’s a bit of a challenge, trying to hitch with the three of us.  Ryan attempted to yogi a ride from a day hiker but she literally ran away from him, and several cars are full to the roof with families and stuff and have no room for us.  Some people sneer at us like we’re homeless, something I find odd as we’re out in the wilderness and have packs and all.  A truck pulls over after we wait about half an hour and the driver tells us to pile in, and we’re happy to do so.  They take us into town and drop us off in the center, and I go and get a motel room just a block away.  We decide to meet up for dinner later on, after we’ve all had a good scrub down.

We met up for dinner, sparkling clean and energized, and devoured burgers with coleslaw, chips, beer and sides of mac and cheese.  We then parted ways, and bid each other farewell.

I took a bus from Lone Pine early the next morning all the way to Reno.  In Reno, I bought a Greyhound ticket to Seattle, and had yet another painfully long journey home filled with stress and an increasingly sore butt.  When I arrive home, I collapse into bed and immediately begin dreaming of my next long hike.

-Artemis

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