Conquering and capturing the Sierra Nevada - Part II

a photographer's trip report

This is Part II of my High Sierra Trail trip report. For Part I, click here.

Day 5 - Junction Meadow to somewhere near Guitar Lake (11 miles / 17.7 km)

On this day, we expected to join the John Muir Trail (JMT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the approach to Whitney. As a result, we saw at least 12 people on this 'crowded' stretch of trail, most of which packed much more efficiently (lighter) and hiked faster than us.

We started our day well before sunrise, eating breakfast, packing up and leaving our campsite before the first light hit the mountains. While that meant getting up early, keep in mind we had been going to sleep shortly after dark every day, getting solid 9-hour nights at least, which our bodies seemed to need.

Scaling the gap at Junction Meadow

From this point, we knew the trail would only go up, all the way until the summit of Mount Whitney, invisible to us at this point, but towering over 6000 feet (almost 2 km) above us!

So we paced ourselves, worried that any minor injury now would just be aggravated by the 25 miles or so of climbing left to do, or by the 11 miles down on the other side. We hiked up out of Junction Meadow for a beautiful view of the walls of the Kern Canyon bathing  in the light of the rising sun (image above).

Right at the junction with another trail, we saw a couple in their late fifties / early sixties make their breakfast at a spot with a spectacular view; a good idea to hike up a little bit first and enjoy your oatmeal and coffee in such a scenic spot. Marcel remarked how he couldn't see him doing this with my mom, hiking out multiple days by themselves. I asked him what the difference was in doing such a trip with me, then, since I had taken my mom backpacking on a separate trip, and she proved to be an excellent backpacker too. He said they rely on me for the backcountry expertise, quite the compliment from the man who had just carried his fair share of the camp duties and pack load for the past 5 days!

Marmot in a tree

Despite the steady climb, the early start had us progress nicely. Following Wallace Creek up, we had a constant source of water, so we didn't have to carry much extra weight. Having eaten our heaviest foods, the packs were substantially lighter, even if it didn't feel that way.

After joining the JMT / PCT, Marcel decided to show off to some other hikers at the first creek crossing, missing one of the stepping stones and trudging through the creek, quickly filling his boots. Eager to dry his feet, we found a nice meadow shortly after and took our time for lunch, drying socks, shoes and feet. We were in no rush, as we targeted Crabtree Meadow for a camp spot, just a couple more miles down the trail.

Indeed, we got to the crabtree junction early, and decided to keep hiking up, in hopes of finding a nice camping spot with a view. Pushing on, we noticed the elevation reducing our pace, or perhaps it was fatigue from nearly a week of hiking? After Marcel admitted to seeing blood in his urine, we quickly found a beautiful camping spot on a plateau not far from Guitar Lake. Here, Marcel explained that is actually "wasn't weird" he was peeing blood; apparently the days of hiking with a heavy pack can actually result in crushed red blood cells, that are shed by the kidneys through urine... gross.

This little factoid was quickly moved to the back of our minds as we set up camp in our amazing spot at 11000 feet elevation, a mere 3000 vertical feet from the highest point in the contiguous US. We had views of the Kaweah Range we had hiked around and the top of Kern Canyon we hiked through in the west. This view continued to some other big peaks: Mt Hitchcock to the south, and Mt Whitney towering to our east, looking deceptively small from our vantage point, the actual summit concealed by our proximity to the west slope. An exceptionally clear night followed, allowing some of the brightest starry sky views I've ever witnessed, disturbed only by the thundering sounds of military airplanes passing overhead at low altitude (or were we just closer at this elevation?).

Kaweah sunset

Day 6 - Rest day

Along our hike we had discussed multiple times when we wanted to summit Mt Whitney -- at what time of day, that is. We realized it was all going to depend on our progress, and we didn't have much leeway for our arrival on the other side, at Whitney Portal, to rendez-vous with our transportation. We had been completely cut off from communication with civilization for seven days! Either way, we both liked the idea of trying to be on top of Mount Whitney during sunrise. This meant either hiking up during the afternoon and sleeping up there in the cold, or hiking up at night. Two factors helped us make this decision: (1) there is no water at (or anywhere near) the summit, so the longer we planned to stay, the more we would have to haul up for the difficult final push. And (2), near Guitar Lake is the "poop threshold", where it is difficult or impossible to dispose of human waste in a way that it decomposes in a reasonable amount of time. This means you have to carry it out!

Joost getting nicely sunburnt at 11000 feet. Photo credit: Marcel Daniëls

So, we decided to take an easy day (which I took seriously, as you can see above). Besides napping, we explored the vicinity without a pack (how refreshing), and did our best to guesstimate how long our summit attempt would take. Would the remaining 5 miles (and 3000 ft of elevation) take 3 hours? 5? More?

For lack of a solid guess and not wanting to miss our opportunity to see the sun rise from the top, we decided we would start hiking up at 11 PM. Yes, you read that right!

Our preparation for that ambitious plan consisted of treating ourselves to another dark chocolate cheesecake (undercooked again). Our appetites had gone down over the course of the hike, but we were eager to shed any weight we could, and we finished that delicious cake without hesitation. We tucked in early for a short night, getting little sleep in anticipation of our biggest day yet!

Kaweah sunset

A well-deserved treat: dark chocolate cheesecake!

Day 7 - The great Whitney Ascent (13.1 miles / 21.1 km)

It was very cold and very dark when we kicked each other out of the tent at 10:30 PM after only an hour or two of sleep. Wearing almost all our clothes, we packed up our camp and started our ascent. After nearly tripping over a few tents at Guitar Lake, we topped up all of our water bottles and bladders and started up the switchbacks on the flank of Mt Whitney.

As we rose up above Guitar Lake and the Hitchcock Basin while chewing on a bison bar, we witnessed the amazing night sky, with the Milky Way in all its glory over the Great Divide. Meanwhile, we could see the lights of other hikers starting their ascent. There is an image of this view below, but it hard to convey the sheer size of this scene in a picture or words.

Hitchcock Basin, the beginning of the end: a shot from our nightly ascent of Mount Whitney, the highest point of our hike, and the contiguous US for that matter. The colors on the horizon are from air glow, fire and even city lights 100 miles away. The summit of Whitney is just out of the frame on the right, and you can see the lights of some of the other hikers starting to get ready for their ascent at the lower elevations.

The view to the west seemed to get better with every switchback, but we kept a steady pace (with many mini-breaks) to make sure we did not miss out on our chance of summiting before sunrise.

It was still dark when we reached the junction for the 2.4-mile out-and-back trail to the summit. Here, we left one pack with most of our camping gear behind, taking only our warmest clothes, ALL of the camera gear, and some snacks. The spur trail to the summit was harder, narrower and colder than we had expected. It was slow going in the dark, but before long we spotted the snowy final climb. Just as we topped out on the summit, we noticed light on the horizon; twilight was upon us! We quickly got our cameras out, capturing some of the most amazing alpenglow on the mountains in the clear skies. In between captures, we zipped up our jackets and snugged up our gloves, because it was COLD up there!

First view from the summit: alpenglow on Mount Whitney, stars in the sky. You can see the curvature of the earth!

The colors on the horizon on the sky were so crisp, it best compares to the sunrise view you might have from an airplane. Similarly, we could see the curvature of earth from up there. The otherworldly and remote feeling of the place was barely affected by the first signs of civilization we had seen in a week: a stone hut at the summit, the lights of the town of Lone Pine in the distance. We even had a cell phone signal here!

I know I'll fail to put the experience into words, so I'll let a series of images do the talking here. Be sure to click on the images to view them larger. One thing that amazed me but wasn't captured well, was the moment the massive shadow of Mount Whitney became clear in the sky, as the rest of the sky lit up in a pinkish hue (this is called Venus' belt).

  • Whitney sunrise

  • No biggie: Marcel taking photographs of the sunrise from the summit of Mount Whitney

  • Shooting sunrise at the highest point in the contiguous US. Photo credit: Marcel Daniëls

  • Iceberg Lake

  • Mount Hale and many other peaks, including Thunder Mountain and Mount Brewer, plus the belt of Venus

  • Sunrise on Mount Whitney

  • Sunrise on Mount Whitney

  • Sierra Nevada sunrise from the highest point in the contiguous US

  • Looking down towards Lone Pine and the White Mountains

  • We did it!!!

As the sun rose in the sky, and more people started arriving from both the east and west side, we took our mandatory summit selfie, and reflected on the massive hike we had already done, the amazing scenery it brought us through, and the effort that was yet to come. Knowing we were still far from the end of our hike and nowhere near a possible campsite (or a source of water), we headed back to the trail junction. We ooh'd and aah'd at the Needles, the distinctive spires that define Whitney's profile from the east. After picking up the pack we had left behind, we quickly made it to Trail Crest, a truly impressive part of the trail.

  • Our approach to Whitney from the west

  • Scree and talus

  • Starting the descent

  • "Yeah I just walked op here, no big deal"

  • Trail Crest: it's all downhill from here

From Trail Crest it was all downhill, only downhill, for many, many miles. As we started down the section known as "99 switchbacks", we saw the constant stream of day hikers coming up. Their faces made us realize we actually had it easy despite our heavy packs; we had taken a week to make it up to this elevation, and made our ascent to Whitney from an elevation of 11000 feet, while most of the people we crossed started 8000 feet, some having arrived from near sea level the night before. Most of all, we were going down, while the many day hikers were still going up, some literally gasping for air, many clearly miserable. Thankful we had started our hike as early as we did this day, we made quick work of the 99 switchbacks, and soon made it to some small lakes. There, the fatigue caught up with both of us; Marcel's stomach and my knees had started to protest during the long descent. Previously, we had wondered why anyone would stay at the next camp - Outpost Camp - instead of just hiking out to Whitney Portal, but now it couldn't come soon enough so that we could call it a day. And what a day it had been, starting our hike at 11 PM in the light of the stars, covering over 13 miles, many vertical feet up and even more down, and summiting the tallest peak in 49 states!

Long exposure of Mount Whitney from below

Day 8 - Outpost Camp to Whitney Portal (3.5 miles / 5.6 km)

We had convinced my wife to pick us up in Whitney Portal. We found out later that was quite the adventure for her as well, covering a crazy number of miles in one day, driving all the way around the Sierra Nevada, through the desert (in summer!) without air-conditioning...

Meanwhile we took our time at Outpost Camp, knowing that our ride wouldn't arrive in Whitney Portal until the afternoon. We explored the campsite, which had a nice waterfall. Still tired from the day before, we slowly packed up our camp for the last time, and covered the last few miles at a steady pace.

Waterfall at Outpost Camp

While there was still a lot of driving to do to get back to the car we left behind on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, our arrival at Whitney Portal marked the end of the hiking adventure. An adventure that was made possible by Marcel coming over from half a world away following a last-minute invitation. An adventure that had us cross an entire mountain range on foot, reaching some of the remotest areas I've ever been, as well as some areas of particular historic and geological significance. An amazing trip we won't soon forget, and we've got thousands of images and videos to help us remember for decades to come!

The end is near: Whitney Portal!

  • Civilization!

  • A well-deserved electrifying hot spring bath

Mountain men

During our trip, I took a good amount of video and hundreds of gigabytes worth of timelapse footage. While I have not yet gotten to assemble that into a trip video, here is a quick cut that I made, centered around a song from Zorro, the classic 1957 series.

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