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John Muir Trail Part 4: Upper Palisade Lake to Whitney Summit

Segment Ten: Upper Palisade Lake to Woods Creek Jct. – Mileage: 20.1 mi

Today was planned as a big push for us: two major passes, Mather and Pinchot. Tiredness was starting to sink in, along with the ever-evolving blister management situation. The preventative/treatment first aid period of our AM routine had slowly morphed from a quick moment to 20 or more minutes. But the upside of starting so early, in the cold, is that your feet are numb for the first couple of hours, and you get a break from thinking about your blisters! In this state of numb bliss, we quickly got to the top of our first pass, Mather (12,100’), and were treated to a new array of colors looking southward – golden rusts, turquoise blue lakes, reddish dirt. We descended for several hours, stopping for lunch at Lake Marjorie, and then began the climb to Pinchot Pass (12,130’; Alison’s favorite of the trip). At the top, we had a quick snack and then began the climb down – we knew we had still had about 8 miles and 3,600 feet of descending to go that day. But the colors kept our spirits high! We hiked late that night guided by headlamps, arriving at a designated camp area after dark. We crossed a suspension bridge one at a time to reach the place where we would set up our tent for the night.

Segment Eleven: Woods Creek Jct. to Center Basin – Mileage: 16.8 mi

The end was feeling close! We climbed to the spectacular Rae Lakes area, getting the treat of iconic landmarks like Isoceles Dome. After a quick lunch at the lake, we began the climb up Glen Pass (11,970’). With about half of the pass’s elevation gain behind us, we reached a bit of a plateau and looked up. Could there really be a trail in the monolithic wall of boulders and scree we were looking at?! But then we noticed a flash of orange moving fairly quickly along the middle of the mass, and realized yes, we were going up this.

Glen was the most nerve-wracking pass we had climbed thus far, with a few spots that required very careful footing, and a short but narrow, knife-edgy section at the top. We were at our highest point to date, with only one more pass to go before Mt. Whitney! We descended for several hours, narrowly missing some rain and thunder and eventually finding a gorgeous camp spot we had all to ourselves in Center Basin. This had been a long day, but we both knew that in order to finish on time, we were going to have to really push until the end.

Segment Twelve: Center Basin to Guitar Lake – Mileage: 21.1 mi

In some ways, today felt like our last day. Our spirits were really high as we began the 3000 ft climb to Forester Pass. We hiked through the very cold morning fairly quickly, stopping to chat briefly with some campers whose gear had been covered in ice during the night before. At 13,200 feet, Forester gave us the confidence that the Whitney summit was going to be manageable, if not 100% enjoyable for Alison, who is fairly terrified of big dropoffs, which the top of Forester had in spades. Even though the climb had taken us longer than we planned, we pushed on down the backside of the pass and hiked some fast miles, totally committed to hitting our 21 mile target even if it meant another night of headlamp hiking.

This day was one of the best examples of how topo maps with 200 ft contour intervals can mask a lot of cumulative up and down – when you’ve gone 18 miles and 4500 feet of up, that unexpected 600 ft of climbing broken into 100-150 ft sections can feel brutal. We eventually made it to Guitar Lake and sought out a protected spot – it was freezing, and would drop into the 20s that night. The wind was howling. We shared the lake with a solo hiker we’d seen that morning on Forester Pass – he came over to chat, relieved that someone else was crazy enough to camp here in the cold. Our dinner that night was the ramen we snagged from the resupply buckets at MTR, arguably the most delicious hot meal of the trip. We organized our gear for our early morning climb to the summit of Whitney, which we couldn’t make out given the heavy cloud cover. Wearing all the clothes that we had brought with us (including the rain pants and rain jackets), we crawled into our sleeping bags for what would be a very rough night of sleep – just a little too cold and windy for comfort.

Segment Thirteen: Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit – Mileage: 6.2 mi (+10.7 mi of non JMT trail to Whitney Portal)

Waking up, reality began to set in: the “being done” glee we’d been reveling in for much of the day before had been premature. It was freezing, and we had a difficult climb to get to the Mt. Whitney junction. We attempted to filter some water and filled bottles to filter later on the trail, but they promptly froze solid (Spoiler: they didn’t thaw until about 3pm). As we started the climb, hikers coming down told us that there were 65 mph gusts on the Whitney summit (14,505’). Our hopes of reaching the sun and shedding some of our layers (we were still wearing every layer we’d brought) began to fade.

Finally, we reached the junction and ditched some of our gear to lighten our packs for the summit climb. The last two miles of Whitney have some stretches that definitely test the limits of anyone who is afraid of heights. Alison might not have made it if it hadn’t been for a sip of hot coffee with cream and sugar from the thermos of a nice guy from Carson City, NV.

Despite knowing the often-repeated intel that the descent from Whitney is the hardest part of the JMT experience, we were still surprised at just how brutal the last 8.5 miles felt, and how long it took. We reached the parking area around 5 pm – several hours later than we could have possibly imagined. After some potato chips and M&Ms from the camp store at Whitney Portal, we snagged a ride into the town of Lone Pine. We were done!! Time to celebrate – we settled on BBQ and red wine as our celebration feast before an early morning bus ride to Reno the next day.

Above anything else, besides the lack of forest fires, what made the success of our trip possible is the amount of planning and preparation that went into it. No matter how motivated or excited we might have been, it simply wouldn’t have been possible to finish as we did without all of the time spent planning and tweaking the itinerary, and the seemingly endless hours spent considering and deciding on gear and food. We’ll be posting a separate blog on our gear choices. If you are considering a JMT thru-hike or shorter backpacking trips in any of the areas we explored, we want to help you! Feel free to reach out and we’ll do our best to answer your questions or direct you to good sources of information!

Aw Cf Sup
Alison Wright
Founder - The Cairn Project

A San Francisco native, Alison grew up in a family that enjoyed the privilege of outdoor access – many memories were made in California’s iconic mountain and coastal landscapes. Alison has spent her career in the philanthropic sector, advancing initiatives for justice and empowerment internationally and closer to home. In addition to her leadership at The Cairn Project, she directs the Environmental Defenders Collaborative at Global Greengrants Fund, channeling support to frontline environmental activists around the world.

About 9
Sarah Castle
Founder - The Cairn Project

Sarah Castle grew up in a small mountain town west of Denver, Colorado, and has spent most of her adult life a stone’s throw away from the Rocky Mountains. Though she held a fascination for wild places at a young age, it wasn’t until late high school that she became captivated by the high elevations and unbeaten paths of the mountains in her backyard. Merging her love for both exploration and grit, Sarah pursued a career in soil science, studying the effects of global change and land use on natural and managed ecosystems. Currently living in Saint Paul, Minnesota, you’re likely to find her either trail running or logging one of many 70mi. weekend bike rides. Sarah holds B.A. and M.S. degrees from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. from the University of Montana.