High Sierra Trail: The Day of Endless Switchbacks

Day 6: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal
Mileage: 15.6 miles
Max elevation: 14,505 ft
Elevation at Guitar Lake: 11,460 ft
Elevation at Whitney Portal: 8,010 ft

My watch went off at 4am. We got off the trail at 6:30pm and were in Lone Pine by around 9pm. That might give you a taste of how long of a day this was, but it doesn’t go into the mind numbing quality of the endless fucking switchbacks involved, or the way a thirty odd pound pack feels at over 13,000 feet.

A side note on our packs: there was one woman we met on the trail who spoke in the way one does when English is not your first language, complete with the bluntness – “You’re packs are very big!” (This is also the same woman who scoffed at the hair comb I brought when she saw me using it later. You know what happens when I don’t comb my long hair daily? I have to cut it all off because the fine, tiny little knots created are impossible to untangle. I like my hair.)

Yes. My pack was a not full 70L and Sam’s was a more full (he heroically carried the bear canister) 75/80L because while a ~50L pack would have been ideal, I’m not sure if the three of us could have split all the food for three people between three 50Ls, and Molly’s 50L flat up could not hold a bear canister. They ranged between 30lbs and 40lbs, depending on whose pack and how much food we had eaten at that point.
Also, I’m about to be a broke law student and we all work in various public interest oriented sectors to varying degrees of poverty. This is the pack I had from a previous trip, so this is the pack I carried. And I carried it quite well, thank you, if slowly. If I had spent more than a week on the trail maybe it would have made sense to invest the money to cut the extra 20L but it did not.

Anyway. So, Mt. Whitney. It started with endless switchbacks in the dark. The terrain at this point above sea level is pretty much all the same – moonscape esque with lots of loose rock. We were treated to a sunrise, which slowed our progress a bit because we had to keep stopping and turning around to see it as a new color was added to the layer behind us.


The terrain makes it hard to see where you’re actually going – where the end point is – so every switchback after a certain point is a… maybe? maybe this is it? And then it isn’t, and you sigh, and trudge around the next switchback with the same level of optimism.

Until it was – our first landmark was the point where the trail cuts off to the summit in one direction and the trail we were on continues. There’s a bit of space for the backpackers to leave their pack at this point, which we did.


At the junction to the summit.

Side note: One dude told us the story of how he was chasing off marmots that were ripping into packs of people who were stupid enough not to consolidate their food back into their bear canister while their packs were abandoned. Don’t risk your gear. Bear canisters are possibly more for the marmots than the bears.

At least the switchbacks mostly stop at this point – it’s a pretty gradual occasional rock scramble that I overheard one hiker call “The Trail of Urine” due to there being pretty much nowhere to go pee but on the trail itself, and it was an obvious action people resorted to. It seemed relatively easy without our packs, shockingly. This is also where the day hikers start to appear. The ones at this hour are the smart ones – they’ve been at this since well before dawn. When we started to descend we saw some day hikers that were still trucking along and found ourselves wondering exactly where they thought they’d be once the sun set.


This photo (above) is the point where I was like, F.M.L. How am I not at the god damned summit yet?

Of course it’s like, just over there where the people are standing but man.


At the top of Mt. Whitney, with the Sierras behind us

At the top, I signed the log book (Comment: “I’m still questioning my life choices.”) and we saw our friends the Ultralight Brothers, who took some photos for us. Took some selfies, rested a bit… and then started our way back down.


I forgot to mention: there’s no water between Guitar Lake and Trail Camp, so all that way up those switchbacks we carried about 4L of water. And you need a lot of water to stave off headaches and altitude sickness. Throughout the trail, unless we knew there’d be water scarcity at points, I usually carried only 2 liters at any given point – water is a lot of weight.

We started to descend. And descend. And descend. Our trail notes said 100 switchbacks, but I’m pretty sure we were just on a fucking treadmill that endlessly produced switchbacks.

As we descended, we noticed the differences between that side of the mountain and the side we had been on. Day hikers leave a lot of garbage. Including used wag bags. What is the purpose of using the wag bag at all if you are going to leave it on the side of the trail, you wretch of a human being? May you suffer dreams of being stuck in the kitty litter type material of a used wag bag for the rest of your life.

The trail on that end of the mountain is just brutal. Like, I would take 6 days hauling my pack all that way over that mountain over doing it as a day hike. Day hikers are insane (I’m saying this as a marathon runner who also hiked Mt. Whitney and has jumped out of airplanes and off of bridges.  Day hiking Mt. Whitney is too much of an extreme sport for me). That evening, back at the Portal, there was a huge commotion and people hiking in with stretcher boards and an ambulance because someone hadn’t gotten enough electrolytes in on their 22 mile day hike, had gone into shock, and now had to be hiked out on a stretcher and taken to the hospital. Electrolytes and salt are important, folks, although with a day hike like that I suppose it’d be really easy to miscalculate – you’re pushing your body really hard. I hope she was okay.

We filled up our water at Trail Camp – which is about where the Ultralight Brothers passed us again. Sam cracked a joke to them about them being like the ship in the Princess Bride – they seem so far off, they’ll never catch up, but then we turn around and they’re passing us. Inconceiveable.

Slog. Slog. Slog. Switchback. Switchback. Switchback. The first half of the way down is the same sort of boring terrain – it doesn’t get much better until well after Trail Camp. We were such babies about it, too. There was one point where we had a 30 foot incline and all of us were like: NOPE. I refuse to go up! This is a going down point! No up! God dammit. Grumble grumble switchback.

Needless to say, we were a bit grumpy and headchey and totally out of advil by the time we made it to the closest camp to the Portal. From this camp, only 3.5 miles to the Portal. This is also where we met up again with the Ultralight Brothers who blessed us with advil as the trail angels they were.

And down. And down. And down. There isn’t even a photo of us at Whitney Portal, we were so worn out and exhausted. The very first thing I did was call my Mom on Molly’s shakey cell phone reception to make sure she could get to bed that night and stop worrying about me getting eaten by bears.
The second thing I did was get ice for Sam’s knee.
And the third was order a damned burger with so many fries they couldn’t all fit on the plate.

And then Molly turned on her charm and got us all rides into Lone Pine by chatting up the other people around, also eating burgers after their hike. My first experience hitch hiking – squeezed into the backseat of a Volkswagon golf with one pretty awesome guy who was picking up his son who had been on the trail for awhile. That dude spent 15 minutes in a tiny car with three people who had not showered in at least a week. That deserves some kind of medal, it does.

So, we did it. Brady got a postcard from Lone Pine with Mt. Whitney on it that simply said “Your girlfriend is a mother fucking bad ass.”

There’s a high to that, but a numbness as well. It was hard to think straight, to process logistics. In the morning, we all had breakfast separately (you do need a break from each other, eventually). I ate at a greasy spoon diner place at the counter next to a bunch of middle aged tourists who asked me wide-eyed questions about my trip (my large pack gave me away) and said things like they wish they had done things like that at my age. Guys. I know I look 25, but I’m not. I’m glad I’m doing this now, too, but hope to hell I’m doing this in ten years, too. There are plenty of not-twenty somethings on the trail. Go forth and make it happen if this is something you want to do and are physically able (or capable of becoming physically able eventually) to do so.

Then we caught the shuttle to Lancaster and then the Metrolink into Union Station and then a metro to Koreatown where we ate a large meal of Kimchi Beef before heading to Santa Monica via an Uber. All of the crazy logistics surrounding the getting to and from the trail without a car worked smoothly, if made us a bit tired of being on buses and trains.

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