Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Backpacking Honeymoon: The High Sierra Trail & Mt. Whitney

Lots to catch up on over here! The big news is that John and I got married over on St. John USVI in a very small, low-key wedding. We had a blast celebrating for a week in the Caribbean, and my health and AI healing allowed me to fully enjoy the experience--all the food, drinks and activities--without a worry in the world (I plan to write a post sharing my thoughts on indulgences and whatnot in the near future). We were with family the whole week on St. John, so naturally we would still need some alone time to bond as husband and wife. Enter the honeymoon.

6-11-16 / Trunk Bay, St. John, USVI

Backing up a bit, last June, we got the idea for our honeymoon after a short backpacking trip that took us 11-ish miles into the High Sierra Trail (HST), a gorgeous area located in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Calif., near the John Muir Trail, Yosemite, and some of the most beautiful land in the country. The HST is a west-to-east thru-hike crossing the Sierra Nevadas that starts at Crescent Meadow, in Sequoia National Park, and ends at Whitney Portal, 9 miles from Lone Pine (or vice versa; you can do the trail east to west). There's a 4-mile roundtrip offshoot in which you can reach the top of Mt. Whitney at the end. Depending on who you ask and what GPS is being used, it's a 70-80 mile route, all at elevation ranging from 7,000 ft to 14,508 ft--the high point being the peak of Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States. Since John and I love our crazy adventures we thought, "What a awesome idea to do the entire HST together over the course of a week for our honeymoon!"

~~~

Why Go Through The 'Trouble' To Backpack For a Week--For Your Honeymoon!?

This is just one reason why.
Every ounce of struggle is worth the reward. Doing the HST is the real deal, with so much planning and preparation before you even step a foot on the trail, then once you're out there it requires an insane amount of focus, mental strength and work. Your physical condition matters too, it ain't easy, but it's way more mental to make it through a journey like this. I've been backpacking for over a year now and up until the HST it was as if I'd only done sprint triathlons, and now I just stepped it up to Ironman. Now I get it, I really get it.

When I was out there I was thinking a lot about the physical vs. mental of backpacking compared with triathlon/endurance sport. I think anyone can become a backpacker even with minimal training and not being in incredible physical shape (not so with Ironman); you just go your own pace, and hike your hike. But from a mental perspective I think a long backpacking trip like we just did requires a different level of mental fortitude. When you're in the backcountry there is no hot shower, fresh meal, beer and soft bed at the end of the day. If you have blisters you have to endure them for 144-plus hours maybe more, not just a dozen or so. If something hurts or you're having a bad day you can't DNF on the trail. There's no med tent--you're your own med tent--and no aid stations. John and I are people who need this kind of an extreme challenge our lives. We love going outside our comfort zones and the thrill of the unknown.

When you're finally out there off the grid it's like nothing else in this world. This is not visiting Half Dome. You are no longer in a National Park that's inundated with tourists, congestion, visitor centers, and crappy convenience food. Don't get me wrong I love and appreciate the beauty of Yosemite, Giant Sequoias and all these places not to mention how well they're maintained considering the flow of people coming in and out, but they're oversaturated and almost like an extension of Disneyland these days. Even group campsites are overcrowded in my opinion and often overwhelming to me; they make the idea of being "in nature" a little less authentic. I don't mind car camping, but you can't equate it to backpacking off the grid. When backpacking, I want to earn my quiet, remote campsite that is dozens of miles from roads and crowds, I want to earn my views by hiking millions of steps with a simple pack on my back, and I want to be as off the grid as possible--just with my backpacking mate. I don't want it to be easy--if it were easy everyone would do it.

When we're in backpacking mode, it's just different. That relatively uncomfortable sleeping pad is worth giving up your cozy bed at home. Being dirty and wearing the same clothes every day isn't even a problem. And while a shower would be nice, a dip in a lake or stream isn't such a bad tradeoff. Mirrors aren't even a thing (if you bring a mirror backpacking this is a problem); thus, how you look? No one gives a shit. Backpacking has its own unique set of hurdles and stressors, but you have choices in how you perceive and process such things and it doesn't have to be so bad. I've found that the little obstacles and potentially stressful situations end up being the most fulfilling experiences.

That said, I can't say I'd do a HST-style trip more than once a year and it may be a long while till we do a big thru-hike again--it was gnarly! But if you're a backpacker you know why you eventually go back for more.

So anyway, that's just a tidbit of what keeps us coming back and why we wanted to up the distance and duration for our honeymoon. I know it's a crazy idea for a honeymoon, but I honestly can't imagine a better way to bond with another human, work together, build as a team and find your stride. Whether it's a moment of victory (like summiting Whitney), a moment of pain and frustration, or somewhere in between, you're in it together as one. John and I were perfect mates out there, and that's not to say it was all unicorns and rainbows--shit got tough a few times but we know how to turn even the tough moments into moments of growth, which we'll draw on for a lifetime. What we got on our backpacking honeymoon is not something you can get sitting poolside with a cocktail (we did that in St. John). The trail is different and what happens with your partner makes for an even deeper, meaningful partnership.

~~~

Itinerary & The HST

First, for more resources on the exact gear we use and packed, meal plan, travel, timeline, and more, scroll the "Resources" section at the end of this post. Or just click here.

We started basic planning last year, but in the past few months we've dialed in as many details as possible. We mapped out our route with all the campsites we planned to stay at, aiming for 8 days and 7 nights, July 5-12, with a relatively conservative approach in terms of daily mileage--we just weren't sure how we'd feel and didn't want to overdo it. The first couple days would be our time to acclimatize and get ready for the harder days ahead. As you'll read, by Day 3 we felt like we were under-doing it, could easily handle more miles, and quite frankly finishing in 6 days sounded way better than 8 days--roughing to this extent does get old after a while--so we doubled up our mileage for two days, skipping by a couple planned campsites and without too much suffering got ahead of schedule, ultimately finishing two days early. We ended up doing the whole HST in 6 days, 5 nights, logging just over 78 miles when all was said and done. The trail got harder as we moved west to east, yet it became easier for us each day as our bodies adjusted, and if it's possible it became more beautiful and more crazy in an adventurous way. We didn't feel like we were rushing at all by shortening our time out there but rather enjoying the challenge of it even more--for us it gets old sitting around at a camp and resting for 7+ hours every day!

Doing this in July is perfect timing and while the 5th was not our ideal start date, we made it work. You don't have to get a permit to hike up Whitney if you come from the backside (westside) like we did, but you do need a permit to start the HST so getting that arranged well in advanced is key. I think we locked in our start date back in March and probably should have even done it earlier. Also for us, to be honest, with all the partying we partook in during our wedding week and since, the HST trip came at the perfect time, allowing us to get back to a healthy routine and to detox ;)

One genius thing we did was buy a DeLorme InReach Explorer 2-Way Satellite Communicator so in case of emergency we actually could get in touch with the world (phones obviously don't get reception out there). We also gave my parents daily updates to let them know we were all good, and shared a tracking link with friends and family so they could follow our journey. Best purchase ever for this kind of backpacking, and they were quite popular out there--I'd say more than half the people we saw had one.

Backcountry conditions out there in July are reliable and ideal--stream/creek/river crossings are manageable and not as threatening as in spring when water is really flowing; it's hot but not too hot like it can be in August; it's chilly in the late night and early mornings but not freezing (except at Whitney); storms are possible but not a bit threat; the days are long with an abundance of sunlight; and so on. Some folks will report seeing no snow some years, while others report that there was plenty. Snow for us was not an "issue" but patches of snow were certainly in abundance the deeper/higher we got into the trail making for even more beautiful scenery. Meanwhile, we had not one hint of a storm and nearly every day was bright blue skies without a single cloud--as good as it gets.

Ospreys in transit.
As for our packs? We both love our Osprey anti-gravity packs (I had to go through a few other brands that weren't working for me before finally finding and falling in love with this one), and we did our best to keep them lighter than our 3-day trips when we don't care about weight so much and bring whatever. I think we did ok but certainly weren't ultralight like some folks are out there. Upon leaving mine weighed 40 lbs and John's weighed 43-45 lbs. We each were carrying 4 liters of water too, which was nearly 10 lbs each (we would not hike with full water after this). Also, our food weighed 20 lbs (8 days worth). And all the gear we brought was essential minus a few minor mistakes. So there's not much more we could have cut (see more details in resources section on what al we brought).

~~~

There's some good info on the HST on the internet and whatnot, but there's a lot of conflicting data so it's hard to really know anything for sure until you do it yourself--that's part of the adventure. We kind of knew what to expect but we equally surprised along the way; it's great to have a plan but also to just let your own adventure unfold and just be prepared for anything. As long as you have a basic plan, a map, and common sense you'll survive. I really learned on this trip to never fully trust any one resource, and even if a map said 4 miles, expect it to be 6 or 7.

Exactly what we did, from the DeLorme we carried. See more interactive details here.

My old triathlon buddy, Ryan Denner, did the HST last year with friends and wrote a good blog on it here. His trip was pretty similar to ours but they finished with 10 fewer miles than us, hm, lol. See what I mean? There is also a decent chance that our trek was less than 78 miles. Looking at data from our DeLorme, which we think underestimated mileage due to its tracking frequency, we can probably draw some better conclusions somewhere between it and the Garmin. But at the end of the day, does exact mileage really matter?! Nope. It's the journey that counts.

Thankfully the actual trail that comprises the HST is incredibly well-maintained and easy to follow--never once a risk of getting lost for 6 days. It's mind-boggling to me that at some point a group of people took such care to construct this trail (no easy feat), and over the years badass people maintain it to near-perfection. That doesn't mean it's an easy trail to hike, just that its quality is impeccable for being so out there off the grid. Of course you have your occasional obstacle on the trail, which keeps it interesting ;)

One thing I didn't realize about the HST was how diverse the landscape would be. I'm still in shock how each day, or often each couple miles, the environment and scenery would change so drastically--we'd go from dense forest to granite mountains, from green valleys to snowy mountain passes, from lakes with icebergs to lakes with sandy bottoms and warm waters.

Speaking of water, I will say, lack of water is clearly not an issue in the High Sierras! I've never seen so many waterfalls in my life--even more than in Hawaii--and I can't even tell you how many rivers/creeks/streams we crossed. Water is even flowing from cracks in the giant granite mountains making for some of the most beautiful sights I've ever laid my eyes on. Thus every campsite I'll mention below had a reliable, safe water source that we could filter using our Platypus, and also a bear box or two (except for night 4, which you'll find out why later).

We always try to filter water from streams, creeks, or rivers; but on night 4 all we had was this gem, Moraine Lake, and the water was fine after going through the Platypus.
~~~

So now the story of each day... It's a novel, I know, but it's a blast for me to relive these memories through writing.  If you skip days, at least read Days 4 & 6 :)

*On each day's sub-headline below, click the Day + Miles (reddish font) to open our full Garmin file with that day's stats.* Note on garmin files: we did not stop our watch when taking rest breaks or a lunch break; the watch started when we left a camp and it stopped upon arrival at the next camp.

~~~

Day 1 - 6.2 miles 
Crescent Meadow (trailhead) to Mehrten Creek 

One of the trickiest parts of planning a thru-hike is transportation to and from the trail--it'd be a hassle to park your car at the trailhead then end up 80 miles away on the other side of a huge mountain range. Some thru-hikers do key swaps, but finding someone who was doing the trail in the opposite direction whose itinerary synced up with ours seemed like a pain in the ass. So we devised our own plan: A car rental plus public transportation to get there, and to get home my parents, who love to camp, graciously offered to come up to Whitney Portal to pick us up (a win-win because they got in a little camping themselves as they waited). Done.

We left July 5 at 5 a.m. from Laguna Beach in the rental car we picked up the day prior. We drove to Visalia, dropped off the rental, and then took the Sequoia Shuttle departing from the Wyndham Hotel into the National Park (you need to reserve spots and pre-pay for this shuttle). From there we took the free in-park shuttle to Lodgepole to pick up our permits and then shuttled over to Crescent Meadow, the trailhead where we'd begin. All in all the travel to get from our home to the trailhead was over 8 hours, a bit long and drawn out, but the plan went flawlessly. We knew we would have to shake the fatigue from sitting in vehicles all day, and get going on our hike.

There was no send-off ceremony, sadly. We just slipped out under the radar and with just our packs sometime around 1:30 p.m. The trail starts at ~6,700 ft and right away gains elevation, continuing with rolling terrain but no major climbing yet. I was huffing and puffing. I really didn't train much for this trip outside of some 5- to 6-mile trail hikes at sea level with my weighted vest one or two times a week. During our wedding week I didn't exercise once (but was very active) and I just haven't been in the mood to grind out proper training since. Backpacking dozens of miles at elevation is no joke, and I was a bit nervous about my fitness going into this mostly because I didn't want to feel like shit and wanted to be able to enjoy it all, but I also know I have experience in being mentally tough as nails and enough of an endurance base to get me through. And as they say, you actually get fitter and more acclimatized each day on a trip like this, which I found to be true.

We probably pushed too and were hiking too fast to begin before our bodies had acclimatized, getting there in just over 2 hours. It hadn't clicked for us yet that a major backpacking trip like this requires even smarter pacing and adequate rest breaks. You can't feel guilty if you stop to rest or if mile paces seem "slow." We had to figure this out on our own, though. Yet on Day 1 and even into Day 2 we were stupidly still looking at it like a race to that day's finish line.

We arrived at camp before 4 p.m., had to climb up the slippery granite mountain a bit further off the trail where the campsites were, and we got set up. Setting up camp, the stove, and all of it is pretty much like a reflex for us now and we could do it with eyes closed. We were so stoked to finally be out there, but exhausted and starving so I made us dinner at 5 p.m. On the menu: Organic Shepherd's Pie by MaryJaneFarm and Savory Summit Chicken by Paleo Meals To Go with a dessert of 85% dark chocolate. We ate, enjoyed the view in our remote private campsite, cleaned up, tucked into the tent and were asleep before it was even dark out, by about 7:15 pm. What a romantic first night of a honeymoon, eh?! Hehe. But it felt great just to relax and fall asleep in the wild.


It's worth mentioning that we did not bring an ounce of booze. We've had our share of celebratory drinks lately with the wedding and whatnot, and this trip was not about that. We needed to recover well each day and feel awesome, and a even a swig of whiskey from a flask did not appeal to us.

View from our camp at Mehrten Creek. This was just the beginning of scenery to die for on the HST!

~~~

Day 2 - 10.16 miles 
Mehrten Creek to Hamilton Lakes

The great part about going to sleep early in the wilderness is waking up as soon as it starts getting light out, about 5:20 a.m., and feeling like a rockstar. I love how my circadian rhythm adjusts so well out there and it's a testament that all the artificial light, electronics and noises of modern living really do mess with us, especially our sleep quality, no matter how hard you try to hack it. We woke up ready to get some action, and we were also excited because Day 2 would now take us into new territory where we'd never been before.

The morning routine, which we'd continue for the full trip, was John on tent cleanup and packing duty, and me on breakfast duty. We'd then eat together followed by getting everything else efficiently packed after breakfast for an early start on the trail. Our breakfasts were bomb. Quinoa flakes (for me) and oats (for John), and to each bowl I added protein powder, chia seeds, dried blueberries, cinnamon, pink salt and boiling water. To my porridge I also added PaleoKrunch nut-based granola and psyllium husk; John opted for a bigger portion of oats instead. The Artisana coconut butter packets I brought were impossibly rock solid in this environment, but eventually I figured out a trick to make them work: Saw open the package with a knife, drop the rock-hard brick of coconut into the porridge before adding water, then add the boiling water, which immediately softened the coconut butter and it perfectly integrated it into the porridge making for an even higher-fat satiating power breakfast.

Before.
After. Mine left, John's right.
Day 2 we were off by 7:45 a.m., which was one of our later starts but also one of the "shorter" days--or so we thoughts. We expected it to be just 8 miles to the next camp at Hamilton Lakes. We thus decided to wait to have lunch until at camp, knowing we had bars and/or trail mix as snacks along the way if needed. I was thinking I'd be fine with minimal snacks and could wait until lunch. Mistake. The hike ended up being 2 more miles than expected and 4:48 total time, and the terrain was much more tough and taxing than expected too. I starting bonking by mile 8. After this day I realized that I couldn't let this happen anymore--I had to fuel appropriately because as we all know a bonk really drains you of energy and makes it harder to recover for what's up next.  There's no room for error; you have to be on top of your shit. From this day forward I did not mess up my nutrition--solid meals and snacks were the name of the game, and the more we ate the lighter our packs got ;)

Day 2 we got a tad more more dialed in. The 10 miles in this section gave us a better taste of the elevation and crazy climbs on the HST--i.e. giant stone "stairs" that just kept going up and up and up. We also had to let go of having the attitude that each day was a race--this would wreck us; slowly we were starting to practice more patience and respect, soak in the views and rest when we had to. We still went too fast Day 2 but we were learning. It wasn't hard to pause for a minute to gaze at the Western Great Divide (pictured at left), waterfalls, the carefully constructed bridge, and so on.


I then fell in love with big Hamilton Lake as soon as I laid eyes on it (there are several little lakes that make up Hamilton Lakes as well overflow campsites before you hit the main lake; don't stop too soon.)


We got to the campsite before 2 p.m., giving us the rest of the day to eat, rest, soak in the lake, take in the sights and move slowly, no rushing. While I'm glad we had many hours to chill at this location, I think all this downtime planted the seed that we could probably take on more mileage each day than we'd planned. It was good we had this day to acclimatize more (sleeping at 7,850 ft), but I think we were ready to up the ante. Meanwhile, this lake was a slice of heaven. We laid on the smooth stone shore for hours drying off, staying warm and watching the rainbow trout swim right up to the shoreline teasing us. We stared off into the distance trying to spot the trail that would lead us to 10,700 ft elevation the next morning. I took a semi-nap, we read, we talked, we studied the map and talked about what laid ahead. Marmots were all around, which we got accustomed to last year, but something that was new to me were the deer here. They were quite brave and curious, literally hanging out and foraging in the campgrounds--sending us the message to not be careless about where we left our food and belongings. If we were not using food and toiletries, they were always in the provided bear box, and this rule stood true at every campsite (just safer this way). We had our own portable bear canister, but we also had more food and toiletries than would fit in that alone for the first few days.

Big Hamilton Lake. Only 16 miles into the HST, a gem.

Trying to spot the trail on the mountainside that would lead us to 10,700 ft and over the Kaweah Gap.

Brave deer. Drying clothes. 
Believe it or not, there was a pit toilet at this campsite! But the funny part is that I didn't use it. haha. I actually enjoy digging a hole and squatting.... and I'll leave it at that. There were two other couples camping here, and later in the evening a family who hiked in and set up camp, also some hikers who passed by. To me, this seemed pretty crowded considering we were getting pretty far out there. But Hamilton Lakes is still close enough to reality and gorgeous enough to make it worth the 16-mile trek. Even with neighbors, there was an abundance of space to make your home, and our campsite was right near the lake complete with a stone "table and bench."

Dinner was the same thing except rotated the Paleo Meal to Mountain Beef Stew instead of the chicken. We both love the Shepherd's Pie--it's a good carb to refuel with so that was on the menu most nights. The Paleo meals are very protein heavy and it's ideal to pair them with a more carb-heavy meal like the Shepherd's Pie.

Dinner bowl - Shepherd's Pie and Mountain Beef Stew. Hearty fuel FTW.

That night we went to bed watching a buck rummage by a tree about 10 ft from us--and yes, it was still light out when we went to sleep on Day 2. But we were so excited for the next day and knew it was going to be a doozy.

~~~

Day 3 - 16.25 miles 
Hamilton Lakes to Moraine Lake

I woke up feeling good and refreshed like I usually start to feel a couple days into a backpacking trip, but yet I felt a bit off--and it wasn't just soreness/fatigue from the two days so far. Hmm. I tried not to overthink it can certainly wasn't going to let a little "off-ness" tarnish the adventure that awaited us. I knew Day 3 included the one thing that I was looking forward to seeing probably even more than the summit of Mt. Whitney, and that was Precipice Lake. I fell in love with this lake last year when I started researching the HST. It's unlike any lake or landmark I've ever seen. Getting to Precipice from Hamilton is only ~3 miles, BUT it requires ascending over 2,000 ft to about the 10k elevation point, with dozens of slippery stream and "waterfall" crossings as you zig-zag up the granite mountainside. Waterfall in quotes because they were not gushing but rather just a sleek layer of water flowing steadily and mellowly from the steep granite mountainside, intersecting with the trail and often flooding our path and requiring careful footing.

But before all that, within the first quarter mile there was a relatively sketchy stream crossing in which there were very few exposed rocks to hop over so it wasn't going to be easy. The risk of slipping off a semi-exposed rock and into the water was high. I did not want wet, sloshing boots especially before 7 a.m. I was nervous about what to do. John needed some patience to deal with me. We had time, so I took off my boots and socks, tied them to my pack, strapped on my sandals and walked through the calf-deep river with the aid of my beloved trekking poles. Swapping shoes takes a bit longer but it was so much easier to cross--and guaranteed dry boots! 

We then got immediately into climbing the first mountain pass of the day. (And depending on the decisions we made later that day at the 8-mile mark we'd have another pass to get over as well.) The first beauty of a mountain that we climbed wasn't even a pain because every direction you looked the scenery was beyond breathtaking and unique to anything I'd ever seen up close. It was one of my favorite experiences. Smooth granite, water flowing peacefully from everywhere, little wildflowers adding splashes of color, and patches of grass and lush green plants that seemed to defy laws of nature by growing through the granite. Unfortunately my phone, i.e. my camera, died after one photo (seen left) during the climb and in the cold morning temps despite a near-full battery before we took off, and I couldn't get it to work to take pics nor did I want to stop to take the time--it's ok to preserve some of these moments for just memories that I can revisit in my head. As long as I had it working for Precipice I'd be ok... The trick was using my small portable battery pack with the USB phone cord that I brought to give it a boost of power to turn it back on. Unless I wanted some photos, the phone was off because even on airplane mode the battery was dropping and I needed it to last for the days to come.

I've never spent much time at over 10k elevation other than getting to the top of a ski lift at a place like Mammoth. I certainly haven't exercised at over 10k, so hitting 10k for the first time on Day 3 was a new ball game--it's the threshold where I start to actually feel the effects of being at altitude. Yea, I "feel" 6,000-9,000 ft, but I really felt a difference at over 10k. Little did I know, by the end of the trip 10k would feel like heaven compared with being 13k to 14k!
Precipice Lake. No words.

Reaching Precipice Lake is easily top 3 best moments of the trip. There's no way to describe this place in words that actually does the unique beauty justice. Ansel Adams has a famous picture of this lake, and it lived up to everything I imagined it would be. I think it's the most peaceful serene place I've ever visited in my life to this point. I honestly just wanted to stay here for days, staring into the lake and the sheer granite cliff that serves as the backdrop, while watching chunks of snow and ice break into the frigid lake. The air outside wasn't cold--we were in T-shirts and hot--but this season it obviously has stayed cold enough for deep patches of snow to stick around.
I don't think it's possible to get enough of this place.

John had to practically drag me away from Precipice, but at least I got all the pictures I wanted, and we kept trekking. I'll be back just to spend more time at this lake.


So after Precipice you keep climbing and hit the Kaweah Gap, and oh my god talk about a change of scenery. It's like was entered into dream! The green meadows, trickling streams, colorful flowers and 100-mile views were to die for. What also made us want to die, though, were all the mosquitoes. What the hell?! We deemed it "Mosquito Meadow" (pictured left) and it got SO bad that I dropped my pack and rushed to pull out my longsleeve shirt and my bug bucket hat to survive the attacks. 

After cresting the Kaweah Gap--10,700 ft--you then descend down down down into a heavenly valley where it just keeps getting prettier and prettier. It was so perfect, beautiful and desolate that it honestly didn't seem real to us. Still too many mosquitoes which kept our pace swift--otherwise, we could have spent all day here. 



Descending into the Kaweah Gap. Heavenly.
More river crossings followed, and I was getting better at them. There was a sketchy stream and I decided to go for it--taking the time to switch to sandals would mean getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. But the rocks I navigated were more slippery than I thought and I slipped into the river, both feet. Soaked to the bone. Fuck. We were about 6-7 miles into the day, with a planned stop at Big Arroyo for lunch and possibly to set up camp for the night. We were already talking about skipping Big Arroyo and heading to the next day's destination, an offshoot to Moraine Lake, which would mean another 8 miles and more climbing but totally doable and plenty of time--yet now with wet feet and wet boots? Never a good thing and a recipe for blister hell. Errr.
Is this place real?!

I tied my boots to my backpack to dry and started hiking in my sandals. I had already been experiencing a bit of lateral hip pain on Day 2, but it was hit or miss so I didn't think much of it and it was not a known issue of mine so I figured it was just the adjustment phase. But then as soon as I started hiking in the sandals--some sweet minimalist barefoot sandals that is--my hip pain went from zero to excruciating and I could feel every pebble digging into my feet. Guess I'm not cutout for that yet. Meanwhile, John was already dealing with a handful of severe blisters and in probably more pain than me, and his boots also got a bit wet in that same stream (not quite as bad as mine) yet he was trucking along like a champ. He seriously is such an incredible guy to watch when he's on a mission--relentless and tough as nails. Inspires me every day. 

We were quite the duo at this point, the HST starting to test our fortitude, but in reality we were fine and if can you believe that we were as happy as could be. These little issues wouldn't get us down, and like I said before there's no option to DNF--no matter what you figure out how to solve the problem and keep going. 

At the 8-mile point we found a shady spot for lunch at Big Arroyo, where the mosquitoes weren't terrible, and enjoyed "salmon wraps" (i.e. Paleo coconut wraps with packaged--not canned--wild salmon) and nibbled on our assorted snacks that included homemade trail mix with goji berries, Dang coconut chips, aged parmesan cheese, go raw flax crackers, lemon macaroons and whatnot. We discussed the second half of the day. If we wanted to get in these additional 8 miles, we'd have to take our time at lunch--rest the legs, dry the boots, do some blister maintenance, etc. At this point we weren't rushing or "racing" anymore and welcomed the time to chill.

We talked to a backpacker going the opposite direction and he said the next mountain pass would be "a nice gradual climb." We decided to go for it, as we were not in love with Big Arroyo campground and it was also exciting to think that we could now finish a day ahead of schedule! My boots were drying but still damp by the end of lunch and I had fresh socks; this seemed like a better option than the sandals. Strapped up and had no hip pain. Whew.

We hit the next climb and it was technically not as hard as the climb to Kaweah Gap, but also not as gorgeous (kind of reminded me of trails at home--making it a bit boring to be honest). Yet it was a beast of a climb and while it was "gradual," it was still hard as shit and seemed to never freaking end. I kept thinking I saw the top, only to turn a corner and seeing so much more climbing ahead. I was ready to get off the damn mountain and settle into camp. 


Then my hip started hurting again. Frack. Thankfully we finally crested the mountain--up at 10,700 ft again. I could manage. From there mostly downhill or flat to the lake. I hobbled into camp, and it wasn't just the hip pain at this point--hiking in the still-damp boots for 8 miles caused me to develop two nasty blisters from the moisture right on the pads of my feet between my big toe and second toe, same exact situation both sides. Painful. Oh well.

Getting to Moraine Lake requires briefly splitting off from the HST onto another trail, adding to the overall mileage but it's worth it. Moraine Lake was so rad that I forgot my pains. It was 4 p.m. (almost a 9-hour day on the trail) and still hot and sunny when we arrived. I immediately stripped down to my undies and jumped in the lake to freshen up--I heard it was a warmer lake, and the rumors were true. It felt incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating. There were a few other people who'd set up camp before us--one couple who we'd seen at Hamilton and a single dude--but they were busy doing their thing in their campsites tucked into the trees 100 ft or so from the water, so lake the the sandy beach that surrounded it was completely vacant when we jumped in--all ours. We did some "laundry" and then got to work evening chores. After the soak, I felt like a new human and my hip and feet were sore but I felt totally content, really was loving this place and most of all super proud of our huge accomplishment! All things considered, we both were feeling really awesome at 32-ish miles into the HST after only 3 days.

Side note: I didn't bring extra shoes for the downtime at camp, just the zero-drop sandals, which were great because I could wear them with warm socks (they have nothing between the toes) and I didn't mind that my feet/socks would still get dirty walking around. In retrospect though i'd bring a pair of lightweight minimalist close-toed shoes like Skoras in addition to sandals. But no matter what sandals are a must IMO. 

By now our little team of two had our system down with the to-do list among arrival at camp and all the little chores we had to do before eating and relaxing. Number one was obviously getting the campsite set up--tent and whatnot--but equally important was filtering fresh water for dinner, rehydrating and for the next day's breakfast and hike. 

Since Day 3 included two days worth of hiking in one, we made three of our dehydrated meals instead of just two that night--earned it!--and ate like kings, or so it seemed, sitting on a giant rock overlooking the lake with the warmth of the sun drying our clothes, airing out our feet, and keeping mosquitoes at bay. Meanwhile sharing thoughts on the 16 miles we just did and some ideas of the next day. "How about tackle another double day?" We'd play it by ear...

For the third night, we brushed our teeth and were in bed asleep before dark yet again. Winning.

Dinner view on the pristine Moraine lake - an oasis and we had it all to us!
And turn around from the lake and campsites are just beyond the tree line. 

~~~


Day 4 - 18 miles (Part 1 & Part 2)
Moraine Like to "Mosquito Camp"

This day was a turning point for sure for many reasons and possibly the most fun day of the whole trip. In particular I think the team aspect between John and I reached new heights, and we were perfectly in sync. We knew by now the grueling unrelenting nature of the trail, its river crossings and climbs, and that every place we needed to go seemed to be further away than expected--even a half mile further is significant in backpacking land.

I woke up still feeling off but my body was surprisingly not that bad. Just a hint of lacking that spunk I normally have when backpacking. Whatevs. 

The goal was to make it to the famous Kern Hot Springs, which promised a little cement "hot tub" with naturally heated 100+ degree water and a sweet campsite. This was rumored to be an "easy" 6-7 miles all downhill into the Kern Valley, and after the 16 miles on Day 3, I was cool with an easy day! But once again, don't trust what you hear. Even the downhill was tough, complete with occasional climbs, and much longer than we expected (8.14 miles total). The stream crossings were tricky--some I got over by navigating the rocks and using my trekking poles as added support, others I took the time to switch into sandals and walk through. My blisters hurt. I had another on my inner left heel that was growing fast. John encouraged me to stop and pop them, so I did, and oh man this was the best decision ever. Immediate relief. Still some discomfort but nowhere as bad as it had been. 

Lots of fallen trees to navigate over on this day, whether that meant going under, over, or around, and a couple times the maneuvering was sketchy. Thank god yet again for my trekking poles. Speaking of trekking poles, I didn't care about having them until this trip--I was so glad I got them; they were priceless to me and helped in so many ways!
River crossing for the millionth time.


Descending into the Kern Valley.
Finally made into Kern Valley after seeing those tiny trees down below in the distance turn into a the forest surrounding us--this valley took us back down to a lower elevation of only 6,900 ft, which meant lots of climbing lay ahead. A couple going the opposite direction warned of a rattlesnake chilling on a foot bridge. Sure enough he was still there when we reached the bridge--I spotted him tucked to the side. He wasn't coiled but we made a ruckus to scare him off. He still lingered so we just passed as quickly as possible, laughing yet terrified.

The valley floor was hot as shit but the Kern River was so dang gorgeous--at times it was raging rapids, other times a tranquil shallow stream where you just wanted to lay in it and cool off--so inviting. More river crossings, and eventually at Kern Hot Springs. I was ready to call it a day. I was freaking tired and didn't feel like walking one more mile. But....

Crossing Kern River--absolutely a wonderful river and so diverse.

We laid out our shit all over a nice big campsite we found--only one other couple around, the same couple we'd seen the previous two nights. We had decisions to make--stay or trek on?! We decided to take a leisurely lunch, go hang in the hot springs and river for a while, then decide.

We wolfed down some food, put on bathing suits, and took the little side trail to the hot springs. Yet again, another slice of heaven awaited us. The water is naturally heated from an underground--you guessed it--hot spring. At this point we were so far from civilization--probably 30 or 40 miles from the nearest trailhead depending where you start--so we had had it all to ourselves. I guarantee if it were easier to access this place it'd be a zoo and no fun. The actual hot tub as you can see has room for just two people--it's a romantic fit perfect for honeymooners ;) I had the genius idea to do a little contrast bathing with the cold river flowing just a couple feet away from the hot tub. Hot-cold-hot-cold. After this I was starting to feel really recovered and recharged.

We got back to camp after 30-45 minutes playing in the water, and upon changing I got my answer as to why I had that faint feeling of being off my game: I started my period. It had been PMS that was making me feel off. I knew going into this trip that I was due to start, so I was prepared, but I was a bit late and for once in ages I was hoping the "stress" of all this hiking was going to keep it from coming until after our trip. No such luck. The good news is that I felt so much better once I started (typical for me--those 2 days before I start are usually my worst so in retrospect I'm surprised I was getting along as well as I was!). It was like I was a brand-new human being, for the better, once I started. Immediate relief, and the off feeling was gone just like that; furthermore, the hip pain disappeared almost entirely---hot damn, hell yea! The bad news: now I had my period in the wilderness (this isn't the first time this has happened to me while backpacking either, geez). I have been using the Diva Cup since last year--getting off tampons was the best decision ever--which makes it a tad easier to manage a period while backpacking, but it still requires some swift maneuvering and attention to cleanliness to keep things neat and tidy... and it is not fun... I'll leave it at that. 

Kern Hot Springs! That water in the little tub was 100+ degrees.

Contrast bathing--from the hot springs to the cold river water pictured here. The ultimate recovery!
Meanwhile, with fresh legs from the contrast bath, pre-menstrual symptoms behind me, and a motivated husband who was like an eager puppy just wanting to go go go, we decided to ditch Kern Hot Springs and get to the next night's campsite, which was planned to be Junction Meadow, 8 more miles up the river. Kern was a really cool location but why not go for more?! 

This was a turning point for me. I was feeling on fire, excited, and stronger than ever. I was nailing all the river crossings like a champ, even balancing over wobbly fallen tree stumps Dirty Dancing style never eating shit. I didn't want to stop.

As we approached Junction Meadow I told John I wanted a more "private" campsite so maybe we could stop off before JM at any spot that looked cool even if not a designated campsite. I found one I liked but John thought we could do better. We found another spot that looked sick and stopped to assess. Within 1 minute we were getting attacked by millions of mosquitoes and made the easy decision to get the hell away and keep going. We were cracking up. At this point it was 5 or 6 p.m., still plenty of daylight, but we were nearing another 16+ mile day and just feeling a bit like we were ready to rest our legs. We got to JM and it was just a cleared out space overlooking the water, camp where you want, some areas with fire pits others not, and it wasn't really private nor secluded. Another couple and the same single dude were already well-settled in. I looked at John with a fire in my eye, he got the message and said there was another lesser known camp about 1-1.5 miles further up according to the map, seemingly by water but no bear box. 

I said, let's go for it! We were now cutting into the Day 5's mileage, which would make things easier because we were going to start getting into some gnarly climbing and elevation as we got closer to Whitney.

Little did we know this "short" 1-1.5 miles further up would be a MEGA non-stop climb. But oddly enough we both found an extra gear that powered us up that mountain at near-record pace like two crazy people on a mission, hating the pain but loving it simultaneously. I thought we were going to be fucked with a non-existent campsite and no more river water since we were climbing so dang much, but I was willing to take a little risk as was John--we weren't doing anything stupid and we knew where we could get water if needed.

But wait, we're supposed to be BY the water!

Why are we climbing so much?! Why is the water going away!? Argh!

Finally we found the off-the-radar no-name campsite and the river was just down the hillside, a steep walk but easy enough access. We were starting to lose light as it approached 7 p.m., and being surrounded by giant mountains our daylight was going away even faster. So whether we loved the campsite or not we were staying. We immediately got to work setting up our gear when it happened. The worst mosquitoes ever--worse than Mosquito Meadow. They wanted me the most, and normally mosquitoes don't care for my blood so much but this day was different. It was so bad that even fully covered with with long stretchy pants, socks, and longsleeve shirt, they were landing on me and biting me through my clothes! John too, but worse for me. The bug bucket was my savior (pictured left), and even with that covering my face and head, for the first time in my life I got two or three bites on my face! We tried to make a little fire to deter them, but they wouldn't let up. John got water while I started dinner, and I said straight up, "I cannot eat out here or I'll never survive their attacks--I have to eat in the tent." We also had no bear box so John was gathering extra food and toiletries that still wouldn't fit int he bear canister and hoisted it safely high up into a tree. We were rushing as it was getting late, but also half laughing and sort of loving the thrill of the night's challenge. We were certainly cracked out from an 18-mile day yet continuing to take care of business like pros. 

Getting in and out of the tent was a challenge in itself--doing so fast and swiftly enough to not let in any mosquitoes. This was no easy feat! We finally made it in with our dinner and ate while the mosquitoes attacked the tent but unable to reach us--hundreds of them were landing on the tent. We really didn't care that this was a ridiculous situation if you think about it, and in fact it was probably my favorite night of the trip... We had the ultimate team mojo going. We certainly got our privacy at what we deemed "Mosquito Camp," banked some extra miles and were on track to now finish two days ahead of schedule!

In fact, we ever went to bed after dark.

And no bears.

Mosquito Camp


Dining in the tent to avoid death by mosquito.
~~~


Day 5 - 11 miles
"Mosquito Camp" to Guitar Lake

We knew today we'd be getting into some serious elevation and starting the slow trek up to Mt. Whitney. Right out of the gates the climbing started. The day began at just over 9,000 ft and ended at nearly 11,600 ft--and undulating terrain as usual so the total elevation gain was more like 3,200 ft. As mentioned, 10k is when I really start to notice the effects of elevation and it's not like I get sick or lose it, just a bit slower and can feel less oxygen flow to my brain and muscles. Yet I was clearly acclimatizing well by now. I was still feeling awesome. On the other hand, John wasn't feeling so hot this day--up until now hands down he'd been stronger and faster than me. Maybe because his pack was still heavy, yikes. He had taken on a bigger load to let mine be lighter. Keep in mind we at this point we were traveling with two extra days worth of food than expected, and that was a burden to say the least. His pack was probably still 40 lbs or so, while mine was 30 at most. He's my hero and I love how tough this man is!

Our game plan for the day was to take mini breaks every couple miles or so as we had been doing the past couple days (the secret to success for the long mileage days) and then a longer break for lunch at Crabtree Meadow. After Crabtree it would be only 2.7 miles until camp at Guitar Lake. We were on track to get there before 2 p.m. pretty easily, then have the whole rest of the day to chill before making the trek to Whitney Summit the following day. We were so stoked to be doing this two days earlier than we expected! A shower and cozy bed was sounding more and more appealing, as was freshly cooked food ;)

But business first. I was hungry to eat away at this trail. Bring it! We knew that at 2 miles into the day we'd have the most potentially sketchy river crossing of them all--the only one that the rangers actually warned us about when picking up our permits--at Wallace Creek. Apparently there is a half-mile detour up the creek to a safer crossing area just in case. We got to the creek and it didn't look that bad. We were wondering if this was the Wallace Creek? The biggest difference was that current was much stronger than other crossings. We decided to go for it. I played it safe by walking through in sandals (we had scheduled a break anyway so the extra time to switch footwear was no big deal) and John glided over the rocks like a pro--although just to be safe this one time he used my trekking poles as aids. We were pretty stoked to get past this with no problem despite the rumors about Wallace Creek's danger that we'd been hearing not just from rangers but fellow hikers.

Owning the Wallace Creek crossing.
From there it was a sheer grind to Crabtree and not the most interesting landscapes. But my mental game was on point, nutrition dialed in and body in full go-time mode. There were a few short but excruciatingly steep little climbs to get over, and I cursed my way through them like a sailor. We snacked on schedule--my sixth consecutive day of fueling with a Primal Dark Chocolate Almond Bar as first snack of choice; I love those and so does John! We rested at over 11k and were starting to feel woozy so high up! But the bright side of being higher up: fewer mosquitoes to torture us, and closer to Whitney.

"Word on the street" was that Guitar Lake would be crowded--made sense; with our revised itinerary it was now Saturday aka the weekend, when everyone wanted a piece of Whitney! John was a bit deflated at lunch but I was still on fire. We had lunch, I mowed down my portion, packed up, and left John to rest while trekking on with the mindset to get there as soon as possible to score a good campsite (I'm kind of picky and obsessive about my campsites).

Last meadowy area at 10-11k elevation before entering the rocky Whitney zone.
But elevation had other plans for me and I couldn't help but start slowing down. From the lunch site at Crabtree, Guitar Lake was less than 3 miles miles but now the elevation and climbing was no joke. It was like doing sprints but at a 40-minute mile pace. John actually caught me and I must say I prefer hiking right next to him vs being alone--it doesn't matter if we're talking or silent, his company is everything to me. Yet, then I found a second wind that he didn't have so I just hammered to Guitar Lake--I could see in the distance that just beyond a granite "wall" that there had to be a lake, no more than a mile to go. Move move move. I was so excited to finally lay eyes on this site. It's a unique spot where the HST, JMT and PCT all intersect for Whitney-goers to make that last trek up. And quite honestly Guitar Lake, to me, feels like being on the moon minus the lake part. It's so desolate, quiet, dusty, rocky, windy and surreal. Everyone moves slower, and it reminds me of astronauts in space (ok, kind of a stretch but I can dream).

Our campsite at Guitar Lake.
It was somewhat crowded upon arrival--relatively speaking--and kept getting more crowded into the 6 o'clock hour, but we scored a sick campsite tucked away in some rocks that made us feel like we were all alone up there. There was a good stream flowing into the lake that made for a legit water source. We filtered all our water that afternoon for the next day's adventure up whitney. I acted as the tree for our filter system, as you can see below. There are no trees, and nothing that provides natural shade at Guitar Lake. It was rather warm with the bright blue cloudless sky and glaring sun, but the frigid gusts of wind coming through kept it from being miserably hot.

 

When you arrive at camp before 2 p.m., plan to wake up at 3 a.m. the next day and have to 3,000+ ft at elevation to climb, you don't really want to expend much energy whatsoever for those next 5-6 hours before bedtime. We did as little as possible. A lot of time just sitting around and taking in the views. We laid in the tent practically in our underwear because it was hawt in there!

Along with the Paleo chicken meal, we had a Mushroom Risotto instead of Shepherd's Pie that night--great for John, but not for me as I'd find out.

After dinner the temps dropped quickly. We got to bed early, before dark of course. But then at 11 p.m. we randomly both woke up. John went out to pee and I felt so awake so I crawled halfway out of the tent to gaze at the stars--the one thing I hadn't done much of on this trip so far. John joined me and we laid there for about an hour looking at the sky. We forced ourselves back to sleep after a while, knowing we had to wake up in a mere few hours to get our butts up to Whitney Summit. I remember hearing people walking by our camp at probably 1:30 a.m., they were starting their journey up to Whitney. It's not uncommon for people to start in the middle of the night--in fact it seems really common from what I gather.


~~~

Day 6 - 16.7 miles
Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal


I woke up to the alarm playing The Beach Boy's "Surfer Girl." Thankfully, I went to bed wearing my base layer of hiking clothes so I didn't have to undress and change clothes in the dark cold morning. I added more layers upon waking. I put on practically everything I brought equating to: 2 pairs of pants, 4 tops, 1 puffy jacket, scarf, bandana, beanie, gloves. We knew it was going to be freezing and very windy the higher we got.

At 3 a.m. you could already see a handful of headlamps making their way up the trail far in the distance--the headlamps looked like stars to me in the pitch-black night; they were so high up! We were next.

Unfortunately for the first time the whole trip my stomach was messed up. I needed to go number 2 and it didn't feel like it was going to be a fun one. I took care of business and sure enough something was wrong. I'm pretty sure it was the Mushroom Risotto which contained nutritional yeast, something that never really settles well with me. Either that, or I got something in the water (despite it being filtered) or it was altitude sickness. Who knows. What I did know was that I had to be tough and move even if I wanted to crawl back into my sleeping bag with this miserable feeling in my guts. (I have since recovered just fine, and I think it was a combo of altitude and that dinner--not a water issue.)

Too early, too cold for smiles.
We were hiking by 4:05 a.m. with headlamps to guide us through the dark. My hands were still freezing with the cheap-ass gloves I brought, but I knew the climbing would get me warm. Like on Day 3, the granite mountain that we trekked up was laden with mini streams and waterfalls making for some tricky footing in the dark. The trail was tough to follow at times, and we had to be very focused on making sure we stayed on the right track. A couple people passed by us. Headlamps twinkled brightly in the distance; they seemed so far yet they were really only 1-2 miles from us. It was so weird that it was "crowded" at this time of morning at this remote spot on the Earth.

By 5 a.m. we were getting some natural light. From there we were treated to the most beautiful colors upon sunrise. Yet since we were on the westside of the mountain range (i.e. the backside going up Whitney) we were still completely shaded with no direct sunlight and it was getting windier and colder the higher up we got. Even though we were hiking some steep-ass climbs I was getting cold. The gear I brought was totally fine for all the other days, but for this day it was weak against the harsh winds and elevation. Btw, the westside (i.e. backside) hike up Whitney is said to be more difficult than the front side--steeper and tougher terrain.

A sunrise worth getting up for.

Earning our view!

Within 50 minutes we went from 11,600 ft to over 12,000 ft elevation at what felt like a snail's pace. I thought 10k elevation was gnarly until now being at 12k. We moved slow but in reality we weren't going too incredibly slow all things considered (sub-40 min mile pace), including the fact that neither of us had even spent any time this high before in our lives, let alone exercising with packs this high.

By the 2-hour mark we hit 13,000 ft elevation. This is when shit starting hitting the fan for me. I was already having stomach issues as mentioned but crossing the threshold into 13k+ territory was when I started feeling like a piece of junk. Literal junk. Dizzy, foggy, weak, and tired like I just wanted to crawl up and sleep. It's like my body did not want to function yet I told it to keep moving forward. My brain could only focus on the task at hand--move the left foot forward, now move the right foot forward, repeat, and don't fall--nothing else more complex than that. I had to give every ounce of focus I had on making sure I hiked safely. Rest breaks became more frequent and I looked forward to each one as a chance to catch my breath--but even when we stopped I was out of breath.

We skipped making a hot breakfast on this morning and opted to eat bars while hiking. I also skipped coffee not sure if that was going to make my tummy issues worse. Without coffee I was even more of a zombie, no doubt. But it was better than having my guts in a knot and/or pooping my brains out.

Our first targeted destination was Trail Crest, at ~13,500ft, where you hit the turnoff to Mt. Whitney Summit. The best part about this spot is that it's well-established for backpackers to drop their packs and leave them there while making the final 1.9-mile hike to the summit without that extra weight. We couldn't wait to lose the weight for those final couple miles! We also knew we'd need more fuel at Trail Crest before the final ascent. In our planning the day before we toyed with making a real breakfast there thinking it was a campsite. Ha! That was not happening--Trail Crest is just a section of the trail with junction to Whitney and some rocks on which you can rest you backpack. Busting out gear to cook food was not an option whatsoever--plus at this point it was freaking freezing and windy up there and we were getting colder the longer we stood still at this junction. We just had to grab the most convenient dense calories we had. I snagged my PaleoKrunch granola, which over the trip had melted and re-hardened into a giant ball like a granola cookie and I just sat there biting off giant chunks, probably more than 500 calories worth, needing every single calorie. I was not thinking straight, and I left the bag on a rock with some granola still in it when we left to the summit--while we were gone the marmots got it. He's the healthiest marmot around now! Ha.

At Trail Crest you also intersect with folks climbing Whitney from the front side, i.e. the more popular side to get to Whitney in which you do need a permit, and they're not so easy to get. For those of us coming up the backside, it's such a hard destination to get to that they don't require a permit for Whitney--not to mention it would be a bitch for them to check for permits via the backside. 

It was fucking cold at Trail Crest. I was miserable and freezing and feeling dead this high up. The couple positives were that 1) we were SO close finally, and 2) my stomach felt a million times better, and no emergency bathroom stops needed, whew. (Btw--wag bags are needed at Guitar Lake and in the Whitney area, aka a bag you poop in then carry out). John was colder than me for once, as he had no really warm clothes at all and no gloves. He had the genius idea to put his dirty wool socks over his hands for warmth (aka "sock mittens!"), and I followed suite adding a pair of stinky socks over my shitty gloves, which actually was magical, warmed me up right away, and made the cold and wind less miserable to endure. 

In the moment, I really wasn't excited to hike another 2 miles up to Whitney, but there's no way I wasn't going to do it. Everyone coming down said it was windier and probably 20 degrees colder than Trail Crest even, where it was freezing enough to me. We couldn't waste any more time, we had to go and keep the blood flowing in our bodies. I didn't bring my trekking poles. The trail to the summit is a relatively safe route, well-maintained and well-traveled, despite it consisting of harsh loose rocks and boulders to climb over--Mt. Whitney is completely made of stone and rocks. Quite a beauty in its own way.

We had to cross through some snow in a steep area at over the 14k mark. I was so nervous to do this and did not want to slip, fall and die. But yet again there is no turning back, you keep going. We were so close. And once we hit the top it would be ALL downhill from there to the ultimate finish line.

These final miles to the top of Whitney were literally like a dream to me, and they did not feel like reality. I was SO out of it. It still doesn't even feel like it was a real thing that we did. I do remember John being incredibly excited to reach the summit, more excited than I expected. Getting to the top was actually very peaceful and we finally were getting some direct sunlight that warmed our shivering bodies. We made it to the top in just under 4 hours from our 4 a.m. departure; it had only been about 5 miles but was almost 4,000 ft feet higher up than where we started at Guitar Lake--all at elevations that aren't normal for humans.

Despite it being a Sunday with hundreds of people climbing to the summit, when we got to the top we were the only ones there. It was surreal. At that moment we were the highest two people in the contiguous United States, not something you can claim every day! We got a few photos, took in the sights, and then agreed, "Let's get the heck out of here and make our way down!"

Top of Mt. Whitney--just us so selfie it is!

Actually, they say it's officially 14, 508 ft now (it grew?!)

The jagged mountain top and glimpse of the trail to Whitney Summit. (That's me bottom right!)

Finally, we did it! And from here it was just 11-12 more miles or so to the finish line at Whitney Portal, and 99% downhill. We got our packs at Trail Crest and the water in my Camelbak nozzle and tube actually FROZE in the short time we were gone. I knew I needed water but it was hard to drink ice water at that point as you can imagine.

My body was so grateful to be done climbing--I gave it every ounce of effort I had within me and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life to summit Whitney on Day 6 into a 70+ mile thru-hike. But we did it.

Even though we were going downhill, the elevation still had me feeling like a zombie made of rubber--we were still very high up (over 13k) for the next couple hours as we carefully made our way down the 99 rocky switchbacks. Even on the downhills I was needing breaks. Thankfully the descent was on the eastside, and we had all the sun we needed to warm us up. The lower we got the warmer we got, shedding layers as we went. We stopped to snack and I was eating macaroons and trail mix like it was my job. My head was still foggy and body weak, and I was afraid it wouldn't get any better--I wanted to celebrate at the finish and was praying this horrible feeling would go away.

Then just like that, once we got below the 13k elevation mark the fog lifted, I had a little more pep in my step, and it just kept getting better from there. I could actually form sentences and hold a conversation again, and was feeling like my brain and muscles were working like normal! My stomach was ok again too, not great, but nowhere near as bad as it had been.

By 10k I felt like I could run a marathon in sub 3:30--I felt that much better! It was incredible to feel the difference in elevations, and now 10k was easy where as on Day 3, 10k was a bitch.

Ok, now this is where I say that coming down from Whitney overall was not the funnest. Quite frankly it sucked and I was so over those 99 annoying switchbacks. The trail was nearly all rocks and steep stone steps, making for a slow descent for the first ~8 miles. I was DONE. So ready to be at Whitney portal. It made met think: HOW the heck to Badwater participants finish their 135 miles and THEN summit Whitney?!??!?!!? What?! I have a whole new respect for anyone who does that.

We stopped for another break to shed final layers, and I yanked out our week-old cold-brew coffee concentrate that we had left--maybe 4-6 oz remained at best--and we chugged it getting a welcomed jolt of energy to carry us the rest of the way down like two machines. The rocky terrain turned into dirt with less "stairs" and we found our stride, so excited to wrap this thing up. We hit some of our fastest miles of the whole trip at the end, going a sub-20 pace.

Then 9.5 hours after starting in the dark that morning we made it to Whitney Portal. My parents were waiting at the trail. I cried with joy, so full of emotion from what we had just accomplished over these 6 days. It was the biggest sense of accomplishment ever next to finishing an Ironman. But I think part of me also got emotional because it was all-of-a-sudden done just like that, and we had to go back to the real world. As tough as the trip was, I truly loved every moment and will cherish it forever. 

We rested, I chugged a huge can of my favorite coconut water that my mom graciously brought for me, and then the greatest thing ever happened: I showered at the Whitney Portal General Store! The shower was as nasty as nasty gets from hikers cleaning off after days on the trail, but I didn't give a shit, it was like heaven.

We ended up camping at Whitney Portal that night, my parents had a nice spot and we were in no rush. We had fresh burgers, beers, sweet potato chips and salsa, and we shared stories into the night. John and I didn't even mind that our final night of the honeymoon was spent with my parents--they were too kind to do this favor for us, and it saved us a ton of time!

We got home Monday, cleaned up everything, then when out to wine and dine like normal people.

What a trip.

Tears, beers & smiles at the finish.

~~~

Resources

Click here for an open-access spreadsheet that includes our full gear list including everything we brought (with links), meal plan, travel plan, and HST specifics: timeline and camp distances.

Our Daily Stats via DeLorme:

Click here!

Note on the DeLorme: We think these stats will be less accurate because it only picked up a tracking point every 10 minutes (so it missed some of the intricate trail details to some degree), compared with the Garmin, which picks up a tracking point every minute or more. This was our choice to have the DeLorme tracking be less frequent in order on conserve battery.

Our Daily Stats via Garmin:

Day 1
1:20 PM start time
2:16:01 total time
19:56 avg moving pace
6.18 miles
1,306 ft gain
358 ft loss

Day 2 
7:43 AM start time
4:48:00 total time
21:28 avg moving pace
10.16 miles
gain/loss TBD (garmin glitch)

Day 3
6:48 AM start time
8:49:17 total time
23:09 avg moving pace
16.25 miles
3,448 ft gain
2,438 ft loss

Day 4 pt 1
8:10 AM start time
4:10 total time
22:10 avg moving pace
8.14 miles
335 ft gain
2,513 ft loss

Day 4 pt 2
new file after we decided to do the next day's mileage after all
2:17 PM start time
4:19:53 total time
20:02 avg moving pace
9.87 miles
1,916 ft gain
200 ft loss

(Day 4 totals: 8.5 hours, 18 miles)
Day 5
7:15 AM start time
6:17:01 total time
25:13 avg moving pace
11.0 miles
3,192 ft gain
712 ft loss

Day 6 (Whitney)
4:05 AM start time
9:37:46 total time
24:59 avg moving pace
16.66 miles
3,835 ft gain
6,739 ft loss (ouch)

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That's enough for this post. In my next post I'll cover the mistakes we made, what we'd do differently, what we did that was really smart, the best things we brought, and more tips & nuggets of advice for your backpacking adventures!