High Sierra Trail Day 6 — Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney

Finally we reached our final day on the High Sierra Trail - the day we summit Mt. Whitney, the tallest point in the continuous U.S! This last day was an intense one, from experiencing some of the coldest and iciest hiking conditions to feeling emotional on top of the summit to descending over 6k feet in a day, we can definitely say finished our week on the trail with a bang!

 

Hike Info

Total Elevation Climbed: +3,415 ft
Total Elevation Lost: -6,617 ft
Net: -3,144 ft

Miles: 15.5
From: Guitar Lake (11,493 ft)
To: Whitney Portal (8,349 ft)

 

The Hike

We awoke to snow flurries falling down on us from the tent roof. The night before we had cancelled our idea of waking up at 3am to start hiking up Mt. Whitney to catch the sunrise from the peak because of how cold the temperatures were. After setting up camp at the end of our hike yesterday, we couldn't even do the dishes when it was still light out because the water would freeze instantly and encase our bowls with ice!

This morning the temperature was a little more bearable due to the lack of wind, but we all huddled in the tent to watch the sunrise and wait for the air to warm up a little more before getting moving.

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That night before was the coldest night I've ever experienced while camping. Even though it was only mid-September, we knew this camp site would be the coldest, especially with the combination of being over 11,000 ft in elevation combined with the storm that came through that morning. Our water tubes had frozen solid overnight and made it difficult to make coffee, but at least my PopTarts were frozen just the way I like to eat them.

Click here to read more about my favorite foods to bring backpacking

Eventually we able to brush the snow and ice off our gear, pack up, and start our long journey of the day.

The trail headed up the valley, slowly traversing up the back side of Mt. Whitney. The trail was mostly covered in slippery ice for the first hour due to the small springs and lakes running throughout the basin, but we soon reached drier terrain as we started up the steep switchbacks.

This is where we really started to feel the elevation and the thin air. Only a mile into the hike, we were already above 12,000 ft of elevation, and only 2.5 miles in we had passed the 13,000 ft mark. It's pretty crazy how much altitude can affect the body - we had to rest at every other switchback.

It's also crazy how well the body can perform under such stress. At 13,000 ft you are only intaking 37% of the normal oxygen you would get at sea level! And we're carrying full packs trying to climb up 3,000 ft! Furthermore, our hydration tubes were still frozen solid, so we didn't have easy access to water on the entire climb, adding to the challenge.

Resting at a switchback while climbing up the backside of Mt. Whitney

3.1 miles from Guitar Lake we finally reached the junction for the summit. We took a moment to soak in the spectacular views of the lakes below us and the mountain range in the distance. We could spot the snow covered Great Western Divide that we had crossed on day 3.

 Views of the Great Western Divide in the distance.. we came from the other side!

Views of the Great Western Divide in the distance.. we came from the other side!

From here we only had 2.4 miles to go to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the climax of our entire trip. We dropped our packs near the junction sign with a handful of other packs, and loaded up our daypacks. Another hiker gave us a heads up about the animals that can be found chewing through peoples packs for food, so we made sure to pack the rest of our food in our daypacks.

We headed north on the rocky, exposed route that traverses the western slope. The true summit can be difficult to spot until you are closer, but you can look for the Mt. Whitney Hut that was built over 100 years ago on top of one of the flat peaks.

Having only spotted a handful of hikers over the past week, it felt slightly unnatural navigating through the throngs of dayhikers also headed up to the summit. Even this late in the season the dayhike permits seem to be at max capacity. Seeing some of the struggling dayhikers also made feel grateful we were able to camp at 11,000 ft the night before to acclimate, the altitude is no joke!

We felt incredibly light with just our daypacks after hiking with heavy packs all week, so we covered the traverse quite quickly.

Click here for everything we packed

While passing in-between peaks, the rocky wall opens up to some pretty insane chutes that drop straight down from the rideline.

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After 1.9 miles from where we dropped our packs, the trail turned sharply east and headed straight up towards the summit.

As the hut came into sight and I got my first view of the desert valley on the other side, I felt so relieved and a little emotional... I can't believe actually did it! We were standing on top of the tallest point in the continuous U.S looking! Up here at 14,505 feet, we had clear views of both the desert Owens Valley on one side and the entire Sierra on the other. We could even see the western border of the Sierra, the Great Western Divide, from this point, and at this point I couldn't even wrap my head around the fact that we walked from the other side of those snowy mountains far in the distance.

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After relaxing, having a snack, and checking our phones with the 3G, we begrudgingly headed back. We still had a long ways to hike back to the car. Once we picked up our packs, it was another 100 yards to climb up to the Trail Crest, the dividing point between the western and eastern Sierra.

 Looking over the eastern side from the Trail Crest

Looking over the eastern side from the Trail Crest

We started our descent down the mountain with the infamous '99 switchbacks', and yes there are 99 of them. We also passed a particularly hazardous section marked with cables where the entire trail was covered in slick ice right and perched on the edge of a drop off, but with some slow butt scooting, we were able to make it by without crampons.

After the trail leveled out after the endless switchbacks, we reached Trail Camp Pond (12,005 ft) and a flat open area where several tents were set up. This is where many hikers will stay the night to prepare for the summit the next day when hiking in from Whitney Portal, and it is also the first source of water we reached since leaving Guitar Lake early that morning. Passing Trail Camp meant we had 6.3 miles to go.

We continued downhill following Lone Pine Creek till we hit Mirror Lake (10,673 ft), 1.8 miles from Trail Camp. This lake was smaller, but quite picturesque with trees lining the shore and tall cliffs surrounding the edge. There was also no camping here, likely to preserve the pristine area.

0.7 miles later we reached Outpost Camp (10,400 ft), which was even busier than Trail Camp. Outpost Camp felt more welcoming compared to the rocky and windy Trail Camp since the former sits below the tree-line, is near the lush Bighorn Meadow, offers lots of flat sites to choose from, and even has a substantial 50 foot waterfall in sight.

 Outpost Camp with the waterfall in the background

Outpost Camp with the waterfall in the background

The final 3.8 miles were hard on my legs, which were so exhausted from the past consecutive 15 mile days. The only thing keeping us going was seeing Owens Valley in the distance getting closer and closer. We could spot many of the day hikers also making their way back to the portal ahead of us, and eventually we spotted the paved road and cars at the very bottom of the mountain side.

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As we walked up to our car that we had dropped off 6 days ago, we hugged and celebrated - we actually DID IT, we finished the 72 mile High Sierra Trail in 6 days! It felt surreal getting in a vehicle and moving faster than 3 mph as we zoomed down the mountain.

 

Read More About the High Sierra Trail

Itinerary:
Day 1: Crescent Meadow to 9 Mile Creek
Day 2: 9 Mile Creek to Hamilton Lake
Day 3: Hamilton Lake to Moraine Lake
Day 4: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
Day 5: Junction Meadow to Guitar Lake
Day 6: Guitar Lake out to Whitney Portal

More Posts to Help You Plan:
Backpacking the High Sierra Trail overview
How to plan transportation for the HST
What I packed for the High Sierra Trail
Favorite backpacking meals and foods

 

Some of the photos in this post are by Edmond Kwok (Instagram: @edd.kwok)