Tuesday, July 15, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 34 — Timberline Lake to Whitney Portal

I got out of the tent at the first hint of daybreak and started cooking.  Already, dark clouds had gathered over Mount Hitchcock, Mount Muir and Mount Whitney, and the air bit with cold.  We planned to summit Mount Whitney that day, which would entail taking a side trail from the top of the pass, adding approximately four miles roundtrip.  After summiting we planned to drop down a couple thousand feet to pitch our tent at a place called Trail Camp on the mountain’s eastern flank.  The following day it would only be seven miles to Whitney Portal where we’d eat greasy food, meet my parents and end our adventure.

But as I cooked breakfast that morning, wind whipped across the land and clouds swirled in angrily from the southeast, mounting against the peaks like some empyrean army come to smother the world.  It seemed questionable that we could reach the summit before a storm ripped the sky, and I woke Pam earlier than normal.  “We’re going to have to really push to make it up there before lightning hits.”

Our gear was still damp as we packed, and we wore our stocking hats and jackets to blunt the cold wind as we hiked.  It was a steep climb, more than 2,000 feet of rock faces and talus slopes from Timberline Lake to the pass at Trail Crest—the whole world gone to jagged chunks of granite, pockets of emerald water, and a kaleidoscopic sky roiling with gray, white and blue.


We passed a group of hikers coming down off Whitney.  They had hiked up in the predawn hours using headlamps and spent the early morning on the summit.  “It’s seriously cold up there, and the weather is looking nasty” one of them said to us.  He looked at the boys with obvious concern.  “The wind gusts are crazy too and the trail gets pretty exposed.  Keep a hand on those guys.”

And he was right.  As we approached the top of the pass at Trail Crest, wind gusted over the crags like a blitz of freight engines.  I walked beside Kai and grabbed him a couple times as the wind blasted us and caused him to stumble.  Pam walked ahead of me with Noah and kept a steady hand on him as well.

We finally topped the pass, standing straddle-legged against the wind on a narrow shelf of rock, and we found the side trail to the Mount Whitney Summit.  We took off our packs and hunkered together on the leeward side of rock.

“What do you guys think?”  We nearly had to shout to hear each other over the wind.  Above us and to the southwest the sky was a dark ocean of clouds, but large patches of blue ran out from the eastern slope and across the desert.  “It could take an hour or more for us to get to the summit and back, and the storm is definitely coming this way quick.”  The clouds weren’t moving fast, but they were marching steadily in our direction and they looked threatening.

“I really want to get to the top of Whitney,” Noah said.  He looked so earnest, and I could tell the goal had really been driving him.  “I mean we came all this way.  I just really want to be up there.”

“I know.  Me too.”  I was proud of him for wanting it, and a reckless part of me wanted to roll the dice to make it happen for him.  “But it could get ugly really fast.  It’s probably smarter to back off.  We can come back and climb it later.  Even big-time mountaineers back down when it feels too dangerous.  That way they live to climb another day.”


Pam pointed to a sign nearby with big bold letters that read, Extreme danger from lightning.  To avoid being struck by lightning, immediately leave the area if any of the following conditions exist.  Dark clouds nearby, thunder, hail or rain hissing in the air, static electricity in the hair or fingertips.  “We should probably pay attention to that,” she said.

Just then a huge gust of wind tore over the ridge and rattled us even behind the large rock.  “Wind like that could blow these guys off the mountain,” she added.

And it was true.  The wind was a monster that morning.

But Noah looked crushed.  He even had tears in the corners of his eyes, and that was the hardest thing for me, knowing that my eleven-year-old son wanted to climb a mountain that badly, understanding how proud of himself he’d be for accomplishing it.  My boys had hiked more than two hundred miles with me.  They’d been hungry for days and pushed on through miles of exhaustion, and they’d amazed me with how little they’d complained.  They’d been tougher than I could have dreamed, and I couldn’t have been more proud of them.  I didn’t want them to walk away from this summer with even the slightest feeling of failure.

“Mom and I want to stand on top of Whitney with you today, buddy.  Believe me, we do.  But it’s just not the day for it.  It’s not safe.  But we’ll come back.  We’ll climb this mountain together some sunny day.  We really will.”

Noah nodded a little, his face full of disappointment.  “You promise?”

“I do.  We’ll stand up there together.  I promise.”

He nodded, and I hugged both boys, squeezed them tight and held them.  “I can’t tell you guys how proud of you I am.  You’ve hiked so far with so much grit, and you could easily get to the top of Whitney from here.  It’s not even much higher than where we are right now.  It’s just the weather.  It’s not safe, and it would be dumb for Mom and me to take you up there.”


“You guys have hiked the whole John Muir Trail!” Pam added, joining us in a big family hug.  “You did it, and you were so tough about it.  You guys are amazing!”

As we let go of each other I smiled at them.  “You know what this means, don’t you?”

They looked confused.  “That we’re not going the top of Mount Whitney,” Kai answered.

“Well, yeah.  But it also means we’re cutting out four miles of hiking.  It’s only eight and a half miles from here to Whitney Portal.  If you guys are up for it, we can skip Trail Camp and be eating at a restaurant this evening.  You can see Grammy and Papa and Franklin.”

“Really?”  They both smiled.   “It will be fun to hold Franklin,” Kai said.  “He’ll remember us won’t he?”  Franklin was our pet Chihuahua, a tiny, blind runt of a dog that we all loved to death.

“Of course he will,” Pam said.  “He’ll be so excited to see you.”

The wind stayed wild, and Pam and I walked close to the boys, grabbing them whenever a big gust hit.  Noah still seemed sad that we hadn’t been able to summit Whitney, and at one point he looked up at me and said, “It feels kind of weird that we’ve already spent our last night on the trail.”

A twinge of sadness stabbed at my gut.  This grand trip that I had dreamed about for the better part of a year and enjoyed living for the past month was almost over—no more going to sleep side by side in the tent every night and waking together in a pile of sleeping bags, no more sitting close and watching alpenglow slide across the granite peaks, no more swimming holes or long trail conversations.  “Yeah, it kind of makes me sad,” I answered.  “But we’ll be back.  Maybe next summer we can come back for a shorter trip, just hike to a high lake and hang out there for a few days.”


“That would be really fun,” Noah said.

As we wound our way down the 5,000-foot descent to Whitney Portal that afternoon I couldn’t watch my boys enough.  I walked behind them the whole way, trying to memorize what they looked like hiking beside each other, trying to burn the image into my brain—their strong, skinny, perfect, little-kid legs taking step after step after step.  They were so small when I really looked at them.  Sometimes I almost forgot how small they really were, and I told myself that I didn’t ever want to forget again because it would all be over way too soon.  They wouldn’t be boys much longer, and although I never doubted that I’d love the teenagers and men they’d grow into, I knew there would be a day when I would miss their childhoods to the point of tears.

I watched Pam too, with equally strong feelings.  Here she was, the girl I’d gotten to know almost twenty years earlier in Africa, a time that slipped away like a dream when I tried to grasp it in my memory, but she was with me, after all life’s crazy ups and downs she was still here with me.  We’d created these kids that we’d both fallen in love with, and we were still moving through the world together.  Step by step.

I think we all experienced some strong feelings that day.  There was something about walking those last few miles—knowing that day by day we’d passed through more than two hundred miles of the high Sierra wilderness in each other’s company—that heightened our feeling of togetherness.


At one point Noah and Kai walked side by side in front of me.  Noah turned to his little brother and asked, “So Kai, what do you plan to do with the rest of your life?”

Kai looked up at him, his face full of life.  “Where should I start?”

And they walked on, dreaming about the adventures and accomplishments that lay in store for them.  Step by step, I know they’ll get there.

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1Day2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Day 8Day 9Day 10Day 11Day 12Day 13Day 14Day 15Day 16Day 17Day 18Day 19Day 20Day 21Day 22Day 23Day 24Day 25Day 26Day 27Day 28Day 29Day 30Day 31Day 32Day 33Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.