North to South

Yeah, yeah, stop complaining. I know we just got over the highest pass on the JMT and all you'd really like is some downhill for once. But that's still to come. After Wallace Creek, it's all about the climb. And you've gotta do it. You've come this far, right? Our own approach (in 2002) was to hike the distance from Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake and then camp, saving the Whitney climb for first thing the next morning. Getting to Guitar Lake is easy enough, though the altitude and one's tolerance for trail mix by this stage of the hike can have a deleterious effect on one's stamina. By now, all you have left are the dried peas and roasted soy beans from Trader Joe's that you thought would be so tasty on the trail, but as energy foods, they just don't do the trick. From Guitar Lake the trail snakes upward along the base of Whitney until it finds a good spot, then it accordions upward in an intense series of switchbacks. When you sense you're near the top, forget about it. You're not there yet. But eventually you hit a nice long north-angled switchback and when you round that last bend, the junction with the summit spur trail looms into view. Drop your packs at the junction grab some fluid, some suncreen, a camera and head up toward the summit. If you have some sparkling wine, bring that, too. The spur is a dizzying, rocky extravaganza that seems to know that the air is thin and you've just come up about a million feet. And no matter what time of day it is, there are about a hundred people between you and the summit. But don't worry. Most of them are off the trail vomiting into the talus. You can stride past them. After all, you were just in Happy Isles, weren't you? These people just got off the bus from McDonald's. When you get to the top, linger there for a while. Open the sparkling wine. Try to aim the bottle at your camp cup. You'll lose most of it upon opening, and you want to have at least a mouthful. Have someone take your picture. Dance a little. Try to catch a marmot. Celebrate your achievement. You've finished the John Muir Trail. From here on out it's a downhill ride.

South to North

It's always the same when you arrive at the trailhead. You tumble out of the car, skin numb from the A/C (if you're lucky enough to have it) surprised at the chill in the air, the silence, the hiss of wind through the pines, you still have the film of that Big Mac in your mouth (don't worry, you'll be throwing it up soon) and the melody f that Steely Dan song you were just listening to (or that Alice in Chains tune, or that Streisand ballad, or that Jimmy van M mix...) rattling about in your brain. And with creaky knees, you begin to assemble your stuff. Welcome to the John Muir Trail. Actually, you're not there yet, and that's the funny part. The trail doesn't start until you reach the crest of Whitney. Following is the description of the trail:

You go up.

Ha-ha, no really.


There's lots of uphill between Whitney Portal and the top of Whitney. I'm not going to get more detailed than that because libraries have been written about the climb. The only thing I'll say is this: one or both of the solar toilets will probably be full. Have a contingency plan.

But once you get to the top of Whitney, your trip begins. The spur trail to the summit is the same for northbound as it is for southbound hikers (read the paragraph above for that description.) The only difference is that YOU might be one of the folks yakking into the talus on the side of the trail. Hang in there. It's a trial by fire, but once you begin the dizzying drop to the wilderness behind Whitney you'll have hit your highest point. The oxygen is far more plentiful from here on out.