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John Muir Trail: Day 2, Summit

Trail Camp is notorious for high winds, racing down the slopes of the mountains that surround it on three sides, ragged teeth against the sky. While the western slopes of the Sierra were molded primarily by glaciation, the east side was not, and lacks the resulting smooth curves and gentle valleys; the debate as to why this is remains ongoing. Some geologists advocate for an escarpment model, where fault-line activity resolved into a tear in the earth's crust, a massive uplift of rock; offshoots of this theory advocate for a moment arm, tilted sediment creating a sheer wall at one end as the other falls, a geological teeter-totter. Others say it's the result of a long-subducted tectonic plate bubbling to the surface in massive chunks of magma, and that this line represents the leading edge of the plate. Still others say that this is all true, and that there's even more to it than that. I don't pretend to have an answer, or to understand geology, but the sharp shift of character across the Sierra Crest always feels like being a part of the Earth's story, if only for a moment. Though we may not understand it, it almost feels like you can see, or maybe sense, the ground in motion.


I laid in my tent in absolute stillness. The air was motionless, the bright glow of a too-big moon lit up the soft plateau of Trail Camp. The rock wall built to protect from the roaring winds was a nice gesture, useless tonight, but at least it provided a home to the marmots and the chipmunks. Trail Camp is a flat bed of granite, nearly nowhere to dig a hole, for marmot purposes or otherwise. This would, hypothetically speaking, be a difficult thing to come to terms quickly with should one be in a hurry.


I checked my watch constantly, unable to sleep. Anticipation of the summit, another 3:15 start, and my relentless enthusiasm augmented my standard difficulty sleeping on the first few nights of any trip. I watched the hours close in on my alarm, and, as I debated '"just starting at 2:00 am, damn it", I caught just enough sleep for the gentle chime to be shocking. The crunch of footsteps a few moments later was encouragement-- there goes the early crowd. A lot of folks like to catch sunrise on Whitney; I've never been interested. Seems like an elaborate way to be cold. I like the moment a little later, where, from Trail Crest, the view to the west is one of mountaintops just glimmering with the first rays of sun, some morning alpenglow, the valleys in a gentle grey darkness. It's a soft pink, sometimes, a faint gold. And you get some extra rest. I packed up my gear and set out toward Trail Crest, some 1500' up. A hot breakfast is a luxury for tomorrow, I told myself-- let's get on the move.


Sunrise over the White Mountains. Trail Camp is the right shore of the bottom-center lake.


The climb up to Trail Crest was slow, largely because I couldn't stop looking at the progressing sunrise, or watching the headlamps below me. I wondered what time they'd make the top-- too late, I thought. I'm sure the folks higher up said the same about me. The morning wasn't cold, not like in early July in a high-snow year, the last time I was here. The heat wave may have made the entirety of the day a little warm, but at least in the darkness I was comfortable in shorts and a lightweight shirt. The switchbacks slowed the pace, as at every turn, the view unfolded, and the changing light brought a new perspective. My sleepy mind nearly stepped off the trail a few times-- sometimes it's a difficult distinction between a rock placed as a step and a rock placed to ward off a step. Regardless, the path is an incredible example of trail construction. And so, lost in thought on the nuances of 1904 blasting techniques, I found myself on the approach to Trail Crest.


A bit late at Trail Crest, but an incredible view nonetheless


The trail to Whitney proper is tough at the best of times, with decent exposure, crowds, and a great deal of poor footing. It's standard practice to break trail for a faster group or whoever is going uphill, which is difficult here even without the additional complexity of COVID; the extra distance is nearly impossible to find in some areas. The trail is a blaze across an otherwise uninterrupted talus field, as steep as 45 degrees in some areas, with chutes and couloirs offering more vertical drops to the basin below. The approach toward Whitney was a slow one, as the mountain is visible the whole time, slowly getting closer. While I could've left my bear can at the junction and picked it up on the way back from the summit, it was buried at the bottom of my pack. In retrospect, I'm not sure whether I regret this decision or not. It wasn't the most efficient energy use, but the ability to cruise through the crowded trail junction on the way down and the security of not having my lifeline leave my sight were definitely perks. While some hikers leave their packs, I've seen the aggressive fauna chew through packs to get to food. Marmots don't usually live at that altitude, since there's nothing to eat; however, the population at Trail Crest and the trail junction is well-established. In my mind, that's not a risk worth taking.


The summit itself has the expansive, panoramic views you'd expect from the tallest peak in the continental US, and a hut built as an emergency shelter for astronomers in 1909 after a scientist was struck and killed in 1904. We'll pause for a photo break before gracefully segueing into the real history of this land.


The east aspect of the summit, the hut, and an absolute gumby


 

While John Muir was an outspoken advocate for these lands in his later years, he was also one of its first destroyers. A shepherd, he drove the animals he later called "hoofed locusts" into pristine mountain meadows, fragile lands that would take decades to recover. Portions of high-altitude grassland will genuinely never be the same. Yosemite, and eventually the areas today comprising Sequoia and King's Canyon Nat'l Parks (SEKI), were preserved under the notion that the land was best cared for by the government, to protect from the logging industries and those who would seek to profit from it.


In enacting these protections, the US government found sufficient reason to force the remaining indigenous folks living nearby off of their heritage land. This continued a centuries-long effort to strip indigenous tribes of their rights and their lands. In the Sierra Nevada, this includes, to my knowledge:

  • the Diné, incorrectly Najavo, displaced from the western reach of the Great Basin, lands including Lone Pine, Big Pine, and Bishop. These wonderful articles from Project 562 and from REI detail a significant reclamation and renaming effort undertaken by indigenous women, largely of Diné and Paiute heritage-- they are far more worth reading than this blog. Should you feel even slightly interested, I'd encourage you to check either link out.

  • the Northern, Central, and Southern Sierra Miwok, displaced from the lands around the Mokelumne, Calaveras, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, and Chowchilla Rivers (in many ways the heart of the Sierra). 'Yosemite' is a Miwok description of a neighboring tribe (the Awanechee), misattributed to the valley itself by colonialist settlers who violently drove that tribe out of their homeland (Ahwahnee, incorrectly Yosemite Valley).

  • the Northern Paiute, displaced from the north-west portion of the Great Basin, abutting the Sierra on the eastern slopes, and much of the northern range itself. The original name for Mt. Whitney is Tumanguya, a Paiute or Shoshone name meaning "The Very Old Man". Mt. Whitney bears great cultural and spiritual significance to many indigenous tribes.

  • the Nüümü, incorrectly Eastern Mono or Owens Valley Paiute, displaced from the Owens River and Owens Valley areas.

  • the Nyyhmy /Nimi, incorrectly Monache, or Western Mono, displaced from the area surrounding Mono Lake and the Mono Basin.

  • the Yokuts, properly referred to by the myriad sub-groups, tribes, bands, and communities, displaced from the San Joaquin Valley and the western foothills of the Sierra.

  • the Wašišiw, incorrectly Washoe, displaced from the lands surrounding Lake Tahoe.

  • the Tübatulabal, properly referred to by various bands, displaced from the banks of the Kern River and surrounding lands.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it is a critical aside. The state of the land as received by colonialist governments was one of understanding and care-- animals hunted sustainably, forests and ground cover burned occasionally to allow for new growth and to limit the risk of destructive wildfires, the proper crops planted at the proper times in the proper places. The land wasn't just a livelihood and a physical locale-- for many tribes, it was the root of their culture. Their connection to the land was, and is, sacred.


An unforgivable crime, among many, against indigenous folks is the revisionist history that has written them off as relics of the past. Most of the tribes listed above are active to this day, some on reservations, some as local chapters, others fighting for land grants from the government. If we truly care about the land, we should fight to see it given back to the folks who steward it the best. And if we care at all about the genocide committed in the process of stealing the land from the folks who had it first, we should work to see reparations made-- as if money and land could ever be enough.


And with that, we'll get back to the hiking.


 

I wasn't necessarily excited to be on Whitney-- the JMT doesn't officially start until the summit, and I'd stood here before, so in some ways, the process to have gotten here lacked weight. That said, the route I had taken was the second most direct, and with my unsuccessful bid on Mountaineer's Route in mind, the quickest feasible way to the summit. Nothing wrong with an approach from Cottonwood, but the fact remained: I had yet to take a step on the trail proper. I played photographer for some groups, took in the view, and quickly headed back to the junction-- horrifyingly crowded, poor mask etiquette, and a good place to breeze through. Luckily, the moment I headed down, the feeling of isolation common to the backcountry swept over me. I saw one group heading up, and passed one heading down. Everyone out here was in it for the long haul.


The day continued to heat up, and I took reprieve from the noontime sun in a bivy site at Guitar Lake-- a good spot for lunch. Nestled under an overhanging boulder, there was just enough shade in this tiny cave to get my cross-legged self and my water bottles out of the sun, and frankly, that's all I needed. The lake was unbelievably warm, and was I not so behind the pace, I would've swam for sure. After all, I was supposed to have woken up here on Day 2. However, with fresh water, some food, and slightly rested legs, I plunged down into the the trees.


This is somewhere in the vicinity of Crabtree... maybe


My original plan for Day 2 was to camp at Tyndall Creek, a handful of miles before Forester Pass; close enough to make it over the pass in the morning, far enough back to avoid a huge climb at the end of the day. With the addition of Whitney, and with two weeks remaining to make up the time, I adjusted my goal to Wallace Creek, a similar site only 4 miles prior. I cruised through the glacial valleys, carved these days by trickling streams, surrounded by pine and by granite walls, by lush meadows, the dirt trail pockmarked with protruding rocks, the sky dotted with wispy clouds... which turned to quickly swirling grey clouds... which turned to heavy, dark clouds laden with no small quantity of rain. A rapidly building thunderstorm. I may be relatively experienced in the outdoors, but I can't stand getting wet. The decision to stop at Wallace became underlined, and I jogged the last few miles to camp. As I arrived, I saw gear everywhere, clothing, tents, and sleeping bags out to dry, on clotheslines, on every rock, and on any sun-facing tree branch. The imminent storm was better weather than what the folks headed south over Forester had encountered, and they were taking their last opportunity to dry their gear before the next storm hit and before night fell. As I cooked dinner and watched the sky, the clouds took a hard right turn and passed us by. I breathed a sigh of relief, though less so, I imagine, than the southbounders. I finished my dinner, watched the beginning of a sunset, settled into my sleeping bag, and struggled to fall asleep for approximately 2 minutes.


And with that, another day on the JMT, or perhaps more correctly the Nüümü Poyo, done.




Stats for the day:

15.5 mi

+3700' / -5300'


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Hey, thanks for stopping by!

I appreciate you reading! I hope it was fun, useful, or interesting.

 

The dream is that by running this blog, I can give those I care about a way to keep up to date with what I'm doing. Bonus points if someone stumbles across this and it helps them plan a trip or get into the outdoors. Always feel free to drop me a line if you've got questions about anything posted here!

Much love,

Riley

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