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Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the trail did not switch back anymore, but continued on up towards a very windy pass, where a number of people were huddled together. I have reached Trail Crest at 13,500 feet. This marks the spot where the John Muir Trail ends. The trail drops down for 50 feet or so as it veers right for the final 2.4 miles to the highest point in the lower 48 states (at this point I should confess I couldn't care less).
(Left): Looking west towards Sequoia National Park from just past Trail Crest at 13,600 feet, with a direct view of the north face of Mt. Hitchcock (13,184) and the Hitchcock Lakes. Mt. Guyot (12,300) is in the background. The Pacific Crest Trail is over yonder.
The trail continues on to piles of granite blocks. This is where Whitney loses style points in my book: at this point the summit is not visible until one gets to within 150 yards of it. There I was, half-consciously following the trail and lo and behold! there is the summit lodge! Six and a half hours after leaving Whitney Portal, I reached the summit. The summit itself, was... well...how shall I put it? A letdown? A disappointment? I dunno, but somehow I imagined the highest point to be something special. Yeah, you get the panoramic views, but I guess I expected something extra special.
(Right): The summit lodge.
(Left): Looking north from the highest point in the contiguous United States.
At this point I knew I'd be in trouble if I don't eat something before I headed back down. So I went inside the lodge and ate an apple. At this point I had a terrible headache and feeling very drowsy. I gathered all my stuff and started my descent. The descent turned out to be a bigger adventure than the ascent. I had difficulty balancing on the exposed sections of the trail just below the summit. The little dip at Trail Crest on the way up is now, of course, an exhausting climb up. I had to stop and catch my breath at the junction. I woke up half and hour later. Terrified, I continued on down. Within 100 yards I started salivating...feeling queasy...I leaned over the edge of the trail and left undigested M&M's and apple as my calling card. With them went all my energy. Not having replenished my fuel supply, I was running (or, more aptly, staggering) on empty. And I still have more than 8 miles to go...I was counting steps. Why is that man bent over? (It was a tree stump.) Images of human beings morphed into trees. This is scary, I thought. A woman from Germany who I'd passed on the way up caught up with me on the switchbacks. She started up a conversation. This kept me conscious and kept my mind off the interminable switchbacks. Finally I couldn't keep up with her and she went ahead.
The rest of the descent pretty much went the same way. The miles just did not come quickly enough, and I was helpless to do anything about it. Finally, at 7PM, just as the place got engulfed with total darkness, I rounded the final turn and found myself on Whitney Portal Road. I got in my car, turned the heater on, and closed my eyes. It's taken me 1 1/2 hours longer to come down than to go up. I popped an Aleve for my headache. My mind started drifting. The folks are just now arriving in Yosemite Valley for tomorrow's work, I thought. No way I could make that drive tonight...
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