Take a Trek

Day 17: Sierra Nevada Sinner

Tyndall Frog Ponds
 to Guitar Lake
Day: 10.4 Miles
Trip: 218.8 Miles

I’ve been told that the word sin is grossly misinterpreted. The original Hebrew definition for the word is to miss, or be absent. An archer, who fails to hit a target, has missed the point and sinned. Likewise, someone who lives their life without being alert, present, and mindful is missing the point of human existence and committing sin. I haven’t the slightest interest in debating historical religious metaphors right now, but maintaining a sense of presence is a concept that’s been important to me throughout my JMT hike. Standing here, in Bighorn Plateau, I realize that walking through these mountains, at a pace of two or three miles an hour, is too fast. The landscape that I’ve been traveling through, for the past two weeks, deserves a sense of presence that no backpacker could ever afford to give. I’m immensely grateful for this experience, and I hope to return to this trail with a slower stride someday, but right now I’m a Sierra Nevada Sinner.

Bighorn Plateau

Bighorn Plateau

I try to slow down and relish my last full day of hiking on the JMT, but my body moves like a finely tuned hiking machine that’s stuck in high gear. With no mountain passes to climb, I make the ten-mile jaunt to Guitar Lake in a few short hours and find myself sitting next to the water by noon.

Approaching Guitar Lake

Approaching Guitar Lake

Since it’s the last water source that southbound backpackers encounter, before summiting Mount Whitney, Guitar Lake is a popular spot to stop and camp for the night. Throughout the afternoon, hikers appear on the ridgeline, descend upon the outskirts of the lake, and erect their shelters. By four o’clock, more than thirty-five tarps and tents have been set up throughout the area, creating an environment of anxious anticipation that resembles the base camp for a major expedition.

Guitar Lake

Guitar Lake

A small community has amassed for the night, bound by a common thread of ambition: summiting Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Most of the people here are on short multi-day hiking trips, but there are a few other JMT thru-hikers in the vicinity, including Mark and Allen. The business of this place is slightly startling to us, considering the social void that existed on the previous two hundred miles of the John Muir Trail. I suppose I can consider the bustling social atmosphere of Guitar Lake a nice buffer for my return to society and all of its needy intricacies, when I reach Lone Pine tomorrow afternoon. The only other familiar faces that I see today are those of Josh and Mike, who will be spending the entirety of tomorrow taking photos at Guitar Lake. I appreciate their company, creative energy, and effort to travel slowly through these majestic mountains.

Camping at Guitar Lake

Camping at Guitar Lake

For the sixteenth and final time, on the John Muir Trail, I crawl into my shelter of nylon and polyester, slip into my down sleeping bag, and write in my journal. As I extend my arm to close the vestibule of my tent, the sky to the north rumbles abruptly. The space above the ridgeline fades to gray, and rain batters a range of mountains in the distance. The horizon possesses an allure of intimidation that begs me to reconsider the rumor I heard about bad weather coming to Mount Whitney tomorrow and the next day. Lying here, at 11,500 feet, I wonder if I’m about to get my retribution for being a Sierra Nevada Sinner.