"You need more will than skill"...Muhammed Ali
What is it about the half century mark that gives us irrational ideas and, worse still, in the delirium of denial we put all reason aside and believe we should act on them?
This was my condition in the summer of turning 50 when, needing to make some kind of statement, I decided to climb the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. Forget that my only backpacking experience was an overnight trip to the desert, flat terrain, and even then I managed to run out of water. I had to look up what was the highest mountain -- voila! Mt. Whitney, right here in California! Must be I was meant to go!
I called two buddies who also had no outdoor experience to come along. “Hey, I’m going to climb Mt. Whitney, want to go?” I heard some foot dragging. “I can go with you, or I can go without you”. So we started training on local San Diego mountains, I read up on basic mountaineering, and come August we were ready.
My buddies were Jonathan, age 43, Jewish, from the Bronx, and Ricardo, age 38, Mexican-American. Mostly we hung out eating, dancing, and going to concerts. This outdoor stuff was new to all of us. During our training climbs, Ricardo was pretty strong, like a mountain goat going uphill, but I worried about Jonathan. He seemed to lag behind sometimes.
Mt. Whitney is 11 miles uphill, 22 miles roundtrip, and not an exceptionally beautiful mountain. Its popularity comes from being the highest by a few feet in the lower 48. One of the 14'ers.
The usual game plan is drive to Lone Pine in the valley, overnight in a motel, drive up to Whitney Portal trailhead at 8,360' early the morning of the climb, ascend six miles to Trail Camp at 12,000’, overnight in tent, and start climbing early the next morning to bag the summit at 14,000’ and enough time to descend to the trailhead. The first problem here is going from San Diego sea level to 12,000’ in less than two days, and 14,000’ on the third day -- the rule of thumb for ascending is 1,000' a day for acclimatization. The second is the total mileage on the second climbing day was 16 mountain miles. Nevertheless, we were up for it.
We discovered the first problem getting on our backpacks. As novices we didn't realize how heavy these suckers could be, especially if you pack things like fresh peaches for dinner, blue jeans to change into for camp lounging, extra shoes, etc.
We had a sunny day, and about a mile up the trail we entered the John Muir Wilderness -- and the switchbacks, which came to be an s- word for us. Still everything was beautiful, forests of pine trees, mountain streams, and more switchbacks.
At about 4 miles we approached Outpost Camp, 10,360', where many hikers spend the first night, taking three days to finish the mountain instead of the two we had planned. We had two more long miles up, but Ricardo and I learned at Outpost Camp how to take a nap without taking off our backpacks.
We left the forests behind at tree line, and we were feeling the effects of altitude and our backpacks. At about 11,500, Ricardo sat down. He wasn't sure he could go on. Jonathan went ahead to set up camp. I counseled Ricardo -- "it's not much farther, camp will be ready and you can lie down, you're doing a good job...", all the while wondering what are the choices in this situation. (Click on photo to see close up of "counseling with a view"; Ricardo and I are the two figures to the right). To his credit, Ricardo did get up and made it to Trail Camp at 12,000'.
Our energy returned fairly quickly. We hung our food out of reach of the marmots, purified some water from the lake, pitched the tent, and started dinner. Jonathan's main course contribution was an inedible gruel from Amway -- yes, believe it or not, from Amway. I thought of the Korean prisoner of war story I used to tell the children to get them to eat, but at 12,000' there's not much appetite for anything. Thank God for those peaches!
Nigthtime in the mountains is incredibly beautiful as the sky turns navy, the moon comes out, and the Milky Way is completely visible across the sky. From our tent we could see the row of Palisades and at the very end, the Whitney summit. Tomorrow we would be climbing to the top of the Palisades and crossing near the top on the backside over to the summit.
Sleep doesn't come easily at higher altitudes, not enough oxygen to the brain, and this night was no exception. Early the next morning, I set out with Jonathan, hungry, tired, and cramping from my period that started during the night. Ricardo decided to stay back at camp as he was still feeling the effects of altitude. Ahead of us lay ninety six grueling switchbacks leading up to the crest. We took a rest halfway up, and I ate some crackers to settle the nausea, and put my head between my knees. Jonathan was still going strong. My pre-trip worries about him were clearly unfounded.
We reached the palisades ridge in good time, the point where the trail enters Sequoia National Park. Now only about two and a half miles, nearly a straight shot over to the Whitney summit. The route ahead was on the crest of the palisades, narrow at some points, and on the left nearly straight down a couple thousand feet - not a place you want to lose your footing. At some points, the trail narrows to a bridge like place, and a couple thousand feet down on either side. I learned here about Jonathan's fear of heights, and he wasn't sure he could cross these little bridge like places. Again some coaxing, and he crossed on all fours. Whatever it takes, I thought.
The views were becoming more spectacular, and I realized the only people who get to see this are those who come on foot.
Finally, the summit. Those who ask why do we climb have never climbed themselves. At this point, I was not a climber. I had set a goal based on a psychological need at the time but there was no identity as a mountaineer. That would come later.
As Jonathan and I descended to Trail Camp, we could see camp and the tent was still up. Jonathan was furious, it was getting late, why hadn't Ricardo packed up to be ready to move out quickly? This was the beginning of what we called "Jonathan on the edge". We had six more rugged downhill miles and it was almost five o'clock.
I took the lead and moved quickly. We didn't want to still be on the mountain at night. Ricardo brought up the rear, asking several times how much further and each time I responded, "two miles". In reality, I had no idea, but I knew we didn't have time to stop for a rest. It was getting dusk when we reached Outpost Camp, and Ricardo asked again. Jonathan hissed back, "she said it was two miles". We knew then Jonathan was really "on the edge". Darkness came, and we had some distance to go. Jonathan had slowed considerably, he was exhausted, and his hands were very swollen. I sent Ricardo ahead to bring the car up to the trail head. We had to physically load Jonathan into the car, but we were all back safe.
I thought to myself, good trip but I don't have to ever do this again...