Our Mt. Whitney summit hike. August 29 - September 1, 2015.
With Bjorn and Roar. Three intrepid city folks. Checking off that bucket list.
That’s how I felt after those long terribly arduous steps, painful-step-after-painful-step, laboriously ascending up and up, to the top of the highest mountain, and then the endless trek down down down, still not there yet, down down down some more. Freaking. Arduous. Steps. And then I actually survived it.
Pity I didn’t have the presence of mind to overcome the altitude illness and take way more pictures than I now see on my phone. Heck I had already dragged myself there, why not, my now rational mind laments. But at that time, in survival mode, in oxygen depleted brain mode, I have to give credit to Bjorn and Roar for patiently waiting for me, for insisting that I take and keep the lead, set the pace, however sluggish.
My knees were screaming bloody murder. My left ankle buckled a few times and would have twisted out of socket if not for my sturdy high top Salomons. My thigh muscles were almost spent, threatening to cramp up. My calves actually kept up. So did my arms, and back and hips holding up the backpack. Labored but managed. My lungs and heart needed to do more to distribute the thin oxygen to my legs, but I think they did the best they could with the limited high altitude training I had.
Looking back at the pictures from the top, I did not look good. No model there. No make pretty. No tough cool champion winner picture to mark that truly triumphant moment in time. I was freezing cold, feeling bloody ill, dry heaving, simply miserable, and just wanting to sit down and sleep and not think about the next steps and hours that will add to the hellish experience. I had on as many layers of clothing that I had brought, my dark glasses balanced clumsily over my real glasses (because I did not, and could not due to bloodied fingers, put on my contacts), and my oversized Team USA Olympic windbreaker over every top I had, making me look more than a little odd.
Lady luck on our side has to be acknowledged.
Amazingly great weather. Could not have asked for sunnier cooler days, brighter moonlit nights. Yes it was bloody freezing, but it could have been way worse. No rain. No lightning. No snow. No hurricane winds. No smoke from the nearby raging fires. No earthquake. No rockslides near us, except one we saw from afar at Crabtree Meadows. No bears. No bugs even. Simply Nature being kind to us, letting us come visit, and leave in peace.
No injuries, beyond the cuts and scrapes and bruises and dead toenails. And throbbing knees and ankles, calf and thigh muscles. Nausea at the top, sleep and food deprivation. But all manageable. Testing my will power to limits beyond what I thought I had, and we made it anyway. No slips and falls. No sprained ankles. No major gashes needing first aid kit bandages. The bloody cuts in 6 of my fingers will take a few weeks to properly heal, but it’s nothing compared with what could have been.
The radio channel in my mind played selected songs and tunes that kept me company all the way. It also served as a very important distraction to keep the demons at bay. No thoughts of anything other than the next steps ahead and gratitude for the trail setters and grand beauty and raw nature around me.
Songs sung by the chipmunks Alvin and gang, because we saw so many cute scrambly little chipmunks all along the way. One can see why songs were written with them. We also saw little sparrow like birds all the way, including a greeter sparrow at the top. But I knew no songs associated with sparrows.
The chipmunk songs were all about Christmas. So it was a fun little early Christmas party on the mountains for 4 days. I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Jingle Bells, Rudolf the red nose reindeer, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman. And perhaps a few more I can’t remember now.
Mary Poppins was also there. With renditions of Chim Chimeney, Chim chimeny, chim chim cheery. And Superfragilisticexpialiocious.
Sound of Music, of course. Do Re Mi. Climb Every Mountain made me cry. Perhaps it was the moment in time when that song came up. It was the 3rd or last day, I forget now, but I was a combination of exhausted and ill and humbled and awed at the same time.
I Will Survive. Yeah, this one got lots of air time. Played in repeat mode and sustained me over many tough parts.
A few inspiring Catholic songs and prayers kept my spirit fed and rejuvenated. How great Thou art. Come Holy Spirit. Our Father. Hail Mary. I simply had to express my respects and gratitude.
So how was it like?
In summary, a few emotions and descriptive words played in my mind randomly, as my body pushed itself forward. My body’s muscle memory kicked into action pretty independently, leaving my mind free to wonder about, an ADD's dream!
The scene - magnificent, beautiful, majestic, colorful, grey, simplicity, raw, nature, largess, silent, crisp, cold, fresh, magical, life itself.
The trail - rocky, sandy, gravelly, gentle slope, steep incline, steps up and down stones, some high and painful on the knees, some low and easy baby steps.
Sentinel – this was a one word description that popped in my head at various times when I passed yet another majestic tree – mostly Foxtail Pines, standing there silently, some for thousands of years, just there, perhaps watching us, perhaps not, just being there, part of nature, part of life, one of Gaia’s living forces.
The emotions – anticipatory (expecting to see a bear, which I never did), delight (when I finally saw deer on day 3), humor (at the cute quick footed scurrying chipmunks), caution (at the bold chubby marmots coming up close to see what they could snatch), caution/irritation (at the rougher parts of the trail), blissful (at the generally beautiful surroundings with friendly birds and chipmunks and patiently watchful families of trees, from babies to teens to solid grand majesties), wonder (at the majesty around me, the life, the timelessness, the silence).
Freaking arduous – an unfortunate use of the f-word on many occasions to signify the lack of control in my mind, when anger took over to keep me in survival mode - when i had taken step after painful step and then looking up, seeing that we were not much nearer. And the same happened when we went down, step after painful step, and still miles and miles, hours and hours away from the end. Yeah f-it was used a few too many times. Survival mode - Don’t get mad, get even mode. Pushed into a corner and fighting back like an injured animal mode. Fucking trail, when it was too gravelly and rocky and high-stepping, and I had to make those bigger killing-the-knee steps up or down. Fucking stones, when it was just stones stones stones as far as the eye could see, stepping on stone after stone. Yeah, by the end of it, especially during the last 6 or so hours when we were in a push for time to get down, I did not want to see another stone and did not want to see yet another clever naturally designed trail for a long time to come. Give me the fake smooth tarred trails, the escalators, the walkalators.
Bloody murder – that’s what my legs were screaming, screeching, at me for the last hours of each day. Yeah, guilty. All I could do was push em on.
On eating and sleeping – for three foodies, we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory of having to force ourselves to eat. We ate maybe 20 to 30% of what we brought. We were practically begging people to take our chocolates and snacks to lighten our load since we could not leave it or trash it. ‘Pack out everything’ was the rule of that mountain. The food that we did stuff down was breakfast of coffee cocoa and oatmeal mix, dinner of dehydrated Mountain House meals, and bits of nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, food bars, energy chews. This chocoholic could not bring myself to eat any of the chocolate I carried though, not a bite. Sleeping was another challenge. Low oxygen, unfamiliar uncomfortable bedding in small tent, freezing cold conditions, all resulted in minimal hours of sleep each night leading up to the last day. Looking back, perhaps the people doing the summit all in one long day may not be worse off than those of us who had been sleep and calorie deprived for 3 days and then attempting the summit in depleted physical shape on a tediously long day 4.
The first close-up - A day before our 3:00 a.m. predawn trudge, I had looked up, one of my many look-ups, and caught a glimpse of The Mountain, the distinctive 3-sharktooth-formation peaking at us from behind a ridge formed by two closer peaks, “Why, hellooo there…” I heard it chuckle. Mt Whitney finally in sight, and it was watching us all that time.
I sent an earnest thought to The Mountain and the Gods to let us get up there safely, not a challenge, not a threat, not a ‘crush it’ moment, just to get up there and be there, to be in their presence. Can I? Pretty please? We are on our way. Huffing and puffing, but on our way. One small step at a time, one baby step at a time. Just put one foot in front of the other, while the music in my mind played on some Christmas or silly song to keep me distracted. It worked. I never had the demons come out to taunt me, or to gloat, or to threaten, or to question why I thought I was good enough for this. No. Those demons never made an appearance. Perhaps my body in survival mode was pure survival. A cure for depression and self-defeating thoughts. Just do it. One step at the time. Just do it, damn it. Because it was a long way to go up, and then a damned long way down again, the prime directive in my brain was that next step and then that next step after that. No room for other frivolous useless thoughts. Simply primal.
A day by day account, sort of.
Camped for the night at Horseshoe Meadows campground. Our last bit of so called civilized luxury with an outdoor tap on the ground for potable water, and a structure with two toilet stalls, holes in the ground that stunk, but it was a place to shit and pee without having to dig and bury, or fold and carry,
for the next 4 days. So used it we did. There were several other tents around us. Easily say 8 other camping groups. Some with big tents, most with smaller two or three-man tents, like ours. This camp site was quieter, and I thought, more mature than the Lagunas. No kids running around, no obnoxious music, just whispers, polite nods, and REI-outfitted adults.
The early trail was sandy, like walking on a beach, just above the water’s edge. High up in the mountains, no ocean in sight, just sandy, grabby, shifty grounds. We soon found ourselves high up, looking down and seeing the aptly named horse-shoe shaped meadow below us. As with most hikes, it’s almost a miracle how we simply get into ‘the zone’, just walking steadily step by step, and before you know it, you look down and the car, the earth, the past, is simply so far below. It seemed like you had just snapped your fingers, or clicked your heels, and suddenly appeared there, able to look down in amazement, in wonder, at the views and at the distance gained.
Day one night. For the very first time, camping in the middle of nowhere, in complete silence, amidst towering silent majestic pines, rocky outcrops, almost no bushes, mostly granite and gravelly sand. We found two flat spots steps off the trail. The river we could not hear or see was supposed to be down below the hill we were coming over. But it was getting late, dark, we had trekked for 12 hours, all tired, legs all sore, knees and ankles dangerously threatening to sabotage me, deep in the middle of nowhere. We had to stop, make camp. And it must have been the most memorable.
For the first time in my life, camping out in the wilderness where no one else existed around us. Maybe a bear or two called that ridge home too. Any other living creatures? Besides the silently watchful sentinels of ancient pines? When it really got darker and darker, and the surroundings became so obviously silent that my ears were ringing, I had to quell that feeling of a slow rising spread of imminent panic from my belly. The kind that engulfs you in a tipping point instant and is impossible to calm back down quickly. I had to not just ignore it, I had to nip it in the bud. Nipped it hard I did. Before I could really feel scared, I had this thought whiz by, “all God’s creatures, one by one, going to sleep for the night”. And sleep they must have, for I heard nothing all night, hard as I tried. Not even a whisper of wind thru the pines. No cricket calls, no hoots, no footsteps or pawsteps, no shuffling, no heavy breathing, no rustling, nothing. I had to pee, as usual. A damned irritating condition I seem to have developed over the years. At ten pm and again at one am. Twice, damned it. Why so much pee when I barely ate or drank anything. Was it the pee of anxiety? Luckily the bright cheery moon greeted me as I cautiously peeped out of my tent, after listening intently for the slightest sound of anything. Mother Moon directly above illuminated my surroundings, and it was just fine. Not a creature stirred, not a sound to be heard indeed. Just the looming sentinel pines, and the moonlight. I barely remember the shadows, they were there of course, but no emotion, no fear nor excitement, just there. I quelled my own imagination, and nothing crept up. I was just there, soaking in the act of being there. Nothing added, nothing taken away.
I woke up early, 5am. Had to pee anyway, and then I just stayed out. I wanted to just be there, in the presence of pure nature around me. Soaking it in - the moonlight, the coming dawn, the silence, the cool crisp air. Mother Moon, slightly off at an angle towards the west now, edging away but still illuminating our spot on the planet. I did an hour of chi kung and tai chi. I will be embellishing to say it was the best most magical chi kung I had ever done, but no, it was just simply so normal. Nothing supernatural, nothing out of the ordinary. It was what I meant it to be, just as always. A good calm peaceful relaxing moving meditation that my chi kung and tai chi moments are meant to be, the kind I like to have in the wee mornings at home, alone, in silence, as I feel the arrival of the sun, embrace the dawn of another day. Do I appreciate Nature more? Better to ask if I can understand Nature more. I think this experience deepened my understanding of what it means to truly appreciate Nature.
Up early, no coffee, just pack up and efficiently made our way down the hill to find that creek Bjorn knew was there. And so it was, within a what 20 or 30 minute walk? So near yet so far yesterday evening. Found a nice older maybe mid 70s couple, just finishing up breakfast. Pat and Mike. Pat with sensible short-cropped silvery hair. One of the few names we actually got from the numerous friendly strangers we chatted with. They had been to Whitney last year, no reason to do the same. Just out there to enjoy the beauty (arms waving in a 160-degree arc) and to be with nature. And I loved them for it. They shared some packing tips, food tips, ultra-light equipment tips. There’s a website, something with x or z in the name. Expensive but lightweight hiking gear, for the serious hikers. They have been at it for 15 years now. And counting…, it appeared. We had hoped to encounter them again ahead, and they said as much when they headed out about 30 minutes before we did, but we never did.
After Pat and Mike left, we finished up cleaning some clothes, refilling filtered water and did, or tried to, lighten our weight with some crapping. Bjorn had good bowel movement the entire trip. Roar and I, not so much. I dug my 6 inch hole but only one little two-incher squeezed out. That was supposed to have included all that buffet food we gorged ourselves on just a few days ago. I was so badly constipated, all I could do was fart during the treks. Camped in upper Crabtree. Beautiful open meadow, by a river, near a ranger station, by the John Muir trail.
There was a primitive toilet, with half walls on 2 sides, hole in the ground, stunk to high heaven. But we did not have to dig to bury our shit or worse, to pack it out. I tried again, very early in the morning so that there was not a line waiting around the corner. Still, 20 minutes later, a girl came up, and I was 3 minutes from done, and I was done. Just another little bit had emerged, but that was better than nothing at all.
A few other campers on the other side of the meadow.
The interesting friendly folks we passed by today included a young fit couple who had hiked for about 2 weeks already, from Yosemite, along the John Muir trail. Got to envy those fit young creatures.
At Guitar lake, which we came upon sooner than expected, met a 53 yr old nurse and her tall bearded son. They had been trekking for days from Yosemite along the John Muir. They were so done. But she added another important note. I was feeling very nauseous at that time and mentioned taking another altitude pill. She said I had better stick to my prescription, what was it, she was a nurse, and a doctor warned her that it was a blood thickener and that was perhaps more dangerous than altitude sickness, increases risk of strokes. That was all I needed to hear. Dry heaving was just fine.
Another propitious encounter was the gruff old guy, hiking alone, not exactly friendly but huffed a few words with us. Luckily Roar had the presence of mind to ask him if he was he same person we had met yesterday, we crossed each other’s paths when we first stopped to rest where he had been sleeping, then he continued on the trail and we passed him resting under a shady tree, then he passed us resting on some rocks. Then we passed him, then he passed us when we stopped by the river and I washed my hair for the first time all trip. No shampoo, just creek water over my head with vigorous scratching. It was afternoon, full sun, chilly but wonderful because of the sun. I had done it at the perfect time. The originally intended time when we had stopped to make camp would have been too cold. And indeed, when we reached the 2 little lakes above Guitar Lake, and saw a few topless guys sunning in the chilly freezing air, all I could do was bundle up and nap for 25 minutes. I felt much better after that. And we set out for the next higher little lake and found it much sooner than expected. Early dinner and snuggled into the sleeping bag by 7 or so.
Back to single man hiker - propitious because he indirectly jeered at us, huffing that he was a slow hiker and he had already been up and down Mt Whitney... And I must say, I didn’t think he looked fit enough. 50s perhaps, gruff, a little heavy, not too friendly chatty, complained that someone gave him wrong directions for his first 2 days, wasted his time. He said he started at 2am. Dark and dangerous? I stupidly asked. He said the moon was so full it can’t get any fuller. Indeed the moon light was amazing. We ended up not using our headlamps as we made our way up and up from 3am till sunrise at 6am. He must be credited for making that last bit literally safer for us by shaming us into starting out much earlier than planned. We ended up taking way much more time to get up and down than previously anticipated. And there were other hikers who had set out early, I heard the first steps around 12:30am, then 1:30, then 2 again, and then we saw them, rather saw their headlights, moving slowly up the side of the mountain. Up that side of the mountain that we had not expected.
The entire time at that last camp, we had been looking up at another side of the mountain, imagining a trail there. Wow. We thought these guys must have gone the wrong way, they must be heading back down soon to find the correct trail. But no. Straight up that side face of that mountain. We finally saw the trail too when we were on top of it. Switch backs here and there, and we had not been able to see it from below. A sinking thought passed thru before we set out, when we were still thinking that the lights ahead must be wrong, they’re gonna turn around any time now. We were pretty much all doing this for the very first time. Literally blind leading the blind. The only hope was the trail. The hope that the trail setters had maintained it well enough for us. And of course they did. It was a magical path that appeared before our eyes only when we got near enough to step on it. So it seemed at that time, at 3am.
So, if I were to summarize the lucky encounters with other hikers who imparted potentially serious important lessons:
1st Pat and Mike – Pat telling me that when I walked uphill, I should not be exhausted. Go at my pace. Mike saying that he carried little water, 2.5 liters, and he would always ask passing hikers about water ahead.
2nd – lone gruffy old guy hiker, 5 th or 6th encounter, last one at Guitar Lake as he was on his way down already. Luckily Roar spoke with him at the last encounter. He had left early at 2am, slow hiker, still making it all the way. Using the moon to shine our way. Made us change mind about leaving at 6am. That extra 3 hours was much much needed at the end, when we were desperate to reach Whitney Portal before dark. We had been so much slower than anticipated. Mainly because I had been so much sicker than I thought I could have been.
3rd – nurse at Guitar lake, warning, and actually reminding me about the implications of taking too many pills.
4th – young hikers at Crabtree camp site – guy who had been on his way to Yosemite, who met up with friends who have come FROM Yosemite – he had just made it up, he left late at 7 am, was up at 1pm and there were not many people by then. Most have left by 12 noon to head back down. He or one of the guys there, warned us about marmots at Trail Junction – use the bear boxes, otherwise they will tear into the backpacks. And we did. We took out the bear cans and packed in all food and toiletries again.
To finish up our day 3:
Hiked up to the 2 tarns above Guitar Lake. There were already 6 or so tents set up. All hikers using that spot as the base station before their final ascent. We continued up to the next little tarn about 20 minutes away, and there was not another person there. So, yes, that was our second night all alone in the wild. Though this time, we were within shouting distance of the others just a little downhill, and we were right there by the trail.
Up at 1:30 am. Left camp by 3:20am. Arrived at the summit about 9:40am. Left summit at 10:10 my time. I was knocked out at Trail Junction – slept for about 30 minutes. Then, the long trudge down the mountain, a never ending march, all the way to Whitney Portal arriving finally at 7:20pm, just 20 minutes after the kitchen had closed. A freaking 16 hour trek. No wonder my knees are still screaming bloody murder now, 3 days away.
Towards the end, during those last few difficult hours,
I thought over and over, what the f*** am I doing here? Why the hell did I agree to this? How did Bjorn dream up such a stupid f-ing idea? But now, the morning after, and I really did survive with little drama save a few cut up fingers, dead toe nails, aching thighs and biceps, swollen knees, basically aching legs, dry and crackling hands, sun burnt parts of my face, sore raw nostrils, I am actually fine. More than fine. I have lost lots of belly fat. Now give me a good breakfast and I am almost already hearing that little voice in my head saying, wanna go again???
Am I completely crazy for thinking so? Now, it’s on to the next thing. I can really begin to see why people put themselves thru such challenges. Prove to me that I can indeed endure, can indeed survive, and then the feeling of triumph, very soon after. In my case, after one good shower and good night’s sleep, I am up, chest thumping, thinking what next to conquer. Can I see how addictive this can be? The first metaphors in my mind are of those in power, in power to wage war. Win a few here and there, and suddenly emotions of grandeur take over. They can win anything, even the unwinnable. A blessing or a curse?
It was surreal to see Mt Whitney from our hotel room in Lone Pine. Just 24 hours ago, we were up there.