mt. whitney wednesday: the descent

Hi everyone! This post is part of my series the Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed the earlier post in the series, you can read them here.

mt whitney chronicles

Saturday, July 26, 6:37 p.m.

My legs are aching and shaking. My hiking boots seem made of lead. My shoulders need an hour massage and my neck needs acupuncture treatment. My feet feel like I am walking barefoot on hot blacktop. Every step is a challenge.

And yet I feel wonderful. For now, at least, none of the pain matters. We have made it back down to Whitney Portal, to the beginning – and end – of the trail. Our journey has come full circle. We did it. We really did it!

The descent felt longer than the trip up – even though it was two hours shorter – probably because we didn’t have the anticipation and excitement of going up. My goal was to reach the summit – I didn’t even allow myself to think about the 11 miles I had to hike back down the mountain.

After five hours of hiking down, when we were so close to the end and yet still somehow so far away; when we could see the tiny distant parking lot of Whitney Portal where our car with the nice cushioned seats was waiting for us and it seemed if only we had longer arms we could just reach down through the trees and touch it; when I had been awake for fifteen hours and hiking for eleven, and I just wanted to collapse in the middle of the trail and go to sleep; it was then I started to wish we were finished already.

But the trip down was great in its own way. I tried to enjoy the beautiful scenery, and revel in the feeling of accomplishment.  Before too long we reached the half-mile mark we had hiked to yesterday, and before much longer we could see the path winding down to the parking lot below us.

Striding down that last step of the trail, I felt like an astronaut taking her first step back on Earth after a trip to the moon. I had actually made it to the top of Whitney and back again. And I have pictures for proof! I can’t wait to get the film developed and show my friends. Mom thankfully saved a few shots and a fellow hiker took our picture by the trailhead, and we bought some postcards and souvenir T-shirts from the nearby Mt. Whitney store. Other hikers smiled at us wearily with looks that said, “Congratulations!” and we smiled back, “You too!” Sinking down into the front seat of the car, I had never felt so tired and yet so happy at the same time. Mom said she felt the same way after childbirth.

As we drove away, winding down the narrow road, I looked back through the car window at the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States with the same awe and reverence I felt when I saw it for the first time. It is hard to believe that just a few hours ago, I was up at the top of that mountain. It was like a whole different world, like a dream. A dream that came true.

day before hike day

Sunday, July 27, Early

We said farewell to Lone Pine this morning and arrived back home this afternoon. It was fun driving past mountain after mountain and being able to say, “We climbed higher than that mountain! And that one! And that one!”

I slept for much of the car ride home, even though the first thing I did last night after taking a long, hot shower and wolfing down three slices of extra cheesy pizza was conk out the minute my head hit the pillow. Usually I have trouble sleeping in hotel rooms, but not last night! I guess hiking twenty-two miles is a good cure for insomnia.

It was wonderful to arrive home, with a “CONGRATULATIONS!” banner on the front door and my dad and brother waiting inside. Yet a part of me misses the wild beauty and freedom of the mountains, the quaint little Lone Pine diners, even the John Wayne memorabilia.

I brought down from Mount Whitney’s summit a small granite stone, a keepsake reminder of something less tangible that I also brought with me: a strengthened belief in myself and the confidence I can face my fears and accomplish whatever I set my mind to. It is a lesson I will carry with me, wherever my travels take me next. Even back at sea level, I still feel like I’m on top of the world.

whitney mountains

mt. whitney wednesday: on top of the world

Hi everyone! This post is part of my series the Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed the earlier post in the series, you can read them here.

mt whitney chronicles

Saturday, July 26, 12:16 p.m.

Oh! My! Goodness! I have climbed a granite stairway to heaven. Eight hours and a dozen blisters after we set forth in the cold darkness, I am enjoying the same lofty view Clarence King had more than 125 years earlier.

on top of mt whitney

I am standing atop the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. It took us nearly two hours to get here from Trail Crest, much longer than I expected it would. These last two miles of trail seemed to go on and on and on – I would swear it was a full six miles. Indeed, a mountain sheep would have trouble with the footing on the final two miles to the summit. Add in air so rarefied it makes lungs gasp and heads ache, and each step becomes a challenge. The altitude is definitely exacting a toll as I have had a constant dull headache for the past few hours now.

Another reason we traveled so slowly over this final section is because the trail has become so terribly rugged – we had to climb over huge boulders and cross very rocky terrain, with cliffs dropping hundreds of feet only a few steps away on each side of us. There are no guard rails or ropes as guides, and needless to say I was very grateful for my walking stick. Precarious as it was, I knew I had come so far and trained so hard and had already done so much more than I ever thought I could do, that I never once thought of turning back. The only option in my mind was proudly reaching the top.

This was by far the most trying and difficult part of the whole hike for me. To be so close you could see Whitney’s peak, and yet so far it seemed like you would never get there, was pure torture. The only thing to do was keep going, one step in front of the other, but after a mile or so of this two-mile leg, I began to think that maybe the trail would never end.

And then we saw it. The summit!

The last 400 meters of the trail are a slight uphill to the peak of the mountain. But now you can see the Summit Hut beckoning you along, like a lighthouse guiding ships safely into harbor. After what felt like an eternity, we finally reached it.

Groups of weary hikers lounged around on slabs of rock, taking pictures and having lunch and enjoying the breathtaking view. I signed my name in the Mt. Whitney Summit Book, then pretended to again because Mom wanted to take my picture. She looked like a child with her very first camera, deliriously snapping photos of anything and everything merely for the joy of hearing the shutter click. I smiled at her, glad she had saved some film as I had kept teasing her to do, and also knowing no amount of pictures would ever do Whitney’s summit justice. It’s just something you have to see and experience for yourself.

signing the book

I walked around, soaking in the “Inn,” as Cervantes put it, of our journey. Clouds were obscuring some of the view, but it was still incredible to look down from this castle in the sky.

Unlike Clarence King, Mom and I took a cell phone to the summit. Enjoying this rocky mountain, I call my dad and talk to him in exclamation points.

“Hi Dad! We made it! I’m at the summit right now! It’s soooo beautiful up here! I feel like I’m on the top of the world!

“It’s breathtaking,” I add, intending no altitude pun.

My dad tells me it is breathtaking to hear me, because he remembers a time I needed breathing tubes when I was born 3 months prematurely weighing a sickly 2 pounds, 6 ounces.

“She’s a fighter,” the doctor told him back then when my fragile life hung in the balance daily, and the doctor was right. With a personal mantra of P.A.S.T. – Preemies Are So Tough – I have now become a conqueror of Mt. Whitney.

I say goodbye on the phone to Dad, and chased by approaching thunderclouds after just 20 minutes of rest, we began our six-hour, 11-mile descent.

me and mom at top

mt. whitney wednesday: the infamous 97 switchbacks

Hi everyone! This post is part of my series the Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed the earlier post in the series, you can read them here.

mt whitney chronicles

Saturday, July 26, 9:02 a.m.

We have reached “Trail Camp” where hikers climbing Whitney in two days camp out overnight. It is a lot quieter up here, as desolate and barren as I imagine Mars to be. The surroundings have turned from the greens of foliage and trees to the browns and grays of rock. Finally, it actually feels like I’m climbing a mountain!

We take a short break for water and food before shouldering our packs and starting up again. Trail Camp is at the base of the switchbacks. The infamous switchbacks. There are, by actual count, 97 switchbacks covering 2.2 steep-and-jagged miles leading from Trail Camp with an elevation of 12,000 feet to Trail Crest with an elevation of 13,777 feet.

The ankle-twisting switchbacks are daunting. Those who have conquered Whitney say they are the most difficult part of the whole climb. The mountain rises above us, so immense I can’t even imagine it having a summit. Slowly we start up the first switchback, then turn and head up the second. One down, 96 more to go.

switchbacks

10:13 a.m.

Ninety-six down – trust me, I counted each and every one! – and only one more to go. Woo-hoo!

I can’t believe it. We made it up the switchbacks in only an hour! I thought it would surely take us twice that long. The switchbacks were hard, to be certain, and long and boring, but I was actually surprised to see the welcoming “Trail Crest” sign as soon as we did. I guess you get into a sort of rhythm, trudging up, up, up the mountain, one foot in front of the other, your breathing heavy and even, taking each switchback as it comes, and time goes by almost as if you are in a trance. The fun part about the switchbacks is that you feel like you really are climbing a mountain – you can look down and see the trail winding away below you, like a giant snake.

Mom and I are in our highest spirits, I think, of the whole hike so far. The rest of trail cannot be nearly so steep as the rocky and uneven staircase we just climbed. And we are only two miles away from the summit! We are so close to the top I feel as excited in anticipation as a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve night.

at trail crest

mt. whitney wednesday: lone pine lake to mirror lake

Hi everyone! This post is part of my series the Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed the earlier post in the series, you can read them here.

mt whitney chronicles

Saturday, July 26, 6:04 a.m.

Dawn slowly approaches and we stop at Lone Pine Lake to rest and turn our headlamps off. Sunrise on the trail was one of the prettiest sights I have seen, rivaling even a summer sunset over the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is indeed a “Kodak moment,” yet Julianna was right: a picture could never do this justice. It is something you just have to see – and feel in your soul – for yourself.

We have gone 2.5 miles — less than nine miles more to the top. It seemed like we were going at a fairly brisk pace, and yet it has taken us two hours to go just over two miles. I try not to get discouraged; maybe we will get into a faster rhythm as daylight arrives. Not that speed is of the essence. I think of the famous quote by Cervantes: “The journey is better than the inn.” I want to enjoy this journey, and we left so early we have plenty of time to do so.

Yet it is also overwhelming to think about hiking for another twelve hours, another twenty miles, to complete the roundtrip journey. I try not to dwell on it, and instead focus on enjoying the postcard scenery. Mom brought two new disposable cameras, and she takes lots of pictures. I playfully tell her she had better save some film for the summit! We don’t want to be like my funny Uncle Doug, who always comes back from fishing trips bragging about the big trout he caught – without any proof.

me and mom on trail

6:47 a.m.

We have reached the first camp, “Outpost Camp.” According to my map, we have traveled 3.5 miles and are at an elevation of 10,365 feet – meaning we must still climb more than 4,000 feet in elevation to reach the top. I am grateful Mom and I took medicine for altitude sickness before we left; I don’t feel nauseous, but I do still have a bit of a headache despite the medicine. I drink lots of water, even though I am embarrassed about having to go to the bathroom in the wilderness. Mom laughs and says doing your business outside just proves you are a true hiker.

Speaking of bathrooms, at Outpost Camp we get to use the first of the two “solar toilets” provided along the trail for hikers. It is like a “Porta Potty” except it has some sort of solar device at the top that supposedly uses energy from the sun to compact the waste. A good idea, indeed . . .

. . . but, as we found out firsthand, very, very smelly. In fact, it was THE most disgusting bathrooms I have ever been in! I had to hold my breath. Two things are certain: I will never again complain about the bathrooms at school, for they are heavenly compared to this. And I won’t be embarrassed anymore about doing my business out in the fresh-smelling sunshine of the wild!

8:18 a.m.

We passed by Mirror Lake, which is the four-mile mark, and the trail turned from dirt to rock. The trail has also become much steeper here at the timberline – trees are fewer and farther between, and the landscape is more barren and desolate. I look around and see mountains rising above us on all sides.

We hike pretty much in silence, each of us consumed by our own thoughts. The only sounds are our heavy, even breathing and slow, trudging footsteps up the trail. Occasionally a bird calls out.

From time to time we encounter other hikers; some have given up and turned around, others have made it to the top, camped out, and are making their descent. The latter are always very happy and inspire me to keep going – if they can do it, we can too. Everyone we meet is friendly and encouraging, and we sometimes stop and swap hiking stories and hometowns while taking a drink of water. Then we wish each other good luck and continue our separate ways.

We have reached Trailside Meadow and take a short food break. Even though it is still fairly early in the morning (at least for a teenager like me who likes to sleep in on summer days!) we have been up so long that it seems like lunchtime. I snack on bagels and trail mix while Mom takes more pictures.

The meadow here is so heavenly, more like a stream bordered with flowers than a meadow. There is a gorgeous waterfall flowing down some nearby rocks, fed by melting snow up on the mountain. It is growing warm out now and I take off my outer jacket and replace my beanie with my favorite baseball cap.

trailside meadows

mt. whitney wednesday: the day before “the big day”

Hi everyone! This post is part of my Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed any earlier posts in the series, they are all archived here.

mt whitney chronicles

Friday, July 25, 2003. 2:43 p.m.
Mom and I left our nice, warm home in Ventura at 10 a.m. to depart on the four-hour drive to the quaint little town of Lone Pine, made famous in the hiking world because of its close proximity to Mt. Whitney. Surprisingly, it seems most Lone-Piners take for granted the tallest mountain in the continental United States that watches over their little town. They take more pride in the fact that John Wayne used to film some of his famous Westerns here. There are pictures of The Duke adorning the walls of just about every restaurant and hotel lobby we see.

When I told my friends I was going away for the weekend to climb Mt. Whitney, they laughed incredulously and said I’m insane. “Uh, Dallas, you do know that’s a huge mountain, right?” one asked. I replied that yes, I do know, and I promised to bring back pictures from the top. My friends just don’t understand that I am a real hiker now; I have been preparing for months. I am ready for this challenge. Game on, Whitney!

Mom, however, is not as confident. Even though she has run a handful of marathons, she confides to me: “I have doubts I’ll be able to make it to the top. If I have to stop, you go on without me.”

“We’ll make it together,” I say, and I mean it.

3:13 p.m.
We checked into our hotel room and drove up to the Whitney Portal, otherwise known as the trailhead, or start, of the Mt. Whitney trail. Since it will still be dark in the wee hours tomorrow morning when we make the drive up to the Portal, Mom wants to do it in the daylight today so we will have an idea of where we are going and hopefully won’t get lost. With a one-day hike, we can’t afford to have our start delayed. A few members of our group are camping at the Portal and we’re planning to take a short hike with them this afternoon, to see the trail and get our legs moving after the long car ride.

As we started driving along the road towards the Portal, we noticed dark, ominous clouds brewing ahead. Mt. Whitney is notorious for its sudden thunderstorms, especially in summer. On the hike tomorrow we want to reach the top of the mountain by noon, because that will hopefully give us enough time to get back down below the timberline before the storms roll in up at the top, typically around two or three o’clock.

The rain came quickly, going from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour in a matter of minutes. We kept driving cautiously, the windshield wipers working overtime, when suddenly lightning cracked in the distance and thunder boomed. Looking up at the grim, threatening mountains looming ahead of us, the lightning flashing around their peaks like menacing signs from the heavens, I wondered if my friends are right. Maybe I am insane. What person in their right mind would hike up that mountain, to the very place where the storm was thrashing its hardest? This is nothing like our training hikes. I felt like a toddler forced to go straight from a tricycle to a twelve-gear mountain bike with no steps in between.

I looked at Mom, and she looked at me. Without a word, she turned the car around and we drove to a nearby restaurant billed as “John Wayne’s Favorite Lone Pine Diner!” for a late lunch.

4:02 p.m.
We stepped outside the restaurant to find the storm had stopped and the sun was out again. The regular inhabitants of Lone Pine were going about their business as if storms like that come up without warning all the time, and I guess here they probably do. Calmer in both mind and spirit, Mom and I got into the car and began the fifteen-minute drive up to Whitney Portal again. It seemed like a totally different road and a totally different mountain range looming ahead than it had an hour ago. The mountains were still intimidating (to say the least), but now they didn’t look so evil and threatening without the dark skies and lightning crackling around them.

day before the hike

We met the rest of the group up at the trailhead and hiked the first half-mile or so of the trail. It is a nice trail, at least the part we did, well-marked and treaded by the feet of countless other hikers. It is amazing to think about the thousands and thousands of hikers that have walked on this very trail in the century that people have been climbing Mt. Whitney.

It was so neat to see the hikers coming down the trail who had made it to the top of Whitney today. They all looked so weary, yet also so happy. I hope that will be us tomorrow!

8:11 p.m.
Mom and I had a carbo-loaded dinner and are getting ready for bed. Our backpacks are all packed except for our water bottles frozen in the cooler. Our hiking clothes are laid out and ready. My friends would laugh if they knew I was going to bed at 8 p.m., but we have to wake up very early in the morning and need to get some sleep. But somehow I don’t think it really matters what time I go to bed – I don’t know how I’ll be able to sleep tonight! I am so nervous for the big day tomorrow.

mt. whitney wednesdays

185_mt_whitney

Ten years ago, when I was sixteen, I climbed Mt. Whitney in one day with my mom. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. It was euphoric and exhausting; I truly pushed my body to the limit and accomplished something that had at one time seemed out of my reach.

When I realized that this July is the 10-year anniversary of our climb, I wanted to do something here on the blog to celebrate. I came across a journal I kept leading up to and during the climb, which gave me the idea to share those journal entries with you.

Whether you’re planning to climb Mt. Whitney, hike a different mountain, run a marathon, complete a triathalon, or whatever your adventurous dreams may be — I hope these journal entries will be fun and inspiring to read! I’ll be doing a new post every Wednesday and all the posts will be archived here.

mt whitney chronicles

“Because it’s there.” – Sir Edmund Hillary’s reply, when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth

“Because Hillary inspired me,” is my reply whenever I am asked why I climbed California’s Mt. Whitney. While Whitney is 14,541 feet lower than Everest, it is still the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet.

Exactly how did Hillary inspire me? By coincidence, he became the first person to reach the peak of the world’s tallest mountain on May 29, 1953 — and I was born on the 29th of May, 34 years later. This serendipitous piece of information got me interested in doing something memorable on the 50th anniversary of his historic achievement in 2003.

So it was that I decided to climb Mt. Whitney, the “Culminating Peak of the Sierras.” To me — a girl who was born three months prematurely, weighing just two pounds, six ounces, and who doctors feared wouldn’t survive — the goal of standing {if not on top of the world} at least on top of the lower 48 states, was truly an Everest-like challenge.

What follows is the journal of my experiences. {Stay tuned for more next Wednesday!}