Saturday, September 27, 2008

Whitney '99

I was rescuing old files from an ancient computer that we finally surrendered to the e-waste people after it had languished in our closet for three years, and came across this little piece I did long ago about Mt Whitney. So I thought I’d post it.

The great Mt. Whitney Adventure of 1999

Dave and I, accompanied by Uncle Steve, ascended Mt. Whitney last Tuesday, Sept. 14. To be scrupulously honest, Dave and Steve ascended Mt. Whitney. I, alas, only made it to within a quarter mile of the summit before succumbing to altitude sickness and collapsing in a heap. Still, it was a tremendous undertaking. All told, we hiked 21 of the most rugged, mountainous miles in the country, spent 17 hours on the trail and decided it was a trip well worth doing – once.

Steve and I drove up to Lone Pine Sunday night. From Lone Pine, Whitney Portal Road took us up to the trailhead where we searched for a campsite. No luck. We ended up sleeping in Steve’s car, which I naively assumed would be the most discomfort I would have to suffer on this trip. The next morning we staked out a site in a tent campground right next to the trailhead, then took a short acclimation hike up to Lone Pine Lake, which is at 10,300 feet. This lake is 2.5 miles up the trail and is as far as you can go without a permit.

Dave arrived that night about 7 p.m. while Steve and I were cooking Steve’s wondrous dutch oven chuck roast stew. We went a little overboard on the ingredients, so Steve ended up inviting the nice young couple from the next campsite to eat with us. This proved to be good strategy, since the next day they still liked us enough to offer me an aspirin. This was while I was picking my way down the shale-covered 14,000 foot back slope of the mountain hoping my head would stop pounding. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The night was pleasant and I was deep in a rapturous slumber when Steve’s pocket alarm clock jolted me awake at 2 a.m.

“We’re not really getting up now, are we?” I asked.

“WE are,” Steve said. “You can do what you want.”

Since I wanted to hit the trail with them I figured the prudent thing would be to get up before they collapsed the tent around me. We broke camp in the dark. As I was putting on my boots I noticed with horror that my acclimation hike the previous day had left the beginnings of a blister on my left heel. Luckily Dave had moleskin, plus I was wearing a miraculous pair of technologically advanced socks. These two factors kept my blister in check and even prevented new ones from occurring.

We were on the trail by 3 a.m. It was still quite dark. The stars were brilliant, but we had no moon. Steve wore a headlight and Dave and I alternated carrying the other light as we wound our way upward.

We didn’t notice so much in the dark, but as the day progressed we began to realize that the trail up Mt. Whitney never, ever leveled out. Except for a handful of stretches that could not have lasted more than a hundred feet each, the trail always headed up. And not a gentle up, either. It was a steep up, but we did not realize how steep until we were on our way down and Dave could not stop saying “I can’t stop being amazed at how far we climbed today.”

The trail to the summit is 10.7 miles long. The summit of Mt. Whitney is 14,497.16 feet. Since the trailhead is at 8,300 feet, that meant we would gain more than 6,000 feet in altitude over the course of the trail. To put it another way, while we were covering 10.7 miles in trail distance we were also ascending more than a vertical mile in altitude.

But misery, and the statistical realizations that accompany it, was far in the distance as we began our hike that day. We covered approximately four miles in the dark and made it to the solar toilets at Outpost Camp before 7 a.m. By now it was growing lighter. We shut off the flashlights as we headed still higher on our way up to Trail Camp. As we climbed the trees became more sparse and those we could see were twisted and weathered, their trunks shining gold in the morning light. It became rockier and our knees began to take a heavier pounding as the dusty trail of the lower elevations gave way to granite.

We found ourselves passing and repassing the same groups of people. By now we all knew each other by sight. We exchanged hearty hellos and idle trail chatter. Occasionally Dave and I would exchange glances when we saw particularly odd groups of hikers, those tricked out in wraparound shades, running tights and camelback water systems. Some were traveling very light and we were jealous, since we had decided to err on the side of caution and were carrying enough food among the three of us to feed at least a dozen people. Of course those we silently mocked were the ones who made it up and back without injury.

Six miles up from the trailhead we came upon Trail Camp. At 12,000 feet, the camp occupies a plateau near some pools of water. We trudged through Trail Camp and came to what many people consider the most disheartening and tough part of the climb: the infamous 97 switchbacks. Since everyone refers to this part with equal parts awe and dismay I should call it “The Infamous 97 Switchbacks,” like a title. We did not count them, but I believe there really are 97. These switchbacks enable hikers to climb from the 12,000 foot Trail Camp to the crest of the trail (called Trail Crest) at 13,600 feet in just over two trail miles. This is an odious, mind-numbing section of the trail. This is where the trail begins to be nothing but packed shale, some of it not looking very sturdy. We passed giant marmots, staring at us with hopeful, beady eyes. In retrospect, I guess I should have given the beasts some of my food, because by then it was weighing heavy on my back. My shoulders ached with sharp, stabbing pain and I was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude.

Shortly before we got to trail crest I felt my first wave of sickness hit me. I began to feel nauseous. I ate some triscuits and drank some water and felt well enough to make it up to the trail crest. We walked around a bend to the crest and were smacked in the face by a breathtaking view of the back side of the mountains. Climbing up we had occasionally looked eastward, down the way we came. From certain vantage points we could see all the way into the Owens Valley to the town of Lone Pine thousands of feet below. But nothing had prepared me for the view of the other side, which looks down into the John Muir Wilderness. Trail Crest marks the boundary with Sequoia National Park, but it’s a Sequoia that you never dream about when visiting the accessible parts of the park. We looked down on barren wilderness pocked with scattered blue lakes, dry mountains. There were trees in the far distance, but the high-elevation wilderness for miles around was treeless and bare. It was a stark, beautiful, amazing sight and it energized me for what I assumed was the final summit push.

From the crest the trail dips around the back side of the mountain, descends for about 300 feet, before climbing again. We passed windows between giant granite spires that allowed us to look straight down for a thousand feet. We began to climb again. At a rest point we looked toward the distant summit, which was supposed to be less than a mile and a half away, but looked like an eternity. We felt a wave of discouragement as fatigue set in. We needed a pep talk. At that moment Dave and I knew we wanted to turn around. If anyone had strongly suggested at that time that we do so, we would have done it without regret. Instead we hemmed and hedged until Steve said “I think I’ve still got something in me.” He told me later he decided he had not come this far just to turn around. Dave said later, “If Steve wasn’t so goal oriented we would have got down the mountain a long time ago.”

Resting may have been a mistake. The longer we waited and pondered our upcoming fate the more we thought maybe that fate would be more trouble than it was worth. Imagine a jogger running laps on a track early on a misty morning, wearing a hooded warm-up suit. His hood slopes from the back of his head (if it's a particularly cavernous hood, even from his shoulders) to the top, then ends as it meets the perpendicular wall of forehead that drops from the face into nothingness below. If the eastern wall of Whitney can be called its face, then perhaps the back of the mountain is its hood. From where we sat the gentle slope of this hood looked dauntingly long, but not particularly hard. We could see the stone shack perched jauntily on the summit of the mountain like a cap. We could even see people moving around.

"We're there," one of our sometime hiking companions said. The only time we spoke to people now was when we stopped to rest. Jocular hellos from early in the morning had now become grunts or merely silent nods as we passed people who had stopped to rest on the trail. This man looked to be in his mid-40s, in good shape, with silver hair. "You can't come this far and not make it," he said.

Steve was of the same attitude, so we began moving again. Chipmunks skittered among the rocks picking up stray pieces of trail mix. Each time we passed a pinnacle with its open window looking out on the depths below a great gust of wind would chill me. I held my hat, hoping it would not fly away and cause me even more problems. By now the going was slow, and the sickness in my stomach, though present, had settled into a tiny knot awaiting the right moment to unravel again. Dave was not looking much better.

"This mountain is kicking my butt," he said. He looked surprised.

Of the three of us I was the only one who had been on the mountain before, but that was 20 years ago when I was a 12-year-old Boy Scout. I made it to the summit on that occasion, and I saw no reason why I should not make it this time. But now I remembered that it was at this same place 20 years ago when I began throwing up and wishing I could turn around, or die. Whichever came first. I made it up the mountain the first time because ofpeer pressure, encouragement and the dogged insistence of the Scoutmaster.

At 32, I was the youngest member of our party. Dave is 44 and, as always, in spectacular shape. I am in the best shape of my life. It was 57-year-old Steve, however, who was the most determined to make it to the top. "I knew I was never going to do this again," he explained later. It had to be now.

We wended our way to the shoulder of the mountain itself. Here the trail more or less disappears and hikers must pick their way over and around the stones and shale that sprinkle the hillside like crushed nuts on a giant sundae. I looked up to watch the hikers above me gingerly moving upward and at that moment the knot in my stomach unraveled and I began to feel truly and miserably sick. Earlier I had been able to nibble on crackers and make the nausea go away. "Eat something," Steve said.

"I can't," I said. "I'll throw up if I do."

"Then drink something," he said.

"I can't."

"Drink some water!" he ordered, barking the command with an urgency that I had to obey.

I sipped at my canteen and suddenly my head exploded in pain, like my brain had shrunk and was rattling and banging on the inside of my skull. Tears came to my eyes, I grimaced, sat down and squeezed my head wishing the ache would go away. I sat for a long time, Dave watching me quizzically. I finally said, "I'm going to have to stop here."

"Well, if you're sick, that's probably the best thing," he said. Steve had already gone on ahead and Dave moved to follow him. "Why don't you try to pick your way down and wait for us," he said.

He disappeared behind me. I did not turn to watch him go because it hurt too much to move. I drank more water, then began to find my way down. As I descended I began to feel noticeably better, and soon I was walking at my normal pace down the trail. Up ahead I saw the nameless couple from North Hollywood who had shared our stew the night before. They brightened when they saw me and said, "you made it!"

"No," I had to confess. "I pooped out."

"Altitude?"They offered me food, which I rejected, and an aspirin, which I accepted, gratefully. The mountain has a strange way of making companions of everybody. We were fast friends at this moment, even though I knew once they continued on their way I would probably never see them again. We commiserated about altitude and the rigors of the climb. The wife had never been up so high before. I told her of the strange vertigo I had experienced where the ground in my peripheral vision seemed to swim circles as I walked.

"Yes!" she said. "The same thing happened with me."

Finally, they turned to go. Good luck, we wished each other. Be careful.

I found a sunny spot on a rock and sat down to wait for Dave and Steve. My stomach felt calmer and I looked back wistfully at the mountain and its summit, now tantalizingly close. I wondered for a moment if I should go back and try again, then promptly rejected the lunatic notion and returned to my senses.

By 2 p.m. Dave and Steve had rejoined me and we were on our way down the mountain. The batteries were low on both our lights so we decided it was in our best interest to move as quickly as possible so we could get down while it was still daylight. By now we were physically exhausted from the morning’s climb. Starting down was a rejuvenating death march, if there can be such a thing. Each downward step brought us into thicker air, which put my headache on the back burner. But we were now taxing our legs to the limit descending a trail so steep at times it more resembled a flight of stairs than a mountain path. Stopping to rest became a treacherous activity because when they were not in motion my legs quivered and throbbed to the point where I felt sure they would buckle at any moment, and when that happened I would never get up again.

Back we journeyed, down the 97 switchbacks, through Trail Camp, Trail Meadow, Outpost Camp. By now it was after 5 p.m. We could still make it down by 7 p.m., I thought. After 7 it would begin to get dark fast. Finally we came to Lone Pine Lake. Only 2.5 miles to go. These final two miles seemed to last an eternity. The sun dipped behind the mountain, the last of the peripheral, lingering light disappeared and we finally had to resort to our flashlights again. The zigzagging switchbacks went on and on. We began to see lights far below, where we knew the road to be, tickling our senses, teasing us into believing we were almost there, and frustrating us to no end when we realized that those lights were too far away to be just around the next bend.

When we emerged at the trail’s end it was 8 p.m. The nearby Whitney Portal Store was still open, and would be for another hour.

“I want a soda,” Steve declared. He ambled away while Dave and I went to wait in Dave’s truck. Neither of us was in the mood for a soda.

Now that we were resting, stiffness was beginning to set in. We ate that night at a coffee shop in Lone Pine and recognized some diners at the next table from the trail that day. They recognized us from our stiff, lurching gait and the painful way we groaned when we stood up or sat down. They called it the Whitney Shuffle. We shuffled our way back into the same coffee shop for breakfast the next day. As I ate my bacon and eggs I stared out the window at the summit of Mt. Whitney and thought, there’s no shame in going most of the way, is there?

1 comment:

Liz said...

I love it. It's just so ordinary. I say that with affection. I happen to be tired of reading extraordinary accounts, in fiction also; I just want to read about average people and their experiences.