Winning on Mt. Whitney
Last month, I, along with a trio of friends, hiked the continental United States’ tallest mountain – Mt. Whitney. Maxing out at an elevation of 14,508 ft, this 22-mile round trip trek is considered one of the most difficult day hikes in the entire country. I am proud to report that our attempt was a success.
So how long did it take us to summit?
Well, we didn’t.
This is where the truck is backed up…
Friday, May 11, 2012
After a quick eight-hour drive from San Francisco, I arrive at our home base at the Mt. Whitney campground. I quickly locate our tent site amongst more than 30 others as my former San Diego Padres colleague, Eddie, is eagerly flagging my black Civic down from afar. I get out, we exchange the dude-handshake, transition half-hug that is customary amongst the Sportscenter population.
Chris comes running up to my car, eyes fixated to the sky above him, tracking down the football tossed by Beau 20 yards downhill. He hauls in the pass and in the same motion walks up to my car. “Hey man,” offering a full bear hug. In dude-culture, a full hug is a statement. There is a limited number of “both arms wrapped around you” allotments that one heterosexual guy reserves for another. With having lived together in two different states (Iowa and California), neither of which being the state which we first became middle school friends (Illinois), not to mention a quick overnight stay in the Myrtle Beach municipal jail (don’t ask), Chris and I undoubtedly meet this criteria. “How was the drive?”
“Shitty,” I respond. The drive was fine. I was hungry.
Beau, Chris’ current San Diego roommate, quickly joins the male congregation and too offers a Sportscenter half-hug. Dudes getaway weekend has officially commenced.
After a brief detour into town for dinner and a couple of beers, we drive back to camp and grab a seat around the fireless fire pit. Conversation quickly turns to tomorrow’s main event.
Twenty-two miles with more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain. On paper, this would have been the most difficult day on the Appalachian Trail when factoring in altitude. Considering only Eddie and I had done any cardio training (very light training, at that) leading up to tomorrow’s climb, our attitude was less than brazen.
But it was the information we had acquired earlier that week that really shook our confidence. At approximately 13,000 feet, near the mountain’s base camp (we weren’t one of the chosen few to receive a permit through the lottery, thus why we had only one day), the trail was covered in six feet of ice and snow. The trail is “impossible” according to the park ranger, without proper mountaineering gear – crampons and an ice axe. Between the four of us, our combined mountaineering experience was zero.
For someone who went into a half year backpacking trip having no experience, you would think this would be no sweat. Admittedly, I was a little nervous about the situation – that was until I went to REI to pick up my loaner crampons and ice axe, in which my nerves were promptly and violently intensified. The crampons were in such poor condition that REI would only rent them with the corresponding mountaineering boots out of fear of them malfunctioning on any other piece of footwear. Each boot was roughly the size and weight of a SmartCar. DumbBoot. Because I needed the crampons, I begrudgingly accepted their moon boots .
Then the very friendly customer service representative, Brad, sized me up and handed me an ice axe. “Any questions?” he asked.
“Yeah, just one. How do I use this?”
An extended pause accompanied by a dumbfounded stare. He was waiting for me to say that I was just kidding. I wasn’t kidding. I really hadn’t the slightest clue.
“You’re hiking Mt. Whitney, right?” I made this point perfectly clear earlier in our interaction, but because Whitney is considered an advanced trail, he figured that he must’ve misheard me.
“Yep. That’s right.”
“Well honestly, I’ve only used one of these a couple of times myself, only playing around. I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving you a lesson for something like Whitney. Let me get Tom.”
Tom was the resident mountaineer expert on staff and had summited Whitney several times himself. Tom came over and Brad informed him that I needed a quick lesson on how to use the ice axe because I would be attempting to hike Whitney this weekend with no mountaineering experience.
Tom hesitated. He said nothing, but his brow made perfectly transparent what Tom was thinking, “you dumbass.”
“Sorry, for liability reasons- I can’t,” Tom said in a very matter-of-fact tone.
I pleaded my case – “I’m not going to sue – I promise. I understand there’s liability for you to teach me how to use this, so don’t teach me. Just maybe play around with it as if you were going to use it for yourself?”
Tom wasn’t having it. He avoided eye contact and walked away. I tried a couple of the other green vested gurus, but the answers all undoubtedly pointed in the same direction- we were fucked.
So I walked out of the store with my space boots (which I had no intention of using), crampons (which I had no faith in working with my New Balances), and an ice axe (which I had no idea how to use).
“This should be good,” I thought.
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Because setting my alarm for 3:00am is contradictory to everything I stand for, I opted to let the tent sleep for an extra two minutes when setting my alarm the night before. 5:00 am is impossibly early; anything before that is a joke. Regardless, when four ill-prepared dudes need to cover 22-miles before dusk (with six of those being under ice), time is of the essence. Without anyone uttering a word, we packed our belongings, and zombie-strolled toward the car to make the 10-minute drive to the trailhead.
We were on the trail. Chris led the pack with a gait that was 100% excitement fueled. The other two guys kept pace with him. I was still trying to figure if I was awake – if I was, why? – and who I needed to blame. When I realized that the other three were running up the mountain, I reminded Chris at our first break to “walk as if you were going to be on a stairmaster for the next 15 hours.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” he answered honestly. Hike your own hike I thought. We pressed on.
We encountered our first patch of snow. Like we had anticipated, it was on the slope of a hill covering the trail and therefore a tricky maneuver. What caught us off guard, however, was how quickly we’d encounter this obstacle. We were told it was the last three miles that would be an issue. We couldn’t have been more than three miles from the trailhead.
As I sat down to strap on my crampons, Beau pops his head up from the top of the hill. “The snow stops just over this ridge. You won’t need crampons.”
I climb the rocks to the side of the trail.
Crisis averted. For now.
The team stops to take a 2nd breakfast and enjoy the view of the sun rising over the east horizon. The pink and orange illuminated sky peeking through the park’s valley was enough to make me forget that I had hiked four and a half miles before sunrise. Such beauty has a way of paralyzing cynicism. The scene gave me flashbacks to the Trail- blending subtle nostalgia with awesome beauty. Goosebumps.
Somewhere between 11,500 and 12,000 feet, half of the team is starting to show effects of the altitude. Our break frequency has gone from every 45 to minutes down to 15.
Although Beau is naturally the most athletic of the group, his “training” consisted of bench presses and squats. Needless to say, he was really sucking wind and to a lesser extent, so was Chris. Still, no cause for alarm, that’s to be expected at this elevation. Eddie and I were fine- even our light training was paying dividends.
We were only about an hour from base camp, which was only three miles from summit.
And although we had already been awake for SIX AND A HALF HOURS to this point, the collective fatigue was starting to show beyond what the lack of sleep would predict.
Ahead in the distance we can finally see where the trail became challenging (putting it lightly). A 50 degree ascent covered in ice and snow, just like the ranger had warned us. From afar, this slope was every bit as intimidating as I had imagined. The one point of reassurance was the small line of people slowly making their way up the mountain. Although it wouldn’t be easy, it was possible. Just beyond that was Whitney’s peak. The finish line was in sight.
After a 30 minute break for food and to zen out in our oxygen deprived state, we head toward the tundra.
The fifteen minutes that it took to approach the beginning of the mountaineering zone proved to be more troubling than I hoped. Chris was visibly off. He and Beau were stopping to break every 3-5 minutes – and although Beau’s was due to catching his breath, Chris was beginning to look ill. He assured us that he was fine, and we pressed on.
As we sat down to finally attach the jagged metal spikes to the bottoms of our footwear, I notice again that Chris was out of it. He wasn’t attaching anything, just blankly staring into space.
“You alright?” I asked.
“I’m a little nauseous,” he offered with a delayed response. For Chris to admit something was wrong, meant that something was wrong. He’s the human equivalent of a bloodhound- he’d push himself to the point of death if someone didn’t stop him first.
A hiker from another group came over asking for assistance in affixing his crampons. Contrary to reality, we gave the impression that we knew what we were doing. This hiker could tell right away that Chris was struggling. As I helped him figure out how to attach his crampons, he handed Chris three ibuprofen. “Here, that should help.”
At this point I was a circus juggler of emotion. On the one hand, I was concerned about Chris. I optimistically told myself to give the Advil a couple of minutes to set in, and he would feel better. On the other hand, I was running on an adrenaline high. Not only did I feel more energized than I did at any other point in the hike, but navigating the snowy terrain with the mountaineering gear proved to be FaF (Fun as Fuck). All of the nervous and less-than-confident energy melted away. The cloudless, deep, dark blue-sky back-dropped the peak that was coming into greater focus with every step. There was no doubt in my mind that we would summit.
And then, it happened.
Chris bent over and started dry heaving. The dry heaving quickly turned into wet-heaving (the roundabout way of saying vomit).
“It’s not smart for me to keep going,” he said. He was right. I should have stopped him 10 minutes ago. “You keep going – I’m going to head back to base camp. I’ll wait for you guys there.”
Eddie and I looked at each other, trying to figure out what to do without saying anything. What was clear was that Chris needed to head back, and him doing that by himself was a bad idea.
I asked myself, if I was the one who was sick, how would the scenario play out.
It was at that point the decision became clear.
“Eddie, you and Beau need to summit. I’m going back with Chris.”
I took one last look at the peak ahead, turned around, and we began our 8.5 mile descent back to the parking lot.
We applied for our Mt. Whitney permit in February. We got word of our successful lottery result in March. The adventure had been on my mind every day since. Turning around 2.5 miles from the top, with plenty of fuel in the tank, and the realization that my next attempt would have to wait until at least next year’s lottery was the hardest decision I’ve made in quite some time.
And also the easiest.
As we headed back, I couldn’t help but re-visit the thought about what would happen if circumstances were reversed. There is a zero percent chance Chris wouldn’t have called it quits early, and probably with a lot less turmoil than I was battling. Anyone who knows him would attest to this. Such loyalty is a rare quality, even amongst friends. If ever I needed to count on anyone for anything, Chris would sit atop this list. Now it was my turn to step up to the plate. Because – after all – a stellar view and a notable physical feat is a self-serving accomplishment, but at the end of the day what am I left with? A temporary ego boost? Instead I had an opportunity to fail for someone who would have gladly failed for me.
That’s a real victory.
(Side note: Eddie and Beau also did not summit – or make it that much further for the matter. Our day ended whiskey filled, defeated, but above all, joyously. The perfect end to a perfect dudes getaway weekend.)