When applying for a permit, two of the biggest questions you have to answer are:
1) When would you like to hike Mt. Whitney?
2) Are you going to bonsai (hike all 24 miles in one day) or hike to base camp (6 miles) one day and then hike the summit and back down the next (18 miles)
Assuming you get the permit, answering these questions is like determining your own personal D-Day(s).
Our permits show that our group will be storming our own personal beaches of Normandy on August 21st-22nd. May the odds be ever in our favor. (Yes, that was a Hunger Games reference directly following a World War II reference, you’re welcome)
After we got the good news about the permits, I immediately began to hear the clock ticking. And if I’m being totally honest with you, it was a pretty bitchy clock. It constantly whispered things in my ear like, “You’re not ready” and, “What makes you think you can do this” and, “Change the batteries of the clock in your office so it stops makes that annoying ticking noise.” I had to hand it to old clockster though, it was right. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know if I could actually do this. And the batteries in my office clock were almost dead, which was why it was tick ticking rather than tick tocking.
While the tide of panic was receding, my sister, Kristine, and I decided to map out a training schedule before we found ourselves underwater. In total, we planned about 20 hikes for June and July. It seemed like a lot, it seemed like not enough, it seemed like we all needed a drink.
We were doing this. We were actually doing this.
Our first hike back from a long (almost 7 week) hiatus was June 1st at Lizard Rock.
This was a hike we had done a number of times before and as such, we considered it to be a good jumping off point; a nice dive into the pool of sore quads and Nalgene bottles. Much to our chagrin, we found ourselves panting and discouraged as we ascended the final 6 switchbacks of the hike.
If we were exhausted doing Lizard Rock, how in the hell would we make it up Mt. Whitney?
A week later, the second of our 7 scheduled June hikes came a knockin’. It was O’Melveny park, an old foe. This would only be the 2nd time we’d done this hike, the first time being a dark day in the history of my fitness regime.
Let’s just say there was a lot of “UGHH” and “WHYYYY” and “I AM GOING TO SLAUGHTER MY BROTHER.” (You know, just your usual out of shape hiker mantras.) With that on my mind, added to my previous disappointment of my performance at Lizard Rock, I was determined to make this second hike up O’Melveny better than the first.
And it was.
We all made it to the top without stopping and without making violent threats at any siblings. (If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.)
Over the next couple weeks we followed our schedule pretty good. We did a 5 a.m. hike up Mission Peak and an afternoon hike while on vacation in the mountains. We were feeling strong, we were feeling good. Then Tom’s email came.
Tom is a longtime friend of my dad who has climbed Whitney countless times. From the start, we all made an unspoken agreement that he would be the Eisenhower to our D-Day. He knew the ins and outs of the mountain and he knew the training it took to get there.
The subject of Tom’s email? Baldy.
No, this was not a hurtful nickname he used to refer to my brother’s near hairless chin, this was the name of a milestone in our training process. It was the name of our next challenge.
To give you some background: Mt. Baldy is the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains with a summit of 10,068 ft. and yes, it’s also shaped like this: Δ
This would be our first test in Whitney-esque elevation which to me was the scariest part. I figured that if I put my head down and trained my butt off, my body would be strong enough to finish any hike I started. Strength however, was only 1 ingredient in the recipe for the Whitney domination cupcakes. (Can these be real?) Elevation training was one of, if not the most important kind of training needed to hike up a mountain of Whitney’s caliber.
“Headaches or nausea.” That’s what Tom said to look for. He said some people experience the symptoms mildly and are able to work through them, while others exhibit severe symptoms and are forced to decide whether continuing is a healthy choice.
This was not the only obstacle being added to our workout, however. We also had to dip our toes in the world of packs.
An overnight hike up Whitney requires a pack that weighs approximately 25 pounds. In previous hikes, the most weight I’d ever carried was a water bottle, so it was safe to say my lift game could use a little work.
My pack for Baldy contained the following:
- 1 32oz Nalgene water bottle
- 1 16oz blue Gatorade
- 3 Chocolate Chip Brownie Clif Bars
- A long sleeve shirt
- My hiking poles
- My iPod
- All of my hopes of dreams of climbing Mt. Whitney
I didn’t weigh it, but a safe guess would be about 4 pounds. (Hey, it was a start.)
Tom met at our house at 5 a.m. We loaded up the trunk of his car with our packs and buckled up for the 45 minute drive we had ahead of us.
At 6 a.m. the car was parked and our packs were on. We made a pit stop at the Andy Gump (you’re welcome for sharing) and then we got on the trail.
The first 3 miles were less than intimidating. The trail was a wide dirt fire road that led up to a restaurant called The Notch, where we took our first break, and let our bodies adjust to the rising elevation.
This is where my first mistake came into view.
As I unwrapped one of my Clif bars, I looked over at my brother who, brilliantly, decided to pack fruit. He was at a table with Ziploc bags full of grapes and strawberries. I looked on as they glistened in the sunlight and soon my Clif bar began to taste like a loaf of chocolaty dirt. It was so dry, it was so hot, it was so not fruit. Why the hell did I not bring fruit?! Amateur.
Once rested we zipped, buckled and strapped our packs back on and started the second part of the hike. This part of the trail offered loose rocks, perilous drops, and lots of elevation gain.
It’s kind of a funny thing, altitude, I started to think that I was miraculously unaffected by it. I wasn’t having trouble breathing, I didn’t have a headache or feel nauseous. Was I seriously in that good of shape? Nope, it was hitting me, I just didn’t know it yet.
Not long after my cocky “how great of shape am I in?” moment, the muscles in my legs began to ache. Shortly after that, I became minorly convinced that my ankles were going to explode. That was when I realized that my stride was nearly non-existent. On an average hike I would say my stride is about 1 ft-1 ½ ft wide, but on that mountain, I’d say it was 4-6 inches. Each step felt like a victory, but the end was nowhere in sight
Then suddenly, I saw it. A head. A glistening bald head. A few more steps showed me that this head was attached to a neck. And a few more revealed the neck was attached to a whole human, who sat next to a group of other heads attached to other humans.
I was at the top.
Upon this realization, a sound emerged from my mouth that could best be described as the love child of sigh, a grunt and a cry. A crysigrunt if you will.
I had really done it!
Pride began flood my bones, silencing the ticking clock, the doubts, and the discouragements in its wake.
Maybe I really could climb Mt. Whitney.
After a long while of savoring our accomplishment (and pretty much everything in our packs) we packed up and strapped on our packs again, knowing full well we were only halfway done.
The route down, while it offered a change of scenery from the way up, quickly went from exciting and new, to monotonous and long. By the 4th mile down, I was ready to be in the car. I wanted to take my shoes off, I wanted to take my pants off, and I wanted a big turkey sandwich.
After what seemed like forever, the single track trail finally opened up into the fire road we started on. When I saw the asphalt I knew we were really close. And when we turned the final corner a second crysigrunt emerged from my lips. “THE ANDY GUMP!” I had never felt so emotionally attached to a hut of poop (and hopefully never will again) but the sight of meant one thing: we were at the bottom.
The rest of the afternoon consisted of eating a turkey sandwich in a chair that sat below a giant taxidermy moose, jumping into a pool fully clothed, reminding my legs that they were legs, and watching 3 episodes of Orange is the New Black.
Mind you, that was intense training hike #1.
We’ve still got a long way to go.
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