The Road to Mt. Whitney (Part 5: The Summit)

Like the mornings of many life altering events, our journey to Mt. Whitney started at IHOP.

The group met at our house at 8:00 a.m. and was knee deep in syrup and eggs by 8:30.

Once we were fully charged with sugar and carbs, we hopped in the car and started the 3 hour drive to Lone Pine. On our way, Tom, our training aficionado, our group leader, or Lt. Tom as Natalee and Kristine began to refer to him, made a right turn off the highway towards Fossil Falls, about 45 minutes from final destination.

In scientific terms, Fossil Falls is the product of the diversion of the Owens River over a basalt flow in the Indian Wells Valley.

In my terms, Fossil Falls is a collection of nifty black rocks piled up at perilous heights that you can sit on and make your dad’s knees knock together at the speed of light.

Observe:

me

(That’s me in the white circle)

We arrived at our home for the night, the Dow Villa Motel, around 3:00. We dropped our stuff off in the room, changed into our hiking boots and grabbed some lunch at the Totem Café across the street. (I recommend the Totem Bird Sandwich)

On the agenda after lunch was a short acclimation hike. It was our way of reminding our hearts, heads, lungs, and legs of the task at hand. The hike was easy, a quick mile and half jaunt up and back on the same trail we would be hiking the next day–minus our 25 lb packs.

At 5:30 the next morning, our alarm clocks started sounding. Maybe it was the nerves, but I swear to you my alarm clock had never sounded so ominous. It was like Jaws was swimming in the carpet beneath me, ready to pounce if I didn’t hit the off button.

We met at the hotel restaurant right after the doors opened at 6:00 a.m. and sat down for what would be the last supper…well no. The last breakfast? Not quite. The last hot, non prepackaged meal we would eat for the next two days. Closer.

When looking at the menu, I kept in mind the food I had packed for the next two days:

-2 packs of cinnamon Poptarts

-4 Clif Bars

-2 Ziploc bags of pretzel crisps

-2 Ziploc bags of wheat thins

-2 packs of Mentos

-1 apple

-1 Subway sandwich

With that in mind I had 2 big pancakes, fruit, and 4 glasses of water.

At 8:00 we arrived at the base of the trail known as the “Whitney portal”.

First things first, we peed. We wanted to take advantage of the last “real” bathrooms we had access to. The quotes are necessary. There was no real plumbing, so the toilets were more like the entrances to a black hole that has no apparent bottom. (Let’s just say that if someone in China has finally discovered how to dig through the center of the earth to steal an Eggo waffle, I hope their path doesn’t come in contact with the Whitney portal.)

With bladders empty and stomachs full, we strapped, clicked, buttoned, and tied everything on our packs into place, took a few photos at the Whitney sign, and took our first steps onto the trail.

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We had 6 miles to cover on our first day.  Starting from the sign, we walked 1.5 miles up to the shady spot we found on our acclimation hike and took our first break. On our way there we passed a few hikers who had completed their hike and were on their way out. Some of them looked more tired than others, but all of them smelled the same. As we greeted and congratulated them, we all made a silent vow to finish the hike smelling slightly less toxic.

Our second break was taken at this log that marked the halfway point to trail camp.

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Sitting atop the log eating a Clif bar, Lt. Tom informed us of what was to come on the rest of our hike to trail camp. There were a lot of hand motions and directional words involved, but once I heard the word “meadow” everything else turned to Charlie Brown mush. With such an immense task at hand, the thought of there being a meadow, a location whose name alone relaxed me, made me almost giddy.

Observe the giddiness:

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If there was a way to describe the meadow to someone who hasn’t been there in the midst of a Whitney hike, I think I would say it was like being hugged by a laughing baby. You just didn’t want it to end.

But it did.

After the meadow the trail began to weave into some granite stairs and gravel switchbacks. In the miles leading up to the meadow, Lt. Tom had warned us to conserve our energy for the infamous granite stairs. Each step counted, he said. Each avoided deep knee bend, counted.

I spent the first 3 miles of the hike staring at the trail like a video game, picking the least steep, least energy exerting route. Step, step, move 2 inches to the left and step on a rock, step, step, move 4 inches to the right and step on another rock. It was a science.

The buildup to the stairs didn’t disappoint. After the gravel switchbacks faded into stairs, the stairs turned into more stairs and all that was left to do was step and breath. My trekking poles were a God send; I used them like a second pair of legs. I was like a deer learning to walk, except more sweaty and not as adorable.  And while at times the stairs seemed never ending, there were occasional breaks:

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Eventually though, the stairs stopped coming. Eventually we found ourselves at trail camp, eating apples and giving collective fist bumps to every member of the group.

This is when things got weird.

While training for Whitney, you hear a lot about the physical obstacles. You prepare for the altitude, you prepare for the mileage, you prepare for the weight in your pack. There are some things however, that you cannot prepare for.

1) Camping. Now, this may be small potatoes for some. Some of you might Bear Grylls the crap out of the wilderness and eat raw Ostrich eggs and make shelters out of moss. I, however, had never been camping. Not any kind of camping. Not backyard camping, not childhood summer camp camping. Nothing. And if you would have told me a year ago that my first camping experience would be on a mountain at 12,000 ft. I would have laughed in your face. But there we were Thursday afternoon, unloading our bags and setting up our tents. I was rooming with my dad. We staked down our residence on a nice gravelly patch and my dad built a 1 foot high stone wall to block the wind. I blew up my thermarest (a pad that goes under your sleeping bag to keep you from rolling onto a rock dagger in your sleep) and laid out my sleeping bag. I was ready to camp, I thought. I had all the right materials.

What I thought would happen: Once the sun went down I would hop in my sleeping bag, sleep a nice long sleep, and then wake up and kick the rest of the mountain’s ass.

What actually happened: At 5 o’clock, a breeze picked up. Our bare arms were covered with sleeves and then our sleeves were covered with more sleeves. Our heads were covered with beanies and then our beanies were covered with hoods. We walked around, shivered, paced around, shivered, ate some snacks, shivered. Was the sun ever going to go down?! We paced a little more, trying to warm ourselves up. We played 1 ½ rounds of charades, threw rocks at marmots, but the breeze kept at it, sending most of our group into their tents to escape the cold. Then, at 6:30 there was a break. Lt. Tom and I could feel it. It had to be 10-15 degrees warmer without the breeze. We set a goal, 8:30. We figured that would get us past sundown and give us 10 solid hours to sleep on and off. We started talking about the hike we had ahead of us the next day, Lt. Tom tracing the path in the air with his index finger. Suddenly we heard a loud dragging noise coming from behind us. I, of course, thought that it was a bear barreling toward us to rip out our throats and steal my poptarts, but it ended up being nothing more than a rockslide on the mountain face behind us. I say “nothing more” not in a lighthearted way. By nothing more I mean I assumed there was nothing more for me to have to worry about. I thought I had the paranoia covered from every angle. But as I stood there, watching the boulders race down the mountain, leaving dust in their tracks, I quickly added “death by rockslide” to my list of worries. I put it right under “sleepwalking into a stranger’s tent” and right above “freak tarantula plague”.

At 6:50, the breeze came back and we only made it 20 minutes before retreating to our tents. Once in my own tent, I was faced with a whole new set of obstacles. I was too hot, I was too cold, my legs cramped up, my butt cramped up, I couldn’t breathe, I was starving, I had to pee, I couldn’t sleep, and was that a bear lurking outside or just me breathing loudly into my own hand?

At 1 a.m. I couldn’t take it anymore. The last thing I had eaten was a Subway sandwich at 4 o’clock and after listening to the war cries of my stomach I was afraid it was on the verge of morphing into a cannibalistic Tarzan. To add to that, my bladder had started to feel like one of those big buckets at a water park that begin to tilt over and spill when a few too many drops land inside. So, in the dead of the night, with the stars blazing brighter than I’d ever seen before, I went charging out of the tent in my underwear and a head lamp to water the gravel. Going pee was actually the easy part. It wasn’t until I’d opened our bear container and spread our food out on the ground in search of my pretzels that I began to rethink the whole midnight snack idea. I whipped my headlamp back and forth in the dark, hoping the light would not be met with some unfamiliar beady eyes. I was convinced that a creature of the night was hiding behind a boulder and had been waiting for someone to unlock the container designed to outsmart their claws.

I JUST WANT SOME PRETZELS, I DON’T WANT TO DIE. 

I didn’t die.

I munched, got at least 45 more minutes of sleep over the next 5 hours, and emerged from the tent the next morning, with my camping cherry popped.

2) Marmots. To be fair, on this topic, we were warned, but we still didn’t really know what to expect. Marmots are essentially like beefy squirrels. They would be used as the before picture of Extreme Makeover Acorn Addict Edition, except they don’t just eat acorns, they eat anything and everything that can get their grimy little claws on. It took about 15 seconds after our arrival at trail camp for us to have our first marmot sighting. It was an average sized guy, we’ll call him Dave. He popped his head over one of the rocks at trail camp, eyeing all of our backpacks a.k.a food gold mines. Troy proceeded to throw a rock at Dave. (Don’t worry PETA, he missed.) We also missed Ben, Nathanial, Ethan, Diane, Jason, Jessica, and Crush, but that didn’t stop them from dropping by, every few minutes, all evening.

3) Wag Bags. One of the first things we had to do when we reached Lone Pine was pick up our hiking permits that we drew at the beginning of the year. While retrieving those, we were given a rundown of the rules of hiking Whitney and 7 wag bags, one for each of us. We were to put these bags in our packs and use them, should nature of the non-pee variety ever call.  I stuck mine in the top pouch of my pack next to my headlamp and my poncho, I figured they could hang out; start a club called “the things she probably won’t use.”

After we arrived at trail camp, it took a solid 20 minutes for our bladders to catch up. Maybe they had gotten stuck on the granite steps, I don’t know, but when they woke up, it was like they’d been dormant for weeks. All the liquids we’d been drinking to stay hydrated began to race to the finish line, every 15 minutes. Any inhibitions about peeing in the wilderness immediately went out the window. An hour into being at trail camp we were climbing up boulders to find new pee spots, and bragging about new real estate we found to recycle our hydration.

As far as the wag bags go, we made up a song, a snappy little jingle that had accompanying head bobs and rhythmic clapping. We figured that if it happened, it happened, and if it did, there should be a theme song.


 

Day 2 on the mountain started at 6 a.m. which could not have come soon enough. After spending 11 hours in our tents, we were all ready to get our legs moving up that mountain again.

The summit was 5 miles from trail camp. The plan was to hike to the top, do a little dance, hike back down to trail camp and pack up, and then head back down to the land of pizza and toilets.

First on the agenda: the 97 switchbacks that led from trail camp to trail crest.

Now, picture a switchback as an M laying on its side. The trail leads you from the bottom of the M to the top, then brings you back to do it all over again. Now picture 33 sideways M’s laying on top of each other, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what we were looking at from our tents.

Due to the up and back nature of the morning hike, we were able to leave our big backpacks in our tents and change into our daypacks that only held our water and snacks. This would prove to be immensely helpful as the elevation began to rack up with every switchback.

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By the time we reached trail crest we only had 2 miles and 1500 feet left to the summit.

The trail began to wind around the back of the mountains we saw from trail camp, giving us a beautiful view of the land and lakes on the opposite side.

After about a mile, a grey hut on top of what appeared to be a distant hill came into view. This hut acted as an emergency shelter for hikers in the case of a sudden onset of inclimate weather. It also marked the top of Mt. Whitney.

By the time this hut began to look like a human wielding structure rather than a lego, my adrenaline had reached an all time high. Any shortness of breath, body fatigue, or dehydration I had felt before vanished with each step towards that summit.

The last half mile was probably my favorite part of the whole hike. Hikers heading down from the summit gave us the right of way as we took our last steps toward victory. We were congratulated, commended, and high-fived and before we knew it, we were sitting at the top of the highest peak in the lower 48, looking out at the world beneath us.

As I looked out, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and accomplishment. When I looked up, I saw nothing but sky. There was absolutely nothing above me. In that moment on that mountain, I was on top of the world. (You know, kind of.)

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If you are ever feeling uninspired or unimpressed with yourself or your accomplishments, take a moment to look back at where you started. Chances are you have no idea how far you’ve come.

When we started our hike down that mountain and let the summit fade into the background, we had no choice but to relive every step of the hike we had just completed.

We hiked the 2 miles back to trail crest and went down all 97 switchbacks. We packed up our camp and reassembled our backpacks and hiked down every granite stair and gravel switchback. We soaked in the meadow, ate Clif bars on top of our log and passed by our shady rock. Then, with a final wind of the trail we saw the sign, the car, and the end of a successful trip.

As I relive the experience and look at the pictures that are almost a week old now, I can’t help but smile. A year ago I would have never imagined that I would be able to do anything of this magnitude and today I’m already dreaming about what I can do next. Don’t let doubt or fear control anything that you do. Our bodies, minds and hearts are made to do great things if we give them the opportunity. So get out there and do something.


 

Here is some additional information for anyone that might want to try this hike or hiking in general:

These are all the hikes my group and I did while in training for this trip. (All are located in California)

Camp Seely (3 miles): Crestline

Mission Peak/Three Trees (4 miles): Granada Hills

Hummingbird Trail (4 miles): Simi Valley

Lizard Rock/Wildwood Park (5 miles): Thousand Oaks

Towsley Canyon (5 miles): Santa Clarita

O’Melveny (5.5 miles): Granada Hills

East Canyon (6 miles): Santa Clarita

Mt. Baldy (13 miles): Mt. Baldy

Mt. Lowe (13 miles): Upland

Mt. Wilson (14 miles): Sierra Madre

Backbone Trail (15 miles): Malibu

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