“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness” – John Muir
6AM – Portagee Joe Campground, Inyo County, California
I awoke with a mild sense of confusion. A common experience when I am camping in a new place, it sometimes takes me a few moments before I can do the mental backtracking necessary to figure out exactly where I laid down the night before. As I stared at the ceiling of the tent and began to piece things together, someone shuffled in the sleeping bag next to mine. It was my buddy Jared. I had picked him up outside of L.A. the afternoon before and we had driven the 4 hours from the Elsinore Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Arriving at our campsite well past dark, we hastily set up camp without being able to see the majestic mountains that we knew loomed over our makeshift digs. We crawled out of the tent in the pre-dawn darkness eager to take in the early morning celestial show that we knew would soon cast light on the enormous granite escarpment that lay just a few miles away. It wasn’t long after sunrise before we identified the peak we were after – Mt. Whitney. Known to the Paiute Indians as “Toomanigooyah,” or “the very old man,” Whitney was the reason that we were there. Fueled by the success of a hike the previous year, Jared and I had decided to up the ante so to speak and attempt to summit the highest mountain in California, the grand dame of the Sierras. From our viewpoint, Whitney commanded attention, her multiple minor summits appearing as needles jutting into the sky. It was crazy to think that if things went accordingly, we would be basking in those first rays of daybreak when they graced the summit the following morning.
I first met Jared in the summer of 2013 when we were in Alaska working on a Habitat for Humanity build. In his introductory bio to our volunteer group, Jared had written that “travel and open roads call to my heart and I love wandering around in search of new experience, adventure and people.” I found those words intriguing and since we both arrived in Alaska a few days early, we had decided to meet up to get acquainted and scope out the town. The day we met, we made a thorough round of Anchorage’s finest and not so fine watering holes, all the while imploring anyone who would entertain us about the best local hiking trails. One route in particular that we heard over and over was Bird Ridge. One of the most popular and difficult hikes in Chugach State Park, the walk promised steep climbs and stunning views of Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains. We were sold. We closed down the bars that night, stumbled back to our hostels in the otherworldly Alaskan twilight and promptly drug ourselves and accompanying hangovers to the top of the ridge the next morning. It was a spectacular trail and years later, it remains one of my favorite hikes. Jared and I haven’t closed down a bar in a long time, but we still like to get after it. Which is exactly how we ended up standing underneath those Sierra sentinels on that late summer morning.
4PM – The Alabama Hills
Jared and I pulled our hoodies down over our faces as a fierce wind pelted us with sand and small rocks. We were lying underneath one of the surreal rock formations that dot the eroded hills between the Owen Valley and Inyo National Forest. We had secured our Whitney trail permits earlier in the day from the impressive Eastern Sierra Visitor Center and in doing so had obtained one of the last pieces of our logistical puzzle. While standing in the permit line, we overheard rumors of people starting and finishing this hike in the dark. Early morning hikers often would not return to their vehicles until well past sunset. Jared and I exchanged confused glances as we eavesdropped on the conversation behind us. Surely that didn’t apply to us. It wouldn’t take us that long. Or would it?! We were both avid, experienced hikers not subject to the same laws that govern the masses of weekend warriors who attempt to conquer Whitney. Right?! But, the seed of doubt had been planted and we began to question what circumstances we may have failed to consider.
Later, while wandering along Cottonwood Creek in the Golden Trout Wilderness, we decided that we would begin our push on Whitney shortly before midnight in hopes that we could watch the sunrise from the summit and be back into town in time for a late lunch. Faced with the prospect of such an early start, we had spread out in the shade hoping to grab a few hours of sleep before gearing up. The relentless wind storms and numerous, noisy off road vehicles traversing the hills soon proved our idea unfeasible. So, we laid there in nervous anticipation with the layers of dust accumulating on our clothes; every passing minute bringing us closer to our most ambitious undertaking to date. When the excitement became too much, we emptied our bags and geared up for the trip
10:30PM – Whitney Portal
Half a mile into our hike, water drops began hitting the back of my leg. Reaching around, I discovered that the bottom of my pack was soaked. Closer inspection revealed that the bladder carrying my 3 liters of water had cracked. “Must have happened during the duffle shuffle earlier today,” I thought. There was no easy fix for this. We had a case of bottled water but that was back at the trailhead. I had a Nalgene in my hip pocket but that wasn’t going to cut it. We were embarking on a 22 mile trek through the Sierras. I would certainly need more than one bottle of water to get me through the day. As we finished the first leg of our hike back at our Jeep, things didn’t seem too promising. So, this is how it begins? I gazed at Jared with a look of incredulity. He just laughed. I envied his seemingly indefatigable spirit.
5:15AM – Mt. Whitney Trail Switchbacks
Hours of hiking underneath the faint, red glow of our headlamps had only taken us up 65 of the 97 switchbacks that separate Trail Crest from Trail Camp some 1700′ below. The switchbacks seemed endless and we had fallen off our goal pace by a considerable margin. I was perplexed. “We should have been up on the ridge by now. No way are we going to make sunrise on the summit.” I couldn’t quite figure out why we were moving so slowly; or rather, what specific reason or combination thereof was to blame. Was it the fact that we were standing at over 13,500’? Our breath was ragged and erratic and we were not thinking clearly. The brain and lungs take hard hits in low oxygen environments and ours were no exception. We had opted to skip an acclimatization day due to our eagerness to knock Whitney off our list. We had other hikes we had planned for this trip and wanted to cram in as much adventure as possible. If it was not the altitude sickness symptoms, there was also the glaring distinction that neither of us had slept in almost 24 hours. The light delirium that accompanies lack of sleep was slowly being replaced by something more sinister. Whatever the reason, things were clear – this is not how we anticipated this going. We weren’t even halfway through this hike and we had already discussed turning around. We wondered if the guys who had adventured in Alaska would laugh at us now.
Years have passed since that summer in Alaska and despite being on opposite sides of the country, Jared and I have remained close friends connected by our mutual love of wild places, people and times. We’ve hiked in Colorado together, crossed paths in the Grand Canyon and even knocked out the infamous Cactus to Clouds hike last year; a trek that Backpacker Magazine rated as one of the hardest day hikes in the country. We knew that hike would be a difficult one to top which is one of the reasons we had picked Whitney.
By our reckoning, the ascent shouldn’t have posed such a formidable task given our experience and training. But the combination of less than desirable conditions had delivered a sucker punch that neither of us had anticipated. Despite the struggle, we knew we had to finish. I had flown across the country for this. Jared had left his family back at home to tackle this adventure. His wife, Hannah, had even prepared goodie bags full of homemade trail treats to power our push. Whitney didn’t care. She was handing out metered doses of humility faster than we could take them in. The headaches and inability to catch our breath just compounded the struggle up the relentless incline. We agreed that even if we had to finish in the dark, we had to get it done. We couldn’t go back and tell our friends and families we didn’t make it. So we pushed on. Lumbering and stumbling but at least moving forward. I kept reminding myself of a favorite proverb – “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”
6:15AM – Trail Crest
7 small plastic water bottles squeaked in my pack as I shifted my weight and spun in a slow circle. We were now standing on top of the highest trail pass in the country. The sun was rising and beginning to paint the higher reaches of the mountains around us. In my oxygen deprived state, I could almost see the colors change as they bounced off the granite reaches less than 1,000’ above. We were getting closer. Soon, we were able to spot the Smithsonian Institute Shelter that resides at the summit. Though only 2 miles away at this point, it appeared to be much further away than we had hoped. But our goal was now in view and we anchored our sights upon it, willing it to pull us closer. We shuffled along sharing words of encouragement with the hikers we passed and graciously accepting the same from those who passed us.
Those last 2 miles to the summit were the slowest of our entire hike. When we finally reached the top and soaked in the view we had worked so hard to obtain, we were overcome with emotion, fatigue and sleep deprivation. We embraced with an overwhelming sense of awe for our achievement and the natural beauty that surrounded us. But we also shared a sense of trepidation that our journey was technically only halfway done. We still had 11 miles to go and we were well aware that those miles would not pass without their fair share of suffering.
When Jared and I finished our Cactus to Clouds hike atop beautiful San Jacinto in Southern California, only 5 miles stood between us and the Palm Springs Aerial Tram which would transport us back to the desert floor below, saving us many knee pounding miles and over 6,000’ of elevation loss. Whitney afforded us no such luxury. The return to the trailhead, a hot meal and a soft bed would only be facilitated by tens of thousands of steps down rocky terrain in ever increasing temperatures. The slog back down the mountain is not one I will soon forget.
When I first started hiking, I abhorred the ascents and delighted in the downhill. Aging joints and experience have caused an about face. These days, I relish a long climb but fear descents, especially the extended ones where the knees don’t enjoy temporary departures from the pounding visited upon them. Whitney Trail dealt this out in spades. Certain downhill sections saw us moving slower than we had on our ascent. We gingerly and carefully chose step after painstaking step in an attempt to minimize the jarring the large drop offs and unforgiving surface delivered.
1:30PM – Trail Camp
Jared and I didn’t talk much on our descent, each of us content to suffer in silence. As we sat underneath the shade of a boulder near the colorful tents that jotted Trail Camp, we stared at each other with a mix of elation and exasperation. Despite the assistance of our trekking poles, the descent was taking a toll on our knees and we wanted little more than to be done with the hike already. The descent of the 97 switchbacks had showed us little mercy and every lake we passed beckoned us to just drop our packs and hop in. But we both knew that if we stopped for too long, we might not get moving again. Something about objects in motion and objects at rest… Best to just push on through and finish strong. So, we crawled out of the cool shade, shouldered our packs and kept moving down the trail.
3:30PM – Whitney Portal
When we finally arrived back at the trailhead that afternoon, we had been awake for over 33 hours. Our hike had taken us through a backpacker’s paradise and to the limit, both mentally and physically. We had stood on top of the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., battled internal and external demons that threatened our success and even managed to finish with several hours of daylight remaining. That afternoon, we found ourselves in the tiny frontier town of Lone Pine, CA eating platefuls of food truck tacos while recounting our adventure. We were exhilarated with our accomplishment despite the exhaustion we felt. However, we knew the importance of remaining focused on the task at hand. At the outset of this trip, we had decided that after Whitney, we would tackle Nevada’s highest mountain before turning our sights on the fabled El Capitan. With that in mind, we didn’t close down any bars that night. Instead, we found a cheap motel on the outskirts of town and slept the wonderful sleep of the weary with dreams of those new experiences, adventure and people.
I will leave the tales of the rest of our trip to another time and place. Both of the mountains that we climbed after Whitney have their own stories of struggle and success and to try to include them here would be to sell them short. Maybe I’ll include them in a future post. Until we meet again, I would love to hear about your favorite trails and/or mountains. Jared and I are already throwing around ideas for next year’s throwdown and we would greatly appreciate any recommendations or ideas.
Thanks for reading and happy trails,
The Juandering Advocate