My first goal was to have made it to the Trail Junction. That way I was sure to be able to exit out of Whitney Portal. Goal #1…Check! Having accomplished that, I decided to go as far as I could on the 1.9 mile “trail” to the summit, still unsure how much further I could climb without my head blowing up or becoming paralyzed with fear.
We dropped our packs at the junction (which I really thought would be bigger and more pronounced), after having unloaded our “extra” food on some starving PCTers (who later we would discover gave us really bad intel on what we were in for), and began the remaining 1.9 mile (that’s almost 2) climb to Mt. Whitney. We figured we would be “winded”, but it was “only” 2 miles so we thought we should be to the top in 2-3 hours at the most now that we weren’t weighed down by our packs. WRONG! Four hours later, and minus SideKick (she was the smart one who turned around having reached her saturation point for death defying adventure…besides she had already done Whitney many moons ago), we reached the summit of Mt. Whitney. I can honestly say that I have never been more terrified in my life, and I’ve been in some pretty hairy situations. Not only was this a serious height situation for me, but had to negotiate hard packed snow and ice that took over parts of the trail in the most inconvenient way, and locations. When I would start to “freak-out” (which is a really bad thing to do at over 13,000 ft on a narrow icy trail with 1000-2000 ft drops into oblivion, lined with sharp/jagged shards of granite) my son would say, “Look at the rock in front of you. You’re doing fine. Breathe”, and I would be able to calm down (enough) and continue on. Unfortunately, this happened with somewhat regular frequency, especially in the seriously sketchy sections.
As I stated before, at one point, and early on into that 1.9 miles, Jody (SideKick) had come to her senses (she was the only one), but I decided, ‘What the Hell, I’ve come this far, why turn back now’. Again, Jody was the only one with good sense. As with every challenge, and in this case, a healthy fear of heights, I reckon it’s “Go Big or Go Home!”…so I went ENORMOUS! The goal now was to make it to the top of Mt. Whitney in one piece, never mind my head exploding.
Up and over the steep icy snow bank that blocked what should have been a perfectly “good” trail I went. Had I not already taken a crap that morning before we set off, I am confident I would have crapped my pants right then. Now I was committed. Scout, April, Trevor, Jan and Paul had already made this crossing and were encouraging me every step of the way. The problem was that one wrong step (just as it was in the ascent to the trail junction) and you could be playing a harp. I don’t want to play a harp…just yet. One of the many things we had going in our favor though was the weather. We were blessed with absolutely gorgeous clear blue skies with narry a breath of wind. You could easily see over 100 miles (I could look out at the horizon, but never down). Beyond the “commitment” point, there were many terrifying moments. This trail would be treacherous even without horribly placed pockets of snow and ice. April said after one particularly sketchy stretch, “I can’t believe they let people do this! I can’t believe I’m doing this! Why are you letting me do this?” Even so, we continued on. Those who had already reached the summit were on the return, moving at what we thought to be an incredibly fast and confident pace, with glowing wide grins, back from whence they came. I so want to be that person. The altitude medication I had been taking seemed to be doing the trick. My head would hurt from time to time as I gained altitude and I would start to become queazy, but once I stopped for a bit, it would pass and I would continue on. On more than one occassion we ran into recent “summiteers” who in their haste to get back down the mountain, forgot “trail etiquette “(uphill hikers have the “right of way”) and would expect us going uphill to step aside and “give way” to them as they scampered down the mountain. Often times it was advantageous, in that we needed to catch our breath anyways, and would step aside, or stop and let them pass. On one particular occassion, in the middle of a lengthy 60 degree pitch snow field, almost near the top we ran head-on into a group of 6 that expected us to move. At this particular juncture I was not about to breach trail etiquette and froze in my tracks. I had made it thus far without falling off the mountain and was not about to misstep here, so I stood my ground. Besides they have already been to the top, so they had that going for them. Trevor was more than slightly annoyed that they expected us to “give way”, and asked the lead guy, “So, Dude, What’s your plan? It should have been obvious from the beginning, that they should have waited for us to negotiate this stretch as there was no “natural” place to step aside. I can only assume that their euphoria for making it to the top overwhelmed their senses…in every way. Thusly, I maintained my “deer in the headlights”, frozen in time stance, as I was not about to do anything but step into the already established snowy tread that I was ahead of me. They were going to have to either go back or go around. It was everything I could do to maintain my composure, as I dare not look down for fear of conguring up a case of vertigo. Eventually they chose to step up and around us (which made me even more nervous), all the while looking at us like we were the idiots. Well that was “fun”, I said to Trevor once we made it to a “natural” step aside point and caught our breath. Just prior to finally summiting we looked back from whence we came in this video below.
Overall, April, Jan and Scout picked their way up the trail to the summit seemingly with ease. Scout negotiated the trail hazards with apparent ease, as he is nimble and sure footed. April was experiencing headaches, but they would pass in short order, allowing her to continue her climb to the mountain’s top. Jan had no problem looking over the edge, taking pictures, and talking the entire time. Some of her talk (especially on the way back), I had to “shush”, when she would say things like, ‘Wow, if you slip here it would probably kill you’, or ‘I’d hate to break a leg here’. Not exactly helpful when one (me) is already terrified and gets nervous climbing a ladder, let alone 14,000+ feet. Other than that, she is one of the most unflappable and upbeat persons I have ever met. As I continued to make my way up the “trail”, Paul and Trevor were my “bookends”, leading the way and helping me to quell my now absolutely reasonable fear of heights. Look to the horizon, don’t freak out, breathe, one foot in front of the other, catch your breath, plant your poles, move…was my mantra to the top. Summiting Mt. Whitney was something I never thought I would be able to do, and I was prepared to be “happy”, and frankly satisfied with making it higher than Forrester Pass (13,153 ft ) to Trail Crest Junction (13, 519 ft).
But more importantly being able to share this with my son (who had attempted once before, but had to retreat due to altitude sickness), my husband and good friends made it ever so much more special. Once reaching the top, our breathing became less labored. In fact, I was no longer winded, nor did my lungs ache for a higher concentration of oxygen. I couldn’t frown if I wanted to. It’s like gravity reversed itself. We took a plethora of pictures, but none do this climb justice as they only paint a “two-dimensional” picture of what it is to climb a mountain, to test your skills, to temper fears, and to soak in the abject beauty of the moment and the views. An entire dictionary of words, library of videos, and/or album of pictures are not sufficient to re-enact or truly communicate this “six-dimensional” experience…even though we try.
Soon it is time to head back to the trail junction, as our adventure is not over…just yet. We still have to make it safely back over all the sketchy parts we willed ourselves over and through in quickly softening snow and melting ice. As you can see Jan and Scout had no problem “scampering” down the trial.
Looming in the forefront of our minds is the fact that we still have to retrieve our packs and don them once more for our descent to Trail Camp (“Outpost” as some call it). Ah, but we will do this with a huge smile and with the confidence that we have successfully traversed this path before.
But wait! The day is not over yet. What goes up…must come down, and it is not necessarily pretty.
…to be continued