For those of you who know me, hi !! For those of you who don’t, (I’m the second from the left), let me gleam a bit of light onto my travel escapades. I would much rather visit unusual, far-flung destinations, or try new adventures. To me, it’s the mental souvenirs that are important in the end.
One of my “crazy adventure”, as my friends lovingly refer to my trips, was to the top of California’s Mt. Whitney…14,495 feet. After spotting a tour company on the Internet called Sierra Wildness Seminars who offered guided hikes, I wrangled three buddies together, and reserved the July spot immediately. (www.swsmtns.com. Phone: 888-797-6867. Toll free from Canada: 877-797-6867. Address: 210-A East Lake Street; Mt. Shasta, CA 96067. Group size is limited to eight people. Guide to client ratio: 1:4).
I had never climbed a hill, let alone the tallest mountian in the contiguous United States! A wild-hair was the driving force…that, and proof a middle age woman can scale new heights. Joining me on this three day ascent into thin-air were James, Jim, Patricia (aka “Rusty”), and the most significant person on the climb, JB the tour guide. Mt Whitney has thirteen trails open to the public. A wildness permit is required to hike any of them. The permit can be obtained by phoning 559-565-3766 or 760-873-2483/760-876-6200; (web site: www.nps.gov/seki.) The most popular is the Mt. Whitney Trail; it’s 11 miles to the summit (22 miles roundtrip). Over 24,000 people annually apply for this trail permit. This is rated Class 1, which means the easiest of the hikes. The trail consists of a well maintained series of switchbacks. Just about anyone in good physical shape, and the desire to reach the top can accomplish this climb. Altitude sickness is the main contributor to the 67 percent failure rate. Some people tackle the Mt. Whitney Trail in one day; I suggest at least two days. There are numerous places to camp along the way.
This is the route James, Jim, Rusty & I THOUGHT we were going to conquer. Silly, silly us… Upon talking with the employees of REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) when renting sleeping bags, we were informed the Sierra Wilderness group leads hikes up the Class 3 Mountaineer’s Route only! It is a 4.7 mile (9.4 roundtrip) vertical climb to the summit. This was the most direct route to the top. How did we miss that on our paperwork????? We all assumed Mountaineer’s Route was synonymous with Mount Whitney Trail…you know, we were “mountaineers” on the Mt. Whitney Trail route…something like that. I knew I was in trouble when the 18 year old salesman, upon hearing we were tackling the arduous east side of the mountain, shouted “sweet” as he gestured to high-five me. PANIC set in!!!
I reeled in my terror, and comforted myself saying “you can turn around and go back down if the climb gets too difficult.” I was relieved to hear the rest of my group was also scared. Never-the-less, we bucked up and headed for the monstrous granite beast.
JB, our fearless leader, greeted us at Whitney Portal trailhead. Our group would be JBs 16th climb up Whitney in three months. We were in good hands. He checked our backpacks to make sure we brought the proper clothing. He then told us we would need to divide and carry the communal gear among us…food, camping stove, coffee, bear-proof canisters……BEAR-PROOF?????? Nobody had mentioned anything about bears!! As if the anticipated cuts, altitude sickness, and exhaustion weren’t enough, now we had to worry about life-threatening wildlife! JB placated our angst by assuring us it was only a precautionary measure.
The days climbed proved to be not too bad. Scenery was spectacular. Five hours of slow, trekking through brush and talus brought us to Upper Boy Scout lake; our campsight for the night. We had reached 11,200 feet of our almost 15,000 foot goal. Rusty’s slight headache alerted us to the sparse O2. Rain set in as we scrambled to pitch our tents. Rusty and I shared one tent, while Jim, James and JB shared the other. When the rain subsided, JB set up his makeshift kitchen, and concocted a delicious chicken veggie soup. Bellies full, we all hit-the-hay early. Our 4AM wake-up call to begin ascending to the top of the world would come too soon. Or so we thought…we hadn’t anticipated the difficulty sleeping at high altitude. Our brains, as well as our bodies tossed and turned all evening. We arose at 3AM. Emerging from our tents we were greeted by the most MAGNIFICENT star-filled sky we’d ever seen. This alone was worth the hike. There were trillions of white sparkles above. Breathtaking.
After a quick breakfast, we adorned our head-lights and set out into the pitch dark. Good thing JB knew where he was going, because we would have walked right off a cliff if navigation was up to us. The sunrise was glorious as we took small steps up the hill. Shades of pink bathed the mountain side. Sporadically, we would see other hikers head-lights in the distance. It was comforting to know we were not the only 5 people attempting to summit via the Mountaineers Route. There were other masochists braving the scree. Breathing was labored. We deeply sucked in what little oxygen was in the air. JB cajoled us step after each difficult step.
The Couloir had us scrambling on our hands and knees. Tiny, loose pebbles would not allow us to get a good foot grip, so for each step up we took, we slid down two steps. Frustrating. This went on for almost a mile. We quickly realized why the guidebooks call this trail the “challenging and rewarding route.” Forget rewarding, by this time we wanted paved trails with coffee carts along the way. At 14,200 feet, we took a deserved break.
Then came “the notch.” Notch is a misnomer. It should be called a vertical cliff!! No longer were we empowered, middle-aged adventurers; we were quivering, children. As JB assembled our harnesses to tie-in, silent fear replaced our chatty conversations. “What the heck were we doing here??”. Rusty’s nose was bleeding, we were all battling fatigue, and headaches, not to mention the gloves I was wearing had been ripped to shreds by the thousands of feet we had climbed already. We should just turn around and go home. But, we all realized we’d come too far to quit now…silly, silly us.
Tied together, first James, then me, then Rusty, then Jim, we followed JB spider-man style up the face of the vertical sheet of rock. We were up so high there was snow on the ground..in July! Expletives flew from my mouth as I saw my life pass before my eyes. A lump formed in my throat, as I repeated “mountaineers don’t cry, mountaineers don’t cry…” All fun was gone. We were only focused on accomplishing each step, and not plunging to our death. Yes, death!! People die on this mountain! OK, so I’m being a bit dramatic. Because we were tied-in to each other, we couldn’t fall to our death, we could just fall a few feet and break a bone or bruise ourselves. But still, people who don’t tie-in, fall to their death. Looking at the granite ledges, it was obvious why. One slip, and it’s bye, bye.
After what seemed like 10 hours, but in reality was only one, we reached the summit…14,495 feet! I must say, it was anti-climatic. We had used every molecule in our body to reach the pinnacle. There was no energy left for elation, only relief.
JB rewarded our group with a picnic of cookies beside the National Park Service Landmark Plaque. Numerous other hikers, who had taken the Mt. Whitney Trail, were mulling around the summit. We all signed the national register supplied by the park rangers for people who had accomplished the difficult task. We commiserated with our fellow hikers, took pictures enjoyed the view and gave ourselves a pat on the back. Not bad for a group of middle-aged, old folk.