California: Mt. Whitney (14,505 feet)
I began and ended this climb in the dark with the most unwilling of hiking companions, my husband. He pretends to be a good sport, but on a normal day, would rather stick pins in his eyes than join me for a leisurely stroll around a pond. How I got him to agree to take on 22 miles and over 6,000 feet of elevation gain in one day, I’ll never know. He didn’t train for it; just got up off the couch and made an attempt. While that approach is admirable when it works, it didn’t land him a summit of the highest point in the continental US. I still appreciate the attempt.
My husband and I found ourselves on the trailhead at 3:00 am. Around 3:30, we passed other climbers on their way down who explained it was too cold for them to handle. It was around 30 degrees. Cold, sure, but if you’re dressed appropriately, not a bother. Still, the comment got me focusing on my toes which had suddenly started to feel vulnerable to frostbite just from their comment. Passing them also had an adverse effect on my husband as he now considered turning around to be a valid option. It was not. I explained he was not allowed to turn around until the sun was up. This was approximately a 4 hour commitment I expected. For another three hours, we didn’t encounter any other people. Add to that, the inability to see beyond the reach of our headlamps and the threat of bears, I was not about to let him abandon me.
About one hour in, forlorn from the inability to turn around right away, he became nonsensical. I would ask questions and the only answer he could muster was, “I don’t know.” Didn’t matter what I asked. Do you need a snack? Do you need to rest? Is that a cockroach on your shoulder? Everything was met with “I don’t know.” Finally, I gave up on talking to him and just appreciated that he was at least able to keep my pace. That lasted another two hours until his pace began to slow significantly. Around 7:00, we saw a beautiful sunrise and now had some context of what we were up against – a crazy amount of height to gain that was somewhat intimidating. Any amount of time my husband lasted beyond 7:00 he considered to be a bonus gift to me.
I think we parted around 10:00 am, somewhere in the 11,000 to 12,000 foot range. His pace had all but slowed to that of a slug and I wasn’t going to make the summit going that slow. Shortly after I took off ahead, I realized he had the sunscreen and the sun was getting strong. So, I waited… 30 minutes later, I got my sunscreen. While he was there, I took the opportunity to ditch my headlamp, wrongfully presuming that I’d wrap this up while it was still daylight. Ah, to get rid of the dead weight of both my headlamp AND slug-paced husband! We agreed to meet somewhere between that spot and the trailhead. Great planning, right? Yes, I’ll meet you again somewhere within this 7 mile stretch of rocky trail.
Now, on my own, I at least could keep a comfortable pace. I stopped at Trail Camp for a snack and some pictures before embarking on the endless segment of switchbacks. The switchbacks were maddening to take on alone. I started reciting the US Presidents in order so I could measure every 44 steps. When that got old, I started reciting the NATO phonetic alphabet to measure every 26 steps. Finally, I started spelling random words and phrases with that alphabet – my name, the mountain’s name, mantras like “you’ve got this.” Yes, I was going a little mad. On several occasions, I got so beaten down, that I seriously considered turning around. I started thinking about everything I had below me to retrace, which messed with my head. At each of those points, some other climber would appear, seemingly out of thin air, and offer words of encouragement to keep me on the trail. “One foot in front of the other.” “You’re just out for a walk – enjoy it!” “Every step gets you one step closer to the summit.” These were all things I knew, but needed to hear since I only had myself to keep me motivated.
Once I got through the switchbacks, I handled the rolling traverse pretty well. I started to meet up with a lot of other people, who were happy to chat, exchange picture taking duty, or offer me snacks, including chocolate peanut butter pretzels. Around 14,000 feet, I passed a guy on his stomach, vomiting off the side of the trail. While my normal impulse would have been to offer help, this became a survival-only quest. I had to hold my breath and continue my journey.
Less than one mile from the summit, I met another climber who gave me the last bit of encouragement I needed. He reminded me to look for and sign the register. Knowing that I got to sign my name to this accomplishment kicked me into high gear. That was the reward I’d needed.
As I approached the summit at 12:15, several guys who passed me on the way up met me with high fives and fist bumps. At the time, I was the only woman on the summit, which felt pretty badass. Another climber who I’d talked to on the way up, ushered me over to the register to make sure I signed it.
Next, I made my way over to the overlook area and captured the requisite celebratory photos. That’s where I met four guys from California who adopted me for about half of the descent. They made for excellent company during the maddening switchbacks. Having heard about my sudden dearth of a headlamp, and talking through with me a realistic estimate for my return time, they offered me one of their extra headlamps. While I was crazy to have none on me at that point, these guys had six between the four of them. Not only did they lend me a headlamp, but they threw in back up batteries. How did I get so lucky?
The California team had spent the previous night at the high camp and needed to break camp before moving on. I made arrangements to return the headlamp once I was home and continued my descent solo.
Another 2 miles or so (around 4:00), I met up with my husband who had made a home in a meadow all day. I’m pretty sure it was the only grassy area on the upper mountain. He gave me a tour of his bedroom where he napped for several hours, his living room which he enjoyed while he was awake, and showed me where a marmot had sniffed curiously at his face. This is not the first time a marmot has come to investigate this man while I was summiting and he sat waiting somewhere. Maybe marmots have a thing for him.
After resting for a bit, we continued our journey downward. I guess we’d really slowed down because the CA team not only had time to break camp, but passed us, a good opportunity to return their generous loan of a headlamp since I had reunited with mine in the meantime.
The final two miles were brutal. By that point, it was dark again, headlamp was on, and the trail seemed endless. My husband, now refocused from his hours of resting with a marmot, was not interested in resting. He mostly shouted at me in a tough love kind of way to keep moving, which ultimately was what I needed to get me down. Even though my husband did not train for this undertaking, he still deserves a shout-out for making the attempt. He lasted about seven hours up, maybe fourteen round trip miles, and a few thousand feet of altitude gain. Had he not waited in his meadow home for me, I may have followed my impulse to burrow into a cave for the night somewhere in the lower mountain. He got me down safely when I was no longer interested in moving, so for that, he gets a thumbs-up.
Finally, back at the car at 8:00 pm, 17 hours after we’d started, I decided we deserved pizza for a second night in a row. We returned to the local pizza place in Lone Pine, where we and bumped into the guy who offered his chocolate peanut butter pretzels. We were all hobbling around with bloodshot eyes, a bit beaten up from the day, but happy from the delicious pizza. Although, admittedly, anything hot would have done the trick at that point. I ended the day with over 66,000 steps, my highest step count in the five years I’ve worn a pedometer. To put that in context, the average office employee is encouraged to aim for 10,000 steps/day.
Two days following the climb, I was scheduled to attend a four-day business conference in LA. While I had brought heels, my feet were incapable of taking more than three steps in them. Instead, I spent the week walking around in business attire and flip flops. News of my Whitney summit quickly circulated and the flip flops became a badge of honor as well as a conversation piece.