June 8th, 2014
To Mt. Whitney and back
When Zach’s watch beeped at 6:30 that morning, I knew I was ready to take on the 14,505-foot-tall Mt. Whitney. We ate our granola in bed, then packed Zach’s backpack with some warm clothes, some water and a filter, some snacks, and our emergency supplies. We left our tent set up with my backpack inside. For our 14-mile excursion to Mount Whitney, we only needed a daypack.
I took the first turn on the pack, and we left our campsite behind and followed the edge of the stream toward the ridge of mountains before us. It was a perfect day for a hike: an early morning sun and cloudless sky washed us in light.
Before long, we were skirting the edge of a wide meadow cut through with meandering streams. This particular feature of Sierra landscape never ceased to make me feel happy: I loved watching the squiggled lines flowing through the lush turf, gathering into pools, trickling into new streams.
We paused at the edge of a lake, named Guitar Lake because of its shape, and gathered water from an outlet. We saw some friends there: The Prospector and Chop Chop, as well as The Animal. In high spirits, we all chatted. Marmots peeked out at us as we walked by, sometimes letting out squeaks to alert the others that possible gullible tourists were here to give them food.
(We later heard a story from a woman who said that she actually poked a curious marmot with her trekking pole. The marmot just sniffed the tip of her pole, as if flaunting the fact that she couldn’t hurt it.)
From Guitar Lake, we emerged into a more alpine area, and had a clear view of where we were headed (although we still weren’t sure exactly which peak in the ridge was Mount Whitney). Someone had told us that west side of Whitney just looked like “a big pile of rocks.” Looking at the backside of this monumental mountain, I could see that the person was right— in the same way that the Grand Canyon is just “a big hole in the ground.”
The entire landscape around us was a pile of rocks— splintered shards of granite the size of cars down to the size of pebbles that lay heaped at the feet of a raw, ragged ridge of vertical rock, chipped away by the ages, heaped in rubble. The scale of this mountain was mind-blowing.
|Looking up the side of Whitney|
We passed into its shadow, heading for a steep set of switchbacks. I began to feel exhausted and a little faint (“Elevation!” I announced), so Zach took the daypack and led the way. The path was a bit steep for a while, and then settled into a predictable pattern of switchbacks. This side of the mountain (though apparently not nearly as steep as the east side) was pretty sheer, and I found myself hugging the inner wall of the trail as we hiked.
Zach and I are both afraid of heights. Fortunately, my fear of heights only extends as far as my brain can comprehend the distance it will fall. What this means in practical terms is that I was jittery all the way up the switchbacks, but once we neared the top of the ridge, my brain couldn’t process the height we were at, so it just gave up being scared. Zach was not so lucky.
|I swear it looked steeper in real life…|
The part that scared me the most on the whole hike was when we had to cross a sheet of snow that cut a diagonal across the path. It had footprints on it, but if I slipped, I saw that I’d be sliding down a very steep bank of snow about five hundred feet down. I fretted as Zach crossed it, then followed, stepping carefully into the icy footprints and leaning toward the inner side as much as possible. I couldn’t imagine crossing it in the dark, as some people did!
On the way up, we met some of the early birds coming down. Sad Fish said that the sunrise was incredible, but we still didn’t envy him for waking up so early. We met Matt and Sam, and stopped to chat. They said that the trail ahead had some tricky spots, but nothing too hard. We talked about plans for after the Sierra. We learned that we were both hoping to meet up with family at Echo Lake, near Lake Tahoe. Matt, chuckling because of our never-ending game of tag, said, “Okay, we’ll see you in Echo Lake!”
After that day, we never saw them again. They blazed ahead of us, and though we once almost caught up with Sam in Oregon (less than a day behind, according to the trail registers), we never quite caught them. But every time I saw their names in the trail register, I thought of them, and I remembered fondly our first conversation, at the water spigot in the first sandy mile of of the PCT. They will always hold a special place in my heart.
As we continued up the side of the mountain, we paced The Animal for a while, but once again, only because he kept on dashing off on side trips— trying to climb a mountain peak here, scrambling up a scree field there. He stood on the edge of a precipice and let out a loud whoop. Zach and I, who both get dizzy and feeling of vertigo when seeing someone near a ledge, asked him to get down, for the love of everything.
At last, we joined up with the trail that came up from the other side of the mountain, called Whitney Portal. We sat on a rock shelf near the junction and split a Clif bar. From this side we had a gorgeous, dizzying view of the snow-streaked mountains to the west, interspersed with deep blue lakes that were still covered in frost-patterned sheets of ice. The sky was still sunny and blue, and the breeze mild. We didn’t need any of the layers we had packed. It really couldn’t have been a more beautiful day.
Now we joined with the trail that led 1.9 miles along a jagged, boulder-strewn ridge, with dramatic drop-offs on either side, to the highest point of Whitney. It wasn’t as narrow as Angels Landing in Zion National Park that I had hiked a few years ago, but there were certainly going to be some tight spots.
By this time, my fear of heights had pretty much gone away except for the occasional butterfly in the stomach, but it was all Zach could do to hold it to together as we started along the ridge. At last we reached a narrow space, where the trail turned a corner, swooped in a wide half-circle and disappeared out of sight. The half-circle was the rim of a drop that looked, from our angle, nearly sheer, and the trail appeared to be only about a food wide. It was crumbling in some places.
I glanced down at the fathomless drop in front of us, then took a deep breath, psyching myself up to go on. However, Zach turned away and crumpled onto a flat stone, his breath coming in short gasps. I sat next to him and tried to help him calm down. I knew that if he had been alone, it wouldn’t have been so tough— him worrying for my safety made his fear of heights worse.
For almost half an hour, we sat there. Zach hyperventilated a little bit, and I tried to be patient, and kept reassuring him that we did not have to go on. I wanted to reach the summit of Whitney, I really did, but if he wasn’t okay with it, we could turn back right now. After all, he’d be having to face this fear twice: once on the way there and once back.
Neither of us wanted to turn around, though. So we sat, and I felt somehow comforted that Zach had finally had a minor breakdown. It was his turn, after all!
What tipped the scales was talking to a woman and her husband who were hiking back from the summit. They told us that, aside from one tricky spot covered in snow, this was the worst the trail ever got, and they described the terrain to us before wishing us luck and continuing down. Armed with a bit more knowledge, Zach stood up. Then, with shaking steps, he began walking along the narrow trail, one hand skimming the rock wall to his right, eyes resolutely forward. I followed him, and, as soon became my habit in the High Sierra, I hummed a song as I followed him. As long as I was humming, he knew I was safe.
The trail turned out to be less scary than it appeared from our initial angle: the path was a couple feet wide, and the cliff was not as sheer as it could have been (although I still wouldn’t have wanted to take a tumble down it!). The washed-out area was a bit scary, but we skirted its edge and got past.
The trail now cut its way between gigantic columns of rock, with dramatic (and this time entirely sheer) cliffs that opened up first on one side, then the other, but mostly to the right. Zach couldn’t look at these openings, and I only allowed myself glimpses— glimpses that told me we were very, very high up.
After a while we came to the next obstacle. The trail was skirting a cliff off to the left at the time, which was interrupted by a column of rock. A patch of snow had sunk into the narrow pass between the column and the cliff, turning that small section of trail into a six-foot-tall ice slide on either side. The right side was a solid wall of rock, but the left side was just a column jutting up between two very steep cliffs.
Someone had hacked footholds into the near side of the snow, but it still looked like a slip could send you careening off the cliff. Zach faced the stone wall on our right and tried to breathe calmly. Using both hands and feet, I scrambled up the ice to the top to check it out. The other side was a definite ice slide, which would shoot you out onto the three-foot-wide trail next to the sheer cliff.
“It looks fine,” I said to Zach. “I’m going to try it, and then you can follow.”
This was actually a bad idea. Zach watched anxiously as I slowly lowered myself down, trying to do a controlled slide on my feet while crouching. This failed, and my feet flew out in front of me, plunking me on my butt, and I slipped down the side and hit the bottom. Zach said it looked like I was going to be launched off the side of the cliff, and he nearly had a heart attack.
To me, the motion was sudden, but not unexpected, and I landed solidly on the trail. Feeling happy to be over the obstacle, I told Zach to follow. He slid down as well, then stood next to me, breathing deliberately.
“Just a little further,” I told him.
“I thought you were going to die,” he said flatly.
“I’m sorry. But the couple said it gets better after this!”
Sure enough, within a few minutes the cliffs became less severe, and soon the trail spilled onto a sloping scree field that made up the summit of Mount Whitney. Huge jagged edges of bedrock stuck out to our right, covered in scree up to their tips, as if an immeasurably huge mountain had been wrenched away from its roots, leaving rubble on every surface behind it. The trail wound along these jagged pieces, over a small snow field, and then over a gently-sloping tumble of boulders. Our spirits rose as we glimpsed stone-cabin emergency shelter ahead of us. We were almost there!
At last, hearts racing (not just from the exertion), Zach and I stood on top of the highest mountain in the US outside of Alaska. We were greeting with clapping by The Animal, Prospector and Chop Chop, as well as a few day-hikers. A metal spike was driven into one of the boulders, marking the exact highest point, and Zach and I stood on it while The Animal took our photo. Our fear on the way up made the victory that much more satisfying!
A tapestry of snow-speckled mountains spread out as far as we could see to the north, west, and south, but to the east we saw the lower, sandy mountains of the desert. The 360 view was too much for our minds to process.
“Right now, we’re higher than the Rockies,” Zach said. “All of them.”
Zach wouldn’t let me go anywhere near anything that remotely resembled a ledge, and he sat in the middle of a large boulder. We ate some peanut butter wraps with trail mix in them, and watched tiny chipmunks scurry about. (“What on earth do they eat up here?” Zach wondered.)
We chatted with some people from the area, who offered to share their “Mountain High” beer with us, which we accepted. They had hiked up through Whitney Portal, a 22-mile round-trip that involved a lot of intense climbing and scary cliffs. Zach and I were very glad we’d been able to come up from the west side.
We tried to get cell phone reception, since we hadn’t had any in a week, but had no luck. Two PCT hikers, a couple we hadn’t met before, asked if we wanted to borrow their phone. Their names were Kit and Rimshot— Kit had a friendly smile and a welcoming aura about her, and Rimshot looked like most of the thin, bearded men on the trail at the time, although the impressive length of his beard suggested he had been working on it for a while. Thankful for their offer, we made to call Zach’s grandparents, who were hoping to meet us at Echo Lake in a couple weeks. We let them know that we were on track, and asked them to spread the word among our families that we were still alive.
We stayed there for an hour or two, taking in the scenery as clouds rolled in and hikers came and went. At last, we said farewell to the view, signed the trail register at the cabin, and headed down. Now fluffy clouds were lowering over us, swept along by the increasing wind, although it was still nice and warm.
We wound our way through the scree field, across the slope of tumbled boulders, and back to the narrow cliff-edged trail. The snow slide proved to be more of a challenge going up— we saw some people climb along the rocks right on the edge of the cliff, but we knew there was no way we’d do that. We managed to find footholds in the icy slide, and scrambled over without incident. We retraced our steps along the narrow trail, over the washed-out section, and back into safe territory for the huge set of switchbacks down.
|To give a sense of scale, see the person in the red shirt hiking along the trail?|
The trip down the mountain certainly seemed a lot shorter than the hike up! It seemed like almost no time had passed before we were passing Guitar Lake. Behind us, a cover of ominous-looking gray clouds shrouded Whitney’s peak. We had left at just the right time.
The Animal hiked and chatted with us for a while, which was fun. We also got to see the couple who had helped us gather the courage to make it to the top, and they were happy that we had made it.
Soon we left the cold gray stone and marmots behind in favor of green fields and forests. By the time we reached our camp, it was threatening rain, and we decided that we might as well camp here again. Zach worked on cooking dinner while I went to get water.
Kit, who was also camped in the area, was gathering water there as well. We began chatting, and I soon learned that she and her husband were Christians! They were the first Christian hikers we had met on trail, and it was like meeting a long-lost family member. I realized how desperately I missed my Christian friends and church community.
After supper and sock-washing, Zach and I went to bed, exhausted but satisfied.