A Walk in the Sky: Climbing Mt. Whitney

“Expeditions are born in the minds of men and more of them die there
than are defeated by avalanches, bad weather, and misfortune combined.”
(Nicholas Clinch)

I’ve gone days without showering before.  I sometimes watch “Man vs. Wild” on The Discovery Channel.  I’ll take a hike when a girl tells me to.  But that’s not enough to call myself a true adventurer.

Earlier this year, a few of my friends proposed a mission, which I unadvisedly accepted, to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.  It didn’t appeal or even occur to us to simply take the Main Trail to the top.  That’s for wimps.  We had to go the Mountaineer’s Route.

During the months leading up to the hike, I attended a Mt. Whitney workshop, became a member of REI, and purchased all the necessary gear bankrupting myself in the process.  But I was determined to conquer this mountain.

Summer flew by and before we knew it, it was time for the long drive to the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  The first thing we did when we got to the trailhead was to weigh our packs.  Mine came out to 30 lbs.  I had a tent, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a daypack, a 3-liter water bladder, snacks and a bunch of freeze-dried meals (which by the way are the most awful things I’ve ever eaten).  I was about to show myself just how much I hated myself.  Sorry, self.

Day one involved a 3.5-mile hike up to Upper Boy Scout Lake where we made camp.  After hours of hiking, hand and knee scraping scrambling, and some rock-climbing, we set up our tents in what seemed like force ten gales. In fact, I awoke in the middle of the night and found that the wind had blown my tent zippers open.  No wonder it was so cold.

Day two started when the sun rose. We only had to hike 2.5 miles to the summit, take pictures, and then traverse all the way down.  At least that was the plan.  We were all a little sore from the day before, but our logic told us that 2.5 miles would be easier than the 3.5 miles of ground we just covered.  Not only was the final push to summit harder and more dangerous, but the air was thin, and we were essentially stepping across steep gravel slopes for nearly twice as long as the day before.

Bodies started to break down so we all hiked at our own pace.  By the time I reached the top, I was emotionally and physically spent.  I remember nearly breaking down in tears. There is a guestbook to sign at the summit, but instead of writing something clever next to my name, I wrote the first thing that popped into my head: “Oh Lord, that was hard.” (Peter Min, 8/22/2010)

The hike back to base camp was excruciating.  When we finally returned, it was already 7pm and the sun was setting fast, and we still had to climb all the way down.  So on went the headlamp, the 30 lbs pack, and the treacherous journey down the rest of the mountain.

Two of my friends had to stay behind and camp another night.  They were in no condition to continue in the dark.  I, on the other hand, had no more food, no more clean clothes, and no more patience for all this misery.  By some miracle, I made it to the bottom with only minor scraps and bruises, though I did lose a hiking pole and left depleted of all water.

I met Mt. Whitney rock face-to-face and she almost broke me.  It was the greatest test of physical and mental fortitude I ever experienced.  Yes, I climbed to the top, but that was only halfway.  I felt accomplished when I reached the bottom.  I was safe, I was still alive, and I was going home.