Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mount Whitney

It was to be my most ambitious endurance effort yet — a single-day climb to the top of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. Twenty-two miles, more than 7,000 feet of climbing, to an altitude of 14,500 feet. The date was August 2001, and I was 21 years old. My dad had applied for a permit back in January and invited me along. When he landed what was even then a difficult permit to get, he said, "It's once in a lifetime, but it won't be easy. Do you think you're up for it?"

I enjoy taking solo trips from time to time. Beat was in Switzerland on business, and I decided to spend two or three days in the Sierras for UTMB practice — working on techniques in uphill "speed hiking" and downhill jogging. But after two days of solid five-hour efforts at altitude, and a rough night in of sleep in camp, I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling partially shattered. Sunlight was just beginning to touch the floor of the canyon, and I felt a familiar empty-stomach anxiety that I still associate with waking up early to go on big hikes with my dad. "It's only hiking," I told myself. "Just 22 miles."

A lot happened in the interim between January and August 2001. I landed my first post-college, career-type job as an editor at a weekly newspaper in Murray, Utah, and then lost it and four weeks' pay when the publisher abruptly shut the doors. I started working as a graphic designer and convinced myself corporate logos and real-estate brochures were the right path for me. And I met a guy who convinced me that I should put the whole career thing on hold and see the world, or at least the United States, before I descended too deep into adulthood. I dropped everything and loaded up my Geo Prism in May. We trekked across Zion National Park, swam across lakes in Texas, and dug trenches around our tent in the torrential rains of North Carolina. I sprinted away from a pit bull attack in Maine, climbed the highest peak in Idaho during a July snowstorm, and helped row a raft more than two hundred miles down the Green River. After the trip was over, I emerged with an actual tan on my legs, definition in my biceps, and a conviction that I had never before and would possibly never again be so strong. 

My start was still what most people would consider late, around 8:45 a.m., which is a good time to begin a trek up Mount Whitney. Most of the day hikers leave much earlier but the backpackers haven't yet hit the trail. Despite a full quota of permits for the day, it seemed like I had the trail almost to myself. Because I felt so lousy, and because reaching the summit was the ultimate goal, I had already decided I wasn't going to focus on "training." I wouldn't stress when my paced dropped below 20-minute miles, and I'd stop and take more breaks if I had another coughing fit like the one I experienced early that morning. Mount Whitney really is a rare opportunity — the kind of experience one should savor.

Our hiking party was me, my dad, and my dad's friend Tom. We drove from Salt Lake City to Lone Pine on "America's Loneliest Highway" across central Nevada. My cross-country road trip had inspired me to purchase new high-tech hiking gear that I was quite proud of. The last time my dad and I embarked on a long hike, I was still wearing cotton T-shirts and jean shorts, and hoisting a school backpack full of refilled Gatorade bottles. Now I had convertible nylon pants, polar fleece, a Camelback, even a Katadyn water filter. I was styling. 


The weather was close to perfect, perhaps on the warm side of ideal, but it's hard to complain about sunshine in the Sierras. Even after I broke out of my morning funk, I wasn't in a rush to increase my pace. I set my legs on cruise control and gazed up at the granite walls rising thousands of feet over my head. The chiseled spires and crumbling slopes had an air of familiarity, much more recent than I knew them to be. I was surprised by how much I remembered from my first visit here, and it was interesting to revisit the memories through the vibrant filter of a decade of experiences.

For all of the strength I had built during the summer of 2001, I was still prone to making mistakes. For starters, I thought wasabi peas sounded like great trail food, and brought an eight-ounce bag. I managed two or three handfuls before I felt ill. I also had a half pound of banana chips. As I sat down next to my dad for our mid-morning snack, an opportunistic marmot scuttled up from behind and snatched them right out of my lap, the entire bag. Undeterred by my yelling and chasing, the marmot scurried away with most of my edible food. My dad took pity on me and handed me a granola bar. 

My legs' cruise control stayed steady until I reached the trail's infamous hundred switchbacks, and then my strength started to falter. GPS registered over 12,000 feet now, and my lungs began to burn.  Even with everything I've learned about appreciating life for its fleeting moments, there are still times, sometimes, when I just put my head down and trudge.

We passed through a notch and climbed over the sharp edge of the summit ridge at Trail Crest, elevation 13,600. It was already as high as I'd ever been in my life, and I paused to take in the vista. For what seemed like hundreds of miles, all I could see was stark granite, lifeless lakes, and snow. It struck me as eerie that a landscape too high to support most life was now far below. I wondered what it must be like to climb the world's truly high mountains — almost like touching the moon. 

From Trail Crest there are only another 900 feet of elevation gain to the summit, spread out over 2.5 miles. The trail runner in me wanted to write this stretch off as easy, but in Whitney's context, I was being pummeled. I don't know why I brought that GPS, because it only seemed to taunt me. My pace dropped to 31-minute-miles, and then 39. I actually felt like I often do at the end of a long endurance ride — vaguely nauseated, achy muscles, dehydration headache. I sipped on my water, but I didn't really expect it to help. Trudge, trudge, trudge.

My dad and Tom were now far ahead. The peak looked close enough to touch, but the trail sign warned it was still 1.9 miles away. Other hikers were strewn along the ridge like refugees, leaning on their packs, sipping water bottles, waiting for breaths they knew they wouldn't catch. Part of me longed to sit down next to them, wait it out, not worry about seeing the top. I'd heard that, short of proper acclimation, most people have an individual elevation limit under which they operate just fine, and over which they fall apart. I suspected mine was right around 13,000 feet. It was as high as I'd ever been. 

Even with my slow pace, I caught and passed most of the hikers who were still making their way to the peak. I ended up reaching the top in the midst of a large group of young adults, likely college students. As a hundred-year-old stone summit hut came into view, the woman right in front of me blubbered, "Oh my god, I'm getting all emotional. Oh, I think I'm going to start crying." I kind of wanted to roll my eyes, but I couldn't deny the rush of energized blood that was sweeping through my own heart.

My dad waited for me for a bit, and the three of us walked to the top together. We shared hugs of congratulations, pictures of the geographic marker — with a reading of 14,496 feet — and more granola bars. "It's the top of the country," my dad said. "Well, except for Alaska." I grinned with a sense of accomplishment. It was a struggle to get there, which I realized made it all the more rewarding. I'd never been so high, or felt so strong. 


Standing at the the highest elevation of my life yet for a second time, I suddenly wished that I hadn't climbed this mountain alone. It would have been better to share this moment again with my father, or with Beat, who I guiltily remembered was still busy doing actual work on the other side of the world. As much as I enjoy and need my solo outings to re-energize, my best memories remain with the people I love. Just then, a coughing fit erupted, and for a moment panicked that I might see blood on the rocks. I didn't feel all that bad, but I also know that I've spent a lot of energy over the past decade conditioning my mind to ignore my body's warning signs, and I don't have any real experience with pulmonary edema to know when it actually hits. But no, my cough was clear. I was fine. I was as high as I'd ever been.

We were less than three minutes into our descent when disaster struck. As a large group of hikers approached the peak, my dad stepped off the trail to let them pass. He caught his foot on a boulder and tumbled into the rocks. Tom helped him up as my dad clutched his own hand. His thumb was grotesquely twisted, almost dangling off the joint. We still had 11 miles and more than 6,000 feet to descend. Tom collected snow in a plastic grocery bag, and passed chunks to my dad so he could ice his broken thumb as we worked our way down the rocky trail. I don't even remember our pace slowing all that much, and my dad still chatted amicably through what I can only imagine was excruciating pain. 

Even though it was at the time my most difficult endurance effort yet, I still didn't remember this trail being so difficult. It was steep, strewn with rocks, and the footing was bad, which made for equally slow descending. I couldn't believe my dad had hiked all the way down here with a badly broken thumb. Sometimes I tell the "Whitney broken thumb" story to my friends to illustrate where I got my clumsy gene, and why I have to be so overcautious. My dad laughs about it now, but his injury took many months to heal, several surgeries, and I'm not sure he ever got his full range of motion back. On the trail, my dad didn't complain once. He's strong like that.

I felt a little better as I lost elevation, but by this point my possible shin splints were acting up, and it was all I could do to not limp, let alone try to run. The 22-mile hike took me 9.5 hours, a pace that, sadly, would amount to a big DNF at UTMB. Not that I viewed these much higher elevations as a realistic gauge of my fitness, but the experience was eye-opening about difficulty of the goals I've set. Sometimes I think I'm so much stronger than I was a decade ago, and sometimes I wonder if that's really the case. But then I remember that I'm exactly as strong as I need to be, when I still have the opportunity to visit places like Mount Whitney.