Wednesday, July 23, 2014

And then it was summer

Back to California. Happy to see Beat. Jet lag. A thousand e-mails. Work catching up. Heat. Try a five-mile run. Side stitch. Downhill walks. Rest days. Book edits! Photo downloads. Blog, blog, blog. Pet the cat. Evenings with Beat, who's shored up all this excitement about next year adventure scheming, and there's five and a half more months left in this year, and still he teases me because I say I'm not ready to think about it, not just yet. Tired. 

We decided to go for a hike. 

It seems everyone's training for late-summer mountain races, and the group was headed to Yosemite for a thirty-mile loop around Buena Vista Peak on Sunday, July 13. In the week since I returned from South Africa, I attempted two short (five-mile) runs. Both did not go exactly well ... my cardiovascular system was working much too hard, I got a horrible side stitch at mile three that limited my breathing capacity and forced me to walk the final two miles downhill. This was the gauge for my fitness level going into Sunday's hike. There's no high end, and sort of not even a moderate level of power — but I knew my legs were strong and endurance solid. Our friends were planning to run the loop, but I told Beat I likely wouldn't be able to run any of it. A fifty-kilometer hike — but it is summer here in California, and daylight is generous.

 We started near Wawona, where daytime temperatures topped 95 degrees. Coming from South Africa, where 12C (54 degrees) felt like a warm day, the heat was a shock to the system. That, plus lingering jet lag, plus altitude, made for a tiring day. But worth it.

 Beat climbing the bowl below Buena Vista, elevation 9,700. Mmm, granite chunk.

Esa es una hermosa vista.

Because some in our group were running and some were mainly or only hiking, we predictably spread out. Heather ended up behind us after scrambling up the summit ridge after following an errant arrow on the runners' route. We thought she bypassed the peak and hiked on in front of us until we saw John walking back up the trail to look for her, many miles later. The off-trail scramble is just long enough that reconnecting with the trail isn't entirely straightforward, and Heather spent a tense hour or two feeling lost and alone in the Sierra backcountry. I empathized with her, with my own "lost and alone" emotions still so raw, and after spending the whole hike down worried that she might be hurt (we decided it would be best to return to Wawona and inform the rangers in the event that she and John didn't return by dark.)

It's a good reminder that if you go with a group into the backcountry, you should just stick together ... or at least make a more structured plan. But the Buena Vista loop is a wonderful route (strava file.) We don't get out to the Sierras nearly often enough. Sadly, one of the main reasons for that is a strong aversion to traffic. In some ways, it's easier to travel to South Africa than it is to drive out of the Bay Area on a Friday evening.

I made up for it this week, though. My dad has been trying for a permit in the Mount Whitney lottery for three years. After two years of rejections for all ten alternative dates he chose, he finally snagged a two-person day permit for July 17 in this spring's lottery. It's almost as tough as getting into Hardrock, which, consequently, I know was also this past weekend. Several people have asked me whether I have any regrets about withdrawing from the Hardrock 100 even though it was very likely my only chance to ever run that course in the official event. I wondered the same myself, but in truth these hikes confirmed what I already knew, which is that Hardrock would have been a huge disaster. Huge disaster.

"I'm not quite on yours or Beat's level of masochism," I wrote to yet another friend (Dima, Beat's partner in the 2013 PTL) who sent me a message about it on Saturday. "I can't feel all that bad about missing out on so much pain."

"What's wrong with disaster?" he replied.

 I tell you, I'm connected with some nutty people.

But Whitney was fantastic. My dad and I first climbed this mountain together in 2001. I was 21 years old, and at the time it was the longest, most demanding physical feat I'd ever attempted. A monster. I still have the same respect for this mountain, even if my perspective on "monsters" has expanded. Dad drove out all the way from Salt Lake City in his 1994 Toyota pickup with no air conditioning. We met in Lone Pine for Chinese food and headed up to Whitney Portal to camp. We woke up at the civilized hour of 5:30 (lots of hikers get up at 2 a.m.) I had a pounding headache already ... but the weather looked good, and it's always enjoyable to spend a whole day on a mountain with my dad.

Dad retired in April and has logged a lot of hiking hours in the Wasatch this summer. He's in fantastic shape, and charged up the famous 99 switchbacks toward the summit ridge. I tried very hard and couldn't keep up with him. 13,000 feet came and went. My headache took on more of a woozy, ethereal sensation — which seemed better, but then again the summit ridge has steep drop-offs, I'm already clumsy by nature, and feeling somewhat intoxicated on an exposed, rocky trail is not ideal.

We passed by these bottles of Jack Daniels, presumably stashed away for a post-summit celebration. "You couldn't pay me to drink whiskey at 14,000 feet," I declared. I might as well have taken a shot or two; my headache came back, along with nausea, and I was plodding. I've been at 14,000 feet a few times before, and I don't think I've ever been quite so sick. But the oxygen deprivation combined with the beautiful setting sparked feelings of euphoria, so you could say I was in a conflicted state of not knowing whether I felt really good, or really bad. I made an effort not to complain. Skies were still mostly clear, and I figured we had enough time for me to take it as slow as I needed. Dad just charged on ahead, strong as a mountain goat at age 61.

Looking out from 14,508 feet to Lone Pine at 3,727 feet. There aren't many places in North America where you can sight that much vertical relief.

Aw, standing on top of the high point of the Lower 48 with my dad. Few moments could be better. I finally took in some food after feeling so nauseated most of the way up, and we made decent time hiking down. Dad was curious about our progress, and I tried to make some comparisons to my solo hike on Whitney in 2012, when I was training for UTMB. Dad will be interested in the stats: In 2012, I had a moving time of 9:11 and total time of 10:15, for an average pace of 27:18 minutes per mile. On Thursday, our moving time was 7:56(!), total time 10:36, for an average pace of 21:46 minutes per mile. Strava doesn't lie. Okay, it could have scrambled some data in there somewhere. But still — nice work Dad.

On Friday I drove back over Sonora Pass, and as a way of avoiding horrific Friday evening traffic, stalled for a few hours by hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail toward the Emigrant Wilderness. What a beautiful region. I don't get out to the Sierras nearly often enough.

But I hope to return, soon.


  1. 21 minutes per mile? Seriously? Climbing Mount Whitney? Sheesh. (slinks away in shame)

    1. Actually I'm suspicious of this data. We took lots of breaks, but the 2.5 hours of stopped time seems high. However, what I wanted to show my dad was that we did move faster than I had in 2012. I was training for UTMB and remember trying to hike up as fast as I could and run the descent, but I'd forgotten about a shin splint that set in on that very trip (and bothered me for most of the rest of the summer.) So even though I was in better shape, I was slower.

  2. Your photos are just incredible. Well, the places you go are:) I had no clue getting a permit to Whitney is such a pain, how do Badwater folks do it?

    1. The park issues special-use permits for PCT and JMT thru-hikers. I imagine they offer something similar for Badwater runners. But if you're just a regular person who wants to day-hike from Whitney Portal in the summer without picking up a cancelation opening, it's a surprisingly large lottery.

    2. I don't think so. That's why it's not officially been part of Badwater for a long time. I presume some people get a permit in advance, and some poach it.


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