There is a list of things I would like to accomplish in my lifetime. I am quite adventurous so many of the ideas involve traveling. Needless to say, there continues to be a long list of adventures I have not yet done, like trekking across Ireland or going on a safari in Africa. Climbing Mt. Whitney, which is the highest peak in the lower 48 states, standing at 14,496 feet, was also on my list. It was a trip my father and I had planned on taking together but he had been diagnosed with brain cancer, which obviously changed many plans but the opportunity presented itself to me and after talking to my dad, I started making arrangements for a climb date and permits. I will always be grateful that he was apart of my planning and preparing. My climb was scheduled in August and he, unfortunately, passed away a month before, on the 4th of July. I was in deep mourning, however, I was determined to make the climb in his honor. Summiting Mt. Whitney would change my life forever. To realize the level of commitment it would take to train for the summit was only the tip of the iceburg. I would soon find strength within myself I never knew was there.
The training schedule my partners and I had developed was time consuming and very challenging. Besides our hectic everyday schedules of work and children, we would meet early in the morning and sometimes late in the evening for 5 mile treks. At least every other weekend we would schedule longer, more intense hikes, in the mountains. It was during these hikes we could practice our skills, like; purifying water for drinking, dealing with wild animals on the trail, learning when and how much to eat and pacing ourselves. Some of the most basic skills would prove to be very important once we were face to face with Mt. Whitney.
I had come to realize that there would be an emotional weight to carry on this amazing journey. In our research of the mountain and the Whitney Trail, the trail route we would be hiking, we learned it would be an 11 mile ascent with a more than 6,000 foot elevation gain. We knew this would be a daunting task, both mentally and physically because we were doing the “day” hike. There were times on this hike it was more about having the will to put one foot in front of the other, than it was about the ultimate goal of summiting. Just when you thought you couldn’t take one more step, you did and each time you did, it was a little victory. Of course my father was heavy on my mind, “He is right there with you,” my mother said. “He is your guardian angel, always making sure you’re safe.” I believed her because I had never seen so many stars in the heavens as we began our hike, nor a bluer sky, that day, as our journey to the top of the world continued.
The physical conditions were more than challenging and at times, made us pause and reassess whether we would all reach the summit or not. Although the weather was “good”, no rain or lightning and it was clear as a bell, there was the element of icy wind blowing at almost hurricane speeds. I was the lead hiker and had to keep the crew moving or hypothermia was a very real threat. As we approached 11,000 feet, two of our companions started showing serious signs of altitude sickness with nausea, vomiting and nosebleeds to start with dizziness and mental confusion to follow. Needless to say, we stopped frequently and rested in hopes they would acclimate. At this point, the climb came to a snail pace.
As I said before, I was the lead and as you can imagine, this came with great responsibility. I would lead my friends into the vast unknown in the middle of a dense, black, moonless night. While we were in the forest the trail was clear and the weather mild. The wind had been obscured by the towering pine trees that spoke to us as their tops waved in the upper atmosphere. As the trail went on we came to a sign that said, ‘The Whitney Zone’. It wasn’t long before we left the majestic pines and were surrounded by cold grey slate that drifted into an ocean of blackness. The moonless night gave birth to the most magical sky. The stars were so bright and so many, they looked like crystal shards dancing on black velvet and they appeared so close, as if I could reach up and pluck one for myself. Understanding a couple of my friends were suffering from altitude sickness, I knew I must scout the trail alone so they were not subjected the the harsh elements for long periods of time. My companions would take shelter within the rocks and I would set out to secure the trail and more shelter ahead, then return and lead them forward. This tag team effort lasted the majority of the night until we finally reached Trail Camp at 12,500 feet. We found a rocky ledge that broke some of the wind impact, although the cold still seemed to pierce our bodies like the cold steel blade of a knife. For now it was shelter enough and we huddled together and rested for an hour or so. Some of the group used their silver emergency blankets and it struck me that we must have looked like a big pan of Jiffy Pop Popcorn. We still had 2000 feet to go before reaching the summit but the rest was needed and we’ll deserved. Still being concerned about hypothermia, I didn’t sleep at all and as soon as I saw a sliver of sunlight, which fell on a bleak but massive formation of rock, I got our crew to their feet. My job as leader was done. I had led my friends, safely, up the unforgiving mountain in the blackest, windiest night. Of the two who were sick, one of the girls had acclimated and the other had improved and now with daybreak I knew the rest of this journey would be a personal test of will, in my father’s honor.
Our group filtered water in preparation for the final ascent which consisted of the infamous switchbacks…..1100 feet and 99 switchbacks to be exact, to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet which drops you out onto the western aspect of the mountains ridgeline. The rock slabs that make up the top are massive and as you approach the face to overlook the steep drop that peers over the vast eastern desert, it’s hard not to feel as though you could take one more step and fly.
Standing on the edge of this monstrous mountain had an amazing effect on me. I saw that in the vast landscape before me, I was but a small piece of our environment and yet in the same moment I felt so connected and I understood that I could accomplish great things if I stayed focused and went the distance. It felt as though I had my feet firmly planted on the ground and was touching the secret of heaven at the same time. I wrote my father’s name on the registry along side mine because although he didn’t get to physically hike with me, he was by my side the whole way. It may have been the altitude but I almost felt intoxicated as I looked over the great details of the valley below on the east side and the many lakes and familiar peaks I’d hiked in the Central Sierras to the west. There was a silence in the air that spoke louder to me than anything I had ever experienced before. It was truly a gift to be there on such a beautiful clear day.
I grew from this experience in many ways. “We couldn’t have done it without you.” My friend said. “You kept us safe and really pulled us through some tough times. Thank you.” It was the biggest compliment anyone could have given me. At the end of this amazing trip I learned that even in the midst of great loss and sadness, I have the fortitude to rise above. Even though I am not calm inside, I have the ability to diffuse situations and make people feel safe and confident within themselves. I now realize that sometimes the things we fear the most are probably our biggest opportunity to reveal our truest self, to learn, develop and grow. Although Mt. Whitney held me in her grasp for a long 16 hours, it will be me who holds Mt. Whitney forever in my heart.
Photograph by Tracey Hope McKibbin