I’ve been waiting to hike Mt. Whitney for three years. What took me so long, you say?
Couldn’t I get my shit together and just do it, you groan?
Well, it’s not that simple. Actually, it’s not simple at all because as is the case for most adventures worth proceeding towards- the website for the permit is just too damn wordy to figure out. So, I had to do my “she scout” part on the back end: researching blogs by people who had already done the work to learn that I don’t just get to add my name to a uniform list and wait my turn.
I would have to emit strong Sagittarius optimist vibes and manifest winning a permit lottery. I had the technical stuff on lock: register by January 31st (done) and enlist the attendance of guaranteed travel companions (convince friends to take a sick day: check). The rest was up to fate to determine whether this Southern California girl would get her digs up that 14,505 foot mountain, a 17-hour stomp up the front and back of majestic curves that called my name.
And, the destined day arrived. I ripped into my inbox to receive the good news.
We are sorry to inform you that your application to Mt Whitney Lottery 2016 was not successful.”
How does the saying go?… “Well shit!”
Assigned ticket: tough luck.
Adventurous souls to accompany my spirited ascent: drop-outs.
But, I wouldn’t let my inner flame extinguish. I couldn’t; it’s not in my nature. My tired and true approach to getting what I want is effort, patience, and all the persistence stored in my reserves. So, instead of deflating me, the rejection jumpstarted me.
“Maybe I’ll just go alone,” I ruefully remarked to my husband Josh.
It didn’t take even two seconds for Josh to respond:
“We’ll make it happen.”
You see, Josh was worried about me hitting the trail alone (and, rightfully so). There are many things that can go amiss on a hike that long, and Josh was tuned in.
In hindsight: I highly recommend going with a buddy now because, in case of an emergency, you need someone there who can catch your back (literally). Plus, in true Christopher McCandless style: “Happiness is only real when shared.”
A little known fact is that the permit office actually issues a limited amount of day-use permits based upon who hasn’t shown up for their permit day. Seeing as I was in-between photo jobs, and had a couple days to fill, I headed north to show fate who was boss. The rejects and last minute hopefuls (like me) are issued a number at the Lone Pine permit office, patiently awaiting for the moment when rangers begin calling those numbers at 2 pm, issuing each group leader the available number of permits until they run out.
Lucky me. I was handed ticket numero uno, snagging a permit, and called up Josh, who was waiting on call with our other buddy Wills.
“It’s on boys! Get in the car and drive yourselves to Lone Pine!”
Without any advance notice—and Wills’ ignorance of the endeavor that is the grueling hike up Mt. Whitney—the guys doubled back from their work mission in LA to make packs for the trip. Meanwhile, I drove up to backpackers’ camp, a small site reserved for those with day-use permits to hang before and after their hike. While pitching my tent and roping my hammock, I couldn’t help but notice the achieved hikers returning from their descent. Little did these exhausted hikers know that each of them were contestants on my Mt. Whitney trivia show.
“Was it hard?
How windy was it?
What gear am I missing?
How long did it take you?
What time did you leave in the morning?”
I was scavenging the useful intel that the Internet couldn’t tell me; the sorts of facts that sway with the weather forecast.
By the end of a few hours, I had enough info to form our plan before setting up camp, awaiting the boys’ arrival behind me. I casually phoned them to pick up the few necessities that we were definitely going to need like warm gloves and warmer layers, also inserting that even though they would be arriving in the middle of the night, that we would be making a 1:30 am departure to head up the hill.
I laid in my tent, waiting for the sight of headlights through the transparent edges, far too anxious to get any good sleep. The boys arrived just as I had finally tapped into the snooze, interrupting my submission to the overpowering flow of exhaustion. Josh crawled into our tent, while Wills cozied into his Prius, and the night passed almost instantly into morning. We assembled our gear, meeting a few others from the campsite, as we embarked upon the path to The Portal, across the 22 miles that laid ahead.
First light hitting the mountains. Such a graceful sight.
One of the coolest thing about backpacking with your close friends is that you are pinned in by conversation without any outside stimulation to dictate your conversation. Meaning, a conversation can last hours. I mean, when was the last time your boyfriend or best friend and you literally spent sixteen hours talking to each other while immersed in nature? It is the only refuge that allows you to cover it all: some silliness, a touch of politics, stretches of silence, ridiculous made-up games to pass the time, and recurring inside jokes that evolve along the span of the terrain.
This was Whitney’s precious gift: time alone with friends, the remedy to the mental blocks created out of the discomfort of a physical challenge. At times, when I literally thought I had reached the end of my rope, I would look ahead to see Josh and Wills a few steps in front of me, providing a friendly, motivating reminder.
“I just need to get to there; where he is… I can do that. Yeah. I can do this.”
With the sun rising on our backs, we had arrived just below the lake. We reoriented ourselves towards the sun, snacking on our well deserved bars as we witnessed day break. The rocks behind us slowly illuminated as if the sun had been lifting the curtain upon Earth’s stage, revealing the future to us: 99 switchbacks along nature’s edge. By then, we were at the whim of the elements—direct sunlight that could not overpower the chill of the altitude winds—as we approached what I refused to consider doom to my spindly little legs.
The view from the last of the switchbacks to the top of the mountain’s crest.
About 20 minutes in, I was confidently reassuring the others:
“See! These switchbacks aren’t so bad!”
I was so wrong, wrong, wrong!
I gave it another 20 minutes before asking folks who were on their way down if we were almost there.
They just laughed at me. I was not pleased with them.
And, surprisingly, the 99 switchbacks weren’t the worst part. Looking upon the visible miles traveled to make it to altitude, one of the friends I had made in the parking lot at backpackers’ camp shared with me the story of him and his girl Whitney. Supposedly, out of the 26 (yes, 26!) times he had speed-hiked the trail, five of the times he could not proceed past this point because of altitude sickness. Although training and hydration are absolute necessities, there is not a failsafe trick to avoiding altitude sickness. He slapped me on the back before getting up to continue pushing on.
I had to scramble out of what he said, evading the chance that I may not finish, calling upon my optimism; but, by the last two miles, my will no longer had the strength to carry me through.
The only thing that kept me going was an older woman that passed us going the opposite way. I had taken a break upon on a rock, seriously questioning whether I had it in me, when she graciously paused to raise my spirits.
“Just keep going, one foot in from of the other. I felt just like that an hour ago; you’re almost there!”
“Yaaasss lady yassss!” cried my inner spirit, who knew how much it meant to accomplish this feat that I had waited so long to make my reality.
I peeled myself from the rock to finish the last stretch of hike, an area of encompassing vastness that makes you feel like a speck of an ant on a pile of shale. Each step carried the pronounced weight of motivation, every gain felt seemingly endless until we finally reached the top.
Well, there ain’t much to see at the top of our girl Whitney, folks. Yes, it is beautiful.. undoubtedly so at 14k + feet.
However, I hate to break it to you, but, not only do the views of Half Dome trump Whitney, they are easier to get to than Whitney, too!
But, boy oh boy, did I feel like I accomplished something!
The most valuable takeaway I’ve gained from backpacking is that someone else can bring you to the base of the journey, but only you can take yourself to the top.
Taking a break in the summit house before heading down.
Remember, how I said earlier that I always get what I want, and when I don’t, I ensure that I will?
Well, Mt. Whitney taught me a lesson: that some things we want are harder than we assume they will be.
Most often I can muster the self-confidence necessary to get me through anything—i.e. leaving Pixar, putting an offer in on a house, even becoming a mother through the unexpected events of a C-section—but, this? This was of a different caliber. This challenged me mind, body, and spirit to take myself to a place that wasn’t readily accessible. I didn’t know when I would get there; I didn’t even know if I could. Whitney did something to me; she humbled me. She made me realize that invincibility is foolishness without humility; that that type of strength is called courage.
If you have any further questions about the trip, I am more than happy to offer more specific insight into my own experience. Below, you can find a preliminary list of things to bring along with some links I couldn’t have done without.
Taking a break at the meadows. A lonely old pine.
Josh and Wills taking a minute right before we head up the last bit. When you get to the top of the mountains crest you will look over the other side of the mountain and down at Hitchcock and Guitar Lakes.Next you will continue on an pass the Mt. Whitney windows. The sunrise reflecting upon Consultation Lake. This is the last place to pump water before the big ascent up the switchbacks and to the summit. Official entry to “The Whitney Zone”.