1997 Mt. Whitney Climb

On Saturday, October 4, 1997, I climbed to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (14,496 feet). The trail is 22 miles round trip and begins at 8,500 feet, so the elevation gain is 6,000 feet. Why did I climb it? Because my brother Larry had a permit to do so.

My hiking partner Helene rounded out our party of three. We started hiking at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday wearing headlamps until daybreak. Sunrise on The Needles was spectacular.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky. It reminded me of Devil's Postpile near Mammoth Mountain.

I had a setback at 7:30 a.m. at Outpost Camp at 10,000 feet. I had some visual disturbances that I usually get right before I get a migraine headache and I thought the hike was over for me. I think it was because of the lack of sleep. Or maybe the cold temperature. Or maybe the altitude. Or maybe a combination of the three. Anyway, Helene, an M.D., asked me if I ever did biofeedback and I said I hadn't, so she walked me through it - it was a mix between hypnosis and yoga. I couldn't believe it, IT WORKED! I could see again. Thank goodness for Helene and biofeedback.

So we pushed on past Mirror Lake and up to Trail Camp where we filtered some water for our canteens. You need at least a college degree to handle the whole water management issue. You have to be well hydrated, yet water is so heavy, you hate to carry it. Larry brought a water filter which weighs less than one liter of water, so we did some calculations and figured out that the optimal amount of water to carry and when to filter and refill our canteens. I had one of those platypus drinking systems where the water is in the backpack and a tube extends over near your mouth and clips on to your clothes so you don't have to expend any energy to drink. I don't think I would have made it to the summit without that.

Larry said we should unload some of our gear for the final ascent. We bundled the extra food and clothes together and hung it off a rock face at Trail Camp to keep it from the marmots. The light load was a blessing. Very good idea Larry!

We began ascending the legendary 99 switchbacks. It was a real cosmopolitan place - lots of Europeans and Asians making the ascent. We ran into a couple of guys who had turned back early because he was experiencing tunnel vision. I thought to myself, "he should try biofeedback." We kept going and going and going. Like Energizer bunnies. I was excited to reach the cables that help hikers walk over the sheet of ice. I asked Larry to take a picture of me and Helene holding on to the cable for dear life with icicles hanging behind us. Apparently the icicles were the result of Hurricane Nora. We kept going and going and going. We ran into another guy who was turning back and who was definitely a negative influence. He said he had been up to 13,000 fee and hadn't even reached the Trail Crest. He was feeling sick from the altitude and made it seem like we were crazy to even contemplate continuing. I felt great, so I didn't listen. We kept hiking and hiking and hiking until we spied the Trail Crest (14,000 feet). At that point I knew I was going to summit. I had read that the last 1.9 miles from Trail Crest to Mt. Whitney Summit was relatively flat. And though I felt the altitude (my heart rate increased at a faster rate than at sea level) and had to take frequent breaks, I felt that Mt. Whitney was "in the bag."

The rest stop at Trail Crest, the border of Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Forest, was scenic. There were a couple of lakes and high peaks in Sequoia that were breathtaking. A hiker had a bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Larry offered to "lighten his load," and we indulged. A nice change from Power Bars.

We had decided earlier that day that whether or not we summited, we would turn around at 2:00 p.m. because there was still 11 miles to hike back. Since it was 12:30 p.m., we thought 1 1/2 hours would be enough time. As we were walking, Larry stopped someone returning from the summit to ask him to point it out to us. The blood drained from our faces as we realized we were still pretty far away. But we pushed on. There was a dazed woman coming down who asked us if this was the way back to Whitney Portal. We said, "yes," and she replied, "I don't remember this part at all," and "that was a lot of work." Most of the others coming down were very encouraging, telling us, "great job!" and "you're almost there!" but there was one couple who told us "the last part is the hardest." The woman was really sunburned and Helene (a dermatologist) offered to give her some sunscreen. She declined and we went on our way. The next person we met said that the part right underneath the ice patch (near the summit) was "hairy." It was past 2:00 p.m., but we were so close (we thought), we were not turning back.

The last part did turn out to be "hairy." The trail was very steep and rocky and not well marked. We ended up just climbing up rocks. Then I saw the lightning shelter at the summit. I called out, "I see the building!" We scrambled up the boulders that lined the rest of the way, examined the building, walked over to the plaque at the highest point and took off our packs. Then Larry whipped out a cellular phone (1997!). We each called home and left a message on our home answering machines that it was 3:00 p.m. and we had summited. The view from the highest point was memorable, mostly because everything around was lower than us. We took photos, signed the summit register, and donned our packs for the long way down.

Our headaches subsided as we descended, and now that I was one of the people coming down from the summit, I tried to encourage those going up. It was kind of hard to be encouraging because I knew what lay ahead for them. On the way down the 99 switchbacks, I kept thinking, "I can't believe I came up this." Then we reached the ice and cables. Helene had been worried that we would hit that sheet of ice after dark, but we had plenty of light. Larry did slip and could have fallen off the cliff, but he had a good hold of the cable and was able to restore his footing.

We reached Trail Camp and found the gear that we left there seven hours earlier in good condition. Larry filtered and refilled the water. There are some really nice solar toilets there, and Helene and I had been squat-pissing all day, so we went to check out the solar toilets. I had never been in one. It's inside a wooden structure with solar panels on the roof and there is a tub of sawdust with the instructions, "use a scoop after you poop."

We headed down. We looked back up. We couldn't believe we had been up there. We couldn't believe we HIKED up there. It got dark. We put on our headlamps. We made two wrong turns and that cost us precious time. My knees started to hurt. My second toe on my right foot is longer than my big toe and it was getting jammed into the front of the boot because of the downhill pressure. But we pushed on. And on. And on. We met up with a guy who had lost his party and didn't have water, so Larry generously shared his. This guy said he runs marathons regularly and he thought the the Mt. Whitney ascent was harder. Larry replied that someone else had told him that too. Helene and I thought, "hmm...let's run a marathon!" But that's a story for another day.

We arrived at Whitney Portal at 9:15 p.m., nearly 17 hours from when we began.

We changed our clothes, loaded up the car and headed down to Lone Pine. We were able to use the cellular phone at around 10:00 p.m. and Larry called home to say we were on our way. Apparently our spouses took us for dead because they had called the Lone Pine Sheriff and were about to get in the car and drive up to rescue us (or retrieve our corpses). They thought we were "way in over our heads," and their whole life "flashed in front of their eyes." But, all is well that ends well.

Except I have a really bad case of chapped lips.

Want to come with me next time?