1999 - Mt. Whitney revisited

 Earlier this year, my brother Larry called and said, "October 3."

"October 3 what?" I replied.

"That's when we're going to Mt. Whitney. I got a permit and of course there's a spot for you and Helene, Mt. Whitney alums, on it."

I got nervous because I just had my third child and I was in horrible shape. But then I realized that having a definite goal would help me restore my fitness. I called Helene and told her what I thought was the good news. She wasn't as excited as I thought she would be...and her sentiment continued till about 30 minutes before we left Los Angeles on October 3. But she showed up to every one of our 9-13 mile conditioning hikes and by late September, she and I had also worked our way up to 15 sets of 4th Street Santa Monica stairs.

During the early training months, at one of the idealab! Tuesday Meetings at Il Fornaio, I told Brad Ramberg, the idealab! CFO, that Larry had a permit to go to Whitney and that I wanted him to come along. I knew of his marathon running history, so I was sure he could summit. But I did inform him that, among all marathon runners who have also climbed Mt. Whitney, it is the unanimous opinion that climbing Mt. Whitney in one day is harder than running a marathon.

I also invited Sara Strickland, an athlete that I knew from working at Knowledge Adventure. She was very excited. Then I told Larry I had invited Brad and Sara and he said that we didn't have room for them because the other spots on the permit were already reserved for David Cohen, Sandy Volpert and Andy Katz, the legendary climber who "bagged" Mt. Whitney in 7 hours. So I told Brad that he was the first alternate, and I told Sara that she was the second alternate.

At Larry's roller-skating birthday party, I bumped into Andy Katz. We were skating counter-clockwise and I asked him how he managed to ascend AND descend Mt. Whitney in 7 hours. It turns out that he ascended in 7 hours and descended in 4 hours, for a round-trip total of 11 hours. But that is still way better than my first climb with a round-trip total of 17 hours and 15 minutes. So I knew he would be a good addition to the team.

I saw David Cohen and Sandy Volpert at the roller rink that night as well. David was psyched up for the trip. Maybe he'd had enough of my bashing him for not showing up for the 1997 climb. He said he was ready to join us for our conditioning hikes. Sandy was not quite as committed. He asked how long he thought it was take him to get in shape and I said, "a month." He said, "o.k., I have time." But over Chinese food that night, his wife Gayle confided that she was in better shape and she should be the one to go. I agreed with her assessment, but nothing more ever came out of that discussion. Sandy was a no show in the end.

Over the next few weeks, I called both Larry and David a couple of times and invited them to join Helene and me on some conditioning hikes in Malibu. They never joined us. On September 6, Larry emailed me that "Today, David Cohen and I are officially dropping out of the Whitney climb." Larry cited business responsibilities as his reason and wrote that David dropped out because Larry did. I'm going to get about as many miles out of Larry's dropping out of the Whitney climb as he did from when I "racked-up" his 1969 fire-engine red Camaro (with the license plate MR SPOCK).

Andy sent me an email to me to confirm the October 3 date. I then confirmed that date with Brad in the hall at idealab! Sara had made plans to go to Wyoming that weekend, so she was terribly disappointed that she could not join us. She warned me to to be cautious of any potential bad weather.

Helene told me that she had to attend Daphne's wedding the weekend before the climb and had to speak at a conference in Chicago the subsequent weekend. I think she was trying to lay the foundation that she would be willing to cancel if I was. She kept hoping for rain. I also had a lot going on in my life, and I confess, the thought of rain crossed my mind, but after attending an Ada's Boot Camp fitness support meeting, I was fully committed, and I was going with or without Helene. I wanted to reduce my embarrassingly slow 17 hour and 15 minute time to no more than 15 hours.

Andy made reservations for two suites at the Lone Pine Villas Motel - $80 a night. I generated a list of suggested mountaineering gear and emailed it to everyone. I bought new insoles for my hiking boots. I clipped my toenails REALLY short. Especially the second toe on my right foot because that was the one that hurt the most the last time I climbed Whitney.

Helene (an M.D.) spent her preparation time speaking with some mountaineering experts about the pros and cons of medications to address the possibility of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE.) They persuaded her to take course of both Diamox and Decadron. I asked my husband Ken (an M.D.) about this and he scoffed at the idea. "What about possible side effects like COMA????!?!????!?!?!" Ken is very conservative, so I called Ken's partner, George, who is an avid skier and scuba diver and asked his advice. He recommended the course of medication. Ken still said no.

Then it came time to decide what time on Saturday, the day before the climb, we would leave to drive up to Lone Pine. I wanted to leave at 3:00 p.m., so we would have plenty of time in case something unexpected happened LIKE A FREEWAY CLOSING in Canyon Country with no marked detour. Andy wanted to leave at 5:00 p.m. Brad said, "anytime." Not only was Helene's Saturday fully booked - she had a birthday party to go to in the morning and tickets to a ballet in the afternoon -- but she also want to go to Simchat Torah services which ended at 6:00 p.m. I started to panic that I would not get any sleep Saturday night.

Saturday morning rolled around. The weather was perfect - sunny and clear. Ken woke up and said, "you should probably take the medications." I rushed over to the pharmacy and popped the first Diamox. I was supposed to begin the course 24 hours before I went to high altitude, but I only had 16 hours left. I was worried that it wasn't going to work.

Andy, "let's rally" Katz drove over to Helene's house at 4:30 p.m. and picked her up. She didn't get to go to the Simchat Torah service. Brad and I were waiting at Andy's parents' house in Encino. When Andy and Helene arrived in Andy's SUV at 5:00 p.m., Brad and I loaded our gear and we were off.

An hour or so after we got on the road, the "Diamox Duo," Helene and I, started to feel the effects of the diuretic, so we asked for a rest stop. I could not believe it - I got my period! I went back to the car and yelled "F#*%" and reached into my suitcase for my wallet to buy some sanitary napkins. Just what I needed - to deal with feminine hygiene on Whitney Trail. 

Night fell. Andy and Brad and Helene were comparing stories of the many marathons that they have run and how fast they ran them and how Brad is in the same L.A. Leggers pace group as Tyrone (no idea who that is, but we were supposed to be impressed). Andy was discussing the merits of running the New York Marathon - how you get to run through all the boroughs of New York City and how each has so much character. Helene boasted that at the Napa marathon, the volunteers serve sorbet at the rest stops.

We drove on. To the west of highway 395, somewhere over Lake Isabella, we saw a UFO. Well, we think it was a UFO. O.K., what we saw was what remained of some unidentified object. And it may have had something to do with flying. Or maybe an explosion. What was most memorable about it was the haunting, illuminated trail of smoke that it left behind. We kept an eye on it for miles.

We arrived in Lone Pine at 8:00 p.m. Andy squeezed his SUV in between two gargantuan pick-up trucks which must have been on steroids. As we checked in, some rodeo participants who were still wearing their cowboy hats and competition numbers hit on Helene and me. They asked us what time we were waking up in the morning because they wanted to have breakfast with us. I told them, "3:00 a.m." Andy overheard some else say that all the hotel rooms in town were sold out because of two big events - the rodeo and the wedding. By the look of the trucks in the parking lot, I think the rodeo folks were staying at our hotel.

We unloaded our gear into suites 25 and 28 and though my understanding was that there were two queen-sized beds in each suite, there was one queen-sized bed and one queen sized pull-out couch. Sleeping on a pull-out couch was not going to work for me. And I wasn't going to force Helene to sleep on the couch. Unfortunately, she didn't realize that the couch was a pull-out couch till much later, otherwise, she said she would have volunteered to sleep on it. I went to see Brad and Andy's room to see if it had the same setup. I explained my dilemma and they said that one of them would sleep on the couch in Helene's room and I could sleep on the bed in their room. Chivalry lives.

We went across the street to the Lone Pine Pizza Factory for our "carb party." I had lasagna and the other had vegetarian pasta. At the next table, someone was wearing a t-shirt promoting his participation in some serious athletic event. It was nothing that I recognized, but Andy and Brad were impressed. Helene and I took another dose of altitude medication with the food. "Advil Andy" was talking about "loosening up" with some Ibuprofen, and Helene and I tried to discourage him because Ken said to us that you can go into kidney failure while taking Ibuprofen when you are dehydrated. Andy didn't buy into that line of thinking.

We went back to the hotel and compared gear and swapped whistles and trail mix and sunscreen and protein bars. Andy could not believe that Helene was only taking her CamelBak water pack up the mountain. Helene and I couldn't believe that Andy's pack weighed at least 15 pounds. Not only that, but he also slung a fully loaded 35 mm camera over his shoulder. Clearly, if Larry, "backpack police" Gross was on the trip, Andy would not have been permitted to carry so much.

Andy told the front desk to give us a wake-up call at 3:15 a.m. We went to bed at 10:00 p.m. 

That darned diuretic was still at work, so I woke up at 1:45 a.m. to pee and I couldn't fall back asleep. I tossed and turned till Brad's alarm went off at 3:10 a.m. The front desk called at 3:15 a.m. I got up, got dressed and packed up and Brad took a shower and slammed back at least 8 glasses of water. Andy moved his truck closer to our rooms and opened the hatchback. It was chilly outside, but Andy was standing there wearing shorts. I threw in my gear and started breakfasting on hard boiled eggs and bananas. We hit the road and headed for Whitney Port at 3:35 a.m. and hit the trail at 4:10 a.m.

Up the hill, on the western switchbacks, we could see the headlamps of other trekkers who started a half-hour or so ahead of us. It was sweet to be at the base of Whitney again.

We had a good pace going. We passed a trio of Swiss guys. At our first rest stop, they passed us. Daybreak was coming. We removed our headlamps. We arrived at Outpost Camp at 6:00 a.m. Helene and I were ecstatic that we had already gained an hour on our previous climb time.

Helene and I visited the solar toilets at Outpost Camp. A mile later, I pointed out where Larry, Helene and I took a wrong turn at the Lone Pine Lake fork on the way down the first time we climbed Whitney. Another mile later, near Trailside Meadow, we met some people descending and asked them if they made it and they replied, "we tried." We passed timberline (about 10,000 feet), where trees stop growing because of the lack of oxygen.

We reached Trail Camp at 8:00 a.m. Now Helene and I were TWO HOURS ahead of our previous time. We tried to figure out how we used up so much time the first time. We attributed it to the water filtering time and rest breaks every 15 minutes. We started talking about the trail ahead and I obviously was feeling the altitude, because I started rambling about the Continental Divide at the Trail Crest, only a mile or so away. Helene and Brad may have also been feeling the lack of oxygen, because they didn't question me, but Andy "O2" Katz wouldn't accept my ramblings. He was right. Trail Crest is simply the boundary between the Inyo National Forest and the Sequoia National Forest. We got cold debating the Atlantic and Pacific water runoff. Andy said, "let's rally" so we snapped a few photos and left at 8:30 a.m. A few minutes later, Brad asked, "Are these the 99 switchbacks that you were talking about?" I said no, because they didn't look like what I remembered. But after about 10 switchbacks, I said to Brad, "I take it back, I think these are the switchbacks."

The Swiss trio passed us and we passed them and they passed us. We got to the cables and the sheet of ice and we took pictures. We talked with a group of climbers who wanted to know what time they thought we would summit. Andy said, "12:00 p.m." I said "1:00 p.m." Part of me didn't want THEM to feel like they failed if they didn't make it till 1:00 p.m. And part of ME didn't want to feel like I failed if I didn't make it till 1:00 p.m. We never saw them again, so we don't know if they made it or not.

We arrived at Trail Crest at 10:30 a.m. The air was very thin. Andy accidentally called Brad "Greg" and I accidentally called Helene "Elaine." There was a climbing party from either Arizona or Nevada resting the crest and they stayed at the Dow Villas the night before too. We compared notes on the rodeo folks. Andy and I talked about his sister-in-law Clara's South American accent and how she pronounces his name: "Ahn-dee."

We started up the last 1.9 miles of the trail. This time I knew just how much work was still left before we summitted. But because of the medication, I didn't have a headache and I knew I could make it. We met a guy who had summitted who said that the rest of the way is straight along the edge, then straight up. He was glowing from his summit accomplishment.

I started my mantra, "100, yes I can, focus, focus; 99, yes I can, focus, focus, 98, yes I can, focus, focus..." I went through nearly 3 cycles of 100. As the leader of the group, I took us to the top. We got to the summit registration book and high-fived and hugged. We signed the book. The athlete we saw at the Pizza Factory interrupted us and asked us if we had dinner at the Pizza Factory the night before. We said yes and that we enjoyed our pasta. He complained that he ordered pizza with fresh garlic, but they gave him bottled garlic, so he wasn't happy.

We went closer to the edge and dropped our packs near the Swiss guys. They were trying to read the patches on my backpack, and I detected some delight when they saw my St. Moritz patch. Some other guy started speaking to Andy in hushed tones about something having like -- "...you should take him down a couple of thousand feet..." "Andy," I said, "what was he talking about?" Andy said that the guy had observed Brad having difficulty placing his feet and that we should get him off the mountain immediately. I didn't notice anything and Brad wasn't complaining, so I sat down and tried to call home on Andy's cell phone. I couldn't get reception. I ate some food and snapped some pictures. Then Brad said, "I want to go down." We all immediately understood what was going on. We threw on our packs, took a quick photo at the 14,496 feet marker and charged down. Somehow Andy got in the lead and took us down a very difficult stretch of mountain. I thought it was kind of fun, but probably not the best for Brad "HACE" Ramberg. We found the trail again and Helene requested that I go up front and lead. I set a fast pace with the hope that Brad would feel better as we descended. But he still had trouble with his footing. He fell at least four times. He had abrasions on his legs. We got worried. We tried a new approach. Helene went in front and set a very slow pace. I went behind Brad and stuck to his right, the cliff-side of the trail, keeping in step with his, so if he teetered close to the edge, I could push him back toward the mountain. The picture finally crystalized in my mind of how people die on mountain tops.

We made it to Trail Crest, but Brad still claimed to be dizzy and lightheaded. So we didn't stop to rest. We kept descending. Even on the 99 switchbacks, with the quick altitude loss, Brad was still weaving. But we made it down to Trail Camp safely. Helene went to the toilet. Brad took a short nap. My back hurt. Andy offered to carry some of my load. I gave him my headlamp and trail mix. It made a huge difference.

Andy "let's rally" Katz got us motived to move again. Brad was really looking forward to getting to timberline because he expected there would be a lot more oxygen there. AT the sight of the first tree, Brad pointed out how cute it was and in a cheery voice said, "trees are our friends." He didn't speak after that.

We pushed on past Trail Meadow and Mirror Lake. I stopped for a hygiene break at Outpost Camp. We continued toward Whitney Portal, making sure to avoid the wrong fork in the trail near Lone Pine Lake. It is much easier to take the correct path during daylight when you can read the trail signs. We spoke to a group of people who began their ascent at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, three hours before we did. They were just coming off the mountains themselves. That made Helene and I realize that we had taken just as long to cover the trail our first time. We asked them how long they thought it would be till we reached the Whitney Portal. "50 minutes," they said. Helene thought they said, "15 minutes." She was bummed when she finally understood what they said. I was bummed too. My knees hurt a lot that last 50 minutes. I don't know why they put the portal so far from the summit.

We reached Whitney Portal at 6:25 p.m. for a total round-trip time of 14 hours and 15 minutes. We high-fived and hugged again. We got in the car and Andy drove us about 15 feet to the bathroom. Helene and I had beat our previous climbing time by three hours and we didn't want to walk an extra 15 feet.

We hit the road. We counted our blessings that a bear didn't break into Andy's truck and make a mess of all the food we left there. We counted our blessings that we all completed the journey safely.

Brad finally spoke. He said, "that was WAY harder than a marathon." But maybe in a day or two he'll change his perspective and realize that his first Mt. Whitney summit was three hours better than MY first Mt. Whitney summit. So he has that going for him, which is good.