Summit Climb On California’s Mt. Whitney—2002 by Vic Wood

Summit Climb On California’s Mt. Whitney—2002

The clock in my rental car registered two o’clock in the morning as I stumbled sleepily out of the door into the dark deserted parking lot.  I had gulped down an extra large coffee while driving the narrow winding road from Lone Pine up to the 8,360 foot trailhead, so my first priority was to empty my bladder.  As I stood there murmuring to myself while taking a lengthy and seemingly solitary leak against a large granite rock the silence was suddenly shattered by a snarling pair of approaching bears and I quickly let go of what I was holding.  My first reaction was to run, but I held my ground with my arms over my head trying to look bigger.  Snorting and wheezing they charged, but thankfully they whirled at my feet and disappeared into the darkness just seconds before my heart pounded its way out of my chest.  The warnings about bear activity in this area were very accurate and more sightings of bears would occur throughout the night.  No sooner had I shouldered my pack when a distant glow of four round moving lights and strange ringing sounds alerted me for an extra-terrestrial encounter.  False alarm—it was just two cars rolling in with enthused hikers shaking their bear bells out  the windows. It only took a few minutes for us to get acquainted and in a very short time we quickly became a team.  Only one thing left to do….climb the mountain.  The 14,495 foot summit of Mt. Whitney is the single most sought after peak in North America and the United States geological survey’s topographic map featuring Mt. Whitney is the number one selling topographic map in the U.S.  Because it is the tallest peak in the continental United States people come from all over the world to tackle this famous mountain.  The 22 mile (35km) round trip distance to the top and the 6,132 foot elevation gain make this the ultimate day hike, which is why it is also referred to as the “Death March.”

The thrill of hiking is immensely heightened and enhanced when it takes place somewhere spectacular like California’s Sierra Nevada.  Also known informally as the “High Sierra”  it includes 3 National Parks, 2 National Monuments, 8 National Forests, 20 Wilderness Areas, and numerous State Parks.  It covers almost as much of California as the Alps of France, Switzerland and Italy cover of the European landscape.  These legendary mountains have inspired generations of naturalists, artists, and writers like John Muir and Ansel Adams since the 1800’s.  But it was not the journals of John Muir or the photographs of Ansel Adams that originally captivated me with these mountains.  It was the 1941 movie, “High Sierra” with Humphrey Bogart, which culminated with a high speed car chase and shootout between Bogart’s gangster character (Roy Earle) and the police at the foot of the Sierra’s highest peak, Mt. Whitney.  The scenes of those soaring granite mountains where I watched Roy Earle meet his demise over and over again on an old black and white TV back in the 50’s replayed in my mind for many years to come.  As a young boy I was awestruck by this movie, the High Sierra, and a peak called Mt. Whitney.  I would often sit at my desk in high school and daydream about finding my way to these mountains some day—and so it continued to spark my teenage fantasies at that time—mind you, it couldn’t upstage my other fantasies at that time—but it was there.

There are few more thrilling moments in life than the first few steps of a summit day and under a brilliant moon the six of us stepped out onto the Mt. Whitney Trail.  In the heavy silence of night we climbed together as a ghost like fog blended with our shadowy figures.  Each step was placed with care trying to feel the ground through the thick tread of our boots.  The mist around us seemed alive with dark eerie figures and the contorted arms of the tree branches arching above us looked like hands ready to snatch us off the ground.  About three miles from the start, just past the turn off to Lone Pine Lake, we entered the Whitney Zone where a climbing permit is required to go any farther.  Any noise now became amplified and menacing, but eventually several more hikers appeared in the darkness below us and it became quite an amazing sight with the fluorescent glow of flickering headlamps snaking along an invisible path up the mountain slope.  When the first rays of eastern light came over the jagged ridges I was humbled by the massive steep wall of pinnacles rising above me as Mt. Whitney rose up from us on a perfectly clear morning.  My first impression of Mt. Whitney was that it was high and rugged.  My second impression was that it was high and rugged.  Certainly I was curious about the summit, who wouldn’t be, although something troubled me about actually getting there.  The idea of laying back on a couch and staring up at the ceiling now became quite appealing.  The adrenalin kicked back in immediately though when our path was suddenly blocked by a mother bear and a cub on different sides of the trail.  I like to pretend I’m fearless when I’m hiking, and for the most part I convince myself, but I felt a bit apprehensive about sidestepping between these two.  Trying to distance ourselves from mama bear as fast as possible we passed three red-faced wheezing backpackers while gaining elevation and I took pleasure in the sudden strength of my body.  Out there on those vast mountain slopes the wilderness and adventures were still alive, and so we kept climbing.

We trudged on past Outpost Camp at 10,360 feet, Trail Camp at 12,040 feet, and survived the brutal switchbacks up to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet.  Climbing above treeline certainly has a magic of its own and the views down to Sequoia National Park from here were so amazing that I felt like I was passing through the living room of gods.  I slowly began to notice my reaction to the altitude increase a bit with a slight feeling of nausea in the unaccustomed thinness of the atmosphere above 14,000 feet, so I quickly quaffed down a couple of aspirins and drank some extra water.  Glancing up occasionally and fantasizing about the summit I eventually suffered the inevitable problem of premature peaking.  Except for the crunch of our boots and the click of our hiking poles the granite landscape around us was deadly silent.  The climbing here was steep and spectacular, also very exposed in some places where the drop-offs fell away thousands of feet below through narrow slots between the large granite spires.  This narrow section of the trail did not encourage loitering.  Then finally, like a mirage the summit stone hut appeared just ahead of us and like a mountain goat on steroids I pushed for the top through the rocky, almost moonlike landscape.  I thought I could hear the high pitched whistles of other hikers cheering me on, but it was just the frenzied calls of fat hoary marmots waiting to pilfer our food, and for added support they were backed up by an unruly mobs of drooling chipmunks and tiny rat-like pikas.  Strong arming my way through their blockade I lunged again and again with my hiking stick and finally propelled myself up onto the highest peak  in the lower 48 U.S. States.  During the next few minutes several hikers joined us on the summit area.  Some were celebrating with wine and cheese.  Others were just throwing up.

It felt strange to turn away from the summit after struggling so long to get there, but I took my time going down and in the daylight I could see all the scenery I missed on the way up in the dark.  I eventually survived the eleven mile knee pounding descent to the parking lot and made my way back to Lone Pine.  I didn’t know it at the time but my most difficult summit climb would take place two years later in 2004 on the icy slopes of Mt. Rainier.  Over the years I have taken many hiking groups from Victoria to California to show them the beauty of the High Sierra.  John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, dubbed it the “Range of Light.”  For me, it was “the other side of the rainbow.”  It was “Shangri—la.”

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