One of these two guys was in a pose that we dubbed the “Mt. Whitney Sucks”: seated, elbows on knees, head dropped in hands, zero energy.
He said to his friend, who was standing next to him, “Dude, it’s gonna take a miracle to get me to the summit.”
The other guy looked down at him and said, “Jesus can’t perform miracles at this altitude. Get up and let’s go.”
Lots of things became tough at altitude: breathing, eating, drinking, thinking, walking, talking. I don’t know if Jesus performs miracles at altitude (though I suspect He can); but I know He listens to prayer. Because that’s how I got through it.
Let me start by saying a few things.
We knew it was going to be tough. We’d trained on some killer mountains and we knew it was going to be a long, hard day. We were worried about the weather–40% chance of thunderstorms, which can be extremely dangerous when you are on an exposed mountainside. We had read the books; talked to people who had done it; taken a class at REI. It wasn’t like we were totally clueless.
That said, we really thought we could get on the trail by 4am, summit by noon, and be down eating cheeseburgers and drinking beer by 5pm. We’d maintained a 2-mile an hour pace all through training. Why would Whitney be any different?
We started early. Up by about 2am to eat and . . .ahem, get all systems working. The thing about mountains? No bathrooms. You gotta carry out your own waste. Better to try to take care of those matters before you go.
We hit the trailhead at 4am. Full moon. A grad student named Sean (with some EMT experience–Bonus!) asked if he could join us. Headlamps lighting the way, Sean and Zach led us up the trail. It’s surreal to be moving along in the dark, the only sound being our footsteps and voices calling out, “Rock!” or “Watch your step!” We watched the sunrise from that mountainside and it was a moving, awe-inspiring moment.
Would have been even better if I hadn’t felt like I was going to puke.
For some reason, the minute we hit that trail, I was suffering from nausea. Morning sickness-type nausea. It just stayed in my belly and throat and wouldn’t go away. Made drinking and eating really hard though I knew I had to. It stayed with me all the way up the mountain–almost 11 hours. It made the hike nearly unbearable at times and more than once, I wanted to turn around. It never went into more: no headache or anything. But the nausea was the worst.
Under the tree line, the trail was mostly gentle and the scenery stunning. We saw deer and marmots and chipmunks. We crossed streams and walked to the accompaniment of rushing waterfalls. Above the tree line, things got a little rockier and sparse. The cliffs rose up like imposing sentries, guarding what we knew was that final peak we all wanted to ascend.
It didn’t get brutal until the switchbacks. Ninety-seven of them (Zach and I counted) that rise up steeply and pretty much taunt you for the few hours it takes to trudge your way up them. You make friends on the switchbacks. Climbers going up, who you leapfrog as each of you alternates between pushing forward and resting. And the lucky ones coming down who encourage you.
Trail Crest is your reward. It’s a tight, narrow, rocky resting spot that offers breathtaking views of the Sequoia National Park before you start the real work of the day.
Nothing can prepare you for that last two miles. It’s only about a 700-foot climb in altitude. But you’re starting at 13,700 feet. Your chest feels like someone has wrapped duct tape around it. Tightly. Your ears are plugged. You’re probably nauseated and slightly dizzy. You might have the hint of a headache. Eating sounds repulsive. Drinking not much better. Ten steps wipes you out. The thought of two miles is truly staggering.
We had planned to summit by noon. We didn’t even get to Trail Crest until after noon. And those last two miles were the slowest of my life. I wanted to bail out. I would have, too, except I had no way to tell my husband who was already on the summit.
By counting steps (100 and then a break) and by lots of prayer and maybe just some crazy voice in my head that refused to give up, I finally rounded a bend and saw the hut at the peak. I wanted to cry but was too damn tired!
We all summited. All ten of us in my party. It took us ten hours to get there, but we did it. I’d like to say that you feel exhilarated, victorious, spiritual. I just felt wiped out. And frantic because A) there were storm clouds on the horizon; B) my son was starting to look a little dazed and confused; and C) we were only half way done.
Problem 1: Zach
Zach had a bad headache. The only way to make it go away was get him back down to a lower altitude. That doesn’t happen quickly. I grabbed him and we started our descent. I have yet to see him drunk, but this is what I imagine he looks like. He was muttering things that made no sense. (“My heart . . . is beating.”) He would look at me with no recognition. And he would sit down without warning and not want to move. It was two miles before he would feel relief. That’s an hour of hiking, at least. An hour of fervent prayer for this mom.
Problem 2: Weather
We’d been warned to be off the summit by noon to avoid the threat of storms. Lightening kills more people on Whitney each year than anything else because there is no cover at the top. YOU are the conductor. We could see the dark clouds. They were distant, but visible. And it was well past two o’clock. More prayer.
Problem 3: Miles to Go Before I Sleep
No one comes to rescue you on Whitney. You are it. And the summit is only halfway. You have a moment of panic when you realize that this exhausted body of yours still has to hike 11 more miles. It’s terrifying. You truly start to question if you’ll make it. And what you might do if you don’t.
Zach and I plowed ahead of the rest of the group trying to get him relief. It’s pretty crazy because as soon as we hit the switchbacks and started DOWN, his headache vanished, the color returned to his face, and he was my kid again. We cruised down those things and decided to re-group at Trail Camp, where you can fill up your water containers, pee, and take stock (and you only have 6 miles to go).
By the time the whole group arrived at Trail Camp, it was after 5pm. We were safe (safer, anyway) from any threat of storms, but fast realizing we were going to finish this thing in the dark. The decision was made to send Zach and three of our group who were still moving fast on ahead, since they had their own car and could make sure food was waiting for us at the bottom.
For the remaining six of us, it was slow going. Downhill can be just as hard as up. You are navigating large rocks that wreak havoc on the knees and lower back. You are trying not to roll an ankle. You’re super tired.
Finally, with about 3 miles to go, my friend, Jenn, and I made the decision to move ahead. We were feeling good and more importantly, we had to use the bathroom. A real bathroom. We left the group and took off at a brisk pace.
And realized three things super fast.
1) We were in bear territory and we were alone. The mountain was empty at this point except for stragglers like us. Jenn and I decided singing might be our best weapon. (If you heard us, you’d know why). We sang everything from, “You Are My Sunshine” to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” We counted. Loudly. We prayed. Loudly. Anything to let the critters know we were coming. And that we were two badass women they didn’t want to mess with.
2) It was getting dark. Fast. We pulled out our headlamps, but being alone on a gigantic mountain full of dark shapes and steep drop-offs was not what I had planned. I was supposed to be knee-deep in cheeseburgers and a root beer by now! Jenn and I kept singing. Kept praying.
3) The storm we saw earlier? It was here. Like RIGHT here. We heard the thunder first, echoing up the canyon. It made both our hearts beat faster. Then, the lightening started flashing, jagged streaks that seemed way too close for comfort. Eventually the rain came pounding down. We still had at least a mile to go–twenty minutes if we could walk fast, which we no longer could because it was wet, dark, and slippery.
It’s been a long time since I was actually scared for my life. But I was. It felt like the lightening was so close and we had nowhere to go to get away from it. We couldn’t see anything beyond the tiny little glow of our headlamps, but we knew the trail dropped off steeply so staying ON it was priority one. There were a few water crossings–which was an adventure in dry, daylight conditions. In these conditions? We kind of just sucked in a breath and tried not to imagine what would happen if we lost our footing.
Seeing that trailhead was such relief. However, we had nowhere to go. We had no car keys or ride and the portal store had long since closed.
We huddled in the one primitive bathroom–little more than an outhouse–cold, wet, worried. Jenn kept her light trained on the trail looking for our husbands and friends. I kept mine pivoting around in case a bear decided to wander up. Our feet ached. Our bellies grumbled. Everything was soaked. But mostly, we were worried about the people we loved still on that mountain.
They arrived–four little lights marching from the darkness–about an hour later.
It was 9:15pm.
We had done it. We had summited Mt. Whitney–the tallest mountain in the continental U.S.–in one day.
I will never do it again. But I’m so very, very glad that I did it that day. And I am beyond blessed by the friends who stayed by my side. Who made me laugh when everything hurt. Who counted steps with me. Who helped find the perfect “bathrooms” along the way. Who marveled at God’s amazing handiwork. Who sang to stave off bears. Who reminded me to drink. Who urged, “just one more step.”
It’s in the books now. Crossed off the bucket list.
We’re already planning our next adventure. Chicago Marathon, anyone?