I've been training since January to summit Mt. Whitney. I got a wild hair last year when I turned 30 that I needed to something amazing to usher in my 40th year. So I decided climbing th the contiguous United States highest mountain to be a good goal. I have never had a desire to climb a mountain before and had no idea why I wanted to climb one now. But it was a goal-a lofty one- and one that proved 40 isn't so old after all.
So about 8 other women showed some interest in the endeavor. 6 ended up training with me on a regular basis. We hiked every weekend starting with about 3 miles and working our way up to 12 miles in a day. We spent lots of time and money at REI. I sent in for permits. (Inyo National Forest allows hikers on the mountain on a daily quota basis. It helps keep track of lost or injured hikers as well as acts as crowd control, for although Mt. Whitney is atall mountain, the front side requires no mountaineering skills and has a well maintained trail.) We waited with baited breath for a month before we found out whether we were 'in' or not. In March we found out we got our permits! It was much earlier in the season than we anticipated, and not nearly close to my birthday; but it was America's birthday, so that counted for something. Our permit was for July 1-4th. We stepped up our training in May and June by carrying our backpacks and hiking upwards of 10 miles a day. We thought we were pretty well prepared. Except we live at sea level. And there's no training for altitude except altitude.
Altitude sickness can be annoying or it can be deadly. It affects some and not others. It can affect world class athletes and strike those who have never experienced it in the past. I lived for many years in Montana. I figured I wouldn't really be affected, so when we did a practice hike out on San Gorgonio Mountain with a summit of 11.000 feet, I was surprised at how sick I got the higher we went. We had to turn around at 10,000 feet because I was so dizzy. It was a good warm up of what was to come.
The plan was for all of us to leave on June 30th to acclimate to altitude. Mt. Whitney lies above the small town of Lone Pine in the eastern Sierra Nevadas in Southern California. 100 miles to the east Death Valley glimmers in the distance. Last minute schedule issues did not allow 3 of our group to go on the 30th. 1 of us had to cancel because of family illness. Because I experienced vertigo and lethargy two weeks before on our big rehearsal hike, I knew I needed that extra day to acclimate. My friend Ouane (pronounced Wahn.) and I drove up together to relax, acclimate and get our bearings. The rest of the group followed the next day.
We were quite overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded us. Every turn, every switchback, every thing I tried to soak in made me swoon. I had moments where all I could do was simply stop walking and be still because I was overcome by the vast and exquisite scenery.
Most of the hike was surreal. Our packs were heavy. (Way too heavy. If I ever do this hike again I'm bringing a sleeping bag, food and first aide kit. Everything else is extraneous.) It's ironic how much we think we need to survive on the grid, but when you have to carry all your belongings with you, what is necessary and what isn't becomes clear very quickly. Weight also matters. The difference between a 3 lb tent and a 5 lb tent didn't seem worth the 200 dollar difference at REI a month before. I was cursing those 2 lbs on the mountain!
I was not only struck by awe on the trail, but also once again by altitude. At 9000 feet I got nauseous and at one point had to quickly throw off my pack so I could go find a boulder to vomit behind. Luckily my backpack was still full with 3 L of water (which weighs 8 lbs, in case anyone was wondering.)so I was able to wash up a bit after the Grand Puke. But from that moment I never again regained appetite nor did I cease having constant mild to moderate nausea. We camped at 10,000 feet that first night in Whitney Wilderness. We set up at Outpost camp, a beautiful green clearing next to glacial cold stream that was fed by a thundering waterfall. The falls, coupled with the light of a full moon and the urge to vomit kept me up all night.
We met other backpackers at Outpost camp. 1 man was feeling altitude worse than me. He was slurring his speech and also felt lethargic. Because his symptoms were worse than mine and because being a nurse is not just my job but my nature, I spent the rest of the early evening keeping an eye on him and basically using the 'I'm a nurse" as an excuse to be bossy. Sunset in the mountains is called the hikers midnight, so as the full moon rose, we all said goodnight and attempted to get some sleep.
Day 2 on the mountain. We woke before the sun came over the ridge-or around 5 am. It was cold but at this elevation not freezing. (That would change.) I still had no appetite but attempted to eat only to throw it up again. I was more annoyed than worried. Our gentleman from the night before, however, was feeling much better. He said his symptoms had subsided and wondered if he could tag along with us for a few miles to see how he felt. We said sure thing-the more the merrier! Ouane, ever friendly and the only one of us to not feel sick the entire climb, had made more friends as well.
Day 2 proved harder than day 1. I'm sure most of it was because of elevation and because I had little sleep the night before. (Oh yea, and I also got my monthly that morning. Which is usually no big deal and very un-symptomatic. Except for now. And the rule on the mountain is...pack out all your trash-including your poop and everything else.) I now say PMS stands for Period on the Mountain Sucks. (more than normal.) At 11 000 feet and above timberline I started getting dizzy. Barf number 3 was not far behind. The man who was hiking with us, and who Ouane and I had watched and nursed the night before, was gracious and insisted he take my pack. He was only carrying a day pack because he intended on going back to Outpost later in the day. He certainly was the first of many angels on this journey. I was quite fatigued and anxious at that point and just hiking through the snowfields and up the granite switchbacks without the added weight of my pack made a huge difference in both my morale and my physical ability. He hiked with me up to Trail Camp at 12 000 feet. Outpost was a much prettier camp because it was surrounded by trees. Trail camp is nothing but granite. It's windy and cold and actually kind of crowded as all overnighters stay here. You have to schlepp down the hill a long way to try to find any potty privacy. We arrived mid afternoon, set up camp and napped. All of us were sick at this point. (Except for Ouane. She was out making lots of friends!) There was a keen sense of camaraderie at camp. Everyone was there for the same purpose. Everyone was friendly and shared stories of the climb or tips on how to summit. We met many groups both coming up, as we had, and going back down from ascending that day. Again, sunset equals hikers midnight and we had a long, long day ahead of us. The peak of Whitney was now visible from camp and stood sentinel above us-either keeping watch or taunting-I wasn't quite sure which.
Day 3. Sunrise. We had prepped our packs the day before. The best part of today, besides the hope of summitting, was the fact that we were only taking our day packs filled with water, first aid kit, head lamp and emergency blanket. Our tents and big packs were staying behind. My fear and apprehension were heavy already, I was happy to be free of the physical constraint. We had had a tense hike up. Our team was not as cohesive as I had hoped. We had a blow out as we made camp the afternoon before, and although we made amends quickly, 3 of our group did not attempt summit. They broke camp and headed back down the mountain as Ouane and I headed up. I was sick and scared, but I was on a mission and was focused solely on summit. We wore false smiles as we waved good by to our teammates, but quickly took to the task at hand of making it to summit and back by dark. Ouane and I are not fast hikers. We like to stop and take in all the journey has to offer. We stop and take lots of pictures. We also stopped a lot because I was sick; and since the air was so thin we both needed to stop simply because we needed to BREATHE.
All the books I have read about Mt Whitney talk about the unrelenting 99 switchbacks. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I DIDNT hate them. First of all, they were on solid ground. I didn't have to scrabble over loose rock or try not to look down at sheer drops while trying to maneuver lost trails. I'm notoriously clumsy-which makes me nervous whenever I'm on a ledge. Take clumsy and add vertigo and you have a disaster waiting to happen! Halfway through the switchbacks however, come the Cables. The cables are just that...a cable 'fence' of sorts on a narrow 2 foot wide ledge that bridges the hiker up to the rest of the switchbacks.. So when we heard they were covered with packed snow and the safety of the handrail unavailable, I was worried. Luckily we did not need crampons (or we would have had to turn back)-our trekking poles sufficed. It was scary, but I did it! I got back on dry stable ground with a pounding heart, shaking hands and shaking legs. I call it my Come to Jesus Moment number 1.
Trailcrest is where the eastern Whitney trail meets up with the John Muir trail about 1.9 miles from the summit. It is at this point you must hike the ridge behind the face. Instead of seeing Death Valley below, we now are privy to the beauty of the Sequoia National Park and the full mountain ranges in the western Sierras. The views are stunning. And the trail becomes much more precarious. It was at Trail Crest/13,000 feet, I began to lose my peripheral vision.
When we left Trail Camp,(3000 feet below) I began to get tingling hands and face and especially annoying, tingly nose. I felt as if my arms and head had 'fallen asleep.' Being a nurse, and having already experienced various symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness) I just chalked the annoyance up to more pesky symptoms. At Trail Crest, when I started getting tunnel vision, I started to get more worried. The summit was tantalizingly close-visable and 'only' 1.9 miles away. I didn't know that it would take us another 5 hours to get there. The closer I got to summit, the more symptomatic I became, the more exhausted I became, and the stubborn I was to finish my quest. Nothing short of passing out or an injury would have gotten me to turn around.
I also was hiking for a reason outside of myself. I met a friend on Facebook, (I call her my cousin because she has the same married last name as I had as a maiden name. I joined a family name group and we hit it off from there. If she is a cousin, she's a cousin by marriage and probably at least 3 times removed. But we share that one commonality, and because of it have bonded like sisters.) During the course of our online social networking friendship, I found out she was pregnant with a son with Trisomy 18. It is a devestating birth defect with very little chance of survival. If the babies do survive, it is usually for a few hours or at the most, a few days.
When I was pregnant with my firstborn, I was told he had a good chance of having Downs Syndrome. It was terrible blow to us, and although we were councilled and were told we could chose to abort, we refused. We stopped all further 'diagnostic' tests and chose instead to try salvage what was left of our experience of 1st time expectant parents, tried to stop worrying, and to just love our boy. So when I heard that Annamaries diagnosis was not a 'possible' or a 'whatif' but a true tragedy, I felt very tied to her and her family's pain.
A few months before her due date, and when her pain and anxiety was obvious and acute, so many of felt utterly helpless and words just couldn't bring comfort. She's in Ireland, I'm in California. If I could have hugged I would have. I wrote her and offered to put a trinket and a box on the summit for her son, Cathal. It seemed such a small gesture-I was almost embarrassed to tell her my idea and request permission for a little memorial. I had no idea the impact my request would have.