The Day I Climbed Mount Whitney
By Jane Sheppard
July 16, 2002
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We had asked for a 2:30 wake up call. Well apparently the hotel desk clerk needed a wake up call herself. I awoke at 3 and almost panicked because we had wanted to be up there already hiking. I went over and broke the bad news to my hiking partner. I quickly stuffed my face with a banana, applesauce, Tylenol and a weird juice drink. The drive from Lone Pine was a little eerie in the dark of the early morn. Only the stars and my headlights to light the road that wound up the mountain side. My thoughts were on bears, wondering if I would see one. We reached our parking space near the trail head, parked, removed all items from inside the car because of bears and stuffed them in the trunk. It was 4 a.m. Then we started out, flashlights wide open. The trail starts with a gentle switchbacking up the side of the mountain next to Whitney portal. The sounds of the stream accompanied us up and lead us up to the first stream crossing. It was the 0.5 mile marker completed in 20 minutes. It was very dark. We wobbled over the rocks in the stream and continued upwards. Up ahead on the mountain we could see other flashlights moving along. Down below we could see more flashlights as people started out. My legs burned just a bit from the effort of stepping up, stepping up, stepping up the ever climbing trail. I sipped water from my camel back backpack, a handy gadget that has the water bladder inside the pack and a tube that hangs over my shoulder for easy drinking. All of my needs for the day were carried inside the pack.
The first major milestone was the John Muir Wilderness sign. It was only 0.85 miles. We didn’t even stop to breath, just marched on by. We came to Lone Pine creek and crossed over on a series of logs that were laid out. The stream was rushing and rather high sounding. It was still dark though light was beginning to dawn, barely. 2.7 miles at 5:30 a.m.. We stopped by a rock to apply sunscreen and bug repellent. This was our first 5 minute break. Several hikers passed us at this point. We removed outer garments because it was warm even though not yet light. I had my new hiking pants on and my new hiking hat, several layers of shirts including one of those newfangled silk long underwear shirts. Turning off the flashlights we continued onwards and upwards. Passing Lone Pine Lake elevation 9960. At this point one needs a permit to continue. Our permits were proudly hanging from the back of our packs, just as the ranger had instructed.
At 3.8 miles we came to Outpost camp (elevation 10,360) 6:30 a.m., where people had their tents set up near a stream and the solar toilet. We used the facilities which were a little stinky but otherwise clean. In this toilet you are only allowed to poop and you have to pack out any toilet paper that you use. If you have to do anything else then you have to find a bush that is away from the stream. These are the rules. What can I tell you. I had my special zip-lock baggy for carrying out toilet paper. When out on the trail and not near one of the two solar latrines, and if you have to go, then you have to find a bush. But after a certain point there are no more bushes. Up on the switch backs my partner had to pee, so I stood at one end of the switchback admiring the view one way and my partner ….well, you know….at the other end. You get over being bashful right away.
After Outpost camp the trail took on a rather sinister look to it. Lots of switchbacks, lots of rocky steps like stairs, lots of walking on boulders with sandy patches. It was step up, step up, step up. Sometimes the boulders were angled in a weird way and it was ankle twisting. We passed above Mirror lake on the switchback trail. 4.3 miles down, elevation 10,640, 7:07 a.m.. My mantras were beginning to go through my head, sort of like a cadence to keep me going steady. God is good. God is gracious. Thank you Jesus. Everytime I would start to feel some doubt they would pass through my thoughts like the tickertapes on wall street. A continuous stream of encouragement, strengthening thoughts. We walked by Trailside Meadow filled with beautiful flowers, purple iris looking things, green grass along the stream that tumbled down. A no camping sign kept this area clean and sparkling. (5.3 miles, elevation 11,395 8 a.m.) I began to feel the euphoria that comes from altitude. I love it. It’s like being high. Well you are high, ha, only it’s legal.
The mountain was an ever increasing presence, looming over us as we hiked. Whitney was surrounded by other peaks and we were rather silly trying to figure out which one was the big one. We were just looking up, up and more walking up, up, stepping up those rock stairs and more rock stairs.
In one more mile we came to Trail Camp, the last spot on the trail where there is reliable water and the other solar latrine. We took the lunch break here next to the little lake. (6.3 miles; 12,039 elevation and 9:15 a.m.) It was welcome stop. I immediately stooped down next to the lake, rummaged through the pack for the water filter and got out the snack of trail mix. The water filter was fairly easy to use, a simple pump with the hose that hangs in the water, a weight and float on the end. I had to adjust the float a few times to keep the tip out of the green mossy bottom of the lake. Then I added electrolyte/energy drink to the water bag for use up further on the trail. My hiking partner was merrily munching down his 3 oranges and nuts. I couldn’t eat much of that. I started a steady supply of Gu, which is a high carbohydrate gel that you just suck out of a little tube package. I was a little worried that my water filtering was taking away from very necessary rest. We were now at the highest elevation that I had ever been at. I noticed these strange looking orangish brown animals bigger than our cats. They looked sort of like giant ground squirrels and they were not shy in the slightest. These guys were all around the people camping and looking for any opportunity to steal food. They turned out to be marmots. The mountains towered over our heads in a straight up sort of way. We could see people far, far away making their way up the side, though I couldn’t make out a trail at all. The people hiking were the size of the period at the end of this sentence. A speck of color moving. I finished my water making, ate some food and used the latrine. As my friend used the little room, I laid down on the ground and shut my eyes. A few seconds of heavenly rest. Then at 10:15 we hit the trail again., chasing those illusive specks of color on high. We agreed to watch each other carefully now for signs of altitude sickness and to go back at the first indications of anything going wrong. My friends estimates at the time we might hit the top were rather discouraging, it seemed so late. But through my head, on went the mantra “God is good, God is gracious, Thank you Jesus.”
The 96 switchbacks were next. A grueling portion of the trail especially if a person happens to be scared of heights. Narrow trail at times, always steep back and forth, more stone steps. At places I could see where the trail builders had drilled out rock out of the face of the mountain to make the trail and other places where there where metal pipes hammered in to hold the rocks in place. The very rocks where the trail was that we put our feet on. Part way up there is a handrail for about 50 feet or so because there is a natural water seep and sometimes it is icy and slippery wet. I couldn’t look down. The higher we went the more I couldn’t look down. I went two periods of despair on this part of the trail. I wanted to quit. Discouragement came crashing over me like waves, but I shook it off, remembering other hard experiences that I had overcame in the past. I could hear the little still voice in my head saying “You’re okay. Keep going.” I would gather my forces and kept putting one foot in front of another, onward and upwards. The sky is an incredible shade of blue that high. A majestic blue. My partner would look back, catch my eye and nod his head. I would nod mine and we would keep going. A nod is our nonverbal way to indicate everything is okay, keep going. And we did. At the top of the switchbacks we hit trail crest (8.5 miles; 13,777 elevation; 12:45 pm). At this section we could look down onto the whole trail that we had hiked up, all of the lakes and over the crest to the mountain ranges behind us and more lakes with forest. The sky was beginning to fill with clouds though not too threatening.
There was a half mile down stretch to where the trail meets up with the John Muir trail and then heads back up. Now we were on the backside of all of the mountain peaks. A sign warned about the very serious threat of lightening. We were way above the timberline which was back down by Trail side meadow. Lightening is a scary thing and there is no where to go to get away from it. I saw that sign and chickened out. I told my partner that I wanted to quit. Every fiber of my being was screaming to get down from there. I could hear very loud No, No, No. Don’t go!!! I could see the hut way over on Whitneys top. It was still 2 miles away. We were really high. The trail was very loose rock, narrow and windy cold. My friend immediately said okay, turned around and began back down to a safer place. But I was torn. How could I live with myself knowing that I had come that close and turned back. I asked him to stop and I sat on a rock while I went through an inventory of thoughts. The strength came to go on. I was scared but had settled on the decision to continue. We started out on the trail. Teetering with my two walking sticks that kept coming untwisted and sliding shorter and longer. It was a trial to keep them useable. People who had made the summit were now passing us on their way down the mountain. It was incredible the amount of encouraging words that every single of them would say to us. “Keep going. You’re almost there. Baby steps. One step in front of the other. Keep going.”
We came to the windows. The narrow ridges that ran between the mountain peaks and connected them. They were only as wide as the trail and it was not wide. A foot, 2 feet wide. Narrow. Dropping off straight down on both sides. It was a narrow land bridge. The wind would come through these passes in gusts blowing and tugging at us as we moved across. My friend is apparently braver than me because he would want to look at the view. I couldn’t. I urged him to keep walking and not stop. Just let me across this thing. I have read the books. I knew that people have died here and I didn’t want to be one of them. The snow patch on the side of Whitney was coming closer. We could see the smaller than ant size people moving across it. The hut on the summit was just a little tiny box. Each ridge we came around would give us a new view of Whitney, bigger people, a bigger hut. That’s how I could judge the distance, by the amount of growth of everything's size. The trail from a distance wasn’t even a ribbon. I couldn’t see the trail at all. Just an occasion splash of color as someone moved along. We passed over the rest of the windows and then the last big obstacle was the snow patch. People warned us. It was tough but do-able. The wobbly, moving rocks that every time I stepped on one they would twist with my weight. I was balancing and breathing with each step. I began to notice a faint little whistling noise that kept coming and going. What was it? It was odd. I could barely hear it but it was consistent. Then I realized that it was me. It was me breathing. Crap, I thought, not pulmonary edema. I took inventory and nah, I was okay. It was just very very thin air. Finally we made it to and through the snow patch and with joy realized that we were now on Whitney. Not quite the top but on our mountain. My friend wanted to stop right there but with urging kept going. Step by step. The trail was a little easier at this point. I kept looking around in amazement. I could see everything. Mountains after mountains, valleys, lakes. Big scary clouds. Dark looking clouds coming our way and little snow flakes began to feather down around us. We discussed this looming danger and prayed a specific prayer to keep the clouds away from us. No rain, no lightening, just safe clear weather for the entire time. God is good. God is gracious. He kept those clouds off our heads. A few more steps up and over a rise and THERE IT WAS!!! THE TOP!!! We had made it. The summit of Mt. Whitney (11 miles; 14,494 elevation, 3:30 p.m.) A 360 view of the world from on top of the United States highest continental mountain. Quick, let’s eat, drink, take pictures, rest, sign the register next to the hut, phone home and then get down. But a few things happened. My friend sat down and couldn’t go another step. Not even up to the hut. So I signed the register for him. I signed it myself and dedicated the hike to Carolyn Webb who was the one who originally had wanted to do it but had to back out because of injury. To Carolyn Webb by the grace of God. I ran out of water so my friend gave me half of his. Water is scarce up there. Not to have it is bad.
I hopped around taking pictures, begging people to take pictures of me with my camera. I only wanted ten minutes up there. There were crazy fools who had set up tents and were going to spend the night. I almost wished I had the necessary supplies to do the same. The phone battery ran out just as tried to use so we couldn’t call home and tell them we had made it. On a big slab of a rock there is a plaque naming Whitney and the elevation. Some other stuff but I can’t remember. The top is covered with huge slabs of rocks. A few rocky walls have been built to give those camping a little shelter from the wind. The view looking down on those peaks that we had skirted was amazing.
At 4 pm we headed down. Everything in reverse. It was just as hard coming down as it was going up. Darkness came as we passed Mirror lake. We hiked three hours in the dark on the way down. The batteries in the flashlight went dim and we had to change them. But we couldn’t take any long breaks. Just a steady step down, step down. God is good. God is gracious. The burn in my legs was quite intense but it wouldn’t have done any good to talk about it. We still had 4 something miles to go and I couldn’t take any more Tylenol. Water was running short and I couldn’t stop to filter. It was dark. I couldn’t see. The switchbacks had a scary dark look to the edges and slippery sandy rock steps to go down. Both my partner and I slipped several times. Wild, arm waving slips. Every time we would hear that sound we would do the nod thing, ask how the other was and just kept going. After awhile we even quit doing that. Just a glance to see if the other was okay and kept walking. Down down down. Mile after mile. I rather enjoyed the dark. Didn’t have to think too much. Didn’t cry. Just one foot in front of the other. There were moments that I thought of how nice it would be to just stop and sleep. But I would remind myself that it would be horrible. No tent, no food, no sleeping bag. Just cold, dark, hard ground and bears. Okay, I was willing to keep going. Oh yeah, no bears for me.
Almost to the end, 1 ½ mile to go we came to an elderly couple sitting by the side of the trail, head lamps attached to their heads burning brightly in my eyes. She asked if this was the Whitney portal trail and we asked which way they were going. They were going down. They had been to the summit that day and were coming down but very tired. Exhausted. A few encouraging words and we passed them. The only people we passed all day. Some hiker I am, passing old people. Each milestone we came to gave us hope. 2 miles to go. 1 and ½ mile to go. 1 mile. 0.85 to go. I couldn’t tell when we were close. I was listening to the stream and stepping across at each of the crossings but really couldn’t tell at all. I was quietly dreading the drive down off the mountain when we reached the car and had little scenarios going about sleeping in the car. But no, really wanted the hotel real bad.
Finally I saw the shape of the sign at the trail entrance. It was 11:30 at night. I saw Betsy my faithful old car waiting in the parking space. With a gratefulness I took off the pack slung it into the back seat, and with a now dry mouth because we had ran out of water two miles back, I started the car.
Slowly, 15, 14 miles an hour I drove off the mountain. I stayed right on top of the middle line. I was so tired and wanted to be safe. It was a dark, steep road down to the town of Lone Pine. Took forever. Just as I entered the town, a car pulled up behind me and the red and blue lights began to flash. I couldn’t believe it! What was I being pulled over for? Wouldn’t that be hysterical to get a ticket now. Well I had forgotten that I was driving really, really slow and right on the middle line. The cop was very understanding and sent us on to the hotel for some needed rest. Blessed glorious rest.
God is Good. God is Gracious. Thank you Jesus.
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