Some years ago, I read a magazine article that said you could summit Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, without any climbing equipment, that it was one of those rare mountains on which you could essentially “walk” to the top. It sounded easy. An uphill stroll.
At the time, I had done some backpacking in Big Sur and Yosemite and I thought this would be a good next challenge. A couple of my friends said they would join me on this endeavor. At 22 total miles, in and back, with total elevation change of 6,100 feet, we thought we would just go slow and make three days out of it. We secured the necessary permits and in early September, my friends David and Bobbi joined me, driving first to Lone Pine, California, where we stayed at a motel for the first night, then through the Inyo National Forest to the portal, where the trail begins at 8,374 feet above sea level.
In retrospect, we had a lot of gear. Big 50 pound backpacks, with a tent, a stove, sleeping bags and cushions, freeze dried meals, and probably too many clothes. A camera. Lots of peanut M&M’s that I had read were good at high altitudes. It was all light and modern compared to what John Muir climbed with, but compared to today, another 35 years along the technology trail, it may have been pitiful.
The Whitney Trail begins in a high Alpine forest, beautiful, serene, with streams and boulders. A felled log was the bridge to cross the first stream we came to. There was about a three foot drop to the stream bed, and maybe six inches of water flowing through the stream. For some reason, I could not bring myself to venture out onto the log with my pack. Both Bobbie and I were suddenly afraid of falling off that log and into the water. David had to carry his pack across, and then return for each of our packs, and then for each of us. We walked across under our own leg power, but it took coaxing. There were at least six of these kind of stream crossings before the trail took us above the tree line, and I don’t remember David ever complaining about the time-consuming method we used to cross every one of them.
We continued to climb, crossing above the tree line, now following the cairn trail markers. We arrived at the base camp area later then planned but still managed to set up our tent, boil some water, and make some food before it was completely dark. All afternoon, the wind was picking up. I will never forget that wind. That night it blew so hard I was afraid to go out to pee because without my weight, the tent might blow off the mountain with my two friends in it. Between the relentless noise of the gale, and my imagination about the ferocious wild animals assembling outside, I don’t think I slept for a full hour.
Day two dawned clear and cold, and we assembled the smaller packs we would carry just to the summit and back. Relentless is too mild a word for the slope upward that morning. The cairns that marked the trail through our route’s infamous 97 switchbacks were difficult to see, and sometimes we would find ourselves 30 feet off the trail, climbing an imaginary path from which we would need to back track.
Sometimes the path would narrow as it snaked alongside the mountain, becoming just a walkway, a path maybe two feet wide with a 1,000 foot drop. That was kind of scary. It was absolutely terrifying, and also kind of impressive, when the trail was just a bridge with maybe a 1,000 foot drop down one side and 500 down the other. We inched forward over these, all the while conscious that we would have to revisit them again on the way down.
At some point, another climber on his way down told us that last year’s ice hadn’t melted near the last, steepest part of the climb and that we should “be careful.” I’ll tell you, that focused our minds.
Nearing the summit, we spent more time on our hands and feet, doing more of a big rock scramble than a hike as I had envisioned, or that promised stroll. Finally, however, we scrambled over the last stone and snow and ice and emerged onto the mountain top. It was surprisingly large up there, and flat. A big plaque said the elevation was 14,505 and we took some photos. A careful descent and we were back at basecamp and our tent and packs we had left there. That night, the wind was quiet, the wild things had dispersed, and I slept much better.
On day three, we got an early start down the mountain, and ran into several climbers coming up the trail, carrying just a small day pack, and maybe a hiking stick. When we talked briefly, it turns out that many people climb the mountain in just one day, all the way up and back. That was a revelation.
Bobbi and I crossed the log bridges we had to be coaxed over on day one in just three or four big confident strides. The contrast with the rest of the climb made these crossings seem so easy. The forested part of the trail seemed doubly lush and beautiful.
Back at the trailhead, we got into the car and headed home, feeling victorious and really proud of ourselves. We didn’t have social media then, so we just sat with our accomplishment, savoring it, turning it over amongst the three of us.
About 25 miles from the trailhead, we saw an A&W drive in restaurant. Perfect for three hungry, dirty, climbers; we wouldn’t even have to get out of the car. We pulled in and ordered and when the waitress returned to the car with our food, we burst out with the news that we had just climbed Mt. Whitney! “Uh huh,” she said, snapping her gum, “what’s that?”
In my mind’s eye I still search her face for signs of irony. Did she really not know?
In subsequent years, I traveled extensively and learned to love everything about hotels – rooms, lobby bars, and restaurants in complex urban spaces – and until recently I’d forgotten about this adventure from my youth. It was a good one.