Climbing mountains is fun. It’s fun for many reasons, but I will list three:
- You can go days without showering and it makes you rugged, not repulsive.
- You meet the coolest, friendliest people on the side of a mountain. Even on carefully-groomed, well-trodden trails, it seems that you are experiencing a near death experience with strangers. But who wants to die next to strangers? Solution: quickly and frantically turn strangers into friends. Boom. Friendship magic happens.
- You get to make the pre-ascent REI trip. This is my husband’s life passion. REI is the place that convinces you that all cool people own 19 variations of a rain jacket and survive solely on Clif bars. Those friendly staff members in simple green vests make you want to grow a beard, live off the land, and tame a black bear. True story.
Because of these reasons, but mostly because Mike wanted to go to REI, we decided to hike Mount Whitney. Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the continuous US and the Internet told us it was pretty hard.
We weren’t scared.
Actually, I got nervous because there is a strict hiking permit process for Mount Whitney. You can’t just show up at the mountain and hike. The national park service only allows so many hikers on the trail everyday, so if you don’t secure a reservation in January, you have to enter into a daily lottery for the leftover hiking permits. Risky!
As you can imagine, it’s a little nerve wracking to drive 5 hours with the hope that you will score a permit. I say “as you can imagine,” because I assume most people are like my husband and the REI vest-men who don’t feel any anxiety as they approach a mountain. For them it’s like pulling into their own driveway. They just say to the park rangers: “Permit? This mountain is my home! You have to let me in!” And the park rangers usually do.
Long story short-ish, we lucked out on the lottery permits and started hiking at 3am Saturday morning. I was happy about that because I usually look my best at 3am and I wanted everyone to witness it.
We decided to do the mountain in one day, which was an aggressive goal based on the scary Yelp! reviews of other hikers. A lot of people train for this mountain and even spend a couple days at base camp to acclimate to the altitude. We, on the other hand, felt confident in our Colorado genes and in the super-human powers provided by Clif bars. This formula miraculously worked, but not without some pain along the way.
After hiking the first few hours with headlamps, the sun came up as we approached the tree line.
The trail is remarkably well groomed and very manageable. In fact, it’s not the steepness of the trail that is challenging, it is the length. 22 miles from base camp to summit and back makes for a really long day.
Below: embarking on Trail Crest, the last 1.5 miles before the summit.
We had great weather and were able to move pretty fast on the way up, but a startling thing happens to you at high elevations. Most hikers are familiar with the traditional signs of altitude sickness: dizziness, light headedness, disorientation. Those are the sexy symptoms because no one is weirded out by them. But here’s the truth: no one talks about the toxic gas that your body produces above 10,000 feet. This must have been why John Muir explored alone. He was a wise man.
The most memorable line of the trip came from my brother when claimed that he “crop-dusted” some hikers that we passed. This was not an agricultural reference.
Suffice it to say that we took turns hiking in front and this wasn’t because each of us felt particularly peppy. It was because no one, I mean no one wanted to hike into that headwind. I’m going to ask about this next time with the REI vest-men.
Despite our bodily malfunctions, we were able to summit around 11am before the thunderstorms rolled in.
The handsome husband and my brother caught some altitude giggles.
We felt tired, but pretty good when we left the summit. That goodness quickly evaporated when we realized that we still had to complete the second half of this 22-mile hike.
Descending the Trail Crest portion of the trail resulted in some serious vertigo. This photo lies! It looks like all of the rocks are still, but in real life they were warping all over the place and hallucinogenic squirrels were popping up everywhere. All three of us were seeing different wildlife. It was like experiencing the Outdoor Channel’s version of Fantasia.
We descended the trail in 6 hours and I’m going to be honest with you, it was miserable. The 98 switchbacks on the way up seemed measurable. On the way down they were never ending. We wanted to make best friends out of strangers on the way up. On the way down, we were mad that these strangers were in our way! And why did they want to talk to us? Didn’t they understand that we just wanted to get down the mountain?
Here’s the good news: Our pre-ascent REI trip came in handy because we bought this SteriPEN that uses UV light rays to purify water. This was a crucial because it meant that we could carry lighter packs and refill our water supplies directly from the mountain streams. I kept thinking that the REI vest-men would be so proud.
Another point worth noting: Even though we were pretty callous about summiting this mountain in a day, we were sobered by the number of really sick people we saw near the summit. Mike tried to coax a women 100 yards from the summit to turn back, but she was convinced she just needed a “nap” before she moved on. Bad news!
I joke about the near-death-experience of hiking a mountain, but there is truth to the excitement and inherent danger of exploring our own physical limits.
On Mount Whitney we were reminded of the dangers of adventuring with this takeaway: climbing a mountain means taking your life into your own hands and assuming the risk of receiving of a crop dusting. Is it worth it? It depends on who you are adventuring with and how pretty the view is from the top.