John Muir Trail/Mount Whitney - Day 4
I awoke in my tent in the middle of the cold night, the warmth of my thick sleeping bag shielding me from the frigidity that turned every exhale into the frost lining the ceiling, walls, floor around me. Justin was sitting in the tent, awake beside me.
“Well, if you are up for it, we can go now.” With the tone of a “Fuck it; let’s do it.”, he said simply, “Okay.”
I asked him what time it was, thinking the watch alarm we set for a 4:30am rise had gone off. He answered that it was 1:30, and that he hadn’t been able to sleep. Whether it was the day of rest, thoughts of home, summit day excitement, the altitude, or some combination of them that kept him awake, I didn’t know. I just knew that I was awake and feeling fairly fresh, so I volunteered, “Well, if you are up for it, we can go now.” With the tone of a “Fuck it; let’s do it.”, he said simply, “Okay.”
For a split second as I unzipped my sleeping bag, I regretted my offer—the cold air hit fast and hard, but I layered up quickly and prepped everything I could within the comfort of the tent. We organized our packs, opting to skip breakfast and snack on the way up instead. Up indeed. The next 6 miles would take us to the highest mountaintop in the lower 48. At 14,505ft, it was more than a half mile above our campsite at Guitar Lake, a high mountain fed by an arcticly cold stream named after its guitar-like shape. One last check via satellite to ensure the good weather was holding, and we were off. Mount Whitney is infamously known to have late summer season lightning storms, often with fatal consequences for those who dare the four hour ascent trail to and return trip from Trail Junction when there is a possibility of questionable weather. Trail Junction, the intersection that allows hikers to summit Whitney by turning off the pathway through the col that leads back to civilization in the Old-West-themed town of Lone Pine, is often littered with the oppressively large packs of backpackers (as they wisely opt to take a lighter essentials-only day pack to the summit before returning to continue on fully loaded). After ascending 2500ft along a rocky path that snaked and finally switched its way back and forth up a rock slide the size of a small town, we found the junction empty.
For four hours, we had worked our way up the trail, our lungs struggling to fuel our legs in the ever-thinning air. We had woke and packed that early morning at the height of Mount Baker, the glaciated volcanic peak in the Cascades I had summited last month, but Whitney had yet towered over us unfathomably high. The effective oxygen in the air was equivalent to breathing entirely through one nostril. The four miles up with our 60 pound packs had required balancing patience for our struggling bodies—starved of precious air—and tolerance for the brutal cold against which our primary defense was movement. Going too slow means generating less internal heat, too fast depleting our brains of oxygen as our muscles consume more than the fair share of what could be provided and ultimately pausing to recover from dizziness and fatigue that follows. High-altitude mountaineering, like much of life’s worthwhile endeavors, is about tradeoffs.
High-altitude mountaineering, like much of life’s worthwhile endeavors, is about tradeoffs.
Approaching Trail Junction, our patience had held strong, but our tolerance for the cold was thinning. We found shelter from the wind to put on our last layers of clothing—down-filled pants and jacket to go over a long-Johns style base layer and underneath a wind-resistant outer layer. Goretex boots and outer mittens protected the wool socks and gloves we wore beneath, with buffs and wool balaclavas and hats protecting our heads from beneath several layers of hoods. It wasn’t enough. The “good” weather that was holding in the dark hours of the early morning sunk below a -20 degrees Fahrenheit wind chill as we stripped down to our base layers to insert middle layers of insulation. Blasts of cold stabbed exposed skin during the transition, painfully reminding us that the arrogant and unprepared are not welcome atop the world’s highest places, that it would be not the heat but the cold that would bring down Icarian ambition here, freezing those who attempt to go higher. Yet, in darkness one thousand feet below one of America’s tallest peaks, we did.
The sky was erupting with color—foreplay of the brilliance to come when the sun finally rose. It flirted with every angled rock, exposing their many secrets and kissing them with daylight warmth.
Shivering uncontrollably after having added clothing and discarded our packs for more portable hip pouches carrying safety kits, food, and water, we pressed on. It was a two mile upward traverse of a ridge line of continuous peaks reaching higher and higher, the rocks at the crests jutting into the sky like crystal obelisks. Our trail, which connected the troughs beneath the spire-topped mountain crenelations, was no longer the gravel and ice path we had ascended to Trail Junction sided by steep slopes of scree. It was now a trail of slabs of stone and small boulders, with major drops and fatal exposures along the way. Thirty continuous steps meant stopping to lean against the upper slope and “suck wind” until our bodies had sufficient oxygen to move again. Our heads were pounding as early AMS symptoms set in, which we continued to monitor.
As morning approached, we were afforded opportunity by the mountain to peek from the dark side through the gaps between the ridge’s peaks. The sky was erupting with color—foreplay of the brilliance to come when the sun finally rose. It flirted with every angled rock, exposing their many secrets and kissing them with daylight warmth.
Urging our feet back into the shadows of our westside path, the feeling of sunlight would remain a tease until we reached Whitney’s summit. As we rounded the summit crest from beneath, and the trail turned upward, I made a final safety check with Justin to ensure we were okay with climbing the final 300 vertical feet to the top. We both felt comfortable continuing, and so we did. Our progress was no faster than before, despite the excitement of being so close to the pinnacle; the feeling of constant suffocation offset any impulse to speed up for the final stretch.
Today is not about a physical journey. It is about an emotional one—a spiritual one.
Instead, the approach brought happy tears, as it had with Mount Washington (a colder mountain in the Northeast I had summited in winter). Justin had begun the morning saying, “Today is not about a physical journey. It is about an emotional one—a spiritual one.” Again, as I had in New Hampshire, I reflected on the events that led me here, on how far I had come—not just over the past four days, but over the past two years—to overcome the hardships that fell on me and to become the man I have. I felt so incredibly blessed to be there atop yet another mountain and with such an incredible hiking partner. In that moment I fully felt the words he had offered up many passers-by along our journey, “Life is good."