Last June I climbed Mt. Whitney with some friends. Here is what happened:
I was roused out of my sleep by my alarm. It was 3:30 AM. I had driven up north from LA the previous day, slept in a tent, and was now readying to climb the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.
There were 6 other people in the group, and we gathered in the darkness to take stock of everything before we started the ascent. This was when I noticed that it wasn’t actually that dark, because every other hiker had a fitted headlamp. This shocked me. I thought those were only for coal miners.
I then began to notice that it was not just the headlamps that set this crew apart. They looked like they were a film crew for Planet Earth: Mountains. Thick boots, pants of a special texture that zipped off into shorts, wide brimmed hats, super ergonomic ski pole looking things, backpacks with thousands of pockets and tubes sticking out at perfect drinking height. Those water bladders for your backpack are called camelbacks, and everyone had one.
Except for me. In fact, to this crew, I must have looked like the kid in little league who showed up for games without a mitt, his shoes untied, and snot dripping down his face. I think the money was probably on me to be the guy who sprains an ankle or passes out from dehydration.
I had on basketball shorts and a sweatshirt. I was wearing the beat up backpack I used throughout college. Also, I was rocking a pair of those funny looking shoes with slots for the toes, because who says you can’t climb a mountain AND look like a guy who cares way too much about ultimate frisbee?
I was able to blend in a little bit better when I found a huge, Teddy Roosevelt worthy safari hat on the ground. I scooped it up and put it on, setting a precedent for psuedo-stealing that would come in to play later on in the hike.
We set off on the trail, and I proved perfectly capable of keeping up, to everyone’s relief. Right around sunrise we stopped to eat at a spot that was just breathtakingly beautiful. We were looking out at the most lush, National Geographic-worthy picture of a mountain view you could ever imagine. It was really amazing. We easily could have called it a day right then and there and no one would have felt like we were cheated in the sightseeing department.
But, we had to a goal to achieve. A trivial, perplexing to many an outside viewer kind of goal, but a goal nonetheless. So we kept it moving.
A short time after the sunrise we ran into a park ranger carrying a backpack that looked like it weighed 200 pounds. It was huge. We stopped to chat for a second, and when someone asked about his bag, things got serious: “This is full of poop bags that people left on the mountain. Pick up after yourselves!”
If you need to go #2 in the woods, you are supposed to do so in provided poop bags. Then you are supposed to carry them around with you the duration of your hike. Apparently a lot of people found that prospect loathsome, because this dudes bag was stuffed.
I would normally feel bad for guys who had to walk up and down hills looking for discarded bags of crap, but he honestly looked and sounded like he was having the time of his life. His eyes belied the fact that he most likely loved Bob Marley and wore tie-dye unironically, so I imagine he genuinely enjoyed floating about in nature, cleaning up god’s green earth.
As our ascent wore on, it became apparent that staying together as a group of 7 was going to be difficult. I am a fast walker who despises being slowed down by group dynamics. Apparently this applies even to all day mountain hikes. I was keeping a brisk pace, and about an hour or so after the sunrise a noticeable gap started to appear between the 3 people leading the pack and the other 4 hikers. Within another hour they were long out of our sight, and Tim, MJ and I decided that this was going to be a two group adventure from that point forward.
We increased our pace, chatting and munching on trail mix, until it hit us that we were low on water. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the other group possessed both of the UV filters that are used to purify the river water. Without supplementing with that river water there was no way we were going to be able to stay hydrated enough to reach the top of the mountain. So, roughly half way up the climb, we decided to take a long break and wait for our friends to catch up.
We ate, and talked, and waited some more, until 45 minutes had passed. We had a decision to make. We could linger at this same spot for an undetermined amount of time in order to be assured of ample water for the duration of the hike, or we could forge on like the bold adventurers that we were. Being impulsive alpha males, we chose to continue walking.
This was a classic underestimation on our parts. I blame my friends for not using a little more sense. They were the ones dressed for an Everest expedition, for christs sake. They should have known better.
We were like any number of nations throughout history that have decided to invade Russia. “Sure it’s incredibly big, but we are so much more advanced! Our soldiers are much better trained! The winter can’t be that bad!” Next thing they know, 3/4 of their friends have been killed and they are starving to death in some Siberian hell hole, frostbitten and wondering what could have possibly made them so confident just a short time ago.
Within a couple of hours our cheerful spirits had started to wane. Our water supplies dwindled, and the air slowly but surely started to thin out. After another hour, our situation started to get dire.
We were in desperate need of some agua. I actually still felt relatively spry, but my companions were lagging noticeably. At one point I asked Tim a question, only to have him reply, through clipped breaths, “no more talking for a while.” MJ hadn’t said a word in about an hour, so I figured he had adopted a similar “speaking is a waste of energy” type attitude. We marched on in silence, finally coming to a point where we mutually agreed it would be wise to take a rest.
At this point we took stock of our situation, and it was not good. We were all phenomenally thirsty, and our bottles and camelbacks had maybe an ounce of water between them. I was able to find a an apple in my bag that I thought was long eaten, and Tim scrounged up a tangerine. Upon their discovery, we celebrated like the would be fathers on Maury who find out their paternity tests came back negative. We split them up and relished the much needed moisture.
This clip demonstrates our predicament:
The fruit was nice, but it was still not enough. It appeared that our only option was to wait for the crew to catch up. The problem was we had no idea when they were coming. They could have all gotten altitude sickness and turned around for all we knew.
Maybe the altitude was making us loopy, or we were buzzing on a fructose induced high, but after about 30 minutes we once again decided to forge ahead. We assumed that no one would actually let us die of thirst. There were way too many people on the mountain, and it was broad daylight. Someone would assist us if we really needed it! Onward!
After about a half hour, when we were at our most listless, we reached a clearing. There were about 20 backpacks, all neatly lined up against a wall. It was some kind of Jansport oasis. There was no one in sight.
A group of people had apparently dropped their bags in order to shed weight for the final push to the summit. There were camelback tubes jutting out of almost every backpack. The sun glinted off of aluminum bottles that were sticking out of side pockets. And we were all alone.
It didn’t take more than a nod in agreement from each of us before we decided that we were going to gorge ourselves on this bounty of liquid. We took 30 second drags off the camelback tubes and downed whatever was in the bottles. We continued like this until we were sated. The water felt lifesaving, so it didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to find ways to justify our behavior.
“People who were willing to leave their packs and walk to the top were clearly well prepared. They are going to have UV Filters, so they aren’t going to miss the water that much. And maybe they won’t even notice, we spread out the damage pretty well. Plus, we were on death’s door! Who knows what might have happened to us if we hadn’t drank this water. Those guys would feel awful knowing anything bad occurred because we passed on their water. They would have let us have some if we asked, we just couldn’t ask!”
Soon, any tinge of guilt we felt was as distant a memory as the overwhelming thirst that had just turned 3 well to do college graduates into thieving, gluttonous, heathens.
Now that we were stocked up on H20, we were finally able to focus all our energies on summiting the god forsaken mountain. I also decided that this was the right time to switch from the toe shoes to my ratty old running sneakers. The lack of cushioning with the toe shoes had finally become too much to bear. I wanted to receive some adulation for making it so close in those ridiculous shoes, but I quickly realized we were all tired and no one cared about my decision to change from one set of shitty footwear to another. We just wanted the struggle to be over.
It was a grueling final push, but we trudged on and made it to the top, finishing the climb about 11 hours after we started.
We were all so tired that we couldn’t even enjoy the breathtaking views. I remember giving a few looks around and wanting to feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, but all I could think about was how dead my legs were and the throbbing in my skull.
MJ is the guy in the floppy, beige hat. The completely exhausted look on his face at about :26 sums things up nicely.
The altitude was really bothering me, but the thin air was not as irritating as this one older woman I could overhear.
This woman was probably in her late 60’s. She was prattling on to her friend about how this was her 3rd time at the summit. The problem was, she mentioned that she had camped the previous night at a point that was over halfway up the mountain.
That’s not a big deal. A lot of people like to hike for a few hours, camp for a night to acclimate, and then summit the next day. But our crew was doing the whole thing, up and down, bottom to top, in one day. To me that was the real way to do Mt. Whitney, and I didn’t need to hear some sissy ass grandma bragging about the 4 hour hike she just went on.
Looking back, there was no need to hold a grudge against this woman. It was actually quite an achievement for a person of that age to be climbing mountains at all.
And it’s a little absurd how one afternoon of hiking all of a sudden made me Lewis and Clark. It’s not like I was doing anything that hardcore, but I still felt like, “She doesn’t know what it’s like to steal water to survive! When’s the last time she had to muster up some words to rally the group, even though the lactic acid buildup and splitting headache made speaking a single word a Sisyphean struggle? We were down to our last drop of fluid when she was just rolling out of her goose feather sleeping bag. The nerve.”
I clearly needed to chill out. I was looking forward to doing so when we started our descent, but those plans were soon interrupted. Although we had assumed that the rest of our group had fallen off a precipice or returned to the campsite, it turns out they had kept on trucking.
We ran into our friend Daniel about 200 yards down from the Summit, and he asked us to go back to the top with him. He had come all this way, and he wanted people to take pictures with him. That was a fair request. I would have asked the same. Also, he gave us a UV filter, so it would be a little rude to not do him a solid in return.
We trudged back up the hill. This re-climb was disproportionately more excruciating than the first time around. That’s because we thought the struggle was behind us for good. We had flipped that mental switch. It was the psychological factor of thinking the worst was over with that made this little bit of extra work such a daunting task.
It reminded me of a particularly sadistic training day during my freshman year of college. The immortal Coach Fitz was running the show. We had been running for an hour when he belted out, “One more suicide! This is it guys, everything you got!” We ran as hard as possible to make it in the allotted time, assuming it was the last drill of the day. Oh, how naive we were.
“Good job, but now one more. You want to beat Cornell, they’re not doing this!” We sucked it up and ran hard, this time feeling like our hearts were on the verge of exploding. “Decent! Why not one more for Penn!?” We sprinted, seeing more black dots then court. “Last one, for those bastards at Princeton!” We gamely took off running, our legs barely working, burning everywhere, cursing our creator, questioning the meaning of life, thinking that maybe there is a different definition of the phrase “one more” that we are not familiar with. Then he let us go, knowing he had just put the ultimate fear in our hearts by making it clear that the workout was only over when he decided it was over.
(Side note: we ended up losing to each of the aforementioned opponents that season. But not for lack of conditioning!)
There are apparently some residual negative feelings from all those college workouts, because when we approached the next two members of the group, this time about 400 yards into our descent, I felt an immediate dread. Thankfully we were all on the same page, because they did not ask us to re-summit and we did not have to politely decline. At that point Kate Upton could have been at the top giving out massages and thousand dollar gift cards, I was getting to some lower goddamn altitude.
As we marched down the mountain, a strange thing happened. My hiking companions seemed to gain strength with each step, and I started to feel worse and worse. My body hit some sort of wall, even though this was supposed to be the easier part of the journey. I’m like the Benjamin Button of climbing. Soon I was the one who had to eschew conversation in order to focus all my energy on putting one foot in front of the next.
Mercifully, just as it was getting dark, we reached our camp. It was around 7 PM, meaning we had just spent 19 straight hours exercising in the heat.
We had big plans earlier in the day to have celebratory drinks at the end of the night, but I had to cancel on that in favor of collapsing into my tent like I’d been hit with an elephant tranquilizer. The sleeping bag, which had been like a prison cot the night before, now felt like a custom ordered Tempurpedic. I slept great.
Would I do it again? Maybe if I camped halfway up. I think granny had it right after all.