8th August 2007

Posted in

Blog :: Mt Whitney

Well that was the worst experience of my life. I think I'd like to do it again!  

A couple of weeks ago I hiked Mt. Whitney. One of my friends organized the expedition and ten of us went. Now many years ago I did a lot of hiking in the Sierras. My brother and I went to a "Hike Camp" up at Peaceful Pines for a while. This is in the Clark's Fork area off of 108 and is at about 7000 feet in elevation and within an hour of lots of interesting hikes - the Dardanelles, Lightning Mountain, Sonora Peak, Leavitt, Teapot. Most of those are between 6 and 15 miles and none of them get higher than a little over 10,000. I won't say I used to scamper up the mountains, but I did actually enjoy a hike a day for a long weekend - perhaps 50 miles in 4 hikes.

Like I said, it's been a while since I hiked much so I knew I'd be gutting out Mt. Whitney. Whitney is a 22 mile hike with some steep grades, but the real killer is the elevation. The top of Whitney is just under 14,500 feet - the highest point in the continentalcontiguous US.

It was worse than I thought. Much worse in fact: on Friday my group met out in Oakdale at 5:30AM and drove through Yosemite south to Lone Pine. We met up with the other group (who had already slept the night at elevation) about 12:23 PM and headed up the Mountain to our campsite. We only hiked in 3.8 miles to Outpost Camp but I was already experiencing altitude sickness at 10,000 feet (mostly nausea). Fortunately the hike was short - after I laid down for about an hour I felt better and ready for supper - TriTip sandwiches, garlic mashed potatoes and apple pies afterwards. I was (unfortunately) still feeling a little to ill to enjoy the Sierra Nevada I'd packed in (all that effort for a six-pack everybody but me enjoyed!) but the hot food did stabilize my stomach.

We slept the night under an intense canopy of stars. There were so many stars the sky shimmered. When I mentioned in the morning that I almost woke somebody up to see if I was hallucinating one of the other members of the party (a Canadian who'd seen them before) also said he thought he could see a touch of the aurora borealis. Whatever it was, the night sky was beautiful!

It didn't take long in the morning to forget all about the beauty of the night. By the time I got up to Trail Camp I was feeling sick again. After resting a while by the Lake we pressed on - at this point I was only hiking with 4 guys from my group. Ascending up the mountain from Trail Camp is a climb of 1,700 feet and (allegedly) 99 switchbacks. I stopped counting after about 30 and focused more on whether I was going to throw up or not.

I've really never felt so miserable for such an extended period of time. It took me a couple of hours to get to Trail Crest at the top of the switchbacks and I'm pretty sure I would have given up if my friend Justin hadn't stayed back with me. I was walking like videos of Everest climbers I've seen - Each step taking an interminable time and covering only 8 inches or so. I couldn't eat or really drink due to the nausea and abandoned my pack at about switchback 80 - taking a single liter of water on with me and leaving a couple quarts of sports drink behind.

I had a lot of time to think. Cyrus and I have had some conversations about the role of suffering in the Christian life lately and the conversations ran through my head - I told myself that I felt miserable but that was OK. I could be miserable for a while and it wasn't the end of the world - in the meantime I just needed to keep hiking.

So I did. When I got up to the trail crest I rested a bit and went on under the false assumption that we were "almost there". We were, and we weren't - Trail Crest is only 1.9 miles from the summit but it took almost forever. Strangely, however, my altitude sickness abated. I didn't feel sleepy or dizzy any more and had no temptation to throw up unless I tried to eat or drink. I hiked the long gradual climb around Trail Crest to the summit a little better (Justin didn't have to wait for me anymore, at least) and finally got to the summit about 2:00PM.

Coming down was awesome. Downhill was easier and every step brought more air to my lungs. There's a reason everybody headed downhill had a silly grin on their faces. I even felt well enough to enjoy the view (panoramic, but not especially beautiful - that high it's like a lunar landscape with no vegetation or trees to relieve the tedium of rocks and dirt). By the time we got back down to the campsite I was thirsty enough to drink the Coke I'd left in the creek. I still couldn't eat (since breakfast I'd only had about a 1/4 cup of gorp) but I was perking up. We packed up our trash, picked up the bedrolls and headed down at a teeth-rattling clip. We just barely beat the darkness back to the trailhead.

Oh my. That was definitely the hardest hiking experience I've had. It's challenged me to get into better shape and I've been biking a bit since then in an effort to do so. In addition to being in better shape and weighing less, however, I think it would definitely be worthwhile to spend some time at altitude before hiking. I've never been really altitude sick before and it's not an experience I want to repeat... But summitting Whitney... Yeah I may have to try again.

Update: My brother thinks he needs some hiking props. Both he and my brother-in-law have been doing a lot of hiking lately - the week before our Whitney trip they did 46 miles together - one trip up Half Dome (20 miles) and one there-and-back-again overnight into the Emigrant wilderness area of 26 miles round trip. They both think they're in much better shape than me. They're both right.

They actually got a head start on the rest of the group on day two of about half an hour. Chad (who is a hiking monster) caught up to them and they were the first three to the top - Cyrus took about 3.5 hours to hike the approximately 6 miles and 5,000 vertical feet from outpost up to the top (and I, by comparison, took about 7 hours to get there). Interestingly my brother-in-law got a little light headed on the Ridge Crest trail above the switchbacks and lost the other two - it took him approximately 2 hours longer to hike the last 1.9 miles than it took the two leaders... Of course he still beat me by 2-3 hours!

Posted on August 8th 2007, 10:01 PM