Earlier this year, two of PlanHero’s own won the lottery. No, not that lottery. Lisa and Jen B. won two of the limited number of permits issued each year allowing them to scale California’s glorious Mt. Whitney. Or, to put it in more intimidating terms: the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Below is their account of what winning a 22-mile uphill hike over dangerous, rocky terrain and thin oxygen feels like.
On the morning of September 19, after much planning and preparation, we faced the trailhead in pitch dark. It was 2:30 a.m. We offered a quick prayer, filed into line and started walking. Night hiking is a surreal experience. A headlamp illuminated each step we took, nothing more. Hemmed in by darkness, it was impossible for us to see where we were. The rocky trail wound up the switchbacks on sheer granite faces. At times, we spotted the winking of a far-off headlamp from hikers on the trail high above us.
Experienced Whitney climbers understand the path; neophytes can barely comprehend the invisible trail leading into an endless night sky. About three hours and six miles in, we arrived at Trail Camp just as dawn is breaking and you begin to see exactly where you are. What started as a hike in a picturesque alpine setting is now 2,000 feet above the tree line, nothing but harsh, rugged landscape. A relentless high-Sierra wind blew the temperature below freezing. We choked down our pb & j’s and took it all in. Finally, an incredible first glimpse of our ultimate destination. At that point, the summit was far in the distance, but with no visible trail.
We kept walking. The next five hours were both arduous and thrilling. The infamous 97 switchbacks took us to Trail Crest at 14,000 feet. In this saddle between east and west, we noticed the sign indicating we still had two miles to the summit. One careful step at a time, we picked our way along a narrow, rocky trail etched into a steep mountainside. We kept our heads down (especially useful if heights aren’t your thing) and our eyes on the trail: over the edge it’s several thousand feet down in some places. Jen B’s Tool Tip: a scarf around the head does nicely to block out the peripheral view. The altitude and exertion were dizzying. When we stopped for air, we had to lean in. The mountain steadied us, allowing us a moment to take in the jaw-dropping view.
The final section of the trail crossed a moraine, which is where our progress became monotonous. But then, before we realized it, we suddenly looked up; we were there! With 100 yards to go to reach the hut, we were no longer just light-headed, we were lighthearted with excitement. At the summit we signed the book next to the names of those who had gone before us. We stood there, on the edge of the world, taking in the unobstructed view all around. It was beyond spectacular. It was sublime.
At some point, however, during our victory celebration, it occurred to us that we our trip was only half-complete; we still needed to get down the mountain. So, we resumed our hike. The trip down the backside is nearly as long but the excitement of having reached to top lingered, somehow making the effort easier. Once we returned to the tree line, we realized we were back on the part of the trail we hiked in total darkness. Needless to say, the view was totally different. The setting sun cast vivid colors over the canyon. The smell of pine, the sound of the waterfalls, the freshness of the meadow were sweet and refreshing surprises. And so we kept walking. After 17 hours and 51,000 steps, we crossed the finish line. Exhausted, yes. But also empowered and wholly satisfied.
Upon reflection, we realized so many parallels between our ascent and our lives. How often do we embark on something feeling as if we are completely in the dark? And what, really, is the choice, other than to persevere and keep going, despite not knowing what lies ahead when dawn finally comes? While reaching the summit was a powerful, affirming moment for us, we also knew the gifts from our experience were also in the moments we stopped along the trail, where we took a few deep breaths and enjoyed the moment. Truly, the journey was as rewarding (if not a bit more) than our end point.
PlanHero nation, what heights are you climbing this year?