What I learned hiking Mount Whitney from the Pacific Crest Trail
The old man came through the swinging door of the general store. Worn blue flannel shirt, knife clipped to jeans pocket, big hands that had spent a lifetime working hard. He walked with the air of someone used to being listened to.
“Forester’s impassable,” he said brusquely to the woman behind the counter. “Any hiker with a lick of sense is getting out at Cottonwood Pass and skipping ahead. Bad snow and ice up there.”
He paid for a soda and looked at me sidelong as the cashier rang him up. It felt like he was trying to figure out if I was one of those hikers with a lick of sense, for it was clearly apparent that I was a hiker. My own uniform–puffy jacket torn in a few places, wicking shirt, and a month’s worth of untidy beard–made that much obvious.
As the store’s door chimed his exit, I brought a pint of ice cream to the counter and smiled at the cashier, trying not to look like someone who was planning to ignore the advice I’d just had directed at me.
“Can you show me where Cottonwood Pass is?” I asked. There was a map of the Sierras laminated to the counter. I hadn’t looked much at the maps–not an ideal trait in a long-distance hiker, admittedly–and had no idea where I was in relation to it. She quickly pointed out our location, Kennedy Meadows, and then traced a finger up the plastic to a point on the south side of some topo lines pressed so close together that they may as well have been a single red border.
I considered what she was showing me. Getting out at Cottonwood Pass and hitching a ride beyond Forester Pass would mean skipping Mount Whitney–the highest point in the lower 48 and the biggest side attraction of the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which I was attempting to thru-hike. (It would also mean skipping a chunk of trail miles, something I was trying to avoid doing at all costs.)
It certainly wasn’t news that it was a high snow year in the Sierras. We’d heard about very little else since beginning our hike in the desert of Southern California, when the mountains seemed as distant as the moon. At the Acton KOA Campground, PCT mile 444, a dozen of us had talked over our options, the roars of Michael Jackson’s Bengal tigers ringing out in the background. The roars were carried down the road from the wildlife sanctuary where the tigers were kept, as if to highlight the wildness of what we were headed for.
“Anyone who goes into the Sierras before June 15 is an idiot with a death wish,” said one hiker, a pot-bellied man in his fifties. “I hope none of you are thinking of doing it.” I looked guiltily away and said nothing. I was planning on going in as soon as I got there, and the historical and literary appeal of such a place was no small part of the draw. These were the mountains where the Donner Party foundered and ate their own to survive, where Kit Carson cemented his legacy as a true American frontiersman, where Jim Bridger carved out a name for himself years after leaving Leonardo DiCaprio to die in the wilderness and getting the piss slapped out of him by Tom Hardy. I wanted my piece of that legacy.
I should tell you that I am not a thrill-seeker. I am not an adrenaline junkie, the kind of person who actively seeks out danger. My brothers remind me that when we climbed trees as kids, I was inevitably two or three branches below them, pleading with them to come down just a little lower. If my parents were five minutes late getting home, I was convinced until the second they pulled in the driveway that they’d died in a horrific crash. I have been afraid of things–most things–my entire life. So what in the world was I doing, planning to ignore the well-intended (albeit condescending) warnings of people older than me?
Truth be told, it was just…easier this way. The idea of thru-hiking the Sierras in the snow, of sleeping above 10,000 feet each night, of facing the ice and cold and the occasional bear, was terrifying to me in the abstract. Scarier and more concrete was the idea of waiting. Of stagnating. Of failing. Days off of trail, I’d found, were double-edged swords–they were much needed periods of rest and relaxation, certainly, and a good chance at a hot meal or a milkshake, but they were also beholden to the laws of inertia. Every day off was followed by a day on trail that was brutally hard to start and even harder to finish. The idea of taking a full week or two off trail was bananas. If I were going to do that, I might as well just quit entirely, I thought. I had momentum and a sense of inevitability going for me. There was no sense in stopping now.
So my hiking partner and I decided that, short of reports of blizzards or avalanches in the vicinity of the trail, we were going to push through in the snow, other people’s’ worries be damned. Neither of us had either hiked terrain like this before, but 700 miles of hiking in the desert had taught us a thing or two about ourselves, and we were game for the challenge.
We’d met in Warner Springs, California, about 100 miles into the trail. It was quickly clear that the two of us were going to get along; the decision to stick together had been an easy one. Since then we’d been through quite a bit– nothing like what was coming, though we didn’t know it at the time.
Her trail name was SoHard. Like most trail names it was bestowed by other hikers; in her case, it came from her Oakland-native’s penchant for saying things like, “Guys, we’re relaxing so hard right now,” or, “I’m gonna snack so hard when we take our break.” Even without the context, it fit. She was tough as nails, a marathon runner who’d begun the trail alone after leaving her barista gig in the Bay Area. Having her around made the prospect of facing the cold mountains much less daunting. If anyone was going to fail to pull their weight in this partnership, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be her.
Earlier that day we’d picked up our packages at the general store: an ice axe apiece, pairs of microspikes (like crampons you can put on running shoes), and the bear canisters we were required to carry through the mountains. I’d forgotten to order a leash with my ice axe, so in the waning hours of the day I MacGyvered one from a length of poly cord, duct tape, and a beer coozie. I got pretty good at knots in the Boy Scouts, but I’d never really needed to rely on one to save my life before, and I said a silent prayer that I’d never actually have to use this thing.
Three nights later we found ourselves camped at Crabtree Meadow, some 7.5 miles from the summit of Mount Whitney. I taught SoHard to make a fire–a rare chance to feel useful–and we passed away the evening wondering what tomorrow would bring. It’s a funny thing, sitting in the shadow of a mountain: all your life boils down to the question of whether or not you’re enough to meet it. Not to conquer it–reaching for that level of hubris seems like a jinx–but to earn passage to the top, and find enough within yourself to make it back down. And this mountain happened to be the highest one outside of Alaska in the entire United States.
We scattered the embers of the fire and retired to our tents. The previous night had been a sleepless one; we’d camped at 11,000 feet on the shore of a frozen lake, and I had literally never been colder in my life. I had put on every article of clothing in my pack, burrowed deep inside a sleeping bag whose temperature rating seemed laughably inadequate, and waited for the dawn. This night was an easy one, comparatively, camped at 10,000 feet in a grassy field instead of on an icy, sandy shore. (Absent precipitation, the air temperature generally drops about 5.4°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained. A small but meaningful difference when you’re trying to sleep.)
At 5:30 am I was called back to life from a light, cold doze, and began to pack away my things. We were leaving our tents and most of our gear at the meadow; as the mountain itself wasn’t on the PCT, we’d return to the same spot in the afternoon and camp again before setting out for Forester Pass the following morning. It was an opportunity to do what thru-hikers refer to as slackpacking–leaving most of your gear behind somewhere and taking an uncharacteristically light load as a result. I packed an extra layer or two, my sleeping bag, and enough food and water for fifteen miles.
At 6:15, dawn not yet fully broken, SoHard and I hit the trail. Immediately we were tasked with crossing a frigid creek on a bridge of broken logs. Not an ideal start to what would be a cold enough day without getting wet in the bargain. But we made it across easily enough, unlike two hikers we knew who’d fallen in and gotten soaked to the hilt.
The trail wound its way along a creek whose banks were lined with trees. Eventually, we crested a snowy hill, and it seemed as though our whole lives lay spread before us in the rocky cathedral that rose impossibly into the sky. The whole thing was dizzying.
We threw on our microspikes and crunched through the hard-packed early morning snow, down the other side of the rise and onto the flat ground that bordered Guitar Lake, so named because it’s improbably shaped just like the instrument. Its electric blue surface made no sound, but there was plenty of music in the howl of the wind down the mountainside, accompanied by the steady rhythm of our trail shoes punching through the ground’s icy crust.
There were perhaps a half-dozen other hikers in view when we hit the first set of switchbacks and began plodding upwards across alternating stretches of snow and rock. I much preferred the snow, despite the increased difficulties it presented, because the sound of other hikers’ crampons scraping on granite was ten times worse than any nails on a chalkboard have ever been.
SoHard and I began leapfrogging the trail. I’d get out in front for a spell, lose sight of her, and then there she’d be, cruising past me as I stopped to pull a Clif bar out of my pack. I loved hiking this way–plenty of space to be alone with my thoughts, with the challenge of the mountain, but with the added bonus of having a competent and comforting presence to check in with from time to time.
Slowly, carefully, I picked my way up and across the jagged paths sliced into the mountainside. Occasionally it was necessary to push my way between boulders or scramble with arms and legs up and over a barrier, but really, I had been expecting a much more treacherous affair than what the lower half of Whitney presented. There were few setbacks outside of the “minor annoyance” category, like the patchy stretches of trail that had just enough dirt to justify popping my microspikes off, which turned to ice as soon as I rounded the next corner and required pulling them right back on. Before long I was at a junction sign telling me I was less than two miles from the summit, and slowly the idea that I might actually be capable of reaching the top began to creep in.
Here, an obstacle I hadn’t counted on began to emerge on the scene: a bank of steel-gray clouds that completely obscured Whitney’s peak, growing thicker with each passing minute. They settled over the trail and added a strange early-evening feel to the morning, as if the haunting experience of trudging up the side of one of the country’s highest mountains with no sound around you but the wind weren’t bizarre enough.
As with many difficult endeavors, the final push was the most difficult. In this high snow year, there was an enormous white lip to get up and over before the last rocky scramble to the top. As clouds swirled ominously just above us, we hauled ourselves up and over the ledge and leaned into the steep slope of the mountaintop. Just above us was the shelter we’d been promised we’d see, a stone hut erected by the Smithsonian Institution in 1909 to protect the scientists who conducted their studies at the top of the world.
It seemed bizarrely out of place, this absurdly human construction sticking out of a place that I’d thought few dared go. We were surrounded by a 360° view of the Sierra’s most stunning offerings, as high as a person could possibly climb in the lower 48 states, with winds howling in the spaces below us and stormclouds rolling in, and here was this hut in the midst of it all, somehow. (Whichever brave souls built it didn’t get to slackpack up like us, either.) Not that I minded! On the contrary, this small stone building, a century old, gave a cozy sort of feel to the whole scene. Like a home at the end of the world.
A taste of bear meat
SoHard and I shuffled past the hut and out to the edge of Whitney’s summit. I’d promised myself that I’d strip naked and get a picture at the highest point; my hiking partner was kind enough to indulge me and hold the camera as I laid myself bare before the elements. I couldn’t stop laughing, but beneath the goofiness was a sense of extreme catharsis, made ironclad by my nakedness: I was alive, still, and I’d made it up to the top of the mountain in whose shadow I’d dreamed such cold dreams.
The Italian author, chemist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi described this peculiar feeling, in a short story of the same name, as “bear meat.” Bear meat, Levi’s narrator describes, is “the taste of being strong and free, which means free to make mistakes; the taste of feeling young in the mountains, of being your own master, which means master of the world.” I had tasted bear meat that morning, and the welling in my heart was confirmation of all the wildness raging within me.
I couldn’t leave the mountain top without checking out the hut. I pried the door open and stepped inside, greeted by the detritus of hikers and climbers from seasons past. Roughly a third of the wooden floor was covered in a thick coat of ice, and I shivered thinking of some of the other hikers I’d met who were planning on sleeping up there that night. Would they draw straws to see who had to put their sleeping pad down on the ice? Little as I was looking forward to the challenge of the descent, it seemed far preferable to spending the night in this crazy place.
An attack of lizard-brain
I had no time to process much of anything at the peak, however. Those thick gray clouds were now firmly entrenched on top of us, and snow was beginning to fall. The last thing I wanted was to be on the top of Mount Whitney during a snowstorm, and so I rendezvoused with So Hard and we got our stuff together to get the hell out of there. She made it over the lip first, which was even more precarious on the descent, and I let her go ahead.
I raced down the mountainside, trying not to be outrun by her, and trying at the same time to outrun the panic that was fighting its way to the front of my brain.
A rational thought: You just summited Mount Whitney. You have nothing to be afraid of.
A lizard-fear-brain thought: You are going to die up here. This was the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.
Somehow I was still meeting hikers halfway up when I was halfway down. They can’t possibly be going to the top in this, can they? But this was, after all, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the trail didn’t get famous by accommodating people who back down from a challenge. I retraced my steps, digging into the side of the mountain with the sharp butt of that ice axe I’d hoped not to use, going as quickly as my own fear would permit.
Hitting the first patches of dirt on the switchbacks was like being freed from a cage. I had never known such sweet relief. I have been shown many times that the things I am afraid of were really nothing at all, but never was it so crystal clear as when I sat down, a thunderous Wagnerian howl of wind echoing off the bowl of the mountains around me, and pulled off my microspikes for the last time on Mount Whitney.
When I reached the bottom of the switchbacks and walked out onto the frozen plain that stretched out before Guitar Lake, I stopped to make my first cairn. Cairns are stacks of rocks that hikers put together for any number of reasons–to mark the trail in a tricky section, to mark a triumph–and this seemed like a fitting enough occasion, with my sense of personal satisfaction still doing battle with the crippling fear and anxiety of the morning. I caught up with SoHard at the other end of Guitar Lake, and our half-hug contained–to me, at least–some recognition of all that we’d just tumbled through.
That night, laying in my tent, I heard a rumble of thunder up on the mountain. The rumble gave way to sharp cracks, and the sky lit up with lightning that was close enough to smell. My thoughts strayed to my fellow hikers up top, bold adventurers with names like Wonder Woman and Saint Nick and Youngblood. I envied them their courage, but I knew deep down I didn’t want to be them. Reaching the pinnacle was enough for me. In the last 24 hours I’d learned too much about being alive to ask for any more than that.
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