Unfinished Business

In February 2008, I moved from Phoenix to San Diego to start a new job. During the weeks that followed, the economy began to experience a downturn that would later be described as a “once in a lifetime” event. As some of my more experienced/expensive coworkers were laid off, I felt increasing pressure to get results. By September, I needed some time off. I managed to reserve a Mount Whitney day-hike permit, and the week after that, I headed north.

Lone Pine

My first stop was the visitors center, to collect my permit for the day after next. The ranger talked me through the rules and regulations, and was keen to emphasize a couple of points. First, I should be off the summit by midday, since thunderstorms were a distinct possibility. Second, he warned me about acute mountain sickness. I nodded convincingly as he listed the symptoms, but my thoughts were already elsewhere. Was I not, after all, young and invincible? Never mind that I lived just above sea level and intended to be at 14,500 feet in less than 40 hours time.

I found a campground just outside town. The next morning, I explored the town a little, and then drove up into the mountains to spend the rest of the day at 10,000 feet. I figured this would be sufficient preparation.

Cottonwood Lakes

I parked at the trailhead and started hiking in the direction of New Army Pass. I calculated the time at which I’d have to turn around, and aimed to go as far as possible before then. Hiking through the trees, I was preoccupied with a problem at work. Gradually, the trees thinned out to reveal the Cottonwood Lakes, and I forgot about my problems back down in the real world. I hiked on past the lakes and I’d just started climbing toward the pass when I ran out of time. The shadows were lengthening and the clouds were gathering. I took one last look at the mountains, and imagined the view on the other side of the ridgeline. Then I started back toward my car.

Mount Whitney

If I needed to be off the summit by midday, I wasn’t going to risk a late start. The alarm on my watch went off at 3 the next morning. I had slept in my car at the campground in Lone Pine. Not a great night’s sleep due to the warm weather and my increasing anticipation. Approximately half an hour later, I was at the Whitney Portal. It wasn’t particularly cold, so I stuffed my warm clothing into my pack and hit the trail. This was the first time I’d hiked a significant distance at night, and it was all very exciting. The waning moon was still bright enough that I didn’t have to use a flashlight. The monochrome scenery was a little spooky, and each shadow that moved triggered a tiny surge of adrenaline.

The temperature fell as I continued to climb until it was uncomfortably cold, even while hiking as fast as I could. I stopped just before sunrise and put on my extra layers. To celebrate having almost made it to Trail Crest, I ate a bagel. As soon as I started moving again, I could tell something was wrong. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it felt like I’d aged several years within the space of a few minutes. After Trail Crest, I was briefly distracted by a couple hundred feet of descent, and my first expansive views to the west. However, as soon as I started to climb again, I knew I had a problem.

My ability to hike deteriorated rapidly, and I was obviously now suffering from the effects of high altitude. My attempts to continue were quickly punished, as my heart beat frantically and with sufficient force that I half expected my eardrums to burst. After several minutes gasping for air, my breathing and heart rate would gradually return to normal. As long as I didn’t move, I felt fine. I was less than two miles from the summit. Less than 1,000 vertical feet. I could see my destination. I continued to climb.

The final two miles took as long as the first eight. Most people who passed me stopped to ask if I was doing OK. I fell asleep at the summit for almost an hour, and woke up feeling terrible. The prospect of a ten-mile hike back to the car was thoroughly demoralizing. And even slight exertion now caused a wave of nausea. Deep breaths only made things worse. The descent was slow going, but I eventually arrived back at the base of the climb to Trail Crest. However, getting up that climb was literally more than I could stomach. To put it delicately, I discovered that my digestive system had shut down not long after I ate that bagel.

You Live and Learn

Or, more eloquently: “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”

In September of ’08, I learned two lessons. I found out that some symptoms of altitude sickness are unpleasant enough that I don’t want to experience them again.

I also learned that I can be a little obsessive about perceived failure. During the drive back to San Diego, I again wondered what the view from New Army Pass was like. If only I’d given myself enough time to get up there…

Summer 2019

I wouldn’t call it the end of an obsession, exactly, but it did feel good to finally look down upon the Rock Creek drainage from New Army Pass. Two days later, I stood on the summit of Mount Whitney feeling infinitely better than I had 11 years earlier. I still felt a little foolish that my younger self had wheezed his way up and then puked his way down the mountain.

Spring 2020

Over the years, I’ve revisited a handful of places in order to mentally dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The PCT is still on my “incomplete” list, and I suspect it’ll be there for a long time. In the meantime, I’ll need to get comfortable with having unfinished business. I understand that a coronavirus vaccine won’t be available in time for the 2021 thru-hiking season. So even if nonessential travel was allowed along the entire PCT, I’m not convinced it wouldn’t be impractical and irresponsible to attempt a thru-hike. Until COVID19 is no longer a problem, perhaps the best I can hope for are self-supported section hikes. I can wait. But hopefully it doesn’t take 11 years.

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