Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Summit Push - Day 2

If you like to run alone, then you'll like backpacking. I say that because there's a lot of alone time involved. Even when hiking with a group. Once the sun goes down and the wind blows cold, there's no cabin to retire to, no campfire to gather around, no TV to turn on. It's pretty much yourself and your thoughts in your tent. Summertime isn't as bad, because dark happens late. But during this transition between summer and fall, dark comes a little earlier, and light comes a little later. That means being in your tent with your own thoughts. For 10 or more hours. And if you allow yourself to be miserable, that can lead to long, lonely night.

My alone time started about 7:15 Friday. But, despite my difficulties only a couple hours earlier, I was feeling pretty comfortable. The wind was blowing 20 to 30 mph outside, and the flapping of nylon was incessant, but my sleeping bag was toasty warm. The 12,000 foot altitude was not really affecting me the way I was expecting. Normally, my resting heart rate can be as high as 95 to 100 when I'm up above 10,000 feet. But, there was no gasping for air, no sensation of my heart trying to jump out of my chest. I checked and found that I had a 72 bpm heart rate laying in my bag. Wow! I guess all the running *has* paid off. I drifted into a twilight sleep looking forward to the next morning.

The plan was to be up at 5:00AM for our walk up to the top of the mountain. I had set my watch alarm and my iPod alarm. I had anticipated a fitful night of sleep, so I was a little surprised when I woke and checked my watch - 5:45 AM! Yikes! I got dressed, and threw the door to my tent open. Remember that view of the valley below? It was going to be a glorious day.

Matt and I grabbed a quick cup of coffee and some breakfast and headed off up the trail. Our first stop was the lake at Trail Camp to refill our water for the 10 mile round trip. This would be our last chance for reliable water along the way, so I filled up with 2.5 liters. Our challenge for the day was to climb from 12,000 feet up to 13,600 feet in two miles, down 300 feet in half a mile, and then up from 13,300 to 14,496 in two miles. Friday's "experience" was behind me, and I felt strong and up to the challenge. We started day two at 7:30.

The first challenge was the slope ahead of us - the dreaded 97 switchbacks up to Trail Crest. It's up up and up that slope.

Two miles of switchbacks. I dare you to try to count them.

And even though it was pushing 9 AM, water appeared only in solid form:

The views back to where we were camped at Consultation Lake were awesome as we moved up the slope.

What happens next is just absolutely breathtaking. As you clear the last switchback, there is short traverse across the east facing slope.

Then a step or two down and viola! The great canvas of the Sierra Nevada spreads across the sky and a thousand feet down.

This is California's version of the Continental Divide. Everything to the east drains toward the Great Basin and the Colorado River, everything to the west drains toward the San Joaquin River.

Now for the mean part. Down 300 feet. At 13,600 feet, every step is a physical challenge. To lose 300 feet is just downright wrong. In a short half mile though, the final 2 mile spur trail to Mt. Whitney takes off to the north.

The remaining two miles are a slog fest. There are a couple of challenging points along the trail (the "Windows", where the slope drops off precipitously for about 1500 feet), and a little rock scrambling here and there. But for the most part, it is one foot in front of the other for what seems like an eternity.

Frankly, this is where a lot of people end up dropping like flies. The elevation starts affecting those who are not ready. Lots of headaches, lots of light headedness, lots of puking, lots of not believing. I was ready for any/all of that. In the past, I had suffered from the light headedness at these altitudes. I had suffered from not being able to catch my breath. But I was not going to let that stop me today. When I was 12 years old, I set the goal to climb Mt. Whitney. 40 years later I could see the top.

I was still feeling pretty strong. I had expected to be lightheaded and be relegated to 5 steps, stop and suck air. But, there was no light headedness. I was moving slowly, but I was also able to take 50 steps at a time before taking a few moments to try to extract some oxygen from the thin air. I slowly made my way up into the deep azure sky. Then all of a sudden - up over a little hump, a quick turn to the left and there it was!

At this point, all bets were off. I clambered the remaining few hundred feet to the summit hut. Mt. Whitney. It had been 4 hours and 15 minutes since starting, but I was there. I have to admit - I shed a tear or two. I don't have a whole lot on my bucket list - but this is one of them. This was my reason for getting into shape and had really driven my running related goals for the last two years. And here I was.

Friday's storm had blown through and left us a pristine day for being on the top. Yesterday's smoky skies were deep blue and pristine. The views in every direction were amazing.

But, we couldn't stay up there forever. One thing anyone who does any hiking/climbing understands is that getting to the top is only half the adventure.

Tomorrow - getting down off the mountain and lessons learned.


  1. Seriously I am so so so so so impressed! I had no idea this was such a big event for you. You shed a tear and crossed it off the bucket list?!?! That is AMAZING. Really, congrats.

  2. What an amazing accomplishment! Congratulations!

  3. I think your body and brain were both tuckered out from that assault -- I mean ascent -- the first day. Once again, your photos did not disappoint. Looking forward to seeing how you scramble down what appear to be some pretty steep and scree-filled slopes.

  4. Wow! Wow! Wow! Glenn, what an amazing adventure, and what and accomplishment. Congratulations on achieving your goal. No doubt, your running paid huge dividends in making it happen. Way to go!

    Amazing photos. Some of them make it look like you were on the surface of the moon!

  5. Wow glenn, that is seriously an amazing journey and I'm really glad it worked out for you! Those photos are great and I'm sure the memories are the best! Congrats!

  6. Wow Glenn that is huge. You should be outrageously proud of yourself. And the pictures! As someone who's not from the US and DESPERATE for a US adventure, they really inspired me.


  7. Congratulations on the accomplishment; that is a big feat! Great that you can cross that off your list.

  8. Glen:
    Congratulations! What an amazing adventure. Loved the pictures! Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. That's like me over sleeping for my Half Dome hike. That was a bummer. Beautiful pictures. Maybe some day I will do that. Lots of rock! ;)

  10. congrats! amazing story and experience i'm sure. lovin' the pics. crossing one thing off the list feels good, especially a super cool one like this.

  11. wow what a great life experience. can't wait for the rest of it. kudos for you on accomplishing one of your life long goals. :)

  12. Glenn - congrats on conquering this beast and living your dream! Amazing story and photos.

    Good luck in Long Beach.

  13. I totally understand about shedding a tear, having done it at 12 and at 38.