Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Acute Mountain Stupidity (Part 5 of 5)

Still ascending?!?!?!

No, wait – I had decided to descend, right? What was happening? Am I really going up this damn mountain? No way! Stop. Think. Look around. Yes, I was still heading up. What the hell?

I looked at my watch and saw that it was past noon. But I had made the decision to turn around about 11:30. At least half an hour had just simply disappeared, and now I found myself still heading UP? How can that be?

That’s when I went from very worried to just plain scared. On top of all these physical symptoms that were incapacitating me, I realized in horror that I was acting irrationally to boot. I was truly scaring myself. And thoughts of that poor kid who I had tried to help a few days before kept sneaking into my mind. He had been experiencing a moderate case of AMS when I ran across him at Cottonwood Pass, and less than 24 hours later he was dead. I kept that event locked away in a corner of my mind for the appropriate motivation when necessary, but I had to be careful not to dwell on it too much.

Having now been up this mountain a number of times, I’ve been able to work out pretty much where I had this frightening revelation. I had been counting switchbacks on the way up from Trail Camp, as a method of alleviating boredom and taking my mind off of how crappy I felt. I had made the turn-around call at switchback number 70, and I was now somewhere above the 90th switchback, and almost to Trail Crest. I was now at about 13,500 feet and had eight miles to descend, along with about 5,200 feet of loss – a vertical mile. My legs felt like jelly and what had seemed insurmountable a half hour before now appeared impossible. I had just added another half-mile-plus to my already full plate!

So I just sat down feeling incredibly sorry for myself. A couple of ladies descending asked me if I was OK, did I need any help? True to mule-stubborn form, I assured them I was fine and just taking a blow. They moved on and I kept looking down the mountain at that impossible descent I was going to have to make. I think I barfed again while I was contemplating this sad reality.

Then, for whatever reason, my mind wandered to many years ago and a book I had read. I couldn’t recall the title or author, but it was a leadership book that had been very popular within Marriott for a while. The central concept was that when you have to eat an elephant, a euphemism for a seemingly impossible task, just take it one bite at a time and you’ll eventually get it done. I have no clue why my mind landed on that instead of other similar inspirational clich├ęs such as, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”, but I know my mind was desperately searching for an anchor of stability and hope that would offer some promise of getting me out of this fix.

And I locked on to that concept like a bulldog with a bone. It became my mantra for the rest of the day. One bite at a time. I would get off this damn mountain by taking my eyes off the intimidating big picture and concentrating exclusively on small goals. One bite at a time. Nothing mattered at that moment except getting down to the Cables at the forty-somethingth switchback. A landmark. A goal. One small bite. Once there I could rest briefly, drink, try to eat a little, and form up the next all-encompassing bite in my mind. I would do this a dozen times or more, in small increments, but by-God this is how I would get down this friggin’ mountain. Bite by bite by bite.

And that’s exactly what happened. My knowledge of the route from so much pre-planning study, and now having seen those landmarks on the way up, served me extremely well as I slowly, painfully, unsteadily descended those eight miles. One goal after another – maybe a quarter of a mile or half a mile at a time, but I slowly whittled away at them. The Cables. The first switchback. Trail Camp. Consultation Lake. Trailside Meadow. Mirror Lake. Outpost Camp. Bighorn Park. Lone Pine Lake. The log crossing. The North Fork crossing. Then finally the Portal and the parking lot! Bite, bite, bite . . .

I went very slowly, making sure I had good footing with each step and a solid purchase with my trekking poles. Regardless, I slipped, stumbled and weaved time and time again. I stopped a lot to rest and drink. I barfed a few more times, or more accurately succumbed to dry heaves. I beat back the urge to just lay down and sleep more often than I can count. I paused even more often to allow the dizziness and vertigo to fade away to a manageable level before continuing on. I was stopped several times by others on the trail, capable of recognizing a hypoxic zombie when they saw one, asking if I was OK. I thanked them for their concern, lied through my teeth to assure them I was fine, and forged on. And I paused a number of times to convince myself that I was (a) really descending, and (b) still on the trail.

It was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Ever. I’ve never had to dig so deep, before or since, and I’ve never felt so alone while doing it. A few years later I had a technical climbing accident on Cathedral Peak in Yosemite, immobilizing one arm and leaving me dangling in my climbing harness 400 feet above the ground for hours. On what just happened to be one of the windiest days in the recorded history of that park, and putting me on the brink of hypothermia before my climbing partner and a couple of others bailed me out. That was bad, and I was in a high degree of danger, but it wasn’t as physically or mentally challenging as my descent down Whitney on August 19th, 2009.

Honestly, though, I think the only reason I made it down Whitney safely that day was due to the nature of AMS. The only cure is to descend to a richer oxygen environment, and as I went down the mountain I slowly began to feel better. By the time I reached Trail Camp at 12,000 feet the trembling had almost disappeared. When I reached Outpost Camp, at 10,000 feet, the nausea had diminished and the constant desire to quit and sleep was fading. By Lone Pine Lake, at 9000 feet, the vertigo was gone and the headache had receded to a dull roar. As I reached the trailhead the only remaining symptom was simply an overwhelming sense of fatigue and tiredness. I felt completely washed-out and knackered. But the elephant was gone – there were no more bites to take. I had actually eaten the elephant!

I stood at the trailhead, looking around at the bustle of activity that was oblivious to what I had just been through, trying to put it all in perspective. Eight hours earlier I had been in what I still regard as the worst fix of my life: overwhelming sick, virtually incapacitated, and very, very despondent at 13,500 feet. That impossible ordeal was now over, somehow, and I felt a small glow of pride at extricating myself from it. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a roller-coaster ride of conflicting, extreme emotions in a single day. The disappointment of knowing I had failed to summit was still with me, but it was somewhat offset by my surprised satisfaction at having gotten down the mountain in one piece and under my own power. And I hadn’t fretted about my damn open pants fly in hours . . .

I looked at the collection of signage at the trailhead, noticing again the most strident warning of the group. “The top is only halfway!”, it screamed. I had not seen the top this day, but I was in 100% agreement with the sentiment. I would never again under-estimate a mountain descent.

I walked up to my rental car at 8:00 p.m.. It had taken me seven and a half hours to descend that eight miles and 5200 feet. In actuality, I had covered the last three miles from Lone Pine Lake in just about an hour, so it took me well over six hours to cover the first five miles of my descent. Normally that five miles between Trail Crest and Lone Pine Lake would take me an hour and a half with a light daypack, two at the absolute most if I was taking it easy. And I was actually hungry! By my estimate, I had burned well over 5000 calories since starting out that morning, and my body was screaming for fuel.

Of course the Portal Store kitchen had closed just 15 minutes before, for which I scathingly blamed Tucker, so I settled for a cold beer from their cooler and some snacks out of my pack. Actually, I think I ate everything that was left in my pack. I didn’t really want the beer, but felt I owed myself a libation and congratulatory toast for actually standing in the Portal parking lot before dark.

As I drove down the Portal Road to Lone Pine I finally got a cell signal and called Barb. I gave her the Cliff Notes version, leaving out the more dramatic elements, and assured her I was fine and headed for bed shortly. It wasn’t till I was back home in Atlanta that I even began to tell her the true seriousness of the situation. In fact, to this day, I’m not sure I’ve really painted an accurate picture of how desperately bad off I was. Oh well, sweetie – if not, now you know!

I collapsed into bed at the HISTORIC Dow Hotel and slept without interruption for ten hours. I have never been so exhausted, and haven’t been even close to it since. When I woke up the next morning I was famished. All I could think of was that monster Portal pancake breakfast I had yet to experience, and I quickly showered and flew up the Portal Road to chow down in royal style. I may not have seen the summit of Mt. Whitney, but I was by God going to conquer Mt. Pancake before I left Lone Pine!

When ordering my pancake breakfast (yes, singular – the largest pancake you’ve ever seen in your life), I finally had the chance to meet Doug Thompson. I identified myself as “Bulldog” from his message board (another blog entry coming eventually on the fascinating subject of trail names), and we chatted for a few minutes about my failed attempt the day before and how AMS often wreaks havoc on the mountain. I picked up some really good advice from Doug and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. We would have many, many more over the ensuing years.

I polished off the entire breakfast (no small feat) and just wandered around the Portal for a few hours, enjoying the peaceful alpine atmosphere my last day here. When I eventually left later in the day, I was still feeling depressed at my failure but was beginning to form a plan in the back of my mind to eventually return and try again. Like I’ve said, I’m stubborn.

Once I returned to Atlanta I continued to participate in the message board. I detailed my experience and got a lot of feedback from the old hands on the board. Ultimately it boiled down to the vagaries of AMS – it can strike anyone, anytime, at just about any elevation. Even the Himalayan sherpas who live at 14,000 feet are victimized by it. Humans were simply not designed to function above 7,000 feet. My biggest mistake – and the reason this blog entry is titled as it is – was my arrogance in assuming I was invulnerable to the altitude and didn’t need to prepare for it like most other people. I had tipped my hat to the “climb high” part of the old mountaineering axiom, trying to stay at 11,000 feet or higher several days before the attempt, but I had misconstrued the “sleep low” half of it.

High and low are relative terms. Due to this first disaster on Whitney I spent a good part of the next year steadily becoming a layman expert on altitude illness. Knowing what I know now, I could kick myself for being as ignorant and arrogant as I was in 2009. The simple explanation is that if I had just slept one night at elevation, preferably two, before my Whitney ascent, I almost certainly would not have failed. While hiking high certainly helps, the real acclimation process takes place over a longer period of time while sleeping. That’s when the body works furiously to manufacture additional red blood cells to carry extra oxygen. I had been sleeping at 3,500 feet in Lone Pine. A night or two at 8,000 or 9,000 feet would likely have made all the difference.

Lessons learned the hard way stick best. And such an oh-so-simple fix! I would return to the Sierra the next year, sleeping 5 nights at 8,000 feet before tackling Whitney again, and I would easily summit feeling as good as I might have topping out on lowly Kennesaw Mountain here at home. I could not believe I had overlooked such a glaring need, and that it had caused 4 years of preparation and planning to go up in smoke!

But life has a way of spinning out curious cause-effect progressions. If I had summitted in 2009, I likely would have drifted away from the WPS message board and concentrated on the next thing. Maybe in the Sierra, but just as likely in the Rockies, Cascades, Alaska or Mexico. By not summitting Whitney, I set myself on the course for a rematch. As I lamented my failure on the WPS board, it led to an e-mail correspondence with another relatively new member, Joe Quillan. Joe is a very talented sculpture artist in SoCal who had his own reasons for trying Whitney. He’s the same age as I am, and within the previous years had been though a hip replacement and had successfully battled cancer. Climbing Whitney had become his goal for this new era in his life (this is a very common theme regarding Whitney – you’ll meet a lot of people who have struggled mightily with something in life, and see climbing the highest peak in the L49 as a symbolic step to either successfully beginning a new phase of life or retiring a troublesome one).

Joe had failed his first attempt at Whitney within just a few weeks of mine, and we commiserated together. Same reason – AMS. He eventually returned in October that year and successfully summitted just before the heavy snows began, but we were slowly making plans to tackle the mountain together in 2010, only backpacking this time. No, I had never met Joe and, yes, it does sound weird to plan heading off in the backcountry on a multi-night trip with a figurative complete stranger. When I told Barb about these developing plans she was aghast. But after a few months’ correspondence and a couple of phone conversations, I felt as if I had known Joe all my life. He had become my brutha from anutha mutha, and I had absolutely no qualms about it. We had formed a common bond – as mountains often do with people – and it was inevitable that we climb this damn mountain together.

So rather than heading off to Yellowstone or Alaska or somewhere new for our family adventure the following year, we returned to the Sierra. It was Barb and Bri’s first experience in the Whitney area, and by the time we left it was pretty much written in stone that this place would be our vacation destination for years to come. Barb’s extreme reluctance about me venturing off on a backpacking trip up Whitney with this stranger “Joe” turned 180 degrees during the 48 hours she and Bri were left “all alone” to hang out at the Portal and try to avoid boredom while worrying about me. By the time Joe and I returned, Barb had formed friendships with an amazing number of WPS message board personalities and Bri had become an honorary member of the Portal crew. Joe quickly became “Uncle Joe” to Bri, and that led to all four of us taking a backpacking trip up Whitney the following year. To this day it doesn’t feel quite right to be on Whitney without Joe. Just a few months ago he and I spent a very fun day scrambling on the lower sections of the Mountaineer’s Route, and I have no doubt we’ll be together on Whitney in 2016.

That trip in 2010 also led to our finally making the acquaintance of Laura Molnar, one of the most incredible women you’ll ever meet and Bri’s favorite non-Minnesota “aunt”. Despite her extremely busy schedule and challenging mountaineering itinerary, Laura has never failed to make time for us each and every trip out to the Sierra. She’s been an incredible role model for Bri, showing her that a woman can do anything in the mountains – and life – that a man can do, and she is absolutely precious to us. She’s my sista from anutha mista, and we have a ball when we’re all together. I’ll never forget a day on Mt. Whitney when I had Barb and Bri almost to the summit. It was oh-so tantalizingly close, a mile and 500 vertical feet away, but I had to make the call to turn back due to dangerous icing conditions we weren’t geared to deal with. We were all disappointed, but Bri just collapsed on the trail and began crying. As Barb and I consoled her, she said, “But I wanted Auntie Laura to be proud of me!” I damn near cried at that, but I had more pressing matters on my hands at the moment.

So, that failure in 2009 was ultimately a good thing. It led to a sea change in our lives and a host of new, treasured friendships. Maybe the stupidity cloud does have its silver lining. Without that failure I never would have heard Barb say the next year, as we were leaving the Portal to head back home, “I found a part of me that I didn’t know was missing.” Sniff-sniff.

Mt. Whitney 2009 was an expensive failure for me personally, but the path it led us down as a family was absolutely priceless.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Acute Mountain Stupidity (Part 4 of 5)



Zero Hour of D-Day. After planning for almost 4 years, playing the stupid Whitney Lottery permit game, I was finally here – it’s now time to climb the highest peak in America outside Alaska! I once again checked my pack, ensuring I had everything I needed, then weighed it on the handy-dandy spring scale provided at the trailhead. It came in a tad heavier than I had planned. I had hoped to get away with 15 pounds, but the overstuffed daypack weighed in at 17. I very briefly considered throwing Tucker back in the car, but in the grand scheme of things he was virtually weightless, and besides took up no pack space since he just bounced merrily along on his carabiner attached to my pack’s daisy chain. And, yes, I would have felt guilty. Eventually. While also not having my favorite punching bag to curse at when I got tired or irritated. Oh well, I’d begin eating and drinking that excess weight away pretty soon.

During this O’dark Thirty gearing-up process, I kept a very close eye on my pack and supplies, never getting more than a couple of feet away from them. The bears around the Portal are notorious for their grab-and-go tactics. They watch from the dark and as soon as a hiker’s back is turned or they step away from their gear, the bear darts in and absconds with the food-filled pack. It’s a scene that plays out over and over here, and the bears often prove smarter than the hikers. I have no doubt I was being watched, but I was alert to the trick and stayed right on my gear. The other heavily-emphasized caution by the Forest Service is to ensure there is absolutely no food in your vehicle, or anything that can be visually associated with food by a bear (coolers, bags, packs). While the bears in California are generally not aggressive towards people, they do grow fairly big and will rip a car door right off the hinges if they think there’s food inside. Most trailheads are equipped with heavy-duty bear lockers for people to store food and other scented items.

Headlamp beaming brightly, Tucker and I set off up the trail at 3:30 a.m. with a sense of anticipation and excitement. This was the first time I had begun a hike so early, and the trail looked quite different by headlamp than it did a few days before during my trial run up to the North Fork crossing. I took it reasonably steady the first few hundred yards, but I began to get my rhythm at about a half mile. I’m a notoriously slow starter on a hike, and it can take me up to a mile before I feel comfortable with my breathing, footing, and just general exertion level. Once I find that rhythm I generally pick up the pace steadily to the point that I’m breathing deeply but not gasping in oxygen debt, so I was actually pretty pleased to have found my stride after only a half mile.

It was eerily quiet that early and, while it seemed a bit Twilight Zonish to be in this situation, I felt a profound sense of peaceful solitude. I kept looking up (very briefly – eyes on the trail, dammit!) at the incredible panorama of stars, and I’m sure that contributed to the range of emotions I was feeling. I hit the North Fork creek crossing after about 25 minutes hiking. This was the 1 mile mark, with 11 more to go, and I was very pleased with my pace.

The North Fork crossing is about twenty yards wide, with strategically-placed rocks for a smooth hop-crossing when the water level is reasonable. I’ve seen this creek raging, completely inundating the rock hops and looking pretty scary, but it was running just fine this morning. I crossed it without incident and continued on for another mile before stopping for a quick bite. It was still well before 4:30 and I had covered two miles already! I was mentally patting myself on the back for keeping a nice pace when a group of half a dozen guys with daypacks came seemingly out of nowhere, on their way up and flat-out moving. We exchanged brief greetings and they were gone in a blink. As I finished up my power bar I wondered if that extreme pace would come back to haunt them. I don’t recall seeing them again that day but it’s entirely possible we crossed paths again and I just wasn’t capable of recognizing them.

I made it to Lone Pine Lake, 9,200 feet and mile number three, at about 4:45. Three miles in an hour and 15 minutes – not bad! I knew I would eventually begin to slow down as I gained altitude, but I seemed to be well ahead of the mile-per-hour pace most folks average on a Whitney ascent. Just past Lone Pine Lake I would be entering the designated Whitney Zone where being caught by a ranger without a permit was a great way to ruin your day. My bright orange tag was attached to my pack next to Tucker, and my permit was safely stowed in a zippered pocket.

The eastern sky was beginning to lighten a bit with the impending sunrise, but it was still pretty dark. This was one of the few flat areas on the hike, so I ventured the requisite 100 feet off-trail to take a whizz (steady hydrating and all, y’know). That was when the first problem of the day reared its ugly head – after taking care of business I found that my zipper was stuck!

I spent several minutes wrestling with it, but the damn thing was seriously locked in place. I could not believe it! I had worn these hiking pants dozens of times and never had an issue. Why, of all possible occasions, would the stupid zipper malfunction while I was on Mt. Whitney for the first time?! I finally gave up and just pulled out my shirt tail to hang free. I assure you, knowing you’re going to be spending the vast majority of the day encountering other people on Mt. Whitney with your fly wide open is a very distracting thought. Tucker caught it pretty hot, since it was obviously his fault. Everything is Tucker’s fault, the way I see it.

I continued to climb above Lone Pine Lake as the sun rose, eventually looking back to see the gorgeous spectacle of the lake far below shimmering in the morning gloom, and then much further below the hazy desert of the Owens valley and Lone Pine. I was beginning to get a real sense of the altitude. I crested out at Bighorn Park, about 10,000 feet and one of the few flat areas along the 11-mile trail. There is a fresh-water spring here – maybe the best water available anywhere on the Whitney trail – and I stopped to replenish my water bladder. Using a filter, of course. Most hardcore Sierra vets will tell you the water is perfectly fine anywhere in the Sierra, and filtering is just a waste of time and unnecessary weight. Me, I’m in the better-safe-than-sorry school.

After topping off my water from the spring, I rock-hopped across Lone Pine Creek and soon found myself in Outpost camp, one of two designated camping sites on the trail. This is really a very pretty campsite, situated just below an idyllic waterfall. The downside to camping here, though, is that the trail runs directly through the campground. Dayhikers that get a really early start (2:00 or so) often go tramping and yakking through the campground before many of the backpackers are up, and it can be very irritating. Seems that some people feel that since they’re up and on the trail, that everyone should be awake. I passed through very quietly, trying to be considerate of others sleeping.

I was now at mile 4 and a little above 10,000 feet. I still felt strong and was almost giddy with how things were progressing. My pace had slowed a bit, even accounting for the time tanking up at Bighorn Park, but I had expected that to happen as I got higher. It was a bit before 5:30, so I was still on the positive side of a two mph pace after climbing about 2,000 feet. My legs were not feeling fatigued at all and I was on schedule, reasonably allowing for more slowing as I ascended, to hit the summit in well below 10 hours. If I could just keep a snail’s pace of 1 mph the rest of the way, I would reach the summit in about 9 hours total. More likely 8 or less at the rate I was going. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was by far the best and most positive I would feel all day. As far as I was concerned, it was in the bag.

Feeling supremely confident, I forged ahead and soon found myself passing Mirror Lake and ascending the granite slabs that rise above it. I was moving above timberline now and the last of the diminishing pines were left behind me. The terrain changed abruptly to a moonscape of rocks and more rocks. Only the occasional bright purple/blue polemonium (sky pilot) added any real color to the grayish-white granite panorama. The sky was cloudless and the sun was steadily rising. I actually began to feel uncomfortably warm and stopped to strip off and stow the fleece I had started out in. After another couple of hundred yards I still felt warmish, so I stopped to strip off and stow my convertible pants legs.

I sort of got lost in the rhythm of walking what was now a much more rocky trail. The path was cut out of granite and offered either slabs requiring close attention or stone staircases that required more effort. The incline became steeper and the work became harder, and I found myself tiring for the first time today. When I reached Trailside Meadow, a small sanctuary of green amidst the stark granite landscape, I felt the first throb of a headache coming on. I was at roughly 11,000 feet and about 5 miles into the hike. My pace had slowed noticeably. Looking at my watch I was surprised to see that it was past 6:30. Even accounting for the multiple stops to strip off clothing and nibble/drink, I was beginning to lag.

The headache, however, concerned me even more. How could I have an altitude headache? I had been at 11,000 feet and higher three of the past four days! There was no reason I should have a headache at this altitude, especially since I just didn’t get headaches to begin with. I stopped to mull this over and drink some more. I had peed about half a mile back, so I wasn’t dehydrated. What the hell was going on? I popped a couple of Advil and continued my ascent, unsettled at this unexpected development.

I continued on past Consultation Lake, a gorgeous blue alpine tarn that would eventually become my favorite camping destination on the mountain, knowing I was slowing down even further. The headache was intensifying and I was becoming very, very unhappy. Tucker got a good tongue-lashing for letting this happen, which made me feel a tiny bit better.

The next major landmark was Trail Camp, at 12,000 feet and mile number 6. This is the other designated backpacking campground on the trail, and is the primary first-day destination for most overnighters climbing Whitney. It looks like anything but a campground since it’s mostly a jumble of boulders, talus and scree with an unappealing, greenish pond off to the side, but there are an amazing number of extremely primitive campsites to be had here if you know what you’re doing. Nothing is marked as a campsite – you just do the best you can with the rocks. As there is no soil to drive a tent stake into, and since this plateau is notorious for being scoured by ferocious winds, the art of stabilizing your tent by tying guy lines to rocks is critical.

Trail Camp is a very desolate place, and suffers even more from all the overnight traffic it receives. By late summer this camp is truly a ghetto of discarded trash and used WAG bags, and from my very first visit I swore I would never overnight here. As I walked into the camp it was pretty empty, most of its occupants having already departed for the summit. I decided it was time for “lunch” and settled down on a rock outcrop by the pond to fish something to eat out of my pack. It was then that I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost 8:00.

WTH?!?!? It had taken me an hour and fifteen minutes to cover the last mile?! I was just a little over halfway to the summit, but my pace had degraded that much? And I was surprised that I had not even noticed, or been checking my watch like I had throughout the first 5 miles of the hike. I was feeling a bit lethargic and fatigued to go along with the pounding headache and I definitely needed to eat something and take some more Advil. I wasn’t hungry at all (my appetite always seems to go MIA when I’m at elevation), but I knew I needed fuel. I had pulled out some tuna, cheese and crackers and sat there nibbling while looking at my next challenge.

Rising 1,600 feet above Trail Camp are the infamous 97 Switchbacks that lead to the Sierra crest, and the junction with the John Muir Trail near Trail Crest. This steep granite face, seemingly impassable without technical climbing equipment, has been ingeniously engineered with a never-ending series of switchbacks cut into the rock. It’s truly an impressive work, especially considering it was built a hundred years before using man-sweat and mules, but it also looks very daunting. The switchbacks literally climb up and over each other at sharp angles in a very narrow, precipitous manner. This serpentine, spaghettied impostor of a trail goes on for two and a half miles before finally reaching Trail Crest at 13,600 feet, and is notoriously tedious and boring.

I sat in that spot way too long, pondering the switchbacks and feeling pretty crappy. At some point I topped off my water (the last water source before the summit). I only ate about half of my snack, the other half being stealthily snatched away by a roly-poly marmot when my head was turned. These fat little golden waddlers are famous for surreptitiously stealing food at any opportunity, and Trail Camp is literally overrun with them since that’s where the food is.

By the time I swung my pack onto my back and looked at my watch, it was 9:00. Jeez, where did the time go?! I had spent an hour just lazing around when I had planned for fifteen minutes at the most! I buckled up my pack, determined to pick up the pace, and set off towards the switchbacks. And went maybe a hundred yards before I unexpectedly, violently puked.

Oh hell, this isn’t good. This qualifies as a second symptom and by rights I should assume I have AMS and turn around. But there’s no way I could possibly have AMS at 12,000 feet. I don’t get AMS, right? And certainly not at 12,000 feet. Yes, many, many people do, but not me! My stomach was roiling, threatening another expulsion, but I managed to convince myself that it was the tuna I had eaten and that it would soon pass. It didn’t seem to matter that, just like with headaches, I almost never have nausea. I desperately didn’t want this to be AMS and I was looking for some way to rationalize going forward. So onward I went.

I began the switchbacks (and started counting as well, since there was some dispute as to whether there were 97 or 99) and tried to keep a moderate pace. My head was pounding and it actually seemed to be increasing in intensity. Waves of nausea were coming and going, and visions of that horrific day with Barb on Pikes Peak began to enter my mind. But it was just the tuna, I kept telling myself. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and it’ll eventually go away. The sun was beating down on me very uncomfortably and my legs began to bark at me. I was definitely tiring. I stopped at maybe the 20th switchback to take a blow and drink some water. It was at that point when I realized that my arms and legs were trembling. I stood there, trekking poles gripped and firmly planted on the ground, but it felt like I was standing on a rope bridge swaying in the wind. Nothing felt firm or substantial. I threw up again. Damn tuna.

Screw it, I told myself. It’s just fatigue. Shake it off and keep moving.

Some time later I came to the most dangerous section of the switchbacks, about the 45th, known as the Cables. The trail drops precipitously from here and is compounded by the fact that its north-facing, shaded, and tends to hold snow and ice much longer than other areas of the switchbacks. A series of posts with a steel retaining cable was constructed long ago to assist hikers who were forced to the outside edge by ice. There was very little ice left by August this year, and I continued on through after stopping to take a couple of photos. Looking at my watch I saw that it was now past 10:00. I was still moving at less than a mile per hour. Not good. Not good at all.

Although it was a steady buildup of symptoms, it felt to me as if everything came crashing down at once. I had been slowly climbing the switchbacks above the cables, almost in a stupor, when I felt I just could not go any further. I stopped, planning to rest a bit, but I heaved once again. The trembling in my extremities had increased and when I went to lean my butt against a boulder I almost fell. That feeling of being on a swaying bridge intensified and, now that I was standing still, I realized my vision was intermittently misfiring – double vision, which I had experienced a couple of times before in my life but not for at least ten years.

I finally admitted to myself that I most definitely had a full-blown case of AMS going on, and took stock of my situation. I was feeling by far the worst I had ever felt in my life, almost incapacitated with these damn AMS symptoms and completely alone. I’m seven-plus long, torturous mountain miles from the Portal, with some dangerous terrain to negotiate, and my head feels like demons are using it for a bowling alley. I’m retching every twenty minutes. I’m dizzy, and I can barely put one foot in front of the other with any confidence. My thinking feels mushy and distorted. I’m trembling uncontrollably, almost like with fever chills, and a feeling of extreme fatigue – sleepiness, actually – has come over me to the point that I really just want to lay down and not give a damn what happens.

This could NOT be happening! I had done all the right things, dammit! I had trained well, I had taken 3 acclimation hikes, I had been hydrating religiously, I had been fueling my system regularly, I had been watching my pace and pressure-breathing – how in the freakin’ world could I possibly have such a severe case of AMS, especially when altitude had never – NEVER – bothered me before?!?! Jeez, just a couple of years before I had gone from essentially sea level to 14,100 feet in the space of 16 hours, with absolutely no acclimation, and it had not produced even a mild headache. I was beyond confused and frustrated, to go along with my laundry list of AMS symptoms.

I really can’t describe accurately the feeling of despair I experienced looking down, seemingly forever, at the Owens Valley almost two vertical miles below. Somewhere down there was the Portal and safety, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world for all the confidence I had in making it. But the worst part was that I knew I had failed. There would be no Whitney summit for me today, and all the months – years, actually – of preparation and planning were swirling down the toilet. I had been so confident of my plan! The weather, normally the biggest single factor in failed Whitney summits, was the absolute best I could have hoped for, but I was going to have to turn around and somehow make my way back to the trailhead.

I at least had the presence of mind left to blame Tucker for getting me into this, and I blasted him good with enough invective to shrivel his little puppy ears. It didn’t do any good, but I told myself that it made me feel better. It also made a descending hiker look at me like I had grown a second head, while noticeably increasing her pace down the trail.

I sat down on a rock, fighting the overwhelming urge to just lie down and go to sleep, and tried to consider my options rationally. It was about 11:30 a.m. and I had a bit over seven miles to descend. I still had about nine hours of daylight to work with, so if I could just manage a mile an hour – an absolute snail’s pace for me since I normally descend at 3-4 mph – I could be at the Portal well before dark. Even though I had a headlamp the idea of stumbling around Mt. Whitney alone, in the dark, and in my condition, scared me more than any other prospect. I was fixated on getting down before the sun set.

The idea of asking other people on the trail for help occurred to me briefly, but that’s just not my style. I had gotten myself into this mess, and I was going to get myself out of it as long as I could stay on my feet. Besides, what could anyone else really do for me? The harsh reality of a situation like this is that, if you’re not taken out by helicopter or on a litter, you make it out by walking, regardless of whatever assistance you may have. No matter how you slice it or dice it, barring a complete collapse I was going to have to hoof it out.

Now of course years later with a clear head, and having the experience of helping quite a few people in the same shape I was in that day, I know that seeking assistance could have prevented me possibly getting into an even worse situation. Lots of disoriented folks with AMS have walked right off mountainsides to their death. Many more have compounded their situation with a bad injury while discombobulated by their symptoms. The best help a person with AMS can receive is someone just walking with them, providing encouragement, making sure they go slow and easy, watching their footing, ensuring they’re hydrating and nibbling, and staying on the trail.

In other words, nannying them. And that concept was incredibly abhorrent to me at the time. I was very independent. And very stubborn.

I had made my decision. No summit fever for me. I was going to descend, carefully and steadily, putting one foot in front of the other and depending on my trusty Black Diamond trekking poles to keep me balanced and safe. Let’s go, Tucker.

AMS has a lot of scary qualities, but the most insidious is the way it scrambles your brain without you realizing it. If you’ve ever dealt with a person with advanced AMS, they can come across as confused, unresponsive, irrational, even hallucinatory. It’s not uncommon. I knew my thought processing was fuzzy, but I had been congratulating myself on having recognized what was happening, eschewing the summit fever that often grips someone with AMS, and rationally deciding to turn around. I knew I was in really bad shape, but at least I was still thinking reasonably clearly and doing something about it.

Then I realized about half an hour later, and to my horror, that I was still heading up the mountain.

Part 5 coming soon (hopefully the last segment).

Acute Mountain Stupidity (Part 3 of 5)


My first of what would eventually be many trips to the Whitney Portal was fascinating. Before I was very far up the Portal Road I saw a very loud sign proclaiming, “Entering Active Bear Area”. The relationship between bears and the Portal is a tale so detailed (and humorous) it would require a separate blog entry, but suffice it say that this is without a doubt one of the most troublesome bear areas in the country. Bears congregate around food, and the Portal is the biggest bear magnet in the Eastern Sierra, outside of the notorious antics of the bears in Yosemite.

As I approached the Portal the white granite tower of Mt. Whitney grew larger and larger, until it was framed like a portrait in my windshield. I knew the trail I would be taking did not follow that ridiculously steep route I was seeing (known as the Mountaineer’s Route), and that it wound along a more mellow path (relatively so, anyway), but it was still a bit intimidating to see it this close. It looked very, very high and quite daunting.

I parked and went into the Portal Store to check out this iconic landmark. My first impression was that it didn’t seem possible that so much merchandise could be inside a store that looked so tiny from the exterior. The requisite touristy stuff was present – tees, hats, stickers, magnets, etc – but there was also quite a bit of hiking and backpacking supplies. There were also multiple coolers/freezers for beer, soda, Gatorade, and ice cream. Then, of course, there was the kitchen in the back that prepared the famous Portal Burger and Portal Pancake. There was no seating in the store itself, but it was surrounded by a number of picnic tables.

I ordered my Portal Burger Special from Amy at the counter (who we would come to know well in the years to come, and who turned out to be a master climber and eventual guide for the most prestigous guiding outfit in the Eastern Sierra). I was really astounded at how dirt-cheap everything was. This is in an area of pricey California where customers are essentially a captive audience. The same items in, say, Death Valley, which is a similar captive-audience environment, sell for three times what the Portal charges. Sodas were $1.50. A good beer was $3.50. The monster burger I had ordered, complete with an entire fresh-cut potato of French fries, was $7.50. I was flabbergasted, but soon came to learn that this was a reflection of the owners’ personality and philosophy. Doug and Earlene Thompson just do not gouge, even when it’s expected.

Doug and Earlene bought the Portal Store in the mid-80s (actually, the store itself is on Federal land and is Federal property, so they really lease it) and have been operating it ever since. They originally launched the venture as a way to assist and supply climbers in the Whitney area. It was not the tourist destination then that it has since become, and the traffic at the Portal was a majority of young climbers who were operating on a very slim budget. Doug had been one of those climbers, and he and Earlene wanted to operate a business that was supportive of that love of climbing.

One of the most critical things they supplied back in those pre-internet days was information. Beta - condition reports for the mountain, which are are critical for anyone venturing up. How are the creeks running? Where is there snow present? Are ice axe and crampons necessary in some areas? Are any of the routes icy? Is rockfall a danger? To answer those questions Doug, and his son Doug, Jr., would regularly climb the steep, Class 4 Mountaineer’s Route, then descend along the main trail. They would write up a condition report and post it at the store to assist those heading up over the next few days. This concept eventually turned into the Whitney Portal Store Message Board on the internet, where everyone could share their experiences in a timely manner.

I have absolutely no doubt that Doug has summited Mt. Whitney more than any living person, although he lost count long ago. And it’s not just summits that make Doug extraordinary – he is often the first responder for any crisis on the mountain. Cell service is virtually non-existent up on the mountain (or at the Portal), so any situation requiring help usually finds its way down the mountain by word of mouth, and ultimately is presented at the Portal Store (quite often in a hysterical, confused manner). If it’s appropriate, the Store staff makes a call for help to Inyo County SAR (Search and Rescue). However, from the time an emergency call is placed to the time a SAR team is on site and ready to head up the mountain can be hours.

Bad accidents and fatalities certainly happen on Whitney, but the majority of assistance calls revolve around cases of altitude sickness, ankle/leg injuries, or exposure. These often result in the victim eventually making it down under their own power, but usually over a much longer period than planned, and typically with assistance. When these frantic appeals for help come in to the store (multiple times per week during the summer), the staff often have to determine how legit and serious the situation is. This can be difficult since the information is not often first-hand and can be quite contradictory. Sifting through these varying reports is really an art that Doug has perfected. Ultimately though, if he decides it is legit and someone truly is in trouble up on the mountain, after placing the call to SAR he will grab, as he puts it, “a Pepsi and a candy bar and head up the mountain” to see what he can do to help. Usually in blue jeans and a cotton tee shirt, which traditionally is just about the worst possible clothing combo to wear on a mountain (Cotton Kills!), but it doesn’t phase Doug a bit.

Doug is living Whitney legend and a true gem of a man. During the summers he spends 16 hours a day managing the Portal Store, as well as the Whitney Hostel in Lone Pine, but despite that grind he always has a smile and a laugh ready for his customers. He dispenses advice throughout each summer day, often answering the same questions ad nauseum, the most common being, “So, what will the weather be like on the summit tomorrow?” This question is pretty much a running joke among the Portal crew and is likely to produce an amazingly comical range of responses. As if anyone could accurately answer that question. At 14,508 feet, a nice summer day can quickly degrade into very dangerous thunderstorms with massive lighting and hail, or even a sub-freezing, howling, snowy nightmare. Big mountains often make their own weather, and Whitney is a prime example of that alpine Sybil Syndrome.

I went to work on my massive Portal Burger and double-fried fries, chowing down and enjoying the beauty of the narrow canyon the Portal is situated in. Massive granite walls tower above the canyon on both the north and south sides, funneling the snowmelt from the heights into what eventually becomes Lone Pine Creek flowing through the Portal. A beautiful waterfall cascades about a hundred yards from the store (Barb’s Happy Place), and that sound of rushing water combines with the breeze singing through the huge Ponderosa Pines that fill the canyon. It makes for a very peaceful, captivating environment, and is one of my favorite places in the Sierra.

I could not know it at the time, but this place would become a virtual second home for myself, Barb and Bri over the succeeding six years. As I sat there wolfing down the Portal burger and fries, I could not have imagined that in less than a year my little girl, at the age of 9, would be helping prepare them! She would also be running the store register, stocking shelves, preparing pancake mix, shouting out menu orders, and generally making a nuisance of herself with Myles, the hilarious Portal cook and object of Doug's wrath. I admire Doug a lot, but I really owe him for giving Bri a sense of purpose when we visit, allowing her to grow in ways she could not back home. During our time in Lone Pine, rather than being bored when we’re not on the mountain, Bri is always encouraged to be a member of the Portal Crew. She stays happily busy and absolutely loves it. That has been priceless for us.

The Whitney Trailhead is located less than 50 yards from the store. After finishing off my meal, I wandered about a mile up the trail to get a sense of what type of terrain I’d be negotiating in the dark in a few days. I was still a bit tired from my hike earlier, but the grade seemed reasonably gentle and the path was well-maintained. After a few hundred yards I was satisfied that I would have no worries about losing my way with just a headlamp. I stopped at the North Fork (of Lone Pine Creek) crossing, which was really my objective. This is the longest water crossing on the trail, at about 20 yards, and I wanted a look at the width, water level and rock-hops. The flow was surprisingly high for August, but looked quite manageable. Happy with what I had seen, I returned to the Portal, and then back to the hotel and bed.

I was up early the next morning, having a dry breakfast in my room and then making the drive up Horseshoe Meadow Road in the dark to the same trailhead I had started out from the previous day. The day before I had taken the Cottonwood Lakes trail, but today I would be taking the Cottonwood Pass trail and going a bit higher, hopefully to 12,000 feet. Tucker and I waded through the same beach-sand mess to start off, but soon the ground became more compacted and solid, and walking was much easier. I had clearly acclimated better and found the hike more comfortable than the day before. I passed several people on horseback, which is just kinda weird at this elevation but certainly made for an interesting morning. I moved along at a decent pace, breathing deeply and on the lookout for another headache. Fortunately it never came and I was feeling good about my acclimation plan.

After a few hours of very leisurely walking I approached Cottonwood Pass. I moved up the final switchbacks and topped out at about 11,600 feet. Not good enough. I wanted 12,000 feet, but the trail leveled out for quite a distance before gaining any more elevation, and I didn’t want to add another 4 miles to my hike. While resting and having some lunch I noticed that the terrain to my right was a jumble of boulders and talus. It also ascended at least another 500 feet above my current level. There was my 12,000!

The most fun I have in the mountains is scrambling. Scrambling is essentially un-roped climbing, using your hands as much as your feet in terrain that isn’t too terribly steep or dangerous. Of course, there’s always danger in climbing – especially un-roped – but a good sense of balance and careful route selection mitigates a lot of that danger. Leaving my pack where it was, I made my way up those 500 feet in fairly short order, paying close attention to the 3-Point rule (3 points of contact with hands and feet at all times). I topped out a bit breathless but feeling satisfied and loving the views. Outstanding – I was at 12,000 feet, no headache, and I’m feeling pretty good!

The descent was slower than the ascent. Most mountain accidents, from Everest to the smallest hill, occur mostly on the way down. There are two reasons for this. First, you’re more fatigued on the descent, from all the effort put into the ascent, and more prone to mistakes. Secondly, your momentum going down, as opposed to up, is tailor-made for bad things to happen. A stumble going up usually leads to a minor settling in place, or face-plant at the worst. A slip or stumble with momentum going down often ends up with a tumbling or out-of-control fall. You really need as much, or more, care on a descent as you put into the ascent. I made it down in relatively short order, however, and returned to my pack.

And that’s where I met the group of teenage boys I detailed in Part One of this blog. The end result of that encounter sadly being that one sixteen year-old didn’t make it home alive from their impromptu backpacking trip, succumbing to cerebral edema after the rapid onset of AMS symptoms. When I left the group, having done what I could to assit the boy, I of course had no idea that he would worsen quickly and be dead within 24 hours. When I later realized the fatality I had been reading about was actually the boy in the group I encountered that day, it really shook me. AMS is no joke, people.

I returned to the HISTORIC Dow Hotel after grabbing a burger in town and was in bed pretty early again. My plan for the next day was to drive 120 miles north to Yosemite National Park for my final acclimation hike. The day before I had put in about eight miles and 1200 feet of gain, and today was about the same distance, but 2000 feet of gain. I was feeling much better today after the hike, but I would have a third consecutive day on the trail tomorrow. I wouldn’t be going as high – only to about 10,600 feet – but I’d be doing it in what I consider the most beautiful national park in the country.

I was up at 3:00 the next morning and on my way north up 395 by 4:30. I had never made this drive before and was astounded at the views of the Eastern Sierra crest for the entire 100 miles to the turnoff to Yosemite. The Sierra just does not stop! Mile after mile after mile, this imposing granite range seems to go on forever. Watching the sun rise and scatter a golden alpenglow across these towering mountains was really a treat, and I just knew it was going to be a good day.

The Eastern Sierra is pretty sparsely populated but I passed through a number of small towns during the drive. Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop (the largest of them and pretty much Ground Zero for the Eastern Sierra mountaineering community) came and went pretty quickly. Tom’s Place, trendy Mammoth Lakes, and June Lake soon followed, and in less than two hours the awesome sight of Mono Lake came into view. Mono Lake is the largest lake in California and is characterized by the salty tufa towers that rise out of the ultra-alkaline waters. Unlike the ugly, greenish Great Salt Lake in Utah, it’s a gorgeous, shimmering blue amid the high desert setting, and with the monstrous Sierra rising to 13,000 feet just a few miles to the west it truly is eye candy of the highest order.

I turned off on CA 120, commonly known as Tioga Road, which is the only true throughway across the Sierra Nevada, and was at the eastern Yosemite entrance station in about 30 minutes. The dramatic Tioga Road is only open a few months each year due to heavy snow accumulation, but is quite popular when it is. It snakes, twists, and winds its way from the highest points in Yosemite’s eastern border down into the iconic Yosemite Valley.

There are really two Yosemites – The Valley, and the rest of the park. During the summer months Yosemite Valley makes Disney World look tame. This beautiful vale, boasting some of the most recognizable sights in America’s portfolio of natural wonders (Half Dome, El Capitan, Ansel Adams’ Inspiration Point, Yosemite and Bridal Veil Falls), becomes Grand Central Station on steroids when the weather is nice. The hordes descend on this relatively small valley and make finding a parking space a quest that can last an hour. We’ve been there twice in summer and have sworn never again. It’s just not worth it.

By contrast, the eastern end of the park, where the highest peaks are located, is relatively tame and under-visited. Tuolumne Meadows is a popular camping and hiking nexus, but it does not see even a fraction of the traffic Yosemite Valley endures. To me this is the ‘real” Yosemite. My hike to Mono Pass would begin from a trailhead on the eastern edge of the park, and I was pulling in there about ten minutes after passing through the entrance station.

The hike itself was nothing spectacular because I never reached my destination (Mono Pass). I was probably 3 miles into it when my legs began to feel fatigued and dead. When planning these acclimation hikes I had waffled back and forth regarding the wisdom of putting so many miles in just prior to what would undoubtedly be the toughest day I had ever had on a trail. Tomorrow would be a rest day, but given how my legs were feeling and the fact I would be launching off on Whitney in less than 48 hours, I decided discretion was the better part of valor and called an abrupt halt to any further “up”. I settled down next to a gorgeous little lake (name unknown), enjoyed a snack, and just took it all in. It was truly beautiful, and that was one of the most memorable moments for me during this trip. I felt content and at peace, not having seen another soul for about an hour. I spent probably two hours beside that lake just absorbing the alpine environment and being happy. Tucker even benefited from my good mood and didn’t receive a single sharp comment the entire time I was settled in that idyllic spot.

Returning to the trailhead at a leisurely pace, I drove out of Yosemite and down to US 395. Needing gas, I turned into a Mobil station at the junction of 395, filled up, and called Barb to give her a progress report. I stepped inside to grab something to drink and was astounded to discover what would immediately become another Eastern Sierra must-visit for each of our trips out here: The Whoa Nellie Deli.

While gassing up I had noticed that there was an unusually large green space on the eastern side of the Mobil Mart, complete with quite a number of tables and chairs that enjoyed a very picturesque overlook of Mono Lake. When I stepped inside I saw the typical convenience mart environment to one side, but to the other was the Whoa Nellie Deli – a bustling gourmet grill. We’ve all seen convenience/gas marts partnered with fast food chains, but this was something entirely different. The menu offered cranberry lamb chops, lobster taquitos, fish tacos, and any number of other out-of-the-ordinary delicacies you’d never expect to find at a gas station.

I couldn’t help myself. I had eaten just a couple of hours before, but I promptly ordered the lobster taquitos and a cold draft local microbrew. I took my meal outside and sat at one of the picnic tables, enjoying the incredible view of Mono Lake and the awesome meal. I didn’t know it at the time, but the WND also provides live entertainment on this green during weekends and evenings. Along with a Portal pancake and burger, the WND became one of our absolute must-eats each succeeding trip out here. Only in California . . .

The drive back to Lone Pine was uneventful and the rest of the evening was taken up with wandering the town. The next day, my rest day, was spent up at one of the Horseshoe Meadows campgrounds just hanging out at 10,000 feet for a final acclimation. I snacked, read, and strolled for about 8 hours, concentrating on consuming as many complex carbs as I could. My best estimate was that I would expend something on the order of 6000 calories during the next day’s effort, and those carbs would be essential for maintaining my energy level for the anticipated 16 hours on the trail. Lots of bready snacks followed by a huge dish of pasta when I returned to town. And zero guilt cuz I knew all those calories and more would be gone in 24 hours.

I returned to the HISTORIC Dow Hotel to prepare my pack and try to get as much sleep as possible. I triple-checked my daypack-stretching load, ensuring I had everything I would need, then climbed into bed about 7:30 for a 2:00 wake-up. Predictably, I could not fall asleep. I was wound up with excitement at the prospect of tomorrow’s adventure and spent several hours tossing and turning, which was aggravated by the knowledge that I HAD to get some sleep or tomorrow would be miserable. And that, of course, was counter-productive, contributing to even more anxious tossing and turning. Ultimately, I may have gotten a couple of hours fitful rest by the time my alarm started chiming at 2:00.

Although I was tired from the lack of sleep, I bounced out of bed eager to get started. I completely emptied my pack and went though yet another gear verification and re-load – that Hicks OCD syndrome tirelessly at work. I wolfed down more complex carbs, stoked up on coffee, and headed out the door. The drive up to the Portal in the dark was exhilarating, and when I stepped out at the parking lot I was awestruck by the sky. It was completely clear and I had never seen so many twinkling stars in my life. But then again, I had never had the opportunity to look up at a clear night sky at 3:00 am from 8,400 feet before. It seemed almost as if I was looking at heaven!

The flip side of that grandeur is that it can make you feel very small, and as my gaze turned to the west I saw the immense bulk of Mt. Whitney outlined as a deeper, darker silhouette against that glittering sky. It looked almost menacing and doubts began to creep into my mind. Was I really ready for this? Had I prepared as well as I could? Had I forgotten anything? Would the twenty-plus miles I had put on my legs this week combined with the lack of sleep doom me? Did I really have any business trying this solo at my age?

Stop it, Hicks! You’ve planned and prepped for this day for almost four years, and it’s finally here. Quit undermining yourself! In ten hours, give or take, I’d be on that summit up there, standing on the highest point in the Lower 48 and for thousands of miles east and west. That was all there was to it.

C’mon Tucker, you lazy, mangy, ungrateful S.O.B. – let’s get this show on the road!

Part 4 coming soon.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Acute Mountain Stupidity (Part 2 of 5)

I landed in Las Vegas, promptly grabbed my gear bag and rental car, and lit out for California. It was a balmy 110 degrees in Vegas, but by the time I reached Furnace Creek in Death Valley it had risen to 121. I had spent a week here the previous year, hiking and scrambling during early March when temps were comfortably in the seventies and eighties, so this was a new experience for me. The only other time I had been to this park in the summer months was during mid-September, with a high of I believe 109. Let me tell you, 121 degrees is like being in an oven. I would have an opportunity years later to be here when temps hit 128, and the old adage about it being a “dry heat” only goes so far. Temps like this can kill you incredibly quickly, as the coroners in towns around Death Valley can attest.

About fours hours after leaving Vegas, the Sierra Nevada came into view on the horizon. I was still many miles away but even from this distance the mountain range looked very imposing. I could even pick out Mt. Whitney, which has a very identifiable outline. Another 45 minutes put me in Lone Pine, the small town on US 395 that is the gateway to Mt. Whitney and where I would be staying during this trip. Again, I had decided not to haul backpacking/camping gear across the country this time, and would be dayhiking the entire trip from a motel room base. At the time I thought that was just a perfect idea, the old mountaineering acclimation saw being, “climb high, sleep low.”

I checked into the HISTORIC Dow Hotel, “historic” being synonymous for old, tiny, and cramped. I’ve never seen a smaller hotel room in my life, and I do have some degree of expertise in that department. The queen bed took up almost the entire room, and the minuscule bathroom had a connecting door to the next room. I had never seen that before, but fortunately it had a lock on it. After a few minutes of reflecting on this incredibly depressing room that I was privileged to pay $120/night for (and how I wished Marriott had some presence – any presence – along the 270 miles of US 395 between Ridgecrest and Reno, but sadly not), I accepted the situation and reminded myself this room would only be used for grabbing sleep between hikes. I stowed my gear and went out to explore.

Lone Pine is a very tiny town, and primarily exists as a tourist destination. There is no industry and very little commercially that is not tied to tourism for either Mt. Whitney or the Western film history of the town. The nearby Alabama Hills, at the foothills of the Sierra, have been a popular location since the 1920s for Western films, and much of the town (including the HISTORIC Dow Hotel) is dedicated to preserving and promoting that history.

It took me less than 20 minutes to walk up and down the length of the town, and I had it completely mapped out: several motels and restaurants, a hiker’s hostel, a few souvenir shops, a handful of fast-food joints, one very small grocery, a drug store, a couple of outfitters, a school, a park, and a film history museum. That’s essentially Lone Pine, California in a nutshell. Little did I know at the time that this town, and the surrounding Sierra environs north to Yosemite, would become almost as familiar to me as Atlanta.

The next step was picking up that oh-so-dear permit to enter the Whitney Zone. The congratulatory letter I had received in April was not the actual permit. I would need to present myself at the Eastern Sierra Inter-Agency Visitor’s Center (hereafter known as the ESIAVC), present ID, and fill out some paperwork in order to obtain the actual permit. The ESIAVC, which I had passed coming into town, was a couple of miles down 395. I hopped in my car and headed there to get this step out of the way.

After about twenty minutes in line I made it to a ranger’s desk and began the permitting process. I received a rather lengthy talk from the ranger, with many a dire warning, and was then handed my actual paper permit with the specifics of me and my itinerary detailed out. I also received a color-coded tag to attach to my backpack. Tag colors correspond to days, and any ranger on the trail would be able to tell at a glance that I was legitimately in the Whitney Zone without having to stop me to check the permit itself. Then came the WAG bag and instructions . . .

Let me pause here to cover a few stark realities of trail life. There are no bathrooms in the mountains, generally speaking, outside of the typical pit toilet at trailhead parking areas. When you gotta go, you just do the best you can. There exists a universally-accepted protocol for going in the woods to keep things as environmentally balanced as possible. It’s known as the 100-foot rule: keep your bodily business at least 100 feet from the trail, the campsite, or any water source. And solid waste should be buried cat-hole style for best decomposition and lowest environmental impact. Once you’re comfortable with this, it’s no big deal. Problems occur, though, when there is no possibility of (1) burying your waste or (2) moving 100 feet off the trail.

In big mountains like the Sierra, once you’re above timberline (roughly 11,000 feet) it’s all rock. No trees and no dirt. It’s impossible to bury waste. Also, due to the steep and rocky nature of trail-building at high elevation, you often can’t move even a couple of feet off the trail without either wings or some serious rock scrambling. This presents problems in adhering to the generally-accepted waste management provisions of backcountry etiquette. These challenges are present above 10,000 feet on Mt. Whitney, but the biggest problem is really volume. Whitney is without a doubt the most sought-after mountain in the US, and I’ve detailed in Part 1 of this blog entry how the Forest Service has taken extreme steps to manage the summer traffic on this mountain. Even with all the controls in place, on a given summer weekend day there can be upwards of 200 people on the mountain. And they all eventually gotta go in what is mostly a very confined, narrow trail above 9,500 feet.

So the Inyo County National Forest Service has an ingenious solution to this quandary posed by Mt. Whitney: The WAG Bag! Before being allowed to set foot on the trail, you are given 1 WAG Bag kit (the acronym stands for Waste Alleviation Gelling), instructions for its use, and a section pointed out in your permit that requires you to pack out all solid waste from the Whitney Zone. The purpose of the WAG Bag is simple: spread out the main plastic layer, unload, sprinkle in the small envelope of absorbent Poo Powder, finally packaging up the resultant concoction and sealing it in the thoughtfully provided but inadequate zip-lock bag (you’ll have a few extra zip-locks of your own for triple-bagging if you’re smart). You then stow it in your pack and carry it with you the rest of the trip. Upon your return to the trailhead you then dispose of it in the very clearly marked containers there. Funny, you never see people dawdling around those WAG BAG ONLY containers . . .

So, the gist being that to climb Mt. Whitney you have to agree to carry your shit all the way out. To my knowledge it’s the only trail in America that mandates this practice rather than suggesting it. What could be more fun?!?

Notice I said “agree”, not actually execute. The harsh reality is that the Mt. Whitney trail in summertime is sadly littered with these used WAG bags. It’s unsightly and disgusting. Yes, the idea of carrying your poop around is unappealing for everyone, but the alternative is much, much worse for this fragile alpine environment. The rangers on Mt. Whitney spend way too much precious time collecting and hauling out these abandoned WAG bags that self-centered assholes refuse to carry themselves after using them. Many, many more go uncollected cause they’ve been “hidden” by the clever rule-breakers. Then the heavy snows come in the winter, followed by the spring melt that results in these stashed-away bags being cascaded down the mountain.

For what it’s worth, I try to be a good custodian of any area I hike or climb in. Like I said, extra zip-lock bags for a good triple-bagging is the easiest solution to this problem. If a ranger stops you in the Whitney Zone and you can’t produce a permit and the issued WAG bag (used or not), you’re cited and turned around for immediate descent. I believe the fine is $350, and you don’t screw around with this since this is the Federal government.

See, aren’t you glad that’s all cleared up? I know you were dying to be enlightened on this subject! It is, however, a very real part of the experience of climbing Mt. Whitney, so at least you’re not wondering any longer! Barb had no problems when she began to hike Whitney. Bri on the other hand, well it took some convincing.

Having a permit (and that handy-dandy WAG Bag) in my possession, I grabbed a burger at the Carl’s Jr. and headed back to the HISTORIC Dow to crash. It had been a long travel day, especially with the three hour time difference, and I needed to stay on a sleep schedule for getting up very early every morning since I would need to be up at 2:00 a.m. on Whitney Day for a 3:30 start. I went to bed about 7:30 local time, but it felt like 10:30 to me.

On the subject of that impending, uber-early Mountaineer’s Start: the primary goal of launching a hike so ungodly early is to get you on and then off your high-altitude destination before thunderstorms have a chance to brew up. In big mountains a storm can form astonishingly quickly out of what was a cloudless sky 30 minutes before. There are a number of absolutes in this life, but near the top of that list is that you do NOT, under any circumstances, want to be the highest thing around when lightning starts crackling. And you damn sure don’t want to be the highest thing in the Lower 48, which is what you are standing on Whitney’s summit. Lightning at these elevations is very scary, and you want to be off the summit, and the ridge leading to the summit, well before traditional summer t-storm time in the mountains. That’s typically early afternoon, so you shoot for a summit no later than 1:00 then backtrack to your necessary start time with your expected ascent duration. For Whitney that usually means boots on the trail between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.

My plan was to get in three acclimation hikes in the four days leading up to my scheduled ascent of Whitney. Even though I had never been bothered by altitude in the past, I knew very well that I needed to get my lungs and blood used to the thin air above 10,000 feet. I had never gotten sick at elevation, but I had most certainly felt like 90% of the strength had been drained from me. I needed to fight through the acclimation process, pushing higher each day and allowing my body to produce additional red blood cells that would be needed to carry extra oxygen, especially above 12,000 feet.

Early the next morning I made the drive up the dramatic Horseshoe Meadow Road, rising from Lone Pine at 3,500 feet to Horseshoe Meadow at 10,000 feet. The trailhead at Horseshoe Meadow launches two different trails that meander up to the Sierra crest and down into the backcountry. On this first day I had decided to take the Cottonwood Lakes trail for a 4-mile stretch to a series of alpine lakes near Army Pass. This would be about a 1000-foot gain to 11,000 feet elevation. A nice first hike at altitude to begin getting used to the thin air, but nothing really demanding.

Tucker and I started out immediately cussing the soft, beach sand-like trail that leaves Horseshoe Meadow, pounded into pumice by years of horse traffic. Horseshoe Meadow is, amazingly enough despite the name, also an equestrian base. There is a substantial amount of pack activity on the trail, both for leisure riders and for pack station operators who re-supply backcountry through-hikers. It takes way more energy to walk in this stuff than on a normal hard-packed trail, and I was feeling it right off the bat.

Oh wait – did I not introduce Tucker? My bad. Tucker is one of Brianne’s stuffed animals – a doe-eyed little puppy, to be exact. The year before, when I was making my first solo trip to Death Valley, Bri handed Tucker to me to take along as a stand-in for her since she couldn’t go. The idea was that whenever I went on a trip that Brianne couldn’t, Tucker should be in/on my pack so that I would know my little girl was with me in spirit. Awwwwww . . .

Anyway, Tucker was attached to the outside of my pack by a carabiner, bouncing merrily along while I did all the work. The way this relationship works is that Tucker gets all the blame whenever I’m ticked off about something on the trail, since he’s just along for the ride and contributes zip. He’s my verbal punching bag, and it shouldn’t take too much imagination to visualize me swearing some nicely-rhymed epithets with his name.

Ten thousand feet is awfully high to begin a first acclimation hike, and I felt extremely sluggish from the outset. The sandy soil just made things worse. A lot of adjectives could be used to describe this first hike, but “fun” or “enjoyable” would not be in that mix. It hurt. It was hot. It was tiring. My 15-pound pack felt like 30 at this elevation. The sand was really pissing me off and I got a mild headache at about 10,500 feet. But as the saying goes, “A bad day in the mountains is better than a good day at work!” Check back with me later about that . . .

I managed to reach the Cottonwood Lakes after about four miles, dropped my pack, and had a bit of lunch. It was only about 9:30 a.m., but it was lunch to me after getting up at 3:30. I enjoyed the scenery at 11,200 feet for a while, beat back my headache with Tylenol, and then returned to the trailhead. Downhill felt really, really good. It should have been an easy 8-mile roundtrip hike with only 1000 feet of gain, but I felt completely knackered when I got to the car. I reevaluated the wisdom of launching off a first-day hike from 10,000 feet, which was clearly the issue, and decided the worst was out of the way. Tomorrow’s hike, taking the Cottonwood Pass trail out of this same 10,000-foot trailhead, should be much easier.

I returned to the hotel for a shower and a nap, then decided to make the drive up to the Whitney Portal to get a look at the trailhead and the Portal Store. The Whitney Portal Road rises 5000 feet above Lone Pine, snaking its way to the Portal in a way that is almost as dramatic as the nearby Horseshoe Meadow Road. You should not drive either of these roads if heights or the absence of guardrails makes you nervous. Me, though – I’ve gone out of my way for years to seek out the most terrifying, dangerous roads in America. I find it exhilarating and fun. As terrifying mountain roads in America go, these two are somewhat mild.

Terrifying Road Rewind: the scariest road I’ve ever driven is in southern Utah, and is appropriately named Hell’s Backbone. It’s a dirt/gravel US Forest road that ultimately follows a narrow ridgeline between two mountains for twelve miles. It’s just wide enough for one car comfortably. There are no guardrails or shoulder, and on each side there’s a precipitous 3000-foot drop. If there should by chance be an oncoming vehicle, one of you has to carefully – very carefully – back up to a spot where it’s remotely conceivable two cars can pass without one going over. There aren’t many spots along the twelve miles where this is feasible. The road really doesn’t go anywhere, and anyone on it is usually there for the fun of it. Now that’s a mountain road! The Mt. Evans Road in the Colorado Rockies is a close second in my book. It’s paved all the way to 14,100 feet, but has some serious pucker factor. It appears guardrails and shoulders are considered extra-curricular in Colorado. If Hell’s Backbone is a “9” on the Terrifying Roads scale (always leaving room for something scarier), these two Sierra roads out of Lone Pine rate somewhere around a “6” in my book – enough to keep you on your toes, but not a blood pressure-spiking, acrophobic nightmare.

Anyway, I was settled in Lone Pine and had successfully completed my first acclimation hike. I was now going to spend the rest of the day checking out the subject of my trip – Mt. Whitney and the Whitney Portal.

Part 3 coming soon.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Acute Mountain Stupidity (Part 1 of 5)

After several years of furiously collecting national parks under our family belt, along with hiking a swath of trails from Colorado to California to Washington, I felt the urge to go off by myself and do something a bit bigger than Brianne’s little legs would allow. I wasn’t getting any younger, and our tour of the western wonderlands had me itching for a bigger personal challenge.

One of our marathon trips in 2005 included the parks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California – Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia. Yosemite in particular just blew me away with its splendor and beauty. The enormous, cathedral-like granite formations in this range, along with the many gorgeous waterfalls, had made a deep impression on me. I had discovered during that trip that the highest peak in America, outside of Alaska, was located in Sequoia National Park, and was actually surprisingly accessible.

Mt. Whitney, at 14,508 feet above sea level, is located along the crest of the eastern Sierra, where the range’s tallest mountains seem to congregate. There are twelve “fourteeners” in California, and ten of them are placed in a relatively compact area of the Sierra’s eastern side. Of these ten, Mt. Whitney is one of the two most accessible from US 395 that runs north/south through the Owens Valley. The Whitney Portal Road rises from US 395 at the tiny town of Lone Pine, to the Whitney Portal, which is the trailhead location for the mountain. From an elevation of 8,365 feet, the Mt. Whitney Main Trail begins an 11-mile journey to the summit of what was for years America’s tallest peak, pre-Alaska. That means a 22-mile round trip. The vertical gain works out to about 6,300 feet, once incidental numbers are included. That’s a lot of up.

I should take a moment here and put these numbers in perspective for non-hikers. Covering 22 miles in a day or two is a lot for most people, but is quite doable for anyone reasonably fit. Hoofing out 22 miles on flat or rolling terrain isn’t that big a deal. The vertical gain in a mountain hike, not to put too fine a point on it, is what kicks your ass. You stress different muscle groups than just walking the flatlands, and they quickly rebel unless they’ve been accustomed to coping with it. Your legs, knees and hips take a serious pounding, especially on the descent which is an under-appreciated part of a big mountain climb.

Add in additional factors like having weight on your back and, most importantly, the declining amount of oxygen pressure in the air as you ascend, and life can get pretty damn miserable if you’re not prepared. The air at the summit of Mt. Whitney has only about 65% of the oxygen content as at sea level. That’s a lot. Most humans begin experiencing serious problems at 80%, which is why acclimation is so critical to any successful ascent of a mountain over 10,000 feet elevation.

So, after a ton of research I decided I would take on the Mt. Whitney challenge. My homework also revealed that this peak was very likely the most sought-after summit in America. So much so that the National Forest Service (in whose territory the largest section of the trail resides) severely limits traffic on the mountain during the high-volume summer months. People come from all over the world to attempt Mt. Whitney and, if left unrestrained, the hordes would soon overwhelm and seriously damage the fragile alpine environment. Therefore the NFS (Inyo County) has a lottery in place for securing a permit to put your boots on the Whitney trail. They issue a maximum of 100 dayhike permits per day, and 60 overnight permits per day. This is a broad explanation and there are several variations and exceptions to this process, but you get the idea. In February of each year you can submit your application(s) for dates to the Inyo NFS lottery, and by April you’ll know if any of your dates hit.

I had decided in 2006 that I was serious about trying Whitney, so I submitted a lottery application in February of 2007. And got skunked. I tried again in 2008 with the same results. This was harder than I had expected. I tried again in 2009 and, lo and behold, I received a permit in the mail for my requested date of August 19th. At the time I was thrilled, after playing this lottery game for almost three years. Like so much else in life, though, you live and learn. As future blogs will show, the eastern Sierra in general and Mt. Whitney in particular, would eventually become my family’s second home, and I would soon figure out how to completely bypass this entire lottery process with nearly 100% confidence that I could obtain a permit for the mountain. My future familiarity with the Whitney lottery institution would also reveal that a closed stairwell and a gas-powered leaf blower were integral to the selection process. Extremely high-tech!

So, it’s April of 2009 and I’ve got an August date with the highest mountain in the Lower 48 (49 actually, since the only summits higher are in Alaska, but traditions die hard). Time to begin preparing, planning, training! Oh yeah – one small thing. I should probably tell my wife that I’m about to embark on this solo adventure . . .

I explained my plans to Barb and got one of the most uncomfortable stares she’s ever delivered to me. It could have flash-frozen a sizable lake. “So . . .,” she began, “you’re going off all by yourself, at almost 52, to climb a mountain somewhere across the country, not knowing a soul out there, and with no help if you get in trouble?”

“Yep!”, I replied beaming! “How cool, huh?”

“Hmmmm. I don’t know about ‘cool’. Do people ever get hurt or die on this mountain?”

“Of course not!”, I said defensively. Silence. “Well . . . not that many, anyway. Besides, you know I’m careful – I’ll stay out of trouble.”

Famous last words, as it turned out. One of my favorite quotes regarding mountaineering (and folks, there are a ton of them besides Mallory’s famous “Because it’s there” quip) goes like this: your limit is the thing you did right before the one that killed you. Why do I suspect a hardcore cynic came up with that one?

After a little more back and forth, Barb eased up on me. After all, this wouldn’t be my first solo hiking trip on the other side of the country – I had spent a week hiking and scrambling in Death Valley the year before, all by my wittle self, and returned whole and unharmed. This would just be another similar trip, only going a bit higher. Okay, a lot higher.

The permit I had received was for a dayhike. After waffling back and forth between this option and an overnight permit during the application process, I had selected it because I simply didn’t want to drag a ton of overnight gear across the country. Or up a big-ass mountain, to be honest. Tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, bear canister, water filter, extra clothing,  food – that shit adds up! I had calculated that, with the necessary essentials for a dayhike to 14,500 feet, I could get away with a pack of about 17 pounds as opposed to my best guesstimate of a 38-pound overnight load with my current inventory of mostly non-ultra-light gear.

Again, if you don’t hike, trust me on this: there is very little in this world (at least from a non-catastrophic standpoint) more miserable than hauling heavy weight up a mountain in thinning air. The possible exception is hauling that same damn load down a mountain on fatigued legs and barking knees. Dante somehow missed this singular horror in his vision of Hell’s nine levels, but it belongs.

So, going light and fast (both relative terms) was going to be my MO for Whitney. The downside of this whole dayhike thingy was that it would make for a long day. A very long day. I would need to start at the trailhead no later than 3:30 a.m. (more on this “Mountaineer’s start” logic later), and all my research had indicated that the average Whitney dayhike was 10 hours up and 6 down. Despite my public school education, I managed to cipher this out to about 16 hours. Yep, definitely a very long day.

I had walked 20-plus miles in a day before, so check. The most vertical gain I had managed in a day was about 4,500 feet, but that was due to there being all there was to be had on that hike, not cuz my legs gave out. So a check with an asterisk. Gotta work on that. The most critical factor was going to be my ability to handle the 14,500-foot altitude. Fortunately, I had been above 14,000 feet several times in the past few years, and above 12,000 feet many more times. Never a twinge of AMS. This is the area I felt most confident about regarding this hike’s challenges. Big, bold check!

About AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness): this single factor is what defeats most people who fail to summit Mt. Whitney, or any other mountain over 12,000 feet elevation. Reverting back to Dante’s Hells, let me add that AMS should have its own special level reserved. Anyone who has had the misfortune to experience this evil manifestation of your entire body short-circuiting all at once knows what I’m talking about. The simple fact is that AMS symptoms are the result of reduced oxygen to the brain. It usually starts out with a headache, but that can quickly become migraine-intense. The headache is often accompanied by violent nausea. Additional symptoms can include lethargy, blurred vision, vertigo, trembling, and confusion. A mild “altitude headache” is not uncommon above 10,000 feet, but once it intensifies and is accompanied by a second symptom from the list above, the assumption has to be AMS. The only relief from AMS is immediate descent to a lower elevation where there is more oxygen in the air. Failure to descend promptly can result in symptoms worsening to cerebral edema (fluid on the brain) or pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs). Either can kill you astonishingly quickly.

Not to jump too far ahead in this story, but illustrative of the seriousness of AMS: while I was on an acclimation hike a few days before my first Whitney attempt, I ran across a group of SoCal backpackers near Cottonwood Pass, at about 12,000 feet elevation. One of the group, a sixteen year-old boy was clearly not feeling well. As I spoke with the group, all teen males, I realized they didn’t have any first aid supplies with them. They were backpacking on a lark and were not experienced in the mountains, nor were they very knowledgeable about AMS. I explained the symptoms and seriousness, and gave the boy a couple of Advil for his headache. Before we parted I left them with a few more tablets of Advil and Tylenol, and advised that the ill boy be watched closely for worsening of symptoms, and to get him down fast if that occurred. Two days later I heard (and read) that this poor kid had indeed worsened and unfortunately died of cerebral edema before SAR (Search and Rescue) could get him down to a hospital. That event will haunt me for the rest of my life. I know there was nothing more I could have done at the time, especially with a group of we’re-invulnerable teen boys, but it didn’t have to happen.

Although I had never experienced the hell of AMS, I had seen it up close and personal a couple of years before, and it really scared me. We had flown out to Colorado for a Rocky Mountain adventure, and during a visit to the summit of Pikes Peak (14,115 ft) Barb became suddenly and violently ill. One minute she was fine – 20 minutes later she had a headache so intense she was crying. Barb regularly deals with migraines, so this told me she was suffering beyond anything a migraine had ever thrown at her. She was nauseous as well. I may have set some kind of speed record getting her back down to Colorado Springs, where she spent the rest of the evening in very worrisome shape in our hotel room. By the next morning she had recovered reasonably well, but the impression that her AMS symptoms had left on me was vivid. She was literally incapacitated for 14 hours. Even getting out of bed for a bathroom visit seemed like a marathon for her.

In a nutshell, AMS is nothing to screw around with. But that was OK – I seemed to be invulnerable to it. I was one of the lucky few who just naturally, physiologically, adapted to high elevations without a hiccup. Yay me!

So, I had overcome what I thought at the time was the biggest hurdle to climbing Whitney: I had a permit! Making travel arrangements and training were next. This was early April, and I had a mid-August date, so I was left with 4 solid months to train. I knew from experience that I could get in mountain shape with 8-10 weeks of dedicated work, so I felt I had a comfortable margin. I immediately set out to hit Kennesaw Mountain twice a week until it was time to depart.

Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is a 20-minute drive from our home, and affords one of only two opportunities in metro Atlanta to hike some reasonably serious gain. The other is Stone Mountain, on the other side of the city and an hour away in the absolute best traffic circumstances, so I’m really fortunate to have Kennesaw in my figurative back yard. The next best option is a two- or three-hour drive north of Atlanta to the Blue Ridge Mountains, which can eat up most of a day.

Kennesaw is actually two mountains and a very rocky hill, with one of the park trails doing a pretty good imitation of a roller coaster over all three. The trail starts at the NPS Visitor Center, going up and over Kennesaw Mountain, up and over Little Kennesaw Mountain, then down Pigeon Hill to Burnt Hickory Road. An out-and-back (OAB) gets you six miles and 2000 vertical feet of cumulative gain. There are also a series of interconnected trails that meander around the mountains, so plenty of opportunity to put in miles and gain if you plan it properly. The ever-present problem at Kennesaw for someone training for a much bigger peak (and there are quite a number of Atlantans that do, based on my experience here over the years), is that there is no real sustained gain opportunity. It’s all a series of ups and downs, with a 700-foot gain being the biggest challenge before you’re headed back downhill again. Your legs never experience the kind of stress that they feel on a mountain like Mt. Whitney, which is over 6,000 feet of sustained, unrelenting uphill (with a couple of exceptions, but the general idea sticks). That, however, can be said for just about anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains, so you simply do the best you can.

I set out training at Kennesaw, quickly realizing how far out of shape I had fallen since returning from Death Valley, and began to get my legs and lungs in reasonably decent condition. I religiously trekked twice a week. I bought new gear and gave everything a thorough breaking-in. I did my due diligence, reading three different books on the subject of hiking Mt. Whitney, and plotted out every landmark, mile, water source and terrain feature along the 11-mile route (those who know me won’t be the least bit surprised at this – “There’s Hicks in OCD mode again”). I scoured the internet for information, finally stumbling across the Whitney Portal Store message board, which ultimately initiated a sea change in both my and my family’s life.

Message boards: these are common in the mountaineering community out west. They serve as an easily accessible central location to exchange beta (current conditions) about a given peak, and can prove invaluable for someone planning to climb or hike a route for the first time. Each board has its regular contributors who are the source of great beta and offer a wealth of experience to “noobs” (newbies) contemplating that first ascent. The Whitney Portal Store message board (WPS from now on) is owned and operated by a gent named Doug Thompson, who is also the author of one of the Mt. Whitney books I had obtained from Amazon. Doug is a living legend in the Whitney area, having owned and operated the actual Whitney Portal Store since 1987, and very likely has more Whitney summits under his belt than any living mountaineer. I’ll spend more time detailing this amazing man in future posts, and the impact he’s had on my family, but for now I’ll just introduce him.

Anyway, having a bright-bulb moment, I promptly joined the WPS board and began asking questions on-line about my first attempt at the mountain. Some of these boards can be very insular and cliquish, and I was afraid a noob from the other side of the country would get short shrift. I was very pleased, though, at the number and quality of the responses I received to my questions. I got really good advice that caused me to change some of my plans and training regimen, and the more I posted, the more I learned about some of these folks. I quickly built on-line relationships with several WPS members. I know that sounds creepy but mountaineering message boards are not your typical message board, and the vast majority of people that populate them are simply outstanding human beings. Sure there are a few jerks who troll the boards, but these losers are pretty easy to spot. The biggest difference is that many of these folks know and hike/climb with each other locally, having done so for years, and provide an inviting and comfortable environment for others who are serious about learning.

My joining the WPS message board to ask a few questions about this mountain was the first step in a series of events that progressively led to a wealth of treasured friendships for both myself and my family. This one simple choice truly changed the course of our lives in so many ways, and would introduce us to a group of quality people in the California mountaineering community that we would come to think of as our “Sierra Family”, complete with plenty of  “aunts” and “uncles” for Bri. It continues to grow to this day and I often wonder how things would be different for us if I had not made this seemingly innocuous decision in 2009. I think we would be the poorer for it.

I spent the summer of that year training hard and learning as much as I could absorb about Mt. Whitney and the Sierra. Barb, though still chilly to the idea of my gallivanting off across the country to take on this challenge solo, was reasonably supportive and actually joined me for a few training hikes. Bri didn’t really comprehend what I was embarking on, but definitely picked up on Barb’s concern. I had to assure her several times that this was really no big deal, and that Dad would be just fine. Before I knew it, August had rolled around and it was time to gear up and head west. I was as prepared as I thought I could be, and I was eager to get on with it. As I boarded my flight for Las Vegas, I was envisioning my triumphant return to Atlanta and the story I would be able to tell about conquering the highest peak in the L49.

I wound up with a story, alright. The old adage, “be careful what you wish for” is sooooo appropriate . . . 

Part 2 coming soon.