Forewarning : This is a long post.
Last weekend was my attempt at Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in contiguous United States, and Mt. Muir, another 14er that is within a mile of aerial distance from Whitney. The reason I specify contiguous is because the tallest peak is technically, Mt. Mckinley in Alaska. Mt. Whitney is the tallest point in the contiguous 48 states. For some reason, Whitney is given a lot of importance and the peak is Alaska is relatively ignored, but after Sarah Palin, can you really blame anyone ?
Back to the point, we were allotted Sep. 26 and as my last post said, we had a 24 hour window from Saturday morning 12 a.m. to midnight to do our business and get out of the wilderness. There was a slight issue though. The drive from the Bay Area to the trailhead takes 7 hours, and you cannot really go upto 14,000 ft. from the sea level in a day without some acclimatization.
A word on acclimatization here. Anything above 12,000 ft. is high altitude and climbing at such heights in a day from sea level usually leads to mild or severe headaches, commonly called altitude sickness. The only remedy is to sleep for a night at around 8,000 ft. before proceeding higher. This critical sleep helps your body adjust its breathing to surrounding air pressure, and is called acclimatization.
So we left at 6.30 p.m. on Friday from the Bay Area, collected our permits and reached the trailhead at 2.15 a.m. No campsites were available, so we just invaded a reserved campsite whose owner hadn’t shown up yet, since we needed it for just a couple of hours. Tents pitched in, we slept at 2.30 only to wake up and 4.45 a.m.and get ready. A quick breakfast and morning ablutions later, we were at the trailhead at 6 a.m. This is a very late start for Whitney; most day hikers start at 2 a.m. and some start the previous night around 10 p.m. But that was the best we could do.
The weather was friendly, and the long trail of 11 miles included a few hundred switchbacks, with one 2.2 mile stretch alone contributing 99 switchbacks. Yes, Whitney is notorious for its switchbacks.
It was 3.30 p.m. by the time we summitted and we were dead tired. We lied down for a couple of minutes and in no time we were off to sleep. 15 minutes later, we decided we had to head back soon, so a few snaps for formality, and we were off.
Mt. Muir is just 20 mins off the trailhead and around 1 mile from the summit of Whitney on the way down. Hikers ignore this, and for good reason. We weren’t sure if we wanted to do Muir, but I guess the driving factor for me was that this was the last hike of the season and the biggest one at that. So all concerns aside, we decided to go for it.
It took us quite some time to reach the summit rock, and the climbing was tougher than I had imagined. A quick word about the climbing classes system that I often refer to :
Class 1 : Easy gradient, non-strenuous.
Class 2 : Slightly steeper gradient, can be strenuous.
Class 3 : Requires some scrambling over rocks, no exposure, you’ll have to use your hands to climb. A fall might lead to severe injury.
Class 4 : Requires climbing with exposure. Fall might be fatal.
Whitney was a class 1 walk, Muir was a class 3 or 4 climb. No one fell, so I can’t be sure about the class [:)].
It was 6.06 p.m. by the time we descended onto the mail trail, and it was getting dark. We still had 9.5 miles to go.
Now begins the toughest part of the hike, and arguably one of the toughest mental challenges I’ve faced. Our legs had given away long ago, and you don’t feel like having food (energy bars, dry fruits, bread). So just with some Gatorade, we had to somehow reach the trailhead.
The 5 hours from Mt. Muir to the trailhead were like a living hell. Every possible thought came and went, and came back again. We were knocking off mile by mile, without sleep and proper food. We cursed the long switchbacks, swore never to come back again, just prayed that we’d reach the trailhead. It was all a matter of time before we’d reach the car, and we’d never have to hike again in our lives, this I think was the thought that kept all three of us going.
It was 11.30 p.m. by the time we reached the trailhead, 17.5 hrs of hiking, 6,300 ft. of climbing, and two 14ers knocked off.
Sadly, no one has the vocabulary to describe the feeling. I guess that feeling is the reason I hike.
This, I had decided, would be my last hike for the season and year. So I was doubly ecstatic to complete it successfully.
Grossing out trivia : Do you know that at ecologically fragile spots like Mt. Whitney and Mt. Shasta, hikers have to pack out “solid human waste” in bags designed for the above, and bring it back to the trailhead ? But when you are that high, social norms don’t matter.
Funny trivia : Guess what is the most troublesome thing, esp. for male hikers, on long treks ? Let’s just call it nipular friction, testicular friction, and toenails that are a couple of millimeters longer than what they should be.
Believe me, if you run into any of these, you will be living out a nightmare.
Anecdote 1 : Near the summit, we saw a hiker in his 50′s resting on some rocks with a huge backpack. I guessed that he had completed the John Muir trail, a 211-mile trail from Yosemite valley to Mt. Whitney. I was right, he had taken 30 days to complete it. I inquired a bit, he was working with United Airlines in Chicago. I asked him how he was planning to get back and with a glowing face, his reply was,
“I don’t know and I really don’t care now. I’ve been able to figure my way till here, I am sure I’ll figure out my way back home.
You know what, it just doesn’t matter“.
That last line just stuck on, I don’t think I’ll forget it for a long time.
I complimented his achievement, wished him well, bid goodbye, and we parted ways.
Anecdote 2 : A few mins later, we were scouting for Mt. Muir on our way to the Whitney summit, just so that we wouldn’t waste time locating the trailhead on the way back. We had seen a man in black clothes on top of a rock from afar, we ran into him just as he was descending down some random rocks. He said he summitted Mt. Muir, we were happy to have located the trailhead. Now just to be sure, we showed him the printouts we had to see if it was actually that tough. His reaction,
“Nope I didn’t see anything like this.
Ooops .. I think I might have gone up the wrong rock !!!”.
I felt terribly sorry for having spoilt his feeling and apologized, he just laughed and said, “Oh don’t worry. Do Mt. Muir for me too !!”.
So there, Mt. Muir was for that hiker.
Before signing off, the statistics for this summer read : Seven 14ers, roughly 65,000 ft. of climbing, around 10,000 miles of travelling including the north-south and east-west roadtrips covering about 20 states, an India trip and somewhere between all that were my final quarter, graduation, job interviews and joining.
No, I am not proud of this, I just feel sorry, and terribly tired.
Yeah, I had a bit of fun too. But I don’t think I can ever repeat this summer again; it is both, logistically and physically, quite improbable.