This summer has been a climb.
At its start, I had big plans to stay at home in Storybookland as much as possible. I was going to soak in summer and get to know this city that still feels brand new to me. Somehow, as tends to happen, my plan fell apart, my planner began filling up with reporting trips and adventures, and the next thing I knew, it was August. In between, I had one of the most fun and exciting summers of recent memory. I just didn’t spend much of it at home. Or at sea level.
My climb up Mt. Summer began with the Memorial Day weekend trip I wrote about back in May. And while it might be some time before I take another trip of that caliber, it was on that trip that I fell in love with backpacking and hiking and camping. So, this summer, whenever I had the opportunity, I hiked. I hiked in Jackson Hole. And in Aspen. And in LA. I hiked when I was supposed to be sitting at my computer, stressing over a deadline, and when I should have been scheduling interviews or waiting for athletes not to call me at a scheduled time. When I was on the road and needed a running path, I chose trails over pavement and the woods over the streets. All of this made the long days at my desk, the endless stream of flights and the fish-out-of-water moments easier to inhale.
And then there was Mt. Whitney. On Wednesday, July 28, I hiked to the highest point in the Continental United States (or, the Lower 49, as I like to call them) with Lindsay, her brother Larry, Tricia (aka @tbyrnes) and John, who Lindsay and Larry met while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. John was our guide.
As usual, I did little research before agreeing to take on this climb. Lindsay: “We’re climbing Mt. Whitney on the 28th.” Me: “Okay. Yay!” Then I did some reading. Supposedly, the hike was going to take 13 hours, if we chose to do it in one day (most do it in two or three) and covered 22 miles. Supposedly, we were going to have to wake up around 2:30 in the morning to be at the trail head by 4 am, our start time. Supposedly, the five-hour descent was going to be even more painful and intolerable than the seven-hour climb.
Clearly the five websites I read, as well as John, who had climbed Mt. Whitney nine times, were wrong. None of that information could be right. There was no wrapping my head around 13 hours of hiking. There was no wrapping my head around 13 hours of anything. “Seriously, can you think of anything you’ve done for 13 hours?” Lindsay kept asking. None of us could come up with anything. I’m not sure I’ve ever even slept that long. We were giving it 10 hours and calling it a day.
THE START OF OUR ADVENTURE …
The first two hours, we hiked in a daze. None of us slept much the evening before, and some of us had been not sleeping much for days. It was dark, our minds were mush and our steps were slow. The only light on the mountain came from our tiny headlamps and from those worn by the few folks who’d beaten us to the trail and were flickering up ahead.
Around 6, the sun began to rise and light our way. We spent the next couple of hours in awe of everything around us. We snapped photos and talked and ooo’d and ahhh’d every time we encountered a new lake or waterfall or view. Still, it was hard not to wonder what the hell we were doing. We were walking, for hours, up the side of a very steep and very tall mountain. Why? At an hour when the rest of the world, or so it seemed, was fast asleep. Clearly, we had lost our minds. (Actually, that didn’t happen for about 8 more hours.)
LEFT FOOT, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT, RIGHT FOOT …
Four hours in, we arrived at base camp. This is where the sane folks set up camp, hang with their family or friends and enjoy the day before hiking to the summit the next day. We kept on walking. And found our first real challenge: the switchbacks. Ninety-nine of them. Up and around, around and up, up and up and around and back and up. An hour and a half of mind-numbing, silent stepping. This was the first time I felt real pain and noticed the altitude taking hold of my lungs and my brain and my legs. I counted to 100 and stopped. I counted to 50 and stopped. I walked until my legs screamed and stopped. Every break, even for a few seconds, was a gift. Finally, we made it to the top of this section and stopped for a break. (I must add that we arrived in this order: Tricia “Mountain Goat” Byrnes … Alyssa and Lindsay … Larry … John. That was pretty much our day. The boys chasing the girls and Linz and me (and everyone on the mountain) chasing Tricia the Unfazed.)
We ate lunch. It was 10. Then we started around the backside of the mountain. I now know we were an hour and a half from the summit. At the start, we went down, down, down. We knew that was not good. That descent would come back to attack us, later, after we’d already stood at the top of the mountain and were too tired to climb another step. This section was sketchy. The path was rocky and uncovered and steep. Once, when we were about an hour from the top, a couple on their way back down told Lindz and me we were, “Almost there. Thirty more minutes.” After 30 minutes, another couple told us the summit was another 30 minutes away. They didn’t mean to, but they broke our spirits. We thought we were there. That last half hour felt like a decade. We couldn’t talk. Or smile. Or believe we were still walking.
SPOILER ALERT: WE MADE IT!
Then we saw the little shack at the top of the world. And Tricia stading next to it. We’d made it. We’d “summitted.” When people asked us, on our way back down, “Did you summit?”, we could say, “Yes! All five of us!”
It was cold at the 14,497-foot summit, so we didn’t stay long. We took in the view. We rested. We drank water. We signed the guest book, took a few photos and headed to the car. “Get us the hell off this mountain,” was all we could think.
We earned this downhill.
Ha! The hilarity in that statement. “You’ve gotta earn the downhill,” John kept saying on the way up. “It’s all downhill from here,” people like to say. Screw that. I would have hiked up another 10,000 feet if it meant not descending that hill. Every hour of the downhill hurt. There were moments I believed my patella tendons would grow mouths so they could literally scream in pain. My left foot was covered in blisters and my head hurt so badly I thought I was going to puke. Every step down made my brain shake inside my skull and my knees feel as if they might explode. There were rocks in my shoes. And splinters in my arm. And blood running down my right leg from a misstep in snow.
There was no way this could take 13 hours. But it did. Almost to the minute. I guess John was right. He has done this 10 times.
For the record, the rest of us are stopping at once.