Happiness at 14k feet?

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  • Distance: 11.9 miles
    Summit: 14,505 feet

    Doesn’t sound like fun, but the facts of Mt. Whitney weren’t on my mind earlier this year, when I booked four day-hike permits to access the summit. Date of late September worked with everyone’s schedules and fell late enough in the season to peel off the busy summer crowds. The threat of snow and storms haunted our date, but when the time came, weather was beautifully clear, sunny…almost too hot.

    The plan: up and down in one day. Start in the early AM before sunrise, get to the top around noon, back down by early evening and relax the evening away recounting our experience.

    So much for carefully laid plans.

    Pumped with adrenaline, the hiking was least on my mind. Catching the sunrise was forefront as the light bathed the mountainsides with an orange alpenglow. Mirror Lake was hit first, but it wouldn’t be the last. We passed several alpine lakes, which just hinted at how much water was up here. Using pump filters, we filled up at a stream. Seemingly worked as no one suffered any ill effects…from the water, at least…but stopping for a period of time did cool me off completely, to chills sometimes. Mental note of how brutally cold it can get up here.

    We reached Trail Camp six miles in, at the base of the infamous 97 Switchbacks. We’ve ascended nearly 4,000 feet by now. Still 2,500 left, but we’re going to eat into that with the numerous gains to be made going back and forth. This part of the trail reminds me of Mt. Fuji, where the ascent, and primarily the much-despised descent, were filled with switchbacks that never seemed to end.

    My feet are doing much better now.

    Not quite.

    I figure each step is about 3 feet. So one mile is about 1,750 steps. If I take 50 steps and rest for 5 count, I’m 2.8% of a mile closer. Fifty of those paces and I’m a mile in. Makes sense to my oxygen-deprived logic.

    We complete the rocky part of the trail, past the Windows (more like slot views of the east side of the trail). We meet up with super-man Carlos, who, after a slow start, powered up to the summit a couple hours before us. He’s heading back now and we agree to meet at Trail Camp. His recommendation at this point – you’re close. Just finish it.

    Noted.

    As he skips down to normalcy, we trudge up. Literally. Crossing a snow bank, I’m feeling the effects of AMS. Head down, one foot barely in front of another, I’m holding down the nausea. We are in a slow ascent up the flat summit. I see the hut, drop the pack and sit. No mood for pictures, walking, talking or anything. Just plain 4:00PM – 12 hours and 11.9 miles after we started.

    This is miserable and definitely unlike Mt. Fuji.

    *4:30P – begin descent
    6:00P – top of 97 switchbacks. We still have light, but low on water. I’m feeling better and start counting the switchbacks down. Right turn, even number. Left turn, odd.
    7:30P – reach the first stream to filter water. We had 500ml left between three of us. Headlamps and jackets on.
    8:30P – regroup with a very concerned Carlos at Trail Camp. 6 miles left to hike. Darkness and fatigue make it difficult to see trail.
    10:30P –  Outpost Camp. Approx. 4 miles left. I start to learn the unique trail features. Besides cairns placed very far apart, trail has unnatural stone steps as well as certain rock cuts to make hiking easier. At times, though, I have to look around and wonder where to go. Very unnerving.
    11:00P – I see lights in the distance, like a road. Backup survival plans enter my mind. Sleep out here – uncomfortable but not too cold. Reach the road and get directions to the campsite. Hike, rest, hike, rest – yah, we’ll stick with that one.
    12:00A – North Fork Lone Pine Creek. My fatigue is creating images in the shadows. When we break, closing eyes flirt dangerously with sleep. Trying to pay attention to trail markers. No moon means the surrounding landscape has no detail to navigate from. Reaching this marked creek eases my mind that we are on the correct trail.

    I look deep to where we go, to see the trailhead lights. Pitch black. We are almost there, until we fall on top of it. Unlit trailhead and campsite, we reach there at *1:15AM. Strike camp, put away everything, grab our food and head to the hotel. Now, we are happy.

    Distance: 23.8 miles
    Time: 21h 15m

    We note that we were the last ones on the trail on Sept. 28th. I also note that I hate switchbacks.

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