With no training or any real idea of the challenge that lay ahead of us we climbed to the top of Mount Whitney (14,505 feet) the tallest peak in the continental United States.
Looking back at it, we sometimes feel like we cheated since the horses carried us up to almost 11,000 feet the day before the actual hike up. We camped at Guitar Lake, a popular stop for hikers looking to climb Mount Whitney.
It’s popularity wasn’t lost on us as groups of hikers began flooding the area and level, non-rocky campsites were becoming scarce. It was a sadly overused site with interested, eager, and hungry marmots circling. The night before the hike we sat around with the other members of our group chatting, playing cards, snacking, and discussing the plan for the next day.
It was decided that we would set off at 5:00 a.m. after waking at 4:45 a.m. I had brought a travel alarm clock along and it was up to me to wake the group. We went to bed with jitters and worry about the next day. Would we make it up? Would my ankle hold up? Being the youngest and most physically fit in the group the pressure was on!
When we awoke the next morning it was dark and emerging from our tents we could already see the headlamps of earlier risers than us bobbing along the switchbacks that lay ahead. We piled our gear into a single tent and set off with what we hoped was enough water, snacks, lunches, rain gear, and our camera. The morning was cold and we layered as best we could.
As we climbed the first section of switchbacks the sun began to rise and slowly engulf us and the mountains around us.
The original plan had been to stick together as a group but early on we realized that this couldn’t happen because of the different paces each group clearly had. The main concern had been for the hiker in our group that didn’t have a partner. As we became separated from each other we became concerned, wondering if she would be alright. She was clever and sent word along with other hikers that she was still making her way slowly but surely.
The hike got rather depressing at times because we couldn’t actually see Mount Whitney for the majority of the time but could still see our campsite from the night before but we trudged on. We were eagerly awaiting the midway point and upon finally reaching it were feeling good and positive that we would easily make it up! The trail looked relatively straightforward from that point. The halfway point was where two trails intersect. It was pretty cool because it’s where everybody drops their large backpacking packs for the final leg up so there were abandoned packs everywhere!
There were lots of people milling about laughing and chatting, some of them had already been to the top and were headed back down, others had failed from elevation sickness and were waiting for the rest of their groups, and some were taking a break before heading up. We stopped for a quick break, chatted with some of the other hikers and then headed up.
Things began to get difficult from here; the elevation began to get to us and breathing was hard. The trail was very deceiving and was actually much longer than we had anticipated from the halfway point. We kept going, at a slower pace than we had originally set, but going nonetheless. The whole hike we had to be hyper sensitive of our water consumption. There was no place to stop along the way for extra water so we were definitely rationing. The dehydration was setting in along with a little bit of crabbiness. However, being the amazing team that we are, whenever I would get upset or fussy Bobby would always be the positive voice of reason I needed. When Bobby would get down or tired I was there to encourage him and tell him we could do it.
We finally reached the top and were completely exahausted!
The top was packed with lots of hikers sitting about chatting and laughing and congratulating each other. We met up with several of our group members and chatted about the rigorous climb and how excited we were to be at the top. I was anxious to sit and rest awhile and maybe have a snack. But Bobby got eerily quiet and began to complain of a headache… Never a good sign. His color started to drain and his lips were pursing tightly. I knew the signs, he was going to puke. One of the ER docs was there with us and he diagnosed it as elevation sickness. The cure? Start down immediately! No break for us, we headed down ASAP.
As we had hiked up we had been passed by multiple hikers coming down from the top. All had been smiling, almost running, and were way too chipper for our taste as we plodded along. Now it was our turn to be those annoying people! We were smiling from having seen one of the most amazing views of our lives! We were almost running because going down was far easier than up and every breath had more and more oxygen in it! We were way too chipper because we had just made it to the top of the tallest peak in the continental United States and were rather pleased with ourselves!
Bobby was feeling better and better with every step and we soon felt safe to take a break and have a snack. At this point I really had to pee but on a trail of switchbacks above the tree line a safe place to squat was nonexistent. I was getting nervous. Finally, unable to hold it any longer there was a large boulder off to the side of the trail that seemed like it might have decent cover from those above us but people from below might be able to see. I had to take the chance. As I squatted down Bobby sat on the boulder to block my head as hikers came up to us. Bobby tried to warn me but there was no stopping me. Bobby made awkward small talk, they were unaware I was back there and even commented on what a “nice flat spot that was behind that large boulder.” Once they were gone I popped up feeling remarkably better!
As we continued down the trail my ankle began to suffer. (I broke my ankle in 2009 while rock climbing in the Black Hills) The trail had a lot of loose rock and I kept turning it. The continuous impact of large steps down was also wearing on it. Every step was soon filled with pain and it was Bobby who got me through it. Throughout our marriage he has always been my most solid rock and supporter. When I’m with him I find myself being able to do things I never thought I could. He is always pushing me to be and do better. I don’t know if I would have made it up and down that mountain without him.
We reached camp, drank a lot of water, snacked a lot and had some tylenol. We had done it! Successfully climbed Mt. Whitney! It was a pretty amazing day! We weren’t done though. We had to climb back on our horses and head back to the stock camp. The next day we were all suffering from sore muscles! I could barely walk and Bobby had a very sore knee from all the impact it had taken on the way down. We felt old! But we both agree we would do it again in a second!