By Robert Ross
The Hike— The Rules — The Guardian Angels
Voice gone from fatigue, toes bloodied from blisters, the night pitch black, flashlight batteries dead, I sit alone on a rock, balancing my forty-pound pack on my back. Earlier in the day, I was at 14,497 feet, happy, at the highest point in the continental U.S. Now, immobilized by exhaustion and the dark, I sit . . . two miles from my destination.
Mt. Whitney is located in the eastern Sierras. The trailhead is accessed through the town of Lone Pine, which is an hour’s drive south of Bishop, California. Billed as the highest mountain in the continental U.S., the Whitney trail is a Mecca for hikers and fitness buffs from all over the world. As a result, the Mt. Whitney trail lays claim to the title of “the most heavily traveled trail in the Sierras.”
The trail was originally built in 1904 by the community of Lone Pine. It has since been rebuilt and rerouted several times. The first climbers to ascend Mt. Whitney were a party of three in August of 1873. A few months later, in October, John Muir climbed to the summit.
Hiking Mt. Whitney involves more than just a good pair of hiking boots and a walking stick. There are permits needed (handed out on a lottery basis each February from the Forest Service). There’s the bulky, but mandatory, bearproof food storage canister that overnight hikers must carry. There is the planning of the hike — which can be extensive depending on how many days you plan on taking to reach the summit. There is the regime of physical conditioning which is needed, leading up to the hike. And lest we not forget, the shopping that may be involved — tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, water filter, food and an array of garments for protection from the potential for both searing heat and bitter cold.
We arrived at the Whitney Portal campground Sunday afternoon. The Whitney Portal campground is located just minutes away from the trailhead for Mt. Whitney and is at 8,367 feet. After setting up camp and finding out from the Forest Service that we were able to take advantage of someone’s canceled trail permit, we decided to leave for the hike the following morning, spending Monday night at Trail Camp Campground (12,039 feet).
Switchbacks are a term used for the construction of hiking trails. Rather then just carve a trail straight up, the trail is designed in a zigzag fashion. Switchbacks are normally an indication that the ascent is steep. It’s a way of making a very steep climb manageable.
So we began our hike at 8,367 feet around 9:30 a.m. Our first night’s destination camp was at 12,039 feet. The majority of the time we were following switchbacks. First, we were switching back and forth on dirt trails, crossing water streams by precariously balancing on rocks, and weaving our way up the trail through large magnificent pine trees and by a pristine blue lake. As the day progressed, we soon found ourselves at an elevation too high for trees to survive. In fact, too high for almost all vegetation to survive save an occasional very small shrub. Now we were switching back and forth on granite rocks, on trails that must have been carved out with sledge hammers and dynamite.
As the air thinned, so did my capacity to maintain a respectable stride. At the higher elevations the hike had been reduced to a very slow shuffle. Walk two hundred steps then stop and rest. Walk one hundred steps then stop and rest. There were moments that I would tell myself “fifty steps, that’s all, then you can rest.”
Mountain climbers and hikers know about “the rules of hiking.” The first rule is, never hike alone. Our hiking party of three had early on in the hike violated that rule. Different conditioning levels and different ideologies broke us into a group of two and a solo hiker.
Arriving at our campground at about 4:30 p.m. exhausted, we set up camp, and cooked our individually wrapped dehydrated food dinners. There was an eerie feel to Trail Camp. It reminded me of the photos taken from the Mars Lander, no vegetation, just rock and dirt. To the west one could almost look straight up and see the summit of Mt. Whitney. In places it looked like a sheer granite wall with switchbacks carved into it. To the east one need only hike a hundred yards or so before reaching a precipice and a steep descent to lower elevations. The campground itself consisted of granite boulders and dirt, with fifteen or so tents set up in various clearings.
As the sun dropped behind the mountain, a chill set in — it was time to retire. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. The plan was to hike to the summit and then hike all the way down to our car camp at Whitney Portal, a total of fourteen miles and six thousand feet of elevation change.
After breakfast, one the hikers in our party decided that she was going to hang out at the campsite for a while and then head down. Thin air, no trees and the thought of another three hours of very arduous hiking to the summit was enough to say “I’ve had the Whitney experience, now it’s time to head down.”
Leaving our heavy camping gear at Trail Camp, two of us headed out of the campsite only to be greeted with the infamous “ninety-nine” switchbacks. Completing those switchbacks would bring us up to Trail Crest at 13,777 feet, a mere stone’s throw from the summit.
Shortly after leaving Trail Camp, this party of two separated, due to different hiking paces. We were now three hikers, each hiking alone. So much for the rules.
Reaching the summit a number of hours later was a relief. There were about a dozen hikers there, taking pictures and talking on their cell phones. It was nice to take off my day pack and just sit. After about thirty minutes of rest, I knew it was time to head down if I wanted to make it before dark.
I was told that the hike down would be just a matter of a few hours. It wasn’t. As one hiker put it, “I swear it is farther coming down than going up.” I soon found myself following the same mental process that I did on the way up, “Just fifty steps then you can rest,” was my mantra. But slowly, ever so slowly, I worked my down, until total darkness set in.
Sitting alone in the pitch dark, exhausted and dehydrated can be disheartening. I had been hiking since early morning, to the summit and back down. But now, just two miles from my destination, I was beat, barely able to function.
In spite of my circumstances, throughout the whole trip, I had a funny sense that things would work out, that someone was working behind the scenes, kind of watching over us, doing what they could to make sure that things went well.
There was the campground at Whitney Portal — all of the other campsites were reserved, there just happened to be one available, for us. There was the canceled hiking permit that just happened to be available, for us, from the Forest Service. There was this guy that ran fifty yards down the trail in the late afternoon to give me his flashlight; he knew I would be needing it. The batteries died after about thirty minutes, but for thirty minutes I had light. So when three hikers came along in the pitch dark, with flashlights and said just squeeze in, we’re headin’ down, I said thanks. I knew they were coming. As we progressed down the trail, I stumbled and fell off the side of the mountain only to be caught by a thick bush. The three hikers were quick to grab me and pull me up. The bush was between me and a fifty-foot drop. In spite of my fatigue and clumsiness, I still felt that someone was watching over me, and that everything would work out.
A half a mile from the bottom, the end of the trail, flashlights were heading up towards us — I heard my name called out. My wife and brother — looking like angels to me — were hiking back up the trail, looking for me. I was happy to see my fellow hikers. We talked, I drank water and they took some of the weight off my back. I knew things would work out, and they did.
Next year it’s going be different. I’m going to be in better shape, my pack’s going to be lighter, I’m going to follow the rules. Next year, it’s going be different . . . except for one thing. I hope that spirit, that angel, that something, is going to be there again, watching over us.
Copyright 2000 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved
Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com
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