8.15 Alex Summits Mt. Whitney

A few posts back, I mentioned a little bit about Alex’s journey to the top of Mt. Whitney in some of the worst conditions the Park Rangers had seen. Something that a lot of people probably don’t know about Al — and something that I love so much about him — is that he likes to document things in writing too. He has a sort of collection he’s been compiling that chronicle important moments in his life or lessons that he doesn’t want to forget. He always tells me that one day when he’s old and grey, he’ll be able to look back on his collection and remember things just a little bit clearer.

That being said, he wrote about his momentous journey to the summit, and said that I could share it here with all of you! A sort of “guest post,” if you will 🙂 So here he is!:

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It was 1:15 AM when the alarm went off. I sat up, turned the lantern on and looked at Vince. Neither of us said a word. We didn’t have to. We had both been listening to the sounds of one another tossing and turning for hours, occasionally letting out big, frustrated sighs. At the time, both of us were working night shifts, and were accustomed to going to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. I think we both knew we wouldn’t get a wink of sleep that night, but we still tried to get to bed early. I was just starting to feel myself get a little tired, as 1:00 AM was the normal time I would start getting ready for bed. I had been up since 7:00 that day thanks to Marty, the new puppy of the Lewis household. So I knew the fatigue would hit me within a few hours, but we had a job to do. We unzipped the tent, boiled some water to make coffee, made a quick meal, grabbed our gear and made the fifteen minute drive to the trailhead. It was time to hike.

It was 2:30 by the time we had all of our gear on our backs and found the trailhead. We turned our flashlights off and our headlamps on and began hiking through the pitch black. It would be hours before we’d see any other hikers, but only about 45 minutes until we hit our first big obstacle.

We had read that some parts of the trail were flooded as a result of one of the heaviest rain and snow seasons on record over the winter months. We expected a few inches of trickling water, but what we found was a 20 foot crossing of rapids almost up to our waste. We shined our lights to find a large drop off on the other side of the water. The white, gushing water was pretty intimidating looking in the pitch black, but we hadn’t made this big trip and trained for so long to

turn around, so we took turns lighting the way for one another and, very carefully, wading through the water using our trekking poles for balance. All of the water on the mountain was from freshly melted snow, and was absolutely freezing. Fearing more water crossings, we decided not to change our socks just yet. Doing so would’ve been pointless, as we encountered over a dozen more crossings over the course of the day. After a while we grew pretty accustomed to not feeling anything below our knees.

Another issue the water caused was washing away parts of the trail. Unlike most hikes I was accustomed to, the trail on Mt. Whitney is barely marked, and even in the middle of the day can be hard to follow at times. With no service on the mountain, all we had to navigate with was a map and a compass. While they came in handy a few times, we still managed to get lost on the way up for about thirty minutes, and even longer on the way back. More on that later.

We eventually found our way and continued hiking. Within a few hours we started seeing tents belonging to hikers along the trail. Mt. Whitney is an ambitious day hike, so most people camp on the trail and complete the journey in two or three days. By 7:00 AM we were starting to see fellow hikers beginning their days on the trail. And that was when we came to the snow.

So Mt. Whitney is off limits in the winter. It’s too dangerous with all of the snow and ice. So in the winter, they hold permit lotteries for the summer months (Mid May – Mid October). We were lucky enough to get approved for one of the 100 permits issued each day. We immediately booked our campsite and started gearing up in anticipation. About a month away from our hike we started doing more research and found that the snow had not melted, and the hike required above average mountaineering skills, which Vince and I did not have. There had even been several deaths on the mountain that year, as a result of unprepared hikers falling during their climb up the snow. We reconsidered the trip, but since we had already bought most of the gear, taken off work, and made travel and camping arrangements, we decided to continue on, promising our wives and parents that if we came upon anything we felt unprepared for, we would simply turn around.

Luckily, the climb didn’t look too steep, so we strapped our crampons (snow spikes) to our boots swapped our trekking poles for ice axes and started the long walk. After a few hours we came around a corner and found what we had been warned about: The snow chute. A hill almost 2,000 feet high and so steep that you could barely stand. The snow had put the nice and gradual switchbacks that hikers usually take to the top out of commission. So this was the only option. By this point we had both been awake for well over 24 hours and were feeling pretty fatigued. So we found a nice big rock to sit on and took a break. We had brought several MREs, which are military freeze dried meals stuffed into small packs. Each are filled with tons of electrolytes and carbs, perfect for long days on the trail. We scarfed down our food, rested for about twenty minutes and decided to give the chute a try. We were in for a treat.

The climb quickly became more dangerous and difficult than we had anticipated. See, we’ve grown accustomed to most people overselling hikes and races to us. They’ll say, “Oh this will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.” But then we’d complete the activity feeling like it was hard, but very manageable. This was one instance, however, where we felt the challenge surpassed any expectations we may have had. There was no place to take a break on the climb, so it ended up being hours and hours of slow, SLOWWWW progress. We kept pace with two other hikers, and by the halfway point we were all so fatigued that we would simply try to take four steps, counting out loud with each one, before each breather. Each breath got harder and harder as we reached higher altitudes (now I understand why people camp at elevation to acclimate!). The altitude sickness had really taken hold of us by the time we were only a few hundred feet from the top. Bad headaches, dizziness, and almost 40 lbs of gear strapped on our backs made the final push up the chute perhaps the hardest thing either of us have ever done. We stayed focused, but there were probably six or seven times where we each slipped and had to quickly dig our ice axes into the snow to stop from falling. A fall down the chute would’ve meant lots of broken bones. And that would’ve been a best case scenario, as this was where a few hikers had died this year.

Somehow we made it to the top though. The two we had been climbing with told us that the top of the chute was the summit of Mt. Whitney. When we both collapsed at the top of the chute, exhausted and very sick, we learned that this was not the summit, and we had another 4 miles to go that we couldn’t see during our journey up the chute. It was unbelievably deflating, as we had just given every ounce of energy we had left to the climb. Despite us both feeling awful, we continued on towards the summit, walking gradually uphill along the crest of the surrounding peaks that made up the neighboring summits of Whitney. The trail was thin, filled with unstable rocks, and had a large drop of a few hundred feet on the eastern side. Our dizziness was pretty bad at this point, so we went as slowly and cautiously as we could.

 

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With two miles left we were both so sick we were progressing at a snail’s pace. Vince was fighting hard not to throw up, and I felt like my head was going to explode. We knew it was getting dangerous to continue and seriously considered turning around. But then we turned a corner and finally saw it. The summit of Mt. Whitney. It was about a mile and a half away. We both immediately decided we couldn’t quit, and slowly but surely worked our way towards it. The final few hundred yards was entirely made up of traversing large rocks to the top, and to be honest I’m not sure how either of us made it. It certainly wasn’t pretty.

But then there we were. We had made it. We both took in the view and quickly celebrated with the small handful of hikers that had also made the summit. We wanted to rest, but knew we both desperately had to start our descent before we felt any worse. So we started back down. When we arrived at the chute we realized how hard it would be to climb down in our conditions, so we were relieved when we found there was another option.

There was a small track worn down in the snow going down the chute. It looked like a miniature bobsled track. We were told that as long as we stayed in a luge position and didn’t get turned sideways, we wouldn’t get hurt. We also had to constantly keep our crampons and axes dug into the sides of the track, or we would get going too fast and get seriously injured. We both started down and quickly realized that, in our sickly state, we weren’t controlling our speed enough. We flew down the chute at a scary pace, and Vince even lost his ice axe. When we came to the bottom we both had snow absolutely everywhere and some nice cuts and bruises. But even though we were beat up, we both started feeling a LOT better now that we were at a lower altitude. We started heading down through the next few miles of snow. But then, we got lost.

A few feet of snow can make it pretty hard to stay on the trail, and before we knew it we didn’t see anything that looked familiar. We both started looking for different routes that would maybe get us back to the trail. I walked ahead of Vince thinking I may have found a path and then.. CRUNCHHHHH. I fell. It turns out we were walking on ice covered with snow. Underneath was a rapidly moving body of water. Thankfully, I was able to get out of there quickly, but on my way back to where Vince was I fell though the ice again. Once again I was able to pull myself out. I was already frozen solid from the water crossings and slide down the chute, so what was a little more icy water going to do!?

After an hour we found the trail and continued down hill. We both got a bit of a second wind and just kept going with almost no breaks for the next few hours. By the time we reached the trailhead we had been hiking for over 15 hours. Taking my socks off I found my feet were in such bad shape that scratching them too hard took the skin off. I’m pretty lucky they weren’t any worse.

 

We found a building with a dirty old shower you could use for a few bucks. So we each took turns getting a hot shower and then buying a cup of coffee from the guy running the place. By the time we made it back to camp we knew we didn’t have much time before passing out. So we made literally all the food we had at our campsite, drank as much water and Gatorade as our bodies would allow, had some celebratory beer and scotch, and then passed out for the sleep of a lifetime.

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All told we hiked and climbed around 25 miles, ascended almost 7,000 feet, and burned over 12,000 calories with almost 40 lbs of gear and no sleep. I’m not one to pat myself on the back too often, but I couldn’t help but feel proud of this one. The park rangers I spoke to before the hike let it be known that they were skeptical about the hike being possible in one day, given the current conditions. And for a while I was pretty sure we wouldn’t make it to the top, but thankfully we made it, even if it wasn’t pretty.

So now I’m left looking back and shaking my head and laughing about the entire experience. Because it was ludicrous, and at times plain stupid. But we did it. And I’ll always be able to look back at that one time Mt. Whitney was at it’s most extreme level of difficulty and we were able to surpass even our own expectations. It was truly the experience of a lifetime.

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