Conquering Mount Whitney: The Push of a Lifetime
“A 60-year-old Torrance man [Yukio Kato] fell to his death over Labor Day weekend after conquering Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the continental United States … Why Kato fell was not immediately known, though altitude sickness, which causes dizziness, may have been the culprit…”
I had a similar experience—or what I can only imagine was Kato’s—three weeks after his fall, on Monday, September 23rd, 2013, at roughly the same spot on the mountain.
Only I lived to tell the tale.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains. From an early age, my father and I would hike in the ranges of Ojai—my hometown—a blip on the map twenty minutes inland from the coast, an hour north of L.A. After my youth, I’d spent years on and off hitchhiking all over the United States, sometimes going into the woods—without anybody knowing—for a week at a time, with only minimal food and water, surviving just fine, reading Keroauc’s On the Road.
But one thing I’d never done was climb a serious mountain, or experience real altitude.
Fast forward to age thirty. I met a young man my age who’d recently tackled Mount Ranier. For some unconscious reason, this man’s trip to Ranier inspired in myself a strong, palpable desire to tackle something I’d never tackled before; to do the thing I’d always, deep down inside, wanted to do—to face the symbolic ascent of life within me: to ascend a serious mountain.
Doing internet research, I was stunned by gorgeous pictures of Whitney and the Southern Sierras, but was quickly disappointed when I learned the following fact: In order to climb Whitney, one had to have a permit. Permits were limited and were given out on a lottery basis, between Feb 1 and March 15. It was May when I was doing this research. I shut my laptop in a burst of frustration and thought, Oh, well: 2014. I’ll backpack as much as I can in order to train.
But that wasn’t what the universe had in store for me. Sometimes things work out that way: they just happen, whether you’re ready for them or not.
Sitting in my apartment three months later, in mid August, I got a phone call from a friend of mine. Jeremy, a dark-haired thirty-year-old Jewish marathon runner and avid hiker, asked me—out of the blue—if I’d have any interest in climbing Mount Whitney. He’d somehow received a day use permit via a late cancellation, and it was available for the use of two people. “Want to peak the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight, bro?”
Saying yes immediately, two things struck me: One, we were hiking on September 23rd, just 5 weeks away; and Two, I had no idea what I was doing.
Over the ensuing weeks I hiked as much as possible. Living in the Bay Area—me and Jeremy both—I peaked Mount Diablo (almost 4,000 feet); hiked Point Reyes (twenty miles); Montara (twenty miles); and did an “urban hike” in San Francisco, where my friend and I did twenty miles around the city. I bought new boots, professional hiking poles, and asked as many people as I could about their high altitude experiences.
Like your first time skydiving—full of anticipation, anxiety and dread—the time arrived to go to Whitney too fast. The plan was that I would pick up Jeremy and we’d head to Lone Pine—a five hour drive—a tiny town east of the Sierra Nevada Range.
Arriving at Jeremy’s on Friday, we threw his bags into my Honda CRV and hit the road. Eventually linking us to Highway 395, passing Death Valley National Park, and Kings Canyon National Park, we arrived at Lone Pine.
We landed at the Comfort Inn. The next morning—Saturday—would be our first attempt at acclimatization. Monday was Whitney.
Day One: Saturday
Jeremy and I woke up early, gobbled down eggs, hash browns, coffee and toast, and trekked out to Kearsarge Pass, an 11,700 foot peak not far from Whitney.
It was my first experience with high altitude. Parking the car in Onion Valley, at the trailhead—already over 9,000 feet—was higher than I’d ever experienced. The trail kicked my ass. Huffing and puffing up the long, slow switchbacks—I didn’t yet realize that there are switchbacks and there are Whitney switchbacks; these were child’s play—I understood what people meant now when they said, “In high altitude, you’ll go a lot slower.” Yes, that I did. But also, a headache, lightheadedness, and a feeling of floating on the trail rather than walking on it.
Peaking Kearsarge Pass, however, was incredible. At the top, I took an iPhone video and sent it to family and friends. The wind was powerful, blowing my jacket around like a flag in a blizzard. Little Pothole Lake was thousands of feet below us; it looked like a miniature tarn from up this high. Jeremy ran up to a high point of entangled square-shaped rocks and boulders and waved his arms in a giant “V.” I snapped a good shot of him from afar at my safe spot at the peak.
While Jeremy and I were snacking on sugar, electrolytes, and protein—meat—a young man with wild ginger hair and a massive red beard appeared. He smiled and we began a conversation. His “trail name,” he explained, was “Vogue,” like the magazine. He was in the middle of his second Pacific Crest Trail journey, all the way from Canada to Mexico, which takes about six months. He’d been on the trail since June.
Vogue and I chatted amicably for about ten minutes, and then Jeremy and I left to descend the peak and return to the car. Passing lakes like alpine mirrors, we finally arrived back at the parking lot in Onion Valley.
Day Two: Sunday
The next morning, we ate the same meal at the same restaurant in Lone Pine. After breakfast, we stopped off at a local climbing shop. After buying “Accli-Mate” powder, to assist with the altitude, we found out that Whitney was currently experiencing 70 mile per hour winds. Jeremy glanced at me. “We’ll check back tomorrow,” he said, trying to sound convincing.
Since it was late September—the peak season is May to November—we’d researched that Whitney could be unpredictable in this part of the season, summer being a more friendly time. Short days, cold weather, and uncertain storms loomed near the peak in this time of year, according to the Forest Service and Ranger Stations. Already considered to be a serious, “extreme” day hike—most experienced hikers do it in 2-3 days—the tail end of September is the last time to go before hard ice and heavy snow pack can create bigger hazards.
We threw our gear into the CRV, and headed to Cotton Meadow Pass, which was lower in elevation, and much more mellow of an ascent. The day was easy: we did some switchbacks, but mostly, we played around in the high altitude of ten and eleven thousand feet, allowing our bodies to adjust to the thinner air. Jeremy and I stopped at some gargantuan boulders—the size of my CRV—and watched the green valley, recounting our younger days, and our social foibles without concern of others hearing us.
As we hiked, I thought about the fact that we were about to chase down a 22 mile (round trip), over 6,000 foot elevation-gain peak, with the threat of potential 70 mph winds.
We arrived back at the Comfort Inn, ate an early dinner, and crawled into bed. I was reading—appropriately—Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” and Jeremy was watching T.V. We each had our distraction—I was immersed in something much more serious, sinister, real; he was switching his brain off before the reality sank in that tomorrow there’d be no switching anything off, unless it was our bodies.
Day Three: Whitney
“I stared at the peak for perhaps thirty minutes, trying to apprehend what it would be like to be standing on that gale-swept vertex…so different from anything I’d previously climbed that my powers of imagination were insufficient for the task. The summit looked so cold, so high, so impossibly far away. I felt as though I might as well be on an expedition to the moon. As I turned away to continue walking up the trail, my emotions oscillated between nervous anticipation and a nearly overwhelming sense of dread.”
Jon Krakauer “Into Thin Air”
Jeremy and I woke up—via a harsh Comfort Inn wake-up call—at three A.M. We’d checked the night before on the winds: they seemed to have settled down enough for us to go. Hardly having slept, we grabbed our pre-prepared packs. Shoving a Cliff Bar in my mouth, we ran out of the room, hucked our packs into my CRV, and hit the gas.
Hitting Whitney Portal Road, we veered left and moved toward the great white mountains of the high Sierras in the dark. Silence enveloped the car as we careened up, up, up, going higher and higher in elevation. At last, after winding, snaking road, we ended up at Whitney Portal—at just over 8,000 feet—in the famous parking lot for Mount Whitney Trail, which would take us to the peak.
Throwing some “Accli-Mate” powder into one of my liter’s of water, I shook my pack onto my shoulders, clasping the belt and clipping the chest connector.
Jeremy—being a marathon runner and liking to travel light—had only a small backpack. We shared carrying food rations, and both sported layers: it was freezing. We shivered against the chill.
We located Mount Whitney Trailhead, adjusting our headlamps. A sense of ominous warning seemed to pass through me as I walked beyond the sign, as if some boundary had already been breached, some symbolic realm, pushed.
But that all faded away quickly. Within minutes, we were huffing and puffing up the mildly steep, winding switchbacks. I looked up and saw bright stars flashing in the night sky. I couldn’t yet see the outlines of mountains, but they were there, I knew that.
A half mile in we hit the John Muir Wilderness sign, a hand-carved oak sign that stood out against our headlamp beams. The trail was bumpy and rugged but well kept, and easily seen. My heart thumped in my chest and I could already, even at this point, feel the altitude.
Continuing up the arduous switchbacks, Jeremy leading the way, we spotted more climbers, headlamps shining in front of their slow but sure movement. My breathing was becoming more labored, quicker, shallower. It was taking me longer to step one booted foot in front of the other.
A few miles further up we hit Lone Pine Lake, which we didn’t get to enjoy because it was still pre-dawn. As the sun began to rise, I realized we were protected within a cretaceous embrace of mammoth granite peaks. Slowly, as we ascended one foot at a time, and as the stars began to fade, we could see these rock beasts protruding out of the ground like giant blisters in the foot of the Earth. It was spectacular. My fear almost dissipated.
But then the trail called me back to attention.
Stopping at Mirror Lake, we were now in the full throes of dawn. Jeremy stopped on a massive boulder overlooking the valley and Lone Pine Lake. We pondered how something so beautiful could exist in the current state of man—it was a wonder above all things. Jeremy—studying our map—pointed to a nearby peak which looked white and jagged and surreal, like it was so close you could reach out and touch it, and said, “That’s Thor Peak.”
We admired the peak and then Jeremy, the ever stern Trail Master, nodded, and we moved on.
At six miles up, 12,000 feet elevation, me breathing harder than I ever had, we arrived at Trail Camp.
Trail Camp is famous in Whitney Speak because it’s considered the peak’s “Base Camp.” In more stark terms, it’s at the foot of the infamous 97 switchbacks. Another route up the mountain was called “Cardiovascular Seizure.” I was sure they meant this route. Either way—it was going to be hardcore. You could see the harsh switchbacks stark against the mountain like God had taken a knife and sliced little zigzagging lines—like veins—up and down the hard, steep terrain.
Loading up on water at base camp, we ate, sat, and peed. Waiting a half hour, Jeremy got up, clapped his hands together, and said, “Alright, man: this is it. You ready?” A lump rose up from my throat. I looked up behind Jeremy at the switchbacks: yellow, red and blue jacketed hikers were still going, way, way up there, getting closer and closer to the ever elusive Trail Crest.
At first—on the switchbacks—I was okay. Moving at a glacial pace, I nevertheless passed several other hikers. My breathing was even more shallow and hard, and my legs were slower. Again: a headache and lightheadedness, as if I were beginning to almost float, lift off the trail. Though mildly entertaining, this was a bit scary.
After half an hour, those people I’d passed were now gaining and then passing me. But I’d pass them again. It was a unique culture on those switchbacks, on the mountain: hikers, galvanized, motivated, inspired to climb the tallest peak in the continental United States, but huffing, puffing, stopping and breathing out their hard beating hearts. Stomachs undulated, eyes squinted, red, blue and green jackets wavered in the breeze.
I understood it then: we were seekers. We were the ones who, yes, sought pain—climbing Whitney was a masochistic endeavor in and of itself—but who also yearned for something profound. The peak of Mt. Whitney would be, for us, that “something.” We wanted it, and we wanted it bad. I was only one among a culture of many—groups of hikers hoping to achieve the same result. Men and women chasing their goals; pushing themselves. Success would include reaching the peak and returning—the return often more important. Many people forget that truth: the peak is only halfway.
I pulled my hiking poles out, wiped sweat off my brow, clenched my teeth, balled up my fists, as if I’d try to beat Whitney into submission, and continued up the switchbacks. Along the way, I made friendly acquaintance with several other hikers, again passing me and then vice versa: it was a never ending cycle of pass and re-pass; pass and re-pass, until eternity. Coming to grips with this, I fell into a meditative bubble, planting one boot in front of another.
Small snow pack and rock-hard ice were strewn along the rugged, narrow switchback trail and you had to watch out: I slipped several times, barely catching my balance, by this time feeling buzzed from the altitude, as if I’d chugged a few beers at mock speed. I crossed a haggard, narrow swath of trail with cables on the right hand side preventing you from careening off the edge. I grabbed the hard metal cables and walked up the rock and hard ice.
By now, Jeremy had passed me and was who knows where. We’d agreed not to split up, but I trusted him; he’d be there, at the top. Already, I’d stopped at several spots and placed my poles to the side, pinched my hands against my waist, breathed hard, and said to myself, Fuck this. I could be sitting at home, reading a book right now. I could be doing anything, having sex, bungee jumping; hell, anything would be better than this. I came close to quitting; yelling for Jeremy and simply turning around. It was sheer determination and will power that kept me going. I thought of the guy I’d met who’d climber Ranier. I thought of Krakauer.
Realizing I’d been unprepared in most major ways and that I probably realistically was not in good enough physical shape to go on, I wished that I’d been more honest with Jeremy from the beginning: that I wasn’t ready to do this yet; it’s too hardcore. But I’m male, I have my pride. And I’ve always envisioned myself as a mountain man, running around the ranges of California for nearly my whole life.
Staggering, drenched in sweat, a jackhammer in my brain, my heart playing a heavy metal song, I finally reached Trail Crest. At 8.2 miles in, we were just under three miles away from the peak. I thought that being “so close,” would mean that the rest would be easy.
I was wrong.
“Also called altitude sickness, AMS [Acute Mountain Sickness] symptoms include persistent headache along with difficulty sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting. AMS can affect anyone. Your age, gender, physical condition or previous high altitude experience has no bearing on whether you will be affected by AMS. If you experience more than mild discomfort from AMS, you should descend immediately.”
USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
As soon as I reached Trail Crest, a gaggle of climbers in colorful jackets were sitting next to a sign that said, “John Muir Trail.” I spotted Jeremy immediately, a huge grin on his runner’s face, beaming: “How ya doin’, buddy?”
My eyes partially closed, body lightly swaying, I took in a massive belt of air and proclaimed: “Let’s go.” I was in no mood to dilly-dally. I wanted to peak this bastard and then turn around, go back to the car, and pretend the whole thing had never happened.
Moving behind Jeremy, we trudged past the sign, delving into the first downhill portion of our climb. I knew this was bad; it meant that at some point we’d have to go back up. But I kept my silence; I just wanted to get there. Bragging rights didn’t even matter anymore. I wanted it over with.
At nine miles in—two miles from the peak—the altitude really started hitting me. This was right where Yukio Kato had fallen to his death.
Feeling as though my brain was being punched by Mohammed Ali, my heart beat with it each time. My vision was blurring. A weird, sensory disconnection was beginning between my mind and my feet: it was as if I’d smoked a joint, drank a few beers, and decided to climb a mountain.
Jeremy, concerned, had moved behind me, to make sure I’d be okay. A few times I did in fact start to stagger backward, and the numb body feeling—the sleepy disconnection—prevented me from bracing myself or being able to get a solid grip; Jeremy caught me by my pack from behind each time this happened. I’d look behind me, and he’d have a worried look on his face.
But I prevailed. Now I wanted that peak more than anything, because Whitney was trying to tell me I wasn’t man enough to have it. Oh yeah, Whitney? Just you watch.
A little further—we’re now going uphill again—I felt the wayward backwards motion, as had happened several times already, waited for Jeremy to catch me, but then realized two things: One, Jeremy was far behind me this time; and Two: I had slipped hard on a loose rock and this time, I was going to go down. Hard.
As I lost my footing and slipped, I felt my sleepy, oxygen-starved body lean toward the cliff where Yukio Kato had fallen and died. My body stumbled toward that edge and I thought, “This is it; I’m going to die.”
I looked back and saw panic in Jeremy’s eyes. I was frozen in slipping time, helpless, bone-tired, breathing like an eighty-year-old man with emphysema, unable to stop gravity.
I fell. For a split second, it was over. Then, somehow, I realized a jutting rock had saved my life. Looking down, I saw the abyss: I’d been saved by hard granite.
Whitney wasn’t done with me yet.
Jeremy ran over, hoisting me up, dusting me off. “Dude, are you okay? Holy crap, man. Butterflies just flew through my stomach from here to Whitney Portal, bro. Are you going to make it?”
I staggered, adjusted my pack, swaying back and forth, and took a pull of water. It was almost empty. I was dehydrated, bad. We hadn’t brought enough water. I should have said, “No, let’s turn around; I can’t make it.”
But I didn’t. With a hard squint and a nod, a shake of my fist, and shallow, uneven breathing, I turned and continued up the mountain, up hard, loose rock scramble that was slippery and dangerous. Jeremy stayed behind me; we didn’t talk.
I knew at this point that I was pushing my body farther than it’d ever been pushed. I knew the machine that was my flesh and blood was pumping harder than it ever had in my thirty years on this planet. Everything inside of me said to give up, be smart, go back down the switchbacks, and return to the car. Let it go. Have some grace.
But grace be damned. I am not a man to give in easily.
I could sense the altitude sickness seducing me; I wanted to curl up in a ball on the mountain, and go to sleep. How wonderful sleep would be on the hard, loose rocks of the trail.
At 10.2 miles in—we’d dipped again—we hit Keeler Needle, a spectacular granite row of giant needles protruding from the depths. I rested here for a few moments, resisting the urge to sit. Hands on waist, sweat dripping, breathing erratic, saliva trailing out of my mouth, I stopped, resting my wrists on my poles for a minute, salvaging the last little bit of water I had.
Jeremy nodded at me; I returned the gesture. The headache and heartbeat were severe. I was afraid that my body might simply shut down. In toddler-like steps we went on, Jeremy in front, past granite boulders, loose rock, way beyond the tree line, a barren moonscape.
We arrived at a wide, open, steep section of rock. This was the last, final push. We were only a few hundred feet from the peak. I stopped, breathing crazily, wildly, squinting my eyes against the sun, scanning the top. It was still so, so steep, so far away feeling, despite it only being “a few more hundred feet.”
I reached into my pack, extracted a Snickers bar, slammed it into my mouth, and for a short burst had the energy and strength of a younger version of myself. I nearly jogged; I could hear Jeremy, for once trying to keep up with me.
But then my heart stopped me dead in my tracks: ba-boom; ba-boom; ba-boom. Erratic beats letting me know that this pace was absolutely not sustainable. Ok, heart: you win.
Painfully slowly, I reverted back to tiny, measured steps, one shaking leg in front of the next. After fifteen minutes, I could see the famous Smithsonian Institute Shelter. If I could reach that shelter, I’d be at the peak. I focused on the small outpost, as if it were animate and could pull me the rest of the way.
Touching the shelter, I understood that we’d made it. All that hard work (eight hours of hiking up over 6,000 feet) had paid off. We sat on a boulder, overlooking some of the most majestic mountains and valleys I’d ever laid eyes on. At 14,497 feet, there was a panorama of mountains as far as the eye could see in every direction.
I met a man in his seventies at the peak, who said it was his 25th successful climb of Whitney; his first ascent had been in 1983, the year I was born. After a while of Jeremy and I taking videos and photos with our phones, we ate some food and began planning our descent.
A few minutes later, Vogue popped into view. His big red beard and wild ginger hair called out to me; I motioned him over. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my sweaty wallet and extracted my writing/editing card, handing it to Vogue: “Two times on the famous PCT from Canada to Mexico—man, you got to get your story down on paper. I could help you with that.” I was doing business, trying to snag a client on the tallest point in the lower 48. Was I crazy? You bet I was!
Vogue smiled and took the card, snapping a picture of it and handing the card back, “So I don’t waste paper,” he said. I smiled.
Jeremy and I nodded to each other and that was it. We’d peaked the mountain at just past noon. The weather was perfect. No wind at all.
“There was loneliness, too, as the sun set, but only rarely now did doubts return. Then I felt sinkingly as if my whole life lay behind me. Once on the mountain I knew (or trusted) that this would give way to total absorption with the task at hand. But at times I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind.”
Thomas F. Hornbein’s “Everest: The West Ridge,” a quote used by Jon Krakauer in his book, “Into Thin Air.”
Hours went by as we squeaked along the same harrowing, narrow loose rock route, spitting us back at Trail Crest. We went much faster now, down the same 97 switchbacks in which we’d suffered up. Hard ice and mini snow packs made the journey a bit perilous; one had to really watch their step, lest he or she slide right off the mountain.
Having run out of water just before reaching the peak, hyper-dehydrated, we used Iodine pills and lake water, waiting the half hour before drinking, to let the Iodine work its magic. Huffing down the trail, we stopped thirty minutes later and chugged a liter each.
Asses rubbed raw, lips chapped, exhausted, we kept going, down, down, down, into an eternity of downness, as if being stirred into a downward spiral of a Whitney Stew.
I reflected on my sense of loneliness as we descended down to Trail Camp, and then to Trailside Meadow and finally to Mirror Lake. Again, we could see Thor Peak, but this time in better light, coming back from the top of Whitney.
I realized there was a unique parallel between the mountain and me. Whitney stood northwest of the lowest point in North America: Badwater in Death Valley National Park, which lies below sea level. Badwater’s low point, compared to Whitney’s high, cannot be ignored, it seems. And for me, hiking back down the trail, it couldn’t be pushed aside that I’d survived my own Badwater/Whitney experience and had spent years now on a new trail: climbing up the switchbacks, heading to self awareness , self realization, self love. I’d gone from one extreme in life to another, and was now attempting to find middle ground. I couldn’t ignore the symbolism.
Jeremy breaking my reverie, we talked about every imaginable thing we could: love, sex, relationships, drugs, alcohol, career, writing, jazz—Jeremy plays jazz saxophone—an endless assault of intellectual and otherwise banter along the trail. Now it was only the slow and painful return to civilization.
Hours and hours somehow elapsed and it appeared that we were still stumbling down those ever-lingering switchbacks. Passing Outpost Camp, it felt like we had only gone two miles, though truthfully we’d gone many.
I thought about all my years of hard drinking, hitchhiking, traveling around aimlessly—searching for something inside of myself that somehow had always seemed to slip and slide out of my very own hands, like I had slipped on that rock up at 14,000 feet. So elusive was that chasing in my youth, that rugged, nascent desire to find and keep, label my enduring experience. But I understood, as we clicked down the ever continuing switchbacks, that what I’d been looking for outside, was really what had always been there, inside.
What peaking Whitney did for me was remind me of all the people I’d been in my life, and of the one person—in many layers—that I was. All those experiences in my past, the base camp of being a teenager, the switchbacks of youth, the narrow, loose-rock trail of adulthood, the peak of self-revelation, are all experiences that made me who I am today, the man I am, the man who has always searched, always pushed.
Finally making it to Lone Pine Lake—and visually enjoying it this time—we staggered down the last and final bit. Ending up at the same Mount Whitney Trail sign, we asked a climber by the parking lot bathrooms to snap a quick shot of me and Jeremy posing around the sign.
It was over. 14 hours, 22 miles, over 6,000 feet elevation gain.
Walking to the CRV, I felt in more pain and also more relaxed than I had in a long, long time. The headache was still incredible. My hunger was beyond description. My ass was chapped; my body filthy, exhausted and defeated.
But for the first time in my thirty years on this planet, I knew one thing for sure: In this life, you have to push yourself if you want to find out who you really are. I pushed myself.
And it was time for a steak. ***
*** Note to readers: I, as the author, do not endorse my decision to hike the strenuous Mount Whitney unprepared as I did. I have written this piece because I had a profound experience—partly through my ignorance and lack of proper mountain preparation—and wanted to share what I learned with readers. In order to hike Whitney or any other high altitude mountain, it is recommended that you train thoroughly, acclimatize properly for several days or longer, and that you carry at least five liters of water. Also, if you are feeling AMS, as I was, even if it is much less severe, you should immediately turn around and return to a lower elevation. I have only recorded my true experience and the resulting feelings related to it.