Sunday, August 12, 2007
Mt. Whitney Summit
A week ago today I was in route to Mount Whitney for my first ever mountain summit attempt; it is the highest point in the contiguous United States towering 14,496 feet above sea level. I awoke around 4:30 am and Mindy drove me to the airport so I could catch my 6:51 am flight to Las Vegas via Phoenix. I slept quite a bit on the plane to Phoenix and then chatted a bit with an older gentleman who sat next to me during the short flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas. He was going to Alaska to do some fishing and I filled him in on my adventure; we were both heading off into uncharted territory as he had never been to Alaska and I had never climbed a mountain. I arrived in Vegas and waited for the rest of the group near the baggage claim. The group included Joe Neubauer, Chriss Bossman, Amy Wind, Dan Wind and their daughter, Carrie. An hour and a half later they arrived and we picked up the rental car and headed to Target (which was on our way) for some last minute essentials. We had decided to take the Death Valley route as Joe and I really wanted to see and feel what it was like for the Badwater runners.
Death Valley was unreal; the landscape and mountains were like nothing I've ever seen. It was so desolate and barren. Excitedly Joe and I were talking about what it would be like to run Badwater and that someday maybe we would try it; that was until we stepped out of our air conditioned car. We stopped at a scenic point and jumped out of the car and I felt like I was in an oven with a million hot hair dryers blowing on me, it was unreal! My mouth and throat went dry immediately and we quickly snapped a few pictures and returned to the comfort of our air conditioned Jeep. Joe and I both looked at each other and said "No Way, we'll never do it. Those people are crazy!" This coming from 2 people who run ultra's for fun. We headed across the desert and I pointed out Badwater landmarks along the way (Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs). We arrived at the Lone Pine Campground around 7:15 pm and began to set up our camp. Around 9:00 pm we headed into town for dinner and a few games of pool at Jake's Saloon.
I awoke around 5:45 am Monday morning and was greeted by the amazing shades of amber and purple on the face of Mt. Whitney; it was absolutely beautiful! I then headed up the Mt. Whitney Portal Trail which went from our campground to the Whitney Portal. The rest of the group headed into town to grab breakfast, pick up our permits and to explore a bit. Basically I spent the entire day running and hiking the lower portions of the mountain and ended up logging about 23 miles in total. I was a bit concerned about being worn down for the Tuesday summit attempt but figured it would be good training for the Arkansas Traveller 100 mile run in October. We all prepared our backpacks for the next day and went to bed around 8:30 pm to get some sleep as we would be getting up at 2:00 am. I tossed and turned for hours and then right when I fell asleep my alarm went off; time to get up and prepare for our summit attempt. Carrie (Amy and Dan's daughter) had decided not to attempt the summit and would be spending the day by the pool at Dow Villa. The rest of us had decided to go our own pace and that it would be OK if we did not stay together as a group.
We were at the Trailhead around 3:15 am and started off. I knew that I really wanted to push myself and quickly pulled away from the group. Looking up I saw the headlamps of other hikers as they made their way up the trail and began passing them on the long route up. I probably passed around 20 hikers during the first 3 miles and came upon a group of 3 women; one of them asked me if I knew where the bathroom was. I said, "What was that?" and she said in an extremely condescending tone "You know, a bathroom? Where you pee!" I was a bit peeved by her attitude and said "We're on a mountain in the wilderness, there are no bathrooms. Pop a squat or use your poop bag; the choice is yours!" I then continued my trek up the mountain. I reached the Trail Camp (6 miles into the hike) at around 5:45 am and looked back towards the valley as the sun rose over the mountain range to our east; it was absolutely breathtaking! Mt. Whitney loomed just above me and was illuminated by the amber sun warming it's peak. This was the beginning of the infamous "99 switchbacks" in which you climb from 12,000 to 13,000 feet in a little over 2 miles. It was at this point that my pace began to slow and I began noticing the effects of the thinner air. I made sure to slow down and focus using the belly breathing technique which seemed to help a lot. I reached the top of the Trail Crest and followed the trail to the west side of the mountain where the temps suddenly plummeted by probably 30 degrees and the icy wind stung my face. I threw my polar fleece back on and followed the treacherous trail for the next 2.3 miles to reach the summit. This section was perhaps the most dangerous of all as there are major cliffs you are walking on where the trail is about 5 feet wide; I was careful not to look down so the dizziness and vertigo wouldn't send me plummeting to my death! Kind of dramatic but I'm really not exaggerating; it was scary! I reached the summit around 8:05 am in 4 hours and 52 minutes. I quickly found the summit proper and another gentleman and I took pictures of each other on the summit. He asked me where I was from and I told him St. Louis but that I had lived in LA at one point. I told him that when I left LA in 2003 I had a mountain of problems and addictions and that I had come back to conquer that "mountain!" We congratulated each other, I took a few more pictures and then began my descent; it was cold! About an hour down I ran into my group, Joe, Amy and Chris and they were looking good. I told them they were getting close and they got very excited; I wished them luck and continued on. I had decided to continue pushing myself on the descent but took the time to give hikers tips on the way up including how far they had to go (I was wearing my Garmin 205) and what the weather was like. The descent became a run/hike as I exited the switchbacks near Trail Camp but I was still careful not to slip or twist an ankle; it was "training" for Arkansas but I didn't want an injury to set me back. I enjoyed the beautiful scenery and arrived at the Trailhead around noon; the descent took me 3 hours and 20 minutes for a roundtrip of 8 hours and 12 minutes (not including the 33 minutes I spent on the summit). I was very pleased with my time considering I'm a "Flatlander" and the fact that I had never climbed a mountain before.
On the way down I passed Amy's husband, Dan. He had made it to the switchbacks but had decided to turn around after tweaking his knee. I told him I was going to camp to wash up but would return to wait with him for the group. I returned around 2:00 pm and filled Dan in on my summit adventure and we waited for the group. They finished around 6:00 pm and were very excited about the day! We went out that night to enjoy a big Mexican dinner and share stories; it was great.
The next day we awoke around 6:45 am and Joe and I decided to tackle the Whitney Portal Trail up to the general store one last time. We arrived at the store and saw Amy, Dan and Carrie; they had driven up from Dow Villa to grab some breakfast and check out the souvenirs. We made sure to order the famous Whitney Portal Store pancakes which were HUGE!!! You must try these as they are like nothing I've ever seen before; totally awesome. Joe and I ran back down to camp and we all began packing up to make our trek back to Las Vegas.
I was only staying one night in Vegas (which is more than enough for me). We stayed at Planet Hollywood and my highlight was hitting my favorite coffee house ever; the Coffee Bean. I actually had it twice on Thursday before I headed to the airport; a hot drink in the morning and an Ice Blended in the afternoon. Mmmmmm... delicious! I then headed to the aiport and began my trip back to St. Louis. On my flight from Phoenix the man next to me spotted the book I was reading, "Into Thin Air", and asked if I was a mountain climber. I said not really but I loved reading adventure books. We talked a bit more and my Mount Whitney summit adventure came up which of course was the reason for my trip. He said, "Sounds like you're a mountain climber to me!" On second thought, maybe he's right!
Click HERE to check out all of the pictures from my trip.