Day 4: Thursday, August 20
It’s 5:20 am and I’m huddled in my sleeping bag inside my tent sipping coffee and soaking my oatmeal with dried raspberries. It’s still too cold to be outside. It was a chilly night but I stayed warm inside my bag with just my base layer and beanie. My guess is it’s about 40 degrees out now, even though the tiny key chain thermometer I picked up at the last minute while standing in line at REI says 48 – I don’t believe it.
For the brief time I was outside to retrieve my bear can and stove I noticed the last of the nighttime stars earnestly fighting to keep their place in the morning sky against the imperious rising Sun. I was relieved to see them – that’s a good sign it’ll be a smoke free morning. I thought about hurrying and hiking in the dark to get an early ascent on Whitney but I hear coyotes howling and the trail to Guitar Lake is in the woods. Dawn is not a time I want to be alone in woods. Starting my day as prey to pack of wild hunters is not how I envisioned my 4th day on the trail going for me.
The Starbucks Via’s bold French Roast flavor and jolt of caffeine are warming my insides and waking me up. I’m preparing my backpack for the day’s climb, tightening all the straps to make it smaller and more compact and filling it with what I’ll need for the day: Mary’s multi seed crackers and Justin’s Almond Butter for lunch, a couple of Lara Bars, Gorp, Orange Stinger Energy Chews and Nuun tablets for electrolytes and flavor. I’m also packing my rain jacket and pants, headlamp, first aid kit, Swiss Army knife, SPOT, phone, journal, map, and my Tyvek ground sheet. I’ll wear my down jacket since it’s still cool. I think that should give me all I need for the day and in case I fall off a cliff and need to survive a couple days before Search and Rescue finds me….
7:30 am at Guitar Lake
Where the hell is Guitar Lake? I’ve done at least 3 miles, I should be there by now. I was growing impatient that the trail seemed longer than I thought it should have been. But I quickly forgot my frustration as I hiked out of the tree line and into the land of majestic granite mountains and peaks jutting toward the sky. I strained my eyes – and my neck – to find the peak I’d be conquering. Honesty I had no idea what I was looking for. This is where I usually regret my lack of attention to detail and planning. It would’ve been nice to know what Mt. Whitney actually looked like. I expected to see one giant peak rising high above the rest, but that wasn’t the case. Everything around me was giant! All I knew was there are jagged ridges and a hut somewhere near the top, but from my angle I couldn’t distinguish Mt. Whitney from anything else in the vast range that lay before me.
As I continued up toward the expansive granite sierras I was still searching for the elusive Guitar Lake. Another small hill to climb. Please let Guitar Lake be on the other side of this ridge. I reached the top of the hill and breathed a sigh of relief: there it was. I was looking straight down on a guitar shaped lake. A wave of emotion swept over me as I froze in my tracks. I was awe-struck. Tears flooded my eyes and my jaw quivered. I can’t begin to describe everything I was feeling standing atop the little ridge at 11,460’ overlooking Guitar Lake. A jumble of happiness, peace, pride, accomplishment and even a little sadness swirled deep inside me while my mind quickly took inventory of all I’d been through and overcome to get me to this very spot: standing alone on the John Muir Trail overlooking Guitar Lake at the foot of Mt. Whitney. My eyes devoured the scene before me and I reveled in my aloneness: a tiny speck amidst nature’s enormous beauty. Standing in the silent and crisp morning air as the sun’s orange glow illuminated the gray-white peaks to the West. I’ve reached another milestone. I am at the famous Guitar Lake. The very place so many of my hiking heroes visited and wrote about. My heroes- all those people who seemed bigger than life doing things that “people like me” don’t do. And yet here I am. Doing it.
I took my first break to shed my down jacket and have a snack before heading up. I plopped down on a big rock above the lake writing, nibbling on a peanut butter Lara Bar, sipping Nuun infused fizzy water from my Nalgene, and gazing upon the very same Guitar Lake about to summit the very same Mt. Whitney that before today had only been places I fantasized about. I let it sink in. I’m here! Pretty surreal.
Shit got real about a half mile above Guitar Lake: right on cue, at 12,000’. I became lightheaded and even a little disoriented as my brain sluggishly tried to function normally. My legs felt like oversized granite boulders that instead of doing their job and carrying me to my goal, had to exhaustingly be lugged along. The thin air felt like a giant invisible hand reaching out of the sky and wrapping its greedy little fingers around my lungs squeezing the oxygen from every cell in my body. Suddenly a climb that felt challenging felt almost impossible. My already slow progress halted to a crawl as I began the slow ascent up what seemed like a million and one switchbacks to the top of the highest mountain in the lower forty eight.
So this is what all the fuss is about! This is why people turn back (usually at 12,000’!). I pushed on, going slower than a sunrise on a frigid morning. It was frustrating, but it was either go slow or not at all. And I’d made up my mind: Unless I’m puking my guts out or so dizzy I can’t stand up by myself I am NOT turning back so just keep moving forward, this isn’t a race. I have all day… One foot in front of the other. You got this. My supportive inner voice was wide awake and doing her best to coach me through as I battled every impatient cell in my body that ached to go as fast as possible and be done with it. Slow down. This isn’t a race. Take your time.
I had to stop and catch my breath after every few steps (literally, like 5 steps). After doing this for who knows how long, I’d sit and take a real break to drink some water and eat a snack which would energize and invigorate me. Feeling refreshed I’d leap up and forge ahead all Gung-Ho again. I quickly learned there is no Gung-Ho above 12000 feet. Each time, the thin air would immediately zap the Gung-Ho right out of me. And literally within 10 seconds every muscle in my legs was spent and I couldn’t breathe again. My stubborn and impatient “fuck it, just push through as fast as possible” self was defeated. I began to accept that wasn’t going to work on this one. As soon as I tried to pick up the pace Mother Nature’s invisible hand pushed against my chest holding me in place despite my earnest attempts to hike forward. I could hear her admonishment reverberate through my brain, “this is not your mountain, it’s mine. And if you want it, you will do it my way!”
Fuck! Ok Mountain you win.
Baby steps…Left foot. Right foot…Just take baby steps. Baby. Steps. Right. Left. Tiny little steps. Step. Step. Step. Just 6 inches at a time. No big steps…
And for the next 3 ½ miles and 3000 feet up I was forced to give in to the mountain, dragging my heavy legs one tiny baby step at a time. Repeating to myself over and over and over again: baby steps, breathe, and don’t look up. Nothing matters but the 2 feet of trail right in front of me. Baby steps: left… right…. left…. right…breathe….
After a little while I entered an almost peaceful Zen-like state. My mantra pulsed through me, pushing the pain and the exhaustion and every other thought out of my brain. Left. Right. Left foot. Right foot. Left…..Just a tiny step. Just worry about the 2 feet of ground in front of you, don’t look up. Just another 6 inches – left… right…..left… breathe…
Omg this is so hard. Why are my legs so heavy? FOCUS: Breathe. In and out, in and out. Right foot…. Left foot….. Right… Left…. Right…
My impatient self was not digging this baby- step shit at all. Frustrated with my snail’s pace and anxious to be done with this sadistic mountain I’d lift my head and sneak a peek at more than 2 feet of the trail in front of me, totally killing my moments of Zen. How much further is it? Am I there yet? FU-UCK! Am I moving backwards??? Ohmygod. I’m going backwards!!! The next switchback is actually farther away! Am I walking so slow that I’m actually going backward??? Oh my god I’m in hell. FOCUS. Baby step. Baby step. 2 feet in front. Breathe. In and out. In and out. Breathe. Left….right…. Leeeeftt… riiiiight….
And so my Mt. Whitney assent went: climbing up and up and up, dragging my heavy legs, looking no more than 2 feet ahead and moving no more than 6” at a time. As much as I wanted to rush and have it be over with the mountain demanded: “if you want me you have to earn me…MY way!”
Every once in a while I’d break my 2 foot rule and lift my head to soak in the jaw-dropping views surrounding me. I’d gaze yearningly at the crystal blue tarns below, teasing me with their serene and inviting waters. I’d pass the time fantasizing about diving off the side of the hellish mountain directly into their crisp sapphire waters, washing the salty sweat mixed with zinc oxide and dirty grime off my exhausted body. How I wished I could plunge into the pure high Sierra holy water and cleanse myself of this brutal and unforgiving mountain. Later. I’ll jump in later. I promised myself a refreshing dip in one of the tarns on the way out as my reward. But now. I must. Climb. Baby steps. Breathe. The earth 2 feet in front of me is all that matters – don’t look ahead. Just keep moving these leaden boulder legs up this mountain. 2” at time.
The mountain whispered in my ear, “If you want me you have to earn me. If you want me, you have to earn me. If you want me, earn me.”
There I was at nearly 14,000 feet, totally exposed, on a trail carved out of the edge of a vast granite mountain, succumbing to Mother Nature. Understanding that if I wanted to reach the summit, I’d have to do it her way. Woman vs. Nature. My will to get it done fast versus her will to make me honor the challenge of conquering her. She demanded my respect: “If you want me, you have to earn me.” I had a sudden and stark realization: I could learn a lot from this mountain. And up I went, one tiny baby step at a time.
11:30 am: The summit of Mt Whiney.
I’m here! I made it!! (Not everyone did, I passed several people on the trail who turned back before reaching the top- many half my age! This was no joke.)
The last leg of the climb seemed to have no end… The summit hid from view on the other side of a huge field of broken rock with a narrow and harrowing trail blasted into the side of the mountain. You can’t see the summit until you’re just a few hundred feet away – and before that you just climb and scramble, and climb and scramble- hoping you don’t get a bout of dizziness and tumble 4000 feet down the steep western slope of the mountain.
I’d caught sight of the hut at one point and then lost it again. Where is that damn hut? And finally about midway up a humongous 45 degree rock slope I felt I was close. And when I finally reached the last 1/8 mile of the trail and spotted the tiny rock hut sitting amidst giant pieces of broken mountain. , I cried from sheer exhaustion, relief and immense pride. Another milestone. I’m here! On top of the tallest mountain in the continental US. I made it!!! Holy shit, I made it!