Inching closer to the hut, now in sight, I finally gave in to the the swells of tears flooding my eyes. Like the stones that tumbled off the trail into the steep abyss under the weight of my feet, they spilled out and rolled down my face until evaporating in the warm thin air. Elation, exhaustion, and triumph all brimmed inside me.
The summit was abuzz with chatter and activity as hikers rested and celebrated. I hadn’t expected to see so many people and I felt a little self-conscious. In my real life, I don’t cry. I might get a little choked up now and then, but actual full-on waterworks crying: not so much. It’s not something I’m bragging about or proud of, I just have a really hard time crying. In fact, I had a therapist once who made it her personal mission to try to get me to cry during our sessions, which only served to make me clam up even more – and look for a new therapist. So standing alone on a mountain leaning on my trekking poles weeping wasn’t exactly a normal thing for me. I bowed my head and used my dirty shirt to dry my face while I tried to collect myself.
“I’ve climbed this mountain four times and I cry every single time”. The man’s voice caught me off guard: I thought I was doing a better job of hiding my tears. I lifted my head and looked toward the voice. A tall man with a grayish-brown beard, probably in his mid-to-late fifties was leaning against the hut cooling off in the shade a few feet away.
I wiped my face with the back of my hand and smiled, “Yeah, it sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?” Any embarrassment or awkwardness I was feeling evaporated as the realization that this might be a normal reaction to climbing Mt. Whitney sunk in. As usual, I couldn’t recognize the magnitude my own accomplishment. I needed a stranger to tell me it was ok to cry because climbing Mt. Whitney is a big fucking deal. Such a big deal in fact, that less than 10% of the population ever even attempt to climb a 14,000 foot mountain. It was so much easier to see the accomplishment looking at a 55 year old graying man with a little paunch in his gut than to see it in myself.
I hope this journey will help me recognize my own strength, courage, and accomplishments.
The tall nice man continued, “Yes it definitely sneaks up on you. It’s a beautiful thing. And that climb isn’t easy. It sure seemed a lot easier the last time I did it.”
“Oh my god it was hell! I am so happy to be here. This is just…Amazing… ” My voice trailed off as I soaked it all in.
“I haven’t been up here in 20 years and man it was it a lot harder than I remembered. I’m here with my brother and his boy. It’s my nephew’s first time. He’s 17 now. My brother did it with me last time. But he’s been sick and couldn’t do it…. ” And on he went, telling me every detail of this and past hikes up Mt. Whitney. As grateful as I was for his comforting words, I’d stopped listening. With my composure regained, I looked for the one thing I wanted to take care of first. My eyes darted around, searching…. where is it?
“Wow, good for you – and congratulations,” I absentmindedly responded. “Well I’m going to look for the register now, I want to sign in.”
“Oh, it’s right over there by the door,” He pointed to a big metal box sitting atop a pile of rocks right next to the door of the hut. Somehow I’d missed it. I’d been looking for a rock pile with a cover on it, out in the open like I’d seen at the top of Pyramid Peak in Desolation Wilderness 20 years ago: the last – and only time – I’d bagged a peak.
“Oh yes, I see it!” As I walked toward him and the hut, I paused to look him in they eye, “thank you very much!” I wanted, in some small way, to convey my gratitude. Not for pointing out the Summit Register, but for sharing his own teary-eyed experience in an effort to comfort me.
“No problem. Enjoy!” He looked me in they eye, smiled and gave me a slight nod. I think he knew.
I was excited to sign the Registry: proof that I was actually there! As I signed my name and read others’ entries I wondered: What do they do with this registry anyway? Do they keep it? And if so, why? And where? Will I be able to use it as an alibi someday? — “No Your Honor Ms. Higgins couldn’t have committed this murder, you see, she was on top of Mt Whitney at the time – look I have proof. Right here – Carolyn Higgins signed in at 11:33 am on August 20, 2015 right between John Climber who signed in at 11:32 and Mary Hiker who signed in at 11:34. Therefore Carolyn Higgins is innocent!!!” Oh how I love my courtroom dramas! (NOTE: I was really curious about what they do with the registry so I looked it up. My findings are at the end of this post, in case you’re curious too…).
After signing in and lingering over the registry a few minutes to fully absorb the moment, I entered the hut. The Mt. Whitney Summit Shelter is officially named the Smithsonian Institute Shelter and was originally proposed after Byrd Surby, a U.S. Fisheries employee (OK, the irony is killing me: his name was Byrd and he worked with fish??? It doesn’t take much to amuse me!), was struck and killed by lightning on the summit in 1904. But it wasn’t built until 1909, to house scientists who used the 14,505-foot summit to study high-altitude phenomena in the time before sustained high-altitude flight was possible. In 1909 the site was also used by Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory director Charles Greeley Abbot to conduct spectroscopic observations of Mars to investigate the existence of water on the planet. (Source: Wikipedia. Ok, so I’m a bit of a history geek…. I had to look this up when I got home…)
It now serves as protection for hikers in case of electrical storms. Standing inside the barren stone hut, I imagined what it would be like to be holed up inside with thunder clapping and lightening flashing outside. A familiar excited nervousness fluttered in my gut as I thought of how scary – and exciting – it would be!
I made my way outside and behind the hut to the eastern side of the summit where there was a crowd of people laughing and talking, taking pictures and eating. I ran into the nice man again and he offered to take my picture. After returning the favor, taking pictures of him with his brother and nephew, I headed to the edge of the mountain to see the views. Everyone seemed to know one another and I felt like an outsider as I approached. Sometimes I really hate being an introvert.
I faced my anxiety head on, put a smile on my face and walked into the crowd saying hello to anyone who looked at me. No one really seemed all that interested in chatting. I was disappointed; I expected a big happy inclusive community at the top with a bunch of people I could celebrate with. Instead it felt like high school all over again and I was walking into the quad where all the popular kids were hanging out. Only in high school I would slink by hoping no one would notice me because if they did, it was just to torment me about my weight or my Big Yank jeans and Kmart sneakers. Being quiet, fat, and poor in high school was the trifecta of dweebdom. It’s amazing how you never really get over that stuff.
But there on the top of Mt. Whitney 30 years later, I realized everyone was probably just going through their own range of emotions absorbing their accomplishment, just as I was. Or they were just as shy and didn’t know how to respond to this dirty middle aged woman geekily smiling at them. I continued toward the edge of the mountain, navigating around the couples, threesomes and bigger groups to take my turn on the popular vista points, pausing a couple times to offer to take pictures of the groups. Each huge rock that jutted out from the tip- top of the mountain lent a new jaw-dropping view of Lone Pine, Independence and Death Valley 14,505 feet below. I smiled. Excitement fluttered inside me. This is so freaking awesome!
I found a flat rock the size of a Prius on the south-eastern edge of the summit to claim as my own for my lunch break. I was surrounded on the side that wasn’t a cliff by a group of Whitney Portal day hikers all bright and cheery in their clean clothes and shiny hair with their LL Bean day packs, Gucci sunglasses and Movado watches. If I had to guess, I’d say they were from Los Angeles… just a hunch. I felt conspicuously grungy next to them. I’d only been out 4 days and already my REI hiking pants and light green shirt were dingy with trail dust. I hadn’t showered in 4 days and my red hair streaked at the roots with gray was haphazardly pulled into braids just so I wouldn’t have to think about how dirty it was.
Oh well, I’m a thru-hiker. I’m supposed to be dirty. I laid my dirty self down on my rock languishing in its warmth penetrating my tired back. What a gorgeous day!
It was sunny and 75 degrees – surprisingly warm for 14,505 feet. And although I could see the smoke from the wildfires in the distance, it hadn’t blown east yet. I was enjoying the warmth of the sun and resting my eyes when, among the chatter of the crowd I heard the magic words: “I have Verizon Service.” A fit, sparkly clean man in a skintight lime-green Under Armor T-Shirt was standing on a rock with an iPhone in his hands announcing he had 4G.
Yay! I grabbed my phone from my pack. First I checked my texts to make sure my assistant hadn’t texted me with any work emergencies. The plan was, if anything critical came up that my back-cup colleague couldn’t handle, she’d text me and whenever I got service I’d respond. I was happy to see no texts from her. I willed myself not to check work email. I’m on vacation. Relax, my team has it covered. Everything is good. Next I checked in on Facebook and texted my friend and emergency contact, Laurel. ‘”I made it to the top” – at Mt. Whitney. Within seconds all of the “congratulations” and “way-to-go’s” came pouring in from my friends and colleagues. My feelings of aloneness and isolation disappeared instantly. I was grateful for this connection: to have people at home who cared about and supported me. It was a nice contrast to what I was feeling on the mountain surrounded by clean strangers.
I heard the LA group talking about all the switchbacks they climbed coming up from Whitney Portal. My friendly smiles hadn’t succeeded in engaging them so I thought I’d try to actually speak to them, “I heard there are 99 switchbacks. It must have been brutal!” They all paused and looked at me. I smiled and went on, “I mean, I had a lot of switchbacks coming up from Guitar Lake, but I don’t think it was even close to 99…”
Finally one of the kids of the group, a boy about 14 said, “Yeah, I counted, there were really 99 switchbacks.” And they all just turned toward each other and continued their conversation. Okie Dokie. I can take a hint… And I looked back down at my phone and continued texting my friends.
Ok fine, I don’t need you snotty LA people anyway.
But then the oranges came out…
A man sitting inches from me pulled a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of quartered oranges from his dainty day pack and handed them to his friends. “Here eat these, I don’t want to carry them down.” He passed the bag around, but only one or two people took some. The rest just passed it along to the person next to them. My head was about to explode: How can you pass them??? Oh my god TAKE ONE! Why aren’t you eating them? Give them to me! My mouth was watering.
He must have had the sliced oranges inside a cooler with ice, because they were perfectly plump and juicy and fresh looking with droplets of crisp clear water and fresh orange juice sliding down the inside of the bag. I’m used to eating fresh fruits and veggies every day and was already craving real food that didn’t have to be rehydrated. I couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful oranges as they passed them around a second time. Please offer me one. Please…. They didn’t. And the half-full bag just sat there within arm’s reach. I desperately wanted to ask for one but I felt so dirty and grungy next to them, asking for food was just more humility than I could muster in my current state. “Brad, do you remember that weird dirty lady on the top of Mt Whitney who was begging for food? That was sooo weird…. “ I imagined them saying, in full Valley-Girl-speak, as they gathered around their 1000 inch Ultra HD 4K TV in their 10,000 square foot McMansion sipping Dom Perignon showing their friends their pictures of the trip. No, I definitley could not ask for an orange slice, and Yes, I hated them for not offering me one.
I’d had enough of the LA crowd with their fancy sunglasses and fresh fruit so I packed up all my stuff and went to find a nice quiet spot away from them all (actually, I just had to pee). I hobbled over the loose granite boulders and past the rock wind shields built by people crazy enough to spend the night up there. They reminded me of graves; rock walls built around a patch of dirt just big enough for a person to lay in. I backpacked with a guy last year who had spent the night on Mt. Whitney. He said it was miserable: windy, cold and he had a headache and nose bleeds all night. No thank you.
I found a new spot on the Northern edge of the peak – far away from the people and their stupid fresh fruit. I spent about an hour relaxing, rubbing my feet and sore leg (it hurt a little on the way up but was starting to throb as I sat still), soaking in the views and writing. The smoke was starting to roll in from the West. I could see the vast white plumes billowing toward the sky from the various fires: the Cabin Fire in Golden Trout Wilderness in Sequoia National Forest, The Rough Fire, also in Sequoia, and the fire in Yosemite near Lee Vining plus others further to the north. It literally looked like half of California was on fire from my perch atop the United States. I decided it was time to pack up and begin my descent. I still had 7 ½ miles and at least 4 -5 hours of hiking to get back to Crabtree Meadows and I wanted to try to stop for a swim in one of those tarns!
I popped a couple more Ibuprofen, sipped my water and packed up. Down I go…
What really happens to the Whitney Summit Register? Here is the best information I could find.
“What happens to the register books when they are full, where are they stored?”
Answer: The 1883-1941 summit registers have been preserved as part of a collection at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library titled “Sierra Club Mountain Registers and Records 1860-2005.”
All the Mt Whitney registers since 1979 are stored in the Park Archives at the Park Administrative Offices in Three Rivers. The official US Government register paper is supplied and removed from the summit register by the Crabtree ranger. The stack of signed sheets for a year (containing thousands of signatures) typically stands one and a half inches high. Thus, it does not present a storage problem. The existence/location of Mt Whitney registers for 1942-1978 remains an unsolved problem. No other summit registers are kept by the Park.
Periodically, summit registers from other Sierra Peaks make their way to the collection at the Bancroft Library. To learn of an effort to care for summit registers on the other big peaks in the Range of Light, one is referred to Harry Langenbacher’s Sierra Peaks Summit Register page (http://summitregister.langenbacher.org/).
Source: Whitney Zone Archive