Peaks and Valleys
Unlike a climber on a rope, I won’t leave you hanging. Our attempt to hike to the 14,505-foot summit of Mt. Whitney is over. And … (drum roll, please) we did not reach our goal. We came close. Oh, so achingly, frustratingly close. But, no cigar. And as I’ve always said, closeness counts only in dancing, horseshoes and hand grenades.
Last Tuesday morning, at 3:30 a.m. with only our headlamps and a full moon overhead to light the path before us, my wife and I set out from the trailhead at Whitney Portal (elevation 8,300 ft.) and began the 13 mile trek to the summit of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. By the time the morning sun lit the town of Lone Pine and the Owens Valley far below and behind us, we had already climbed to well over 10,000 feet in just over three miles and were – to be completely honest – burning up precious minutes of the cloudless morning by stopping to take in the breathtaking (quite literally) sights before us.
As I mentioned last week, I had last hiked these trails in my teens. It’s safe to say that, as much as I appreciated the pulse-pounding panoramas of the high elevation Sierra Nevada wilderness, as a young person I couldn’t possibly have fully grasped how rare and precious these mountains truly are. Today, having traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and Australia and having been duly impressed by the many natural wonders unique to each continent, my wife and I were nevertheless repeatedly struck speechless last Tuesday as we looked at vista after vista that couldn’t possibly be real, and yet, there it was before us.
I’m not ashamed to admit that my times along the trail, I stood in silence (except for some rather pathetic heavy breathing, of course) to behold the wondrous beauty in front of me as tears of joy and appreciation blurred my vision. Frankly, I’m watering up just remembering some of these moments from our journey. To think that this glorious display of God’s handiwork is a mere three hour drive from my Crescenta Valley home is mind boggling.
But back to the hike itself. I honestly believe we had trained “enough” to reach the summit and return to the trailhead – a round trip of 22 miles. When we ultimately turned back, we still had plenty of energy left in our reserves, our breathing was labored, but not any more than you’d expect at such altitudes and our desire to reach the top was painfully strong. So what prevented us from reaching our goal? In a word: weather.
One of the first – and most important – words of advice experienced Mt. Whitney hikers will give you is that you’d better be on the summit by noon, linger on top an hour at most and then begin your descent. The weather in the Sierras is notoriously fickle and had already dumped almost six inches of snow on the mountain the day before our hike. Picking up our permits last Monday, in fact, the ranger warned us that very few hikers had been able to summit that day due to lightening, rain and snow. Crud.
Even so, hitting the trail at such an early hour in the morning, combined with cloudless blue skies overhead as the sun began its arc from east to west, my wife and I were lulled into forgetting how quickly the weather can change in the Sierras. We could (and probably should) have hiked at a slightly faster pace. We could (and probably should) have taken less time standing in awe of the beauty around us. We could (and probably should) have stopped less often to snack, drink water and, well, breathe. Silly us.
I’ll wrap up our Mt. Whitney adventure next week. In the meantime, if you pass someone taking deep breaths with a far away look on his face, that’ll be me.
I’ll see you ’round town.