They looked down upon us with horror. Peering over the edge the Asian hikers with fancy cameras and funny hats recoiled back, out of sight. I feel terrific, on top of the world in more than a metaphorical way. I’m leading the final rock climbing pitch to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the loftiest peak in the lower 48. And the frightened folks above us do not understand; they’ve just hiked up the 11 miles of tortured steep hairpin-turns from Whitney Portal. I’m scaling the final few moves on 2000 feet of sheer vertical rock described by someone saying, “…you could free-fall parachute from the east face summit.”
The elevation on top, 14,495 feet surpasses my previous highest point ever by almost a vertical mile. Camp the previous night at 12,500’ was higher than I’d ever been before. Lack of oxygen at that height and pure rushing excitement caused a complete lack of sleep. But here I am, sleepless near the summit, and life could not be finer.
I received a phone call less than a week ago inviting me on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. My roommate Pat, a professional mountain climbing guide offers his doubtful advice, “Maybe you should try something less ambitious,” until I informed him from whom the invite came: Jeff Achey, the editor of the national magazine Climbing. I’d met Jeff the previous year at a climbing competition in Arizona. My VW bus sports a vanity plate concerning climbing which Jeff photographed and used, a short piece in his magazine. What a fantasy come true; a casual meeting becomes the peak experience of my life!
I have never climbed at altitude. I know it will be very, very strenuous and dangerous. Rock climbing gear I’m OK with but this trip will require more than I have. Pat lends me high performance clothing and rock boots. An ice axe loaned from another climbing friend feels like a lethal weapon; I’ve never even held one let alone used one to save my own life. Pat tells me not to worry about it; he knows Jeff. There could be no one more qualified to teach and guide.
Jeff meets me at Whitney Portal, 13 miles west of Lone Pine; we become re-acquainted as we sort gear and pack. I learn why Pat has such confidence. Jeff has spent most of his life hiking, climbing, backpacking, guiding, all the wilderness skills to assure my safety. Most people purchase this type of security in survival sports. I pay for my protection sweating blood. Ascending Lone Pine Creek, leaving the worn hiker’s trail behind, may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Little did I realize, the approach to the rock climbing involved such unbelievably steep and rugged terrain.
Mt. Whitney rises impossibly distant and far, far above. Each step higher than the last but no step is solid. Often, I take one step up only to slide back, out-of-balance down a few inches. Or the rocks underfoot, each big as my head, tip threatening to break an ankle. I am SO thankful for the ski poles I’m using to remain upright with a 30lb. pack on my back. My experienced roommate Pat suggested them. He also recommended, oddly, a long skirt with nothing underneath, a trick he says he’s only heard about. Tromping through the creek in very warm July weather, keeps my skirt wet, a kind of free-flowing air-conditioning tent. Lacking underthings, it’s now oh-so-easy to squat (ahem).
Compared to Jeff, I move slowly and without grace. He’s often far ahead, out of sight waiting. He talks into a tiny recording device, noting his thoughts and experiences. Once I came upon a particularly slippery creek crossing. Jeff waited on the other side but not to give me support. Somehow, he knew I would fall in, and he’d set up his camera, including tripod to capture the moment. I came up sputtering, laughing and how I treasure the resulting photo!
This precipitous backcountry lacks a real trail. We burrow into brush so thick and close, my shoulders bend near my knees as I scoot along in agony. My breath heaves with the effort as my backpack snares the branches above. Stream water beneath me rises over my boots. Dead end. We must back out. There’s no way to even turn around.
Hours later, I drag into camp utterly exhausted and absent any sense of humor having traversed the wildest, steepest terrain I’ve ever seen. We will bivouac for the night in an enormous rocky bowl, many, many times the size of a football stadium. Mt. Whitney rises on one side, majestic, scintillating crisp violet and neon-peach in the fading light. On the other side, an equally enormous waterfall fills an icy lake with a thunderous cascade. I’m awestruck by the beauty. We’ve not seen anyone since Whitney Portal. I drag myself to the little shelter; Jeff already has rainwater boiling for past and tea, scooped from depressions in the rock. During the long night, I gaze out of the tiny tent often at the spectacle of the stars. At 12,500 feet the clarity and numbers stun me beyond description. I curl up comfortably on a thin mat inside an oversized goose-down sleeping bag. I’m happy and very wide-awake.
Sunrise. The early morning sunlight on the mountains dazzles. The towering rocks seem lit and glowing from within and the landscape takes away my breath. John Muir’s famous ‘Range of Light’ spread before me. Jeff instructs, “We take only what we need to summit. Back here this evening.” He quickly brings me up to speed in using the ice axe. Between us and the spot we will rope-up lies a year-round snow and ice field. We’re able to move quickly despite very slippery patches and a steep snow bank right up to the rock. Now we shift sports: I swap hiking for rock boots, the ice axe slips into a loop on my backpack. As I tie into the climbing rope, I look straight up 2000 dizzying feet and feel giddy.
Jeff takes off leading and I’m treated to the ride of my life. The climbing is technically easy and with Jeff assuming all the risk by going first, all I must do is enjoy. Four hours later, as we near the top, Jeff offers me the opportunity to take the lead. I see tiny silhouettes up there and occasionally hear voices in the wind.
The climbing remains easy and Jeff poses me this time for the photo-op of a lifetime, heck, 3 or 4 lifetimes! I’m ecstatic. I do believe I’m levitating the last few feet! I pull up and onto horizontal for the first time in hours. The astonished hikers fall back as though I were The Alien emerging from movie-flesh. I smile expansively, looking around 360 degrees, 100 miles in every direction, easily the most unrivaled view I’ve ever seen.
Light lunch on top, the obligatory summit photos and brief exploring, then Jeff searches out the decent. Whitney’s northeast corner shields a couloirs or snow gully. We pick our way carefully across the ice to what is known as the Mountaineer’s Route, a glassy smooth chute. I think I’ve had a splendid ride already. Now I get to glissade or slide on my butt all the way back down. Special pants and judicious use of the ice axe make for a joyous slide I wish would never end. Tears of elation are blowing into my ears.
The trip back across the high-altitude bowl to camp seems much longer than this morning’s trek. I persist against a delirium of pain and loss of light. Finally, I collapse thankfully into the small shelter. On this night at altitude, exhaustion wins and I sleep like the stones around me. I awaken to the sound of Jeff’s camera shutter; methodically mechanical CAH-lick….CAH-lick. I look out the tent and to my amazement, the sunrise is even more exquisite than yesterday. Jeff is capturing stunning unparalleled radiance. The rocks do not merely glow. They sing with superlative light. Overcome with the moment, I begin to weep silently. I’m thinking, “One day I will own these magnificent pictures.” And, indeed, I do.
Not content with the adventure thus far, Jeff coaxes me into skinny-dipping in the nearby lake. Floating just off the rocky shore, small icebergs convince me I’m in for an icy shock. This certainly redefines the word ‘exhilaration.’ A momentary splash, enough to remove trail dust and then the warm summer sun bathes me, stretched out on a flat rock.
Jeff is “on assignment”: journalism-speak for this trip into the Sierras, inspired, he writes, by images and quotes from long ago in a 1972 equipment catalogue. His quest seems equal parts empirical and introspection. The resulting article, published the Climbing edition #160, speaks to ‘feelings of accomplishment alternating with a sense of loss’. He’d pushed me beyond my limits; I appreciate accomplishment on a grand, never-before-imagined scale. Jeff records in his notes and shares with me months later: “She has never climbed in the mountains and is slow but never stops, though we hike and climb all day. She reaches camp at dusk two days in a row, exhausted, moving methodically, prepared to go until it’s over. She is fearless, and learns quickly to use an ice axe.”
I lose myself in the long trek back down to Whitney Portal. Later I don’t recall most of those hours lost in the glory of reminiscing. Our parallel and briefly co-incident paths are about to part. I’m quite ready for something more homespun and familiar. His article includes my parting words: “Tonight I get to sleep in my waterbed with my kitty cats.”
Jeff goes on to question the very human search for comfort and loss is a sense of the past. He spends the next several days in the mountains, pushing himself, summitting, free-solo-ing. I arrive home, return the items borrowed to my climber-type friends while babbling incessantly about the trip of a lifetime. That memory infuses the next several years, fills my head with a tenuous reverie of the possible. In a lyrical epiphany Jeff quotes from the Rolling Stones, “Lose your dreams and you’ll lose your mind”.
Thanks, Jeff. My mind remains sound and my dreams intact.