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Living and Writing in the Natural World

On the shoulder of Mt. Whitney

I passed Chico’s new music store yesterday, a neon guitar gleaming in the twilight. It reminded me of Guitar Lake in the Sierra Nevada five years ago, an exuberant band of Boy Scouts, and a resulting interminable night wheezing thin air at 13,400 feet elevation on the shoulder of Mt. Whitney with my teenage daughter Ash and her buddy Maya. Did I mention we only had half a liter of water among us? Let me explain.

The hike began auspiciously. Maya’s mom Julie, mountaineer extraordinaire, took the girls over Bishop Pass, through the Dusy Basin, thence south along the John Muir Trail (JMT) for a week over Mather, Pinchot, and Glen passes to Charlotte Lake, where she left the girls. She hiked out over Kearsarge Pass, we shuttled cars, and I hiked in, passing the night just below the peak of Kearsarge in a boulder field. The next day, Ash and Maya were waiting for me on the JMT, full of tales of boisterous Boy Scouts at Charlotte Lake, and we headed south with joyous hearts for Mt. Whitney.

As we descended into Vidette Meadow a long, curving valley swept before us, bounded on our left by the backbone of the Sierra running north/south (Mts. University, Bradley, and Keith, all above 13,000’). Impossibly far in the distance a menacing range of high peaks of the Kings/Kern Divide occupied the far end of the valley, running east/west: Junction, Caltech, and Stanford peaks—huge, saw-toothed, snow-topped chunks of granite blocking our way. We’d have to traverse the highest pass in the Sierras to get past them: the fabled Forester Pass, at 13,100 feet. The sky gods had chased my oldest daughter Heather with lightning and pelting rain over this pass some years earlier, while she was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
I was nervous about it.

It was mid-afternoon of the next day when we left Vidette Meadow long behind and stood staring up at the rugged switchback trail ascending to Forester Pass. Snow patches obliterated the trail in numerous places. It was not the least bit clear where the pass actually sat in the jagged range of rock far above us. We gulped, and set out gamely on the 1,200 foot elevation gain to reach the pass, kicking our steps carefully through the sloping snowfields. But finally we were there! Exultation. Photos. I was exhausted; it had been a long day with little sleep in Kearsarge’s boulder field two nights before. We descended the far side of the pass, and set up camp for the night.

The next day we hiked steadily south on the JMT, paralleling the Kern River canyon some two thousand feet below us to the west. We crossed Tyndall, Wright, and Walker Creeks, all flowing west into the Kern, from which their waters would rush south then curve west into the southern edge of California’s great Central Valley and be lost to countless irrigation canals feeding the farmlands that have replaced the great 500,000-acre Tulare and Buena Vista marshes which teemed with wildlife a century ago. We camped that night at Sandy Meadow in a grove of Foxtail pine, my first glimpse of these graceful but uncommon high country pines.

We were up early the next day, too excited to sleep or even fix breakfast in camp. We ate on the trail, and in elation turned due east at Crabtree Meadow: Mt. Whitney suddenly loomed before us, or rather the “Muir Crest” peaks in which it sits, seven of them like Whitney topping 14,000’. So eager were we that when we reached Guitar Lake at the base of Whitney, it was still early afternoon. Ash and Maya gazed up at the peak in awe and anticipation. They turned to me. “No way,” I insisted. “Not a good idea to start that ascent in the afternoon. We’ll camp here, and start fresh tomorrow morning.” It almost looked like common sense would prevail. Then—the Boy Scouts roared into the basin. Yes. The same boisterous, exuberant Boy Scouts that had so annoyed the girls three days ago at Charlotte Lake. The shouts and pranks of the boys echoed from the surrounding peaks as they set up their camp at Guitar Lake. Ash and Maya cast a resolute stare in my direction. I imagined what a long afternoon and night in the midst of these boys would be like. I checked the sky: not a cloud (or storm) in sight from horizon to horizon. “Filter and fill up your water bottles in the lake, ladies,” I said. “We’re for Mt. Whitney today!”

At this point, I wasn’t clear exactly where we were going to camp tonight. Somewhere on this side or t’other side of the peak, I guess I assumed. We filled our water bottles and took off. The girls fairly flew before me, and soon were far ahead of me. No problem. They were teenagers; I had become a teenager half a century ago. I’d catch up at some point. It was three thousand feet up from Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney’s peak, and we carried full packs. On the late afternoon of a summer day under clear skies, trudging (well, I was trudging; Ash and Maya were flying) up the west-facing side of a very tall mountain, it was hot as heck. I conserved my water, but needed to drink periodically.

Though Mt. Whitney and its nearby peaks in the “Muir Crest” of the Sierra are composed of granite, they appear to be very old, exceedingly jagged, and discolored compared to the pristine granite of Yosemite Park’s peaks. Trudging up the long switchbacks and craning my head at the peak above me, I seemed to be not in Muir’s “range of light” but rather in Sauron’s Mordor. I had to admit that this was one ugly, foreboding mountain, though without doubt my weariness was affecting my perception. Just as I was about convinced that I would bump into an orc around the next boulder, I heard laughter. Orcs and Uruk-hai don’t laugh, I thought to myself. It was Ash and Maya! Just below the Whitney Trail Crest at 13,600’ (where pilgrims typically stow their packs for the last 1.9 miles to the summit) was a charming shelf of rock clearly suited for a camp, they chattered. They had left their packs on the shelf, and doubled back to relieve me of my pack the last 500 feet or so of elevation gain to there—if I wished. You bet I wished, with effusive thanks. I assuaged my pride by reminding myself that they were merely carrying my pack this last stretch—they weren’t carrying me.

So it was that we made camp at 13,400 feet elevation on the shoulder of Mt. Whitney. Far below us, even through binoculars, the Boy Scouts were merely ants in our view, and certainly far out of our hearing. It was rather glorious, actually. I had never camped remotely this high before. To the west, a dozen miles away (as the raven flies; treble that by boot) the Kaweah peaks and the the Great Western Divide range filled the horizon beyond the Kern River Canyon. Beyond that another dozen miles by raven, though blocked by the peaks, lay the great Sequoia groves of the Giant Forest, charted a century and a half before by John Muir, and beyond that the great Central Valley of California.

The only hitch occurred when I discovered that I had only a third of a liter of water left, the girls even less (understandable; they had climbed Mt. Whitney not once but once-and-a-half today). Together: less than half a liter of water, with no stream for miles, and certainly no snow left on this west-facing slope. Not near enough to provide hot water for our freeze-dried dinners and morning oatmeal. OK. It was a “dry camp.” We filled up, more or less, on trail mix, dried apricots, and a bag of tuna. A gulp of water each.

After an astonishing visit by a chirrupy gray-crowned rosy finch (clearly on his own pilgrimage, but willing to tarry to give us a quick blessing), we crawled into our sleeping bags. The night was long and cold, and sleep was fitful for all of us. Humans aren’t meant to sleep at 13,400 feet. In the darkness of 4 in the morning, voices and lights 200 feet above us woke me. Hikers from “Trail Camp” at the base of the east side of the mountain had started out several hours after midnight, to arrive at the summit at dawn. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag and waited for daylight. More trail mix and several gulps of water, a short jaunt to the Trail Crest to stow our packs, then we were off for the summit!

The girls, of course, bounded up the rugged last 1.9 miles, leaving me, as usual, far behind. The altitude affected them not a bit, and me quite a bit. Every step was a challenge. I passed a hiker vomiting beside the boulder-strewn trail. I took another step, and another. After the longest hour and a half of my life, I joined the girls on the summit, 14,495' high. To the east, looking into the rising sun, Nevada and the Great Basin seemed to stretch forever—certainly as far as I could see. We took the customary photo, then turned and left the peak.

I was 63 years old and had climbed as high as one could climb in the contiguous United States, in the delightful company of Ash and Maya. I was too beat for exultation at that moment. But an hour later, having encountered our first snow patch on the way down the east side of the mountain, as the girls poured the stove-heated water—water!—into our last freeze-dried beef bourguignon and I guzzled the ice-cold water emerging from beneath the snow, I felt a lot better. After the meal, the girls again raced ahead of me, down the endless switchbacks, bound for the hamburger and french fries eight miles away at the Whitney Portal cafe where I had stashed our car five days earlier. I plodded after them, very weary, but feeling pretty good about things in general.

Now, five years later, the music-store guitar sign bringing all this back to me, I feel even better about it. But you won’t catch me sleeping at 13,400’ again.

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