“Nothing you can do about hail. Just let it fall.”
The girl who said this was perfectly calm and sincere, dirty sandals and a bag of cheetos strapped to the back of her pack. Her friend smiled as thunder rumbled, “Have a good run.” And they were gone. I think you have to know what you’re looking for to recognize real through hikers, and you have to be open to inhaling some of their calmness. I am rarely calm, but I know their feeling of contentment, of acceptance, and I spent the next 13 miles thinking that there are two things I need to cultivate in my life, the difference between a hiker and a through hiker being one of them. The other is the stoke and joy and sense of community that I felt on Mt. Whitney.
Mt. Whitney is a remarkable mountain but it’s not hard to climb. It’s the highest in this country. And if you look at a map, you can see why I no longer consider Alaska to be a part of this country any more than Alaskans do. 70 feet higher than Mt. Elbert, which is a completely unimportant distinction, and 100 feet higher than Rainier. Its prominence and jagged summit block is incredible, it rises over 10,000 feet from the valley [we’ll all see if I remember to look this up] but it doesn’t have the distinction the Tetons do so really it just looks far away.
I was at the Whitney Portal for almost a week before I saw it, as it was mired in storms, getting dumped on 24 hours a day. Whitney is the only important mountain in California, if you ask Californians, who couldn’t be bothered to build a trail on any other mountain in the Sierras (maybe in Yosemite? I think that’s the only place I don’t have a trail map of). When I realized [decided? I guess] that I was going to Lone Pine I looked into the permit system, and was certain I wouldn’t be able to do it at all. You have to apply for permits in the winter, and they assign you your dates sometime in the spring, and from May 1st on, only those that had entered the permit lottery months in advance would be allowed to go above 10,500ft or so.
I went up to Lone Pine Lake a few times after arriving, which is the highest you’re allowed to go without a permit in hand, and talked to dozens of failed climbers. “The snow, it was awful.” “We only made it to the Chute.” “We only made it to Consultation Lake.” “We only made it to Trail Camp.” Those three milestones are all in the same place. By chance, I learned that once assigned a permit date, you still have to accept it, and because of this year’s snowpack (200%, I heard) a lot of the spring permits offered weren’t accepted. I went to the ranger’s station and gained a permit for June 3rd. The ranger shrugged while he filled it out, “Between all the new snow and the avalanche danger, nobody’s getting up.” I didn’t check the weather and was on the trail at 6am.
Most of this story would be boring if I bothered to tell it. I took the standard route, because for $21, I wanted my best shot, and I was worried about getting off route and the resulting time loss if I went up one of the technical routes in the snow alone. The snow allowed for an alternate route, where I could don crampons and climb straight up and skip a whole bunch of miles. I arrived at Trail Crest in a little under three hours and was invited into a heatedly excited conversation about the battery lives of GoPros and Garmins. I assumed the folks I was talking to were all togteher, but they were parts of three different teams that were waiting on partners climbing up the Chute and jacketing up as the sky grew dark and the wind picked up, and they went on to happily speculate about the weather. A group of us departed to the next section on the west side.
Apparently it’s normally a trail that’s been carved into the side of cliffs, but in its current winter conditions, there was a narrow path one crampon wide stomped into the side of a nearly vertical wall of snow. I realized, looking at the fear in my new friends’ faces, that mountain climbing is just moving your feet until you arrive at an obstacle that is above your adventure level threshold. I lost my companions, and instead passed several on their way down, none of whom had summited. I passed one team telling another team to turn back. I had yet to see any reason to turn around, but I had even less faith of making it, if that were even possible, but I was still in good spirits. Every day in high altitude is a good day.
Finally, on this bizarre rock feature that felt like a cave when it was buried in snow, I met the first summiter of the day. He was a Californian by birth but has been in South America for the last 10 years or so. He planned to snowboard from Trail Crest. He looked at me intensely and said, “You’re going to make it, I can tell. But the summit’s socked in, no views.” I warmly congratulated and hugged this stranger and my heart was buoyed, it reminded me of a 100k finish, in the Black Canyon when I was completely resolved to drop, and crossing the finish line the official Finish Line Hugger looked me in the eye and said, “You did it.”
I passed two teams on their way down and we celebrated together, with high fives and laughs and votes of confidence. I told them, with all of my sincerest happiness for them, “You did it!” And they told me, “I might as well congratulate you now because you’re going to make it, too, you’re nearly there!” I passed another solo climber, a man who was struggling with exhaustion, just before the last climb. I told him, “We’ve got this, man. That climb’s going to be rough but we’re almost there and we can do it.” I passed a team of three still headed up and they cheered me on. I made it to the top of that climb and saw a building.
In front of the building was a box, and in the box was the summit register. I stepped around it and walked to the edge, clouded in it looked like the end of the world. And I was full of joy. There was a lot of doubt, but no struggle. There’s nothing hard about this climb besides it being long. Some folks were afraid of the exposure in the snow, but I had liked it. It was just enough to make it feel exciting. Someone had dug out the USGS seal.
I had a good amount of time alone on the summit, and I had a think about why I climb mountains. Now that I’ve done some difficult and super scary ascents, I know that there’s value in the struggle, in facing your fear. There’s something about finishing something that you didn’t think you could, whatever the reason. Like you have this mindset, we’ll keep going up until we find something that makes us stop. Turning around is perfectly noble as long as it’s not fear based. I think that’s the thing I’m still trying to put my finger on. You will face a lot of obstacles in mountain climbing, and most of them are fear based. Doubt, insecurity, lack of confidence, laziness, tiredness, weakness, and just plain unspecific fear. If you make it to the top despite all of those things, then you’ve won something important. It’s like a bet that you’ve made with yourself. If I am strong enough and brave enough …
Before I left, I wrote in the summit register. There were dozens of huge pages, maybe the last year’s worth. The guys before me had squeezed their names in on the bottom of a page, well below the actual lines, fully filling it up so I pulled out the next one and in huge letters across the top of the whole page I wrote, “YOU DID IT!” And I hoped that everyone who read it would feel the way I did in that moment.
Running down the last climb, I met the solo climber, and he looked like he wished he was dead. I told him, “You’re there, that’s it, that’s the summit.” and he looked at me warily and mumbled something like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” And I grabbed this stranger by the shoulders, and I got in his face, and I said, “Don’t miss this, don’t walk away now, you are 100 feet away, you just can’t see it in the clouds. You can do this.” And tears ran down both of our faces, and mine again as I’m writing this, and he continued, one lock step at a time. I saw the team of three heading up the climb and I whooped loudly and they threw their arms in the air and I threw my arms in the air and when we met, we high fived and they patted me on the back and I told them that climb isn’t so bad, and you don’t even realize how close you are until you’re there. I asked them to hug the guy in red when they saw him up there, and congratulate him for me. I passed a solo girl, and she asked if I thought she could make it. I said, “I mean, YEAH! You’re nearly there!” And we high fived and shared a moment of female solidarity before she went on to tackle that last climb with gusto. Over the next half hour, I could faintly hear victory whoops in the wind.
Isn’t this how it should be? I know I’ve taken summits for granted because I love standing on top of things and do it so often. I know I let a variety of factors color my interactions with my fellow climbers. What made this different? All these strangers were cheering each other on, lifting each others spirits. It was like there was a line we all crossed, once you’re above this line, no one will be bitter about other people passing them, no one will complain about the climbs or advise anyone else to turn back. Could it have been that one guy? That guy that said to me, “You’re going to make it.” The stoke butterfly effect. Maybe that’s all it takes to change the vibe of the whole mountain for everyone on it. It wasn’t the difference between me making it or not, and nothing I said to anybody was the difference between them making it or not, because the ability to summit was in our hearts and heads and legs all along. Or … was it?