Mt. Whitney &The Stoke Butterfly Effect

“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.

GOPR0246.JPG

Mt. Whitney from the Portal NRT

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.

GOPR0271.JPG

Mt. Whitney from Trail Camp, summit being in those clouds on the right, the Chute being the steep snow to the left of all those pointy things

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.

GOPR0275.JPG

looking west from Trail Crest

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.

GOPR0276.JPG

Sequoia National Park I guess

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.

GOPR0429.JPG

“Windows” looking east

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.

GOPR0436.JPG

Enter a caption

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.”

GOPR0431.JPG

looking west

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.

GOPR0418.JPG

Somebody left the damn door open.

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.

GOPR0404.JPG

my cramponed feets with 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 …

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0409.

Me, summit of Mt. Whitney, not that you can tell

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.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0422.

Mt. Whitney Summit Register with my YOU DID IT page

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.

GOPR0414.JPG

Off the edge of the summit

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?

GOPR0440.JPG

Looking down on trail camp from the Chute I’m pretty sure.

 

Whitney Portal, Jane Austen, & The Lynx

“She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation.” Sense & Sensibility

“What delight! What felicity! You give me fresh life and vigor. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains?” Pride & Prejudice

Who’d have thought after reading through the complete works of Jane Austen I’d have thought, “That lady, she gets it.”

It was snowing when I left the Grand Canyon. I rolled through Flagstaff to pick up my mail, buy new tires (overdue), stock up on things, do laundry,  and go nuts in an Olive Garden on unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks. I’m not usually in situations that make me feel awkward for being … outdoorsy? Is that the adjective I’ll use? My hair unwashed, my legs swathed in their off day camouflage sweatpants, probably streaks of dirt on my face. And it’s not just my appearance, sometimes I find myself eating with the voracity of a lion and realize that through living alone in the wilderness and being single mindedly focused on The Task, I don’t exactly have the manners of polite society anymore. So at the Olive Garden, I felt somewhat like a grizzly bear walking around on its hind legs and asking for, “MORE BREADSTICKS PLEASE!” I said thank you about 85 times in a clumsy attempt to make up for my fish-out-of-waterness.

img_20190521_151614

Hitting the trail in Kingman, Arizona

“You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.”

“As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so.”

“Strange that it would!” Sense and Sensibility

 

On the road again, I stopped at a McDonald’s in Kingman, Arizona and while I was getting a Coke, an elderly man asked me about the rig and we chatted about old things and he warned me about the wind going forward, especially through the desert. He said there had been a number of accidents that morning, including a truck and trailer getting flipped into the median and smashed into oblivion. The wind was 60mph. I can’t really imagine what that kind of wind is doing at low elevation, because those are mountain winds. Actually I looked it up, and 60mph is the first level of tornado classification.

img_20190521_154344

Pip hanging out on the Coyote Pass/Monolith Gardens/Foothills loop trail

So I elected to stay here, in western Arizona, for the night, as the wind was expected to slowly die down by midnight. We camped on BLM land at the Coyote Pass trailhead, which was apparently the official location for everyone to wait out the wind storm, and had a really excellent run on a super cool trail system that Pip and I did the outside loop of.

img_20190521_134733

The official location to wait out the wind before crossing the Mojave

“Whatever be his pursuits, his eagerness in them should show no moderation, and leave him no sense of fatigue.” Sense and Sensibility

The next day we arrived in California, and the rest of the trip was quite uneventful except I suppose that I found out in Barstow that gas was $5 a gallon(!!!) We pulled into the Alabama Hills at the Mt. Whitney Portal and found a truly excellent site to be our base here. Whitney was mired in storms, which I’d find out was the absolute normal. It snowed every day up there. I was dying to see her and it took like five days before I ever got a glimpse.

img_20190522_190135

Alabama Hills site

“There was certainly no harm in his traveling 16 miles twice over on such an errand; but there was an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve.” Emma

So I was reading two books at the time. One was a compilation of all of Jane Austen’s novels, and the other was a self help book called “The Courage to Be Disliked” and I still haven’t finished it but it’s mostly about not caring about other people’s expectations and figuring out what you want to do with your life and doing it, I’m pretty sure. The thing that really struck me about all of Jane Austen’s books is how much the characters value good character. Obviously, Jane’s pretty satirical and is always making fun of pretension and wealth and “society”. It’s pretty clear though [I was just going to say, “especially in Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, well and I guess in Northanger Abby, and I guess in Sense and …] that what she values over those things is kindness, politeness, industriousness. After reading these books, I had the sense that the best qualities of a person must be to always make the people around them comfortable and to strive to better yourself every day. They acknowledge that there are actually wicked people, but that seems rare. So when there are bad qualities in someone, it’s because they’re shallow or don’t work very hard or gossip.

gopr0246_1558922531653_high

I didn’t keep any pictures of Whitney in the clouds. Mt. Whitney from the Portal NRT

“I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly- it depends upon the character of those who handle it.” Emma [did you guys know Clueless was based on Emma? I was like 1/4 of the way into it when my brain was like, EUREKA! Although, I didn’t figure out that Mr. Knightley is Josh until almost the end]

A couple days later, I’m running up the Whitney Portal road (it’s paved, because I’ve learned that in California they’ve paved EVERYTHING, no matter how long or steep the road is, and no matter if it goes anywhere at all or not. Inevitably, at the end of the road you’ll find a trailhead with a sign that says, “Practice Minimum Impact.”) The other book I’ve been slowly weeding through, the self help one, says that a lot of people tend to make other people their enemies when they should be their comrades. At first I thought, okay, yeah, I do that sometimes. Then, with me in the shoulder on the left side of this pretty sparsely driven road with a dog, a speeding car rolls by and doesn’t even try to get over, despite that the oncoming traffic lane is empty and there’s perfect visibility. I jump into the ditch with Pippa and I’m instantly pissed, why is this world full of just the absolute worst people in the world? That are so careless, they’d risk other people’s lives for it. Plus, I’ve had this thought a million times, the only thing at the end of this road is a trailhead, so there’s zero possibility that this guy is a pediatric surgeon rushing to the hospital for emergency surgery to save some poor kid. Then it occurred to me, ah, enemies and comrades.

img_20190528_151524-pano

Bighorn Meadow, near Lone Pine Lake on the Whitney Trail

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” Elizabeth, I totally get it. I feel this way 100%, but I don’t want to. I don’t want it to be like that.

It happens when I pass people on trails, too. After years of doing it, I’ve honed what I believe to be the best possible system of, “Good mornings,” and, “Mind if we sneak past you?” With different volume levels and always trying to sound friendly because I really believe that if everyone out recreating could just be respectful and use trial etiquette and friendliness, everyone could use the trails and have a good time. But that’s not how it works. There’s always somebody that won’t let me pass them, or says something snarky when I do. And guess what? Everybody in those situations walks away mad! I’m quite sure it doesn’t make them happy to be rude to me, and I can never think of what to say so I usually say nothing and stew about it for the rest of the run. We could’ve both walked away saying, “Have a great day!” and instead we’re all agitated, because that person had to be a dick. Comrades, eh? Further, especially at a crowded place like the Whitney trail, I might have 30 good interactions, with friendly folks, and I often did, and stopped to have interesting chats with loads of people. But it’s the one bad one, the one enemy, that just blows it every time.

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil- a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”

“And your defect is to hate everybody.”

“And yours is to willfully misunderstand them.” I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure, that that is obviously Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.

img_20190529_133453

Mobius Arch with the Sierras (Whitney in the clouds) behind it

So then something happened where *I* was the jerk. We were running on the Portal NRT trail, which is a gorgeous and vastly underused connector, so that folks don’t have to drive up the 2,000 feet of steep switchbacks to the Whitney TH and can instead walk up them. National Recreational Trails, if you didn’t already know, are trails so excellent and spectacular, they’ve been awarded the special designation of being funded for their building and maintenance forever. We rarely saw other people on it, but it’s one of my favorite trails. There’s two steep climbs, connected by about a mile of traversing the side of this cliff. We had just rolled over to the traversing part and picked up a bunch of speed when I hear a bunch of rustling above me on the cliffs, I look up and whirl around just in time to see a lynx descending rapidly, who then landed on the trail behind me, like three feet behind me. It was a juvenile, approximately Pippa sized so around 45 pounds. I know because right at the same moment it landed, two other things happened: Pip trotted up as she had been behind a ways, looking interested in the manner of, “Hey guys, what’s going on here?” and I screamed like the first victim in a horror movie.

“I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.” Emma

GOPR0216.JPG

Me scrambling on the east side

Oh I feel so terrible about that! The little lynx, which I’m sure meant no harm at all, descended further to get out of what it perceived to be immediate danger, and stopped to look back at us. Did I imagine that its face looked hurt? But how could I explain to this happy little/enormous kitten that I had, a week ago, ran over a rattlesnake that launched into the air and tried to strike me, coming so close that I was sure it actually had bitten me? And now my nerves were destroyed. [I just had the best typo ever, you guys, when I first wrote that sentence about a rattlesnack.] I can’t say what would’ve happened if I didn’t scream like that, I’ve never even screamed like that! Usually things happen too fast for me to even have a vocal or intentional response of any kind,  including with the rattlesnack, or the time I was charged by a bear. But I got the impression that the lynx kiddo was feeling playful when it elected to join us. And I screamed at him.

GOPR0225.JPG

Pip on the east side, Mt Whitney mired in clouds

“You know what you ought to do. Clear your character handsomely before her. Tell her that you think very highly of the understanding of women.”

“Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world-especially those-whoever they may be-with whom I happen to be in company.”

“That is not enough, be more serious.”

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Northanger Abby

GOPR0236.JPG

The first time I saw Mt. Whitney after she was buried in storms for the first five days of my stay

So what did we learn? Well, nothing new at all. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Stop holding on to every little stupid thing that happens, especially since it probably has nothing to do with you. When someone’s a jerk, know that if their life is that miserable that they’ve taking it out on a stranger on a trail, it’s certainly not your fault and not something to be upset over. I also realized that I’m so anxious about other people being rude or mean that I’m sure it is palpable, that I’m probably almost expecting it. Now that I’ve had this mindset change, I can tell you [foreshadowing!] that when I do Whitney, I had 100% positive interactions, and not just positive, but like, fully joyous.

“So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible.” Northanger Abby

GOPR0266.JPG

Whitney from Alabama Hills

The whole lynx story might be a hard to understand example of how I had this revelation, but after an hour or so of feeling guilty for scaring the poor guy I realized, I don’t think that lynx walked away thinking, “God why was that lady so mean!?” and I don’t think he thought about it for the rest of the day, either. Really, it had nothing to do with him. So be more like a lynx and turn the other cheek, or bound down a cliff to safety. Be cheerful and friendly, always ready to play with strangers and hoping for the best, and don’t worry about things.

“I have no notion of loving people by halves; it is not my nature. My attachments are always excessively strong.” Northanger Abby

GOPR0252.JPG

Girl’s gotta stay clean(ish)

You guys, this also feels like the right post to include a shower I’m particularly proud of, I practiced placing gear in these cracks while I stayed in Alabama Hills and hung the shower off of some cams. It was one of the most beautiful shower locations I’ve ever had.

“By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self complacency on the score of some quality of other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” P&P

Later this week, I’ll put up my guide to running and cycling in the Whitney Portal/Lone Pine area, because I didn’t find what I thought to be sufficient information on this on the internet when I got here. Early next week I’ll put up a write up on my Mt. Whitney summit day.

Also, you guys I filmed a yoga class here, in Alabama Hills with Whitney in the background, it’s free and on youtube: https://youtu.be/AS4ZEWUID58

As usual, don’t forget to check out my shop on Threadless: https://stokedalpine.threadless.com/designs/

 

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0239.