Hiking Mt. Whitney

VAL at the summit of Mt. Whitney

September 21st, 2002 may have been the most painful day of my life. On the other hand, I did hike to the top of Mt. Whitney, elevation 14,495 ft, the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states. I was feeling pretty good when I was actually at the summit - see the photo above.

Here are the numbers:

We started at 10pm Friday night, with headlamps and warm clothes. At around 8,500 ft, it was actually still a little warm. Four hours and 2,000 ft higher, it was freezing. Literally, as I found out when I slipped on a patch of ice on the trail. We made pretty good progress at this point, because we could only stop to rest for a few minutes before we started shivering and had to start walking again to generate enough body heat to not freeze.

We made it to Trail Crest, at around 13,300 ft, 8 miles or so, and 8.5 hours later, just before sunrise. I foolishly thought this meant we were "almost" to the summit. This delusion is probably all that kept me going for the next 3.5 hours, as we lost several hundred feet in elevation and then scrambled across 2 or 3 miles of desolate rockslide while attempting to gain another 1,500 ft in altitude. Below is a picture of me about halfway through the scrambling. I still have my Zipka headlamp on even though it's been light for a few hours. I wish I could blame that on hypoxia, but I'm pretty absentminded at any altitude.

Val on the trail

The final 600 ft to the summit, we were stopping after about every 50 to 100 ft in altitude gain to gasp and wheeze more oxygen into our lungs. Finally, unbelievably, we made it to the summit around 10 AM and took some cursory photos. I signed the register with the comment, "Kernel programmers can hike, too!"

My signature on the register

For the first time in miles, I saw signs of life: tiny squirrels and little birds that darted in and out of the rocks. After I sat down to eat some breakfast, I discovered how they survived. Apparently, a tiny ecosystem has grown up based entirely on the crumbs from hikers' lunches. Less than a second after I pulled out some food from my pack, two or three birds flew over and hopped around with a foot of me, alert for a single dropped crumb. Take a look at the next picture and you'll see why hikers' lunches were the only source of food for miles.

Utter wasteland

The trip back down would have been much faster if I hadn't needed to stop every few minutes for one stupid reason or another. By mile 17, my feet began to hurt in earnest, and the last five miles of the trip were an interesting mental exercise in pain endurance. I didn't know I could keep walking when my feet felt like that.

We arrived back at the car just after 5pm and were whisked off to the hotel by a friend who'd turned around early in the hike. I took a long beautiful shower, ate a few cookies and some crackers, and passed out. Bed never felt so good. The next morning, the memory of the pain had already begun to fade and the whole experience began to take on the aspect of "fun," even though I know for certain that I didn't actually have any fun while I was on the trail. Memory is funny that way. I'm trying not to let it trick me into hiking Mt. Whitney again.

Here's what we looked like the day after the hike. From the left, Guy Wicker, Valerie Aurora, Dave Brittle, and Evan. Mt. Whitney is between my head and Dave's. Strange, we don't look like we just survived a hellish death march.

The day after