The sunset shadow of Mount Whitney drapes for miles across grey talus fields that descend into mossy stair step alpine meadows. When moonlight ices over the last traces of warm red hue, Whitney’s massive east face towers in silver above, a frozen slab of vertical granite that shrinks you smaller than a star against the black night sky. Nowhere in the continental United States does a peak rise higher, and nowhere does the brushstroke of the Milky Way stand as bright against the universe’s canvas. Yet, somewhere in the breath, the echo or the vast silence of the place, even a blind man would not mistake that he stood in the presence of a monster.
Our goal was the summit via the historic East Face route, which, astonishingly, was first climbed in 1931. Though not difficult by today’s standards, the route is known for circuitous route finding, breathtaking exposure and, of course, climbing above 14,000 feet.
But before any of that, you have to get to the base.
Though the approach is a modest four miles, it’s far from a city stroll in every way imaginable. Our legs and lungs burned as 4,300 feet of atmosphere melted away underneath our 55 pound packs. The approach crosses streams, slabs, and talus fields, finally ending at the rocky shore of Diamond Lake, which sits at 12,600 feet. As we finished the last leg the sun was already dipping behind Keeler Needle, one of Whitney’s most prominent neighbors. We eagerly dropped our thuggish packs and surveyed the bivy options. The need to combat cold kept us from settling into our fatigue and David and I kept warm establishing camp, pumping water and organizing packs for the next day’s attempt. After a gourmet freeze-dried dinner, we crawled into our sleeping bags, the alarm set for 5 am.
With no acclimation and the sea level base, sleep proved too light to capture and we rose with heavy eyes and unsettled stomachs. Forcing down lukewarm oatmeal, I recalled the groups we passed hiking the day before, in retreat, pale and defeated by the thin air. Cold in the pitch morning black, queasy from the altitude and propped up by a couple hours of vague sleep, headlamp light dispersed through the cloud of my breath seemed sharper than my thoughts.
Slowly the oatmeal settled in my stomach, putting my cratered energy level on a slow ramp while calming the nausea. We reluctantly dropped our thick layers and began the approach. The work of the hike expanded our lungs and circulated stagnant blood, gradually erasing the morning stupor. We hiked in silence, the churn of pebbles under our feet reverberating through the hollow cirque. The base of the climb, yet another 1,000 feet higher than our bivy, faded from black to blue to red to gray as the Earth put on layer upon layer of morning makeup and Diamond lake became a glimmer below.
We worked our way up the choss strewn highway, flanked on both sides by technical terrain, eventually arriving at a notch and a dizzying vertical drop of 1,200 feet. Though I’ve climbed six number grades harder, I wondered if I was up to the task upon stepping onto the first pitch traverse and placing that first small cam. The granite dropped below as we worked efficiently through the wandering route. Finally we sat underneath the famous Fresh Air Traverse and David took the sharp end.
It’s hard to imagine more exposure, climbing at 14,000 feet with a numbing abyss calling your attention every time you look for a foot hold. But David zoned in and methodically made his way to the enclosed safety of a welcome chimney. From there some grunting, scraping and jamming led to the Grand Staircase and an open choose-your-own adventure path to the summit.
The sun dimmed the bite of a cold wind and we took in the Sierra panorama from our 14,500 foot perch. Hikers struggling up the final steps of the standard approach puzzled over our funny shoes and strange gear but didn’t have the energy to pepper us with questions.
The celebration did not last long with the continuous third class choss surfing misadventure of the Mountaineer’s Route awaiting. After negotiating a loose downclimb off the summit we skied down thousands of feet of gravel, stopping periodically when the rocks in our shoes became unbearable or our knees too sore.
The altitude, exertion and insomnia hit David hard and he needed several hours curled up in his sleeping bag drinking hot tea to regulate his body and stop shivering.
Taking on an alpine peak like Whitney is a journey of exhilarating misery. But in the fight for these experiences, as we float on adrenaline, fear and suffering, memories we revisit in the dull moments of life are carved with the knives of every sense at its sharpest. These are the memories we will draw upon the next time we face uncertainty or rational insecurity. These are the moments that most intimately connect us to nature, not in spite of, but because of the struggle to attain the 14,500 foot perspective.
But next time, I need a better pair of gloves!