Fifteen hours of solo non-stop hiking on a twenty-two mile round trip from start to finish. Hiking in darkness through bear infested forest and known mountain lion territory. Over one mile of vertical feet from trailhead to summit. This project is one I’m most proud of.
At the edge of Sequoia National Park, standing 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous states. Interestingly enough, it’s a little over two hours drive from the lowest point in North America at Badwater, in Death Valley National Park, at 279 feet below sea level.
I arrived the evening before my ascent on September 10, 2014 with a full backpack; 5 liters of water and sport drinks; five pounds of food – including a full bovine of beef jerky. I had a half dozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two pounds of granola, and an entire box of chocolate chip Clif bars. Plus an essential first aid kit, Gerber multi-tool, fixed-blade knife, matches, headlamp, and an additional tactical flashlight.
A month before I arrived a man fell to his death trying for the summit. Obviously, that did nothing to assuage my fears so I came prepared. I’d read it was best to begin early, before daybreak, and being unable to sleep I started at midnight. The trail was almost deserted and I only occasionally saw headlamps further up the trail. Probably being a huge mistake, it was a bright night so I turned off my headlamp and walked by moonlight. Later I’d read that it’s a good idea NOT to sneak up on bears.
I hiked past pristine alpine lakes and waterfalls. Betwixt 11,000 and 12,000 feet the trees grew shorter and stockier before ceasing to grow at all. By the time I reached the 99 Switchbacks, I was at 13,300 feet, seven hours into my summit attempt, a little dehydrated and losing confidence. I won’t lie, when I realized I had over a thousand more vertical feet to go I almost broke. Figuring that foolish decisions make great stories, I pounded another 5 Hour Energy and soldiered on. I arrived at the peak at exactly 9 a.m. and had the place to myself. It was otherworldly. At roughly 60% of the oxygen at sea level just catching my breath was a challenge. From up there the horizon shows the visible striations from the lower atmosphere to the upper stratosphere (or so I thought). The sky above even takes on a darker hue of blue.
From planning to training to execution, summiting Mt. Whitney took weeks. And at times, I found myself alone in inhospitable darkness miles away from help. It more than lived up to its great reputation.