Before this hike, I had the dubious distinction of only having climbed the most climbed mountain in the world. It’s called Mt Monadnock and at a modest height of 3,165 ft, is known to be the highest point in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. That was good enough for me. I’m not saying it’s true, but it’s highly likely that someone from Cheshire Country bribed the cartographer to get it on the map. But I am not being judgmental. Being of a very modest height myself, I can empathize with Mt Monadnock. Height isn’t everything.
Well that’s what I thought, when my dear friend Vishnu messaged about yet another backpacking lottery win, this time to Mt Whitney, the tallest in contiguous USA. At 14,505 ft, it’s almost halfway to Mt Everest, and a little less than five times the height of my only mountainous acquaintance so far. Hiking permits were hard to get and Vishnu had been extremely lucky in getting one.
“It’s very very rare. You don’t win these often”, he persuaded. But there’s family visiting, I retorted. “Can’t you ask them to come later” he pressed on. It was a very difficult choice, which I had to discuss with my wife. After 10 long minutes of deliberation, Anu clearly understood Vishnu’s line of persuasion. She then promptly decided that this was indeed a great opportunity for me to do the thing I love doing most – go out there and get lost in nature. It was very hard to disagree with her. And when your wife is convinced about something, you just do it. You don’t ask questions. So I confirmed with Vishnu that I was coming. I like Vishnu and I love my wife way too much. So it is possible that this may have been an entirely altruistic decision.
Of course Vishnu didn’t want to hike it alone, and as I would I discover later, all of this was a carefully laid out trap to lure the amateur into the big bad world of backcountry hiking and camping in alpine conditions. It’s a ‘non-technical’ hike, the website said, and in my enthusiasm, I assumed ‘non-technical’ meant ‘easy’. So, spoiler alert – this is indeed a story of the folly of foolish enthusiasm. What I cannot understand is why I still love hiking and why I still consider Vishnu a dear friend, after what happened. I must be a very enthusiastic person, given the fact that I do not think I am foolish.
But like a fool, I rushed. Onto a plane and into San Jose airport within 72 hours. “You have balls. I didn’t think you would turn up’, Vishnu chuckled. It was his characteristic super nice way of saying ‘Dude, do you have any idea what you have got yourself into?’. Anyway, we celebrated all that stupidity with some Scotch and packed our backpacks late into the night, getting ready for a 6 hour drive early the next morning to Lone Pine, CA. Vishnu had everything organized – a tent, camping stove, gas cylinders, water filtration systems, a bear canister, energy bars, electrolytes for the water, to name a few. There are a hundred other things you need to plan for if you are camping backcountry. All of which I had left to Vishnu’s good judgement. I just made sure I carried enough underwear. In my hiking book, every other discomfort fades away when you are wearing fresh linen where it matters. It almost powers, propels you forward. Definitely a must have, when you are trying to summit a tall mountain. So, after having completely ignored a long list of things Vishnu rattled off, I slept.
The next morning we scorched the California freeways, before arriving in scorching Lone Pine, a small sleepy tourist town that lies where Sierra Nevada ends and Death Valley begins. The ranger at the visitor center handed us our permit and some WAG bags, short for Waste Alleviation and Gelling. The trouble was that all that waste alleviation and gelling had to be carried in person out of the area as you exited. You could leave nothing behind. I thought of arguing over the bio-degradability of my stuff and how if left to nature, we didn’t have to worry about all that alleviation and gelling. But it seemed pointless. The ranger seemed highly convinced about the bags and looked like someone who could possibly withhold our permits, call 911 and hand us over if we argued too much.
With our permits in hand, we headed over to the Whitney portal area, where we camped overnight to acclimatize, at 8,245 ft. The air felt light, but there were hikers and campers all around, and a little store that served food, last minute gear and souvenirs. 7am-9pm, the store-hours sign announced, and a chalk board next to it boastfully mentioned a breakfast menu of pancakes, toast, omelets, bacon, sausages and hash browns. We met a group of hikers cooling off outside. One of them had just completed his hike up and down the mountain and gleefully reported that it took less than 9 hours. 6 to go up and 3 to come down. We then did a small mile long hike to acclimatize, that gave us a taste of things to come. ‘Let’s have a good heavy load of carbs tomorrow before we head out’, I suggested to Vishnu as we slipped into our sleeping bags, thinking alternately about the champion hiker and the hash browns.
We met Rick B at breakfast the next day and he really tried to motivate us. It was the first time we had ever met him. He was a complete stranger. ‘Youth conquers everything’, he said. He must have been 65, or 70 even. I thought about being 40, and about the 20 something we met the evening before who had conquered Mt Whitney in 9 hours. I nodded. Rick was right. Only he wasn’t talking about us. Our foolish enthusiasm and limited mountain hiking experience ensured that we did not carefully examine the risks that lay ahead. Rick then proceeded to tell us some interesting anecdotes from his youth that included hitchhiking across the Sahara desert. He asked about India, the British Raj, Mother Teresa and the City of Joy. It was hard to not like the guy. We thanked him for the interaction and lifted our heavy backpacks. Mine weighed 20 lbs, Vishnu’s a little more.
It was time to hike.
Our plan was to get to Trail Camp at 12,000 ft and camp the night there, and try to summit to 14,505 ft the next morning. It was almost 6.5 miles to Trail Camp and a further 4.5 miles to summit. That decision seemed logical, given the fact that we were inexperienced with high altitudes and it’s never a good idea to leave a lot for the last day. The plan after summiting was to descend all the way to Lone Pine Camp at 10,000 ft and relax overnight, before heading back to the Whitney portal parking. In short, a distance of 6.5 miles+3,500 ft of ascent on Day1; 12.5 miles+2,500 ft ascent+4,500 ft descent on Day2 and 2.5 miles+ 1,500 ft descent on Day3. Easy, peezy, lemon squeezy.
The first couple of hours of the climb were very uplifting, pun unintended. We walked close together, talked a lot about being close to nature, appreciating it’s beauty, respecting it, belonging to the soil and all the other inner aspects of a hiker’s mindset. We stopped from time to time to gasp for breath, and the electrolytes and energy bars worked great to refuel us during our quick pit stops. We were clocking almost a little more than a mile an hour, which given the heat, the elevation gain and the weight of our packs, wasn’t bad at all. Towards the end of the second hour and the beginning of the third however, the true weight of our backpacks slowly emerged. The beautiful landscape offered some fantastic reprieve, and we were truly glad we came. As we climbed on the side of a gorge, streams kicked, rolled and curled under our feet, blue, gray and orange birds sang and flew about, big ferns and other alpine trees offered much needed shade, mountain flowers bloomed on the trail side, a cool breeze altered with the bright sun during certain bends, and majestic rock faces stood on the sides like gigantic guardian angels. The most breathtaking were the alpine lakes with their clear blue center and a shade of green around the edges offering spectacular reflections of the seriously beautiful terrain above. We stopped at a very picturesque rock face overlooking Mirror Lake to take some panoramas. It felt like we were right inside the picture postcard. The vastness of the landscape made us look small and insignificant, but filled us with wonder and overwhelmed with gratitude. As we soaked it all in, I secretly thanked Vishnu for winning the lottery and Anu for pushing me to jump in. At that moment, there wasn’t anywhere else on the planet I would rather be.
By the fourth hour of the climb however, we had already exhausted a lot of our energy, more than 2 liters of water each, and chewed through a significant number of energy bars and gels. The Trail Camp seemed nowhere in sight, and our conversations became less frequent as we looked inward to get our strength reserves working. Our GPS dot seemed to crawl. I started counting as I trudged along, sometimes as slow as a mere 2 steps for each breath. Each step up a rock was a backbreaking affair. ‘One, two, three, four, five – once I caught a fish alive’ I tried to sing from my 3 year old son’s rhyme repertoire. It helped me break into a smile thinking of his beautiful face. Soon enough, he will be big enough to go hike up somewhere with, I thought. I would give him a small backpack, and transfer some of this freaking weight, my mind wandered back into my unforgiving reality. Vishnu may have sensed my frustration and paused for a quick huddle. ‘The camp is just north of Consultation lake, which should be somewhere over there’, he pointed. His fingers were showing the general direction of the trail, which was not much of a giveaway, considering there was only one goddamn trail and which was going only one goddamn way – up. ‘We are already at 11,000 ft’, he encouraged, then proceeding to ask whether I felt the thinning of air around us at all. I frankly had not felt it so far. With so much weight on my back, I hadn’t been paying attention to my nose and breathing. It felt ok. My shoulders hurt, on the other hand. They were already sore. It turned out that I hadn’t tightened my backpack at the hip, and was wearing it too low, all the weight of the backpack falling on the shoulders. So like all new backpackers quickly discover, it’s the hip that packs the punch, not the back or the shoulders. Vishnu’s tips gave me some renewed strength and belief and I restarted my trudging. The trail turned mostly rocky and uneven and walking was tough. When we got to Consultation lake, we were well above the tree line and all their cool shades were gone. It just looked like a huge pile of rock everywhere. The afternoon sun glared in the alpine water and the barrenness of the landscape revealed itself for the first time. The first feeling I got was one of being exposed. There was nowhere to hide from the elements here. Rain, snow, heat, hail, lightning, whatever it is, you were going to be in its path. I had lost most of my strength and resolve as I tramped into the Camp at 12000 ft. I looked at my fitbit. It showed 6:30pm, 15,000+ steps, 88 floors and 400+ active minutes. We had walked for more than 9 hrs to get to 6.5 miles. I unclipped my backpack, lied on my back and closed my eyes for a minute. Filled with gratitude that I had made it, and for all the amazing landscape I had seen on the way.
Vishnu ambled in a few minutes later and we filtered water from the nearby alpine lake for some much needed chai. Then we sat near the lake, sipped on our heavenly elixir while soaking in our first sighting of Mt Whitney. It lay at the right most end of a string of peaks, not majestic by any means, and just about creeping up to the top of the height chart among the equals, perhaps all 14,000+ footers. The moon was starting to bathe the mountains in its glow, and the temperature starting to drop. Having used my bare hands as I filtered water from the cold alpine lake water, I could feel them going almost hypothermic. I struggled with dexterity as we setup the tent. Then we lit up the stove, boiled water for some freeze dried food, and gulped it down at supersonic speed. The hot and very bland chicken rice tasted fantabulous, and my 20Fsleeping bag looked very inviting. I was dead tired and feeling very very cold. After a quick change into thermals and a couple of ibuprofens, I went off to sleep. Vishnu, meanwhile stayed out to photograph the milky way, an activity which under the circumstances I would have paid $100 to bail out of. But bravery is often rewarded, and he got some fantastic shots to show in the morning.
As the morning sun rose from the gorge directly lighting up the line of peaks, Vishnu woke me up from my slumber ‘You got to see this light show. It’s awesome” he shouted. From inside the comfort of my sleeping bag, it took some shaking up to get rid of the inertia and move about. “You are going to miss this buddy”, he reminded. Enough laziness, I thought and quickly pulled myself together and got out to vie the breathtaking sight. Seeing the rising sun itself was quite glorious, given I don’t normally see it, unless I have been awake the whole night on some sort of a life threatening emergency. So the prospect of seeing the rising sun come out of a gorge and light up a string of majestic peaks while creating a fantastic reflection on an alpine lake is all pretty much once in a lifetime thing. I had never seen quite this beautiful, and together with the slight crispy chillness of the morning air at 12,000 ft, this was really really special. “It’s a great start to our Summit hike day”, I thought to myself, as Vishnu scampered around finding the best spot to capture this heavenly postcard. If the morning really shows the day, this was indeed the perfect setup.
The 4.5 miles from Trail Camp to the summit of Mt Whitney is indeed a roller coaster as far as hiking trails go. It’s got wildflowers, cute little marmots jumping around in every other bend, fresh streams of melting ice , fantastic views of the Sequoia side, and then 99 switchbacks, loose rock, passes as narrow as 1 foot at a height greater than 13,500 ft, slippery ice, massive crevices, almost vertical drops of hundreds of feet, 2,500 ft of ascent, and yes, no shade; at least nothing between 9 am and 7pm. That is a great amount of interestingness packed into 4.5 miles, a lot of which the casual hiker would not bargain for. Of course, ignorance is bliss, so we started soon after our morning chai and breakfast. We stashed our tent, one of the backpacks, the bear canister packed with food and a garbage bag close to our campsite and headed for the summit. We carried with us one backpack packed with basic supplies of water, energy bars and our respective cameras. Vishnu graciously offered to carry the backpack on the first leg of the morning, and I gleefully let him. Climbing without the backpack was a breeze, and I soon left him behind, enabling me to take longer breaks in between as I waited for him to catch up. The switchbacks must have been incredibly tiring for Vishnu, but it didn’t quite show. After reaching the Trail Crest point , I decided to take over the backpack. But soon after, near the intersection of Whitney trail and the legendary John Muir Trail, we saw some other backpacks stashed, obviously belonging to hikers on the summit trail ahead of us. It was tempting to leave the backpack behind and just carry our water bottles and cameras, which is what we ultimately decided. A trail marker showed 1.9 miles to the summit and we didn’t think that would be much, the only nagging concern being the mild headache Vishnu had been complaining of off and on.
It turned out to be one of the toughest legs of the whole journey, cutting through jagged rock and an extremely uneven trail, with very little margin for error, sheer drops and deep crevices. I drank sparingly and tried to preserve my water. Although, the altitude did slow me down, I felt fairly ok. Vishnu, however seemed to not enjoy the altitude as much and lagged behind. I was always confident of his strength and experience and knew he would ultimately catch up and kept trudging along, sometimes counting steps, sometimes taking short gasps, and at other times just stopping to soak in the view and renewing my resolve. As I got to the last mile, my strength seemed to drop exponentially, and I was torn between stopping and recharging or just keeping the momentum. I decided to keep the momentum instead and somehow scraped through the rock, ice and direct sunlight to reach the summit at 12:52pm. It had taken me almost 5 hours from Trail Camp.
Reaching the summit is a funny thing. For most of the last part of the ascent, things are so difficult that you almost take one step at a time. Every little step feels like forever. For every rock you climb, more rock shows up ahead. The ordeal seems never-ending. And then suddenly and magically when you reach the top, and there is no more rock to climb. The relief is instantaneous. As I reached the Smithsonian shelter at the top and stopped to take a 360 degrees view, all my pain seemed to go away instantly. Hikers were cheering each other and taking pictures. One even had an American flag. Some were drinking up water, some were gasping for breath, but everyone seemed happy. “We made it” someone cheered. “Go, sign the logbook’, another one shouted. The panoramas were awe-inspiring. I looked for a flat piece of rock and just lay on my back looking up at the sky. A half moon was already up, and battling for real estate with the bright shining sun. There were no clouds for hundreds of miles.
A minute later, I remembered that cellphone coverage was promised at the top, and I fished for my iPhone. It was time for a quick call to Anu, some selfies and panoramas and some whatsapp messaging. She hadn’t heard from me in 36 hours and seemed relieved to hear my voice. She also seemed a tad proud. It’s not often that you see a lazy bum who forever complains of lack of sleep, has a non-existent exercise routine and an undying love for french fries, ice creams and chocolates; scale a mountain. Perhaps she felt that all her pushing and prodding had had some effect finally – the kind of “satisfaction of a job well done” a teacher gets after her worst student gets a distinction. Whether it was the choppy line or Yeshe’s dirty diaper, I can’t remember, but I let her go soon, and returned to my summit experience.
Vishnu arrived after what seemed like ages, almost 40 minutes later. We congratulated each other and did some high fives. He seemed tired and weary. I noticed that his water bottle was almost empty. But the pleasure of having summited quickly took away the exhaustion, and we chatted about the experience and taking snaps of ourselves like 2 kids after a tiring afternoon’s play. We then signed the logbook near the shelter and started heading back down. “We are only half done. There’s a bunch of things to see and experience.” Vishnu reminded. We decided to continue to take it slow, soak in each moment and not just hurry the way down. We also realized that we may not be able to make it all the way down to Lone Pine Lake by end of day as we had originally planned. It was 2pm already. I had almost run out of my water and Vishnu’s bottle was dry. We had a 2 mile downhill, before we could get to our stashed backpack with the water reserve. Let’s just get down to the backpack first, then we will figure it out – we decided. With one last look at the summit, we headed down. It had been a special place, and taken us a lot to get there.
On the way down, I soon started gaining on Vishnu. He was visibly in discomfort, and taking it really slow, almost pausing every 5 minutes or so. But like always, I was more confident of his strength and experience than my own, and started setting a brisk pace. I also wanted to get to the backpack quicker, so I can get some water to drink. Although the air was chilly, the sun was directly overhead and we were sweating from the exercise, and I didn’t want to get dehydrated. I was very close to the John Muir Trail intersection, when a group of hikers we were criss-crossing all day stopped to tell me that they had overtaken Vishnu, and he had looked extremely slow. And what was more worrying was that in spite of them stopping for a significant duration, Vishnu hadn’t caught up along the way. It made me very anxious, and I decided to stop and wait. I was at the bottom of the final ascent by then and the trail winded up on top of me, vanishing at the tip of the visible rocks. Every 5 seconds I would look up to see if Vishnu emerged, and would find nothing. Almost 30 minutes passed, and with my anxiety and my thirst skyrocketing, I decided to climb back up to find my buddy. I was absolutely certain that if he was in any sort of danger, I would be unable to help, given my own dehydrated condition. But I couldn’t just sit there. Well, as luck would have it, a few steps into the climb, Vishnu’s figure emerged from the top. It was surreal. I waved at him a few times before he spotted me in the rocky background and waved back. It looked like he was ok. I turned around and resumed my walk towards the backpack. Within minutes, I reached the backpack and was taking some much needed gulps of water. There was a little shade in a rock canopy and I squeezed into it with my water bottle and some energy bars, giving myself some much needed rest.
Vishnu walked in 10-15 mins later, looking completely exhausted and confirmed he was suffering from the altitude sickness and dehydration. We sat in the rock canopy, drinking water and trying to regain our strength. Our muscles were tightening, and minds getting numb from the elements. For a few minutes, it felt as if everything was working against us. We reminded ourselves that this was in fact one of the perfect days to summit, weather wise. I also remembered the hiker we had met at the Portal store, the one who had gone up and down the mountain in 9 hours total, all in one single day. “Youth conquers everything” echoed Rick B’s wise words. “I must be getting old”, I thought.
We gave ourselves a long rest of 20-30 minutes, drank almost half liter of water each, refilled our bottles and then mustered up enough courage to restart our descent, this time through the difficult 99 switchbacks. I took over the backpack, feeling half responsible and half concerned at Vishnu’s condition. Progress was slow, and we labored through the switchbacks, hardly able to enjoy the scenery and the changing lights of the setting sun. In a little less than an hour, the Trail Camp came into clear view down below. It was pretty obvious that we didn’t have the time or the strength to get down to camp, pick all our load and then walk a further 4 miles to Lone Pine lake. It was out of the question. Our best option was to stay the night at Trail Camp again and descend all the way to the Portal the next morning. Thinking about the tent, our sleeping bags, some more water to drink, some food and ibuprofens helped me tap into my final energy reserves and push downward. Fully aware of his condition, Vishnu was preserving every ounce of his strength and walking very very slowly, but steadily. Once at the camp, we discovered that marmots had ravaged our garbage bag and our waste was strewn all throughout the area, one more small aberration to the day’s problems. After dealing with the trash, we drank the filtered alpine water to our heart’s content. No time was wasted in eating, setting up our tent and slipping inside. Once inside the sleeping bag, I looked back at the day we had. We had walked almost 8-9 miles, climbing 2,500 ft through some very tough terrain, survived altitude sickness and dehydration and safely hiked through the toughest part of the whole journey. The next day was just about getting our load to the bottom of the mountain. And we were already getting a good night’s rest before we do that.
We are over the hill, really, I thought.
We were really over the hill. Although we had our backpacks on, at low altitudes it all felt like a breeze. Well, almost, and only in comparison to the previous day’s blues. 2 days of climbing had made a mess of my muscles, and any compensation my body did for one area started to hurt somewhere else. It started with what felt like a tear in the inside of the thigs, and suddenly I started feeling it in the calf, then my shoulders started feeling sore. Finally my snug fit hiking shoes started hurting my toes. Every step I descended, my toes started bending and bruising. But it was something I would take any day in exchange of climbing up at 14,000 ft without water. We paused to give our muscles some break, and enjoy the scenery throughout our last descent and ultimately reached Lone Pine lake at 11am. It was breathtakingly beautiful. By this time, my toes were hurting so bad I had made up my mind to buy flip flops, the first occasion I get. At the bank of the lake, we unclipped our backpacks, opened our shoes and started walking around barefoot. I sat down to meditate and Vishnu captured it all so awesomely on his camera.
We stayed a little over half hour at Lone Pine lake and it gave us time to reflect. Solitarily and together. Hiking and outdoors has come to mean so much, and given us so much to think about and experience. It has given us so much of awareness about our own selves and the world and such a fantastic avenue to be happy. A moment to reflect makes an occasion even more eventful, even more satisfying. I think it’s all in the mind. We go to a place to get happiness, but we come around realizing that it’s been with us the whole time.
We got back to the Portal at around 1pm. There were no fans waiting or any drumrolls celebrating our conquest. But there was the hiker’s satisfaction at the end of a trail. We rested our feet some more and had some Gatorade and ice creams. Then it was time for souvenirs, some ‘I Climbed Mt Whitney – 14,505 ft’ t-shirts. We talked about our bragging rights and decided it would be acceptable to brag about all of it for exactly 2 days, beyond which people would just stop caring and think that we are idiots.
It’s not a big deal. Perhaps one hundred hikers summit Mt Whitney every summer day. ‘Tallest in the lower 48’, ‘Half of Everest’ etc etc are just words. I walked away thinking, if I could do it, anybody can. Someone said we climb mountains, because ‘they are there’, because it’s hard. True. There is an incredible happiness that comes from doing something that’s hard. To the extent, that I feel it’s incorrect to say ‘There’s no pleasure without the pain”. I am beginning to think that real pleasure comes “from” the pain itself. Almost as if the pain is the genesis of the pleasure. They are not two different things. If it had been a breeze, I wouldn’t be sitting here at 3am writing about all this.
I just feel like I unlocked another level of happiness.