I survived Mt. Whitney.
I say this only half in jest, because there were some challenges that could have been deadly in the worst case scenario. For an amateur hiker, altitude, weather, conditioning, trail conditions, and bears, all pose magnified threats. I was sure to be aware of all the above, and to stay as cautious as possible.
So, where to begin… Last Saturday we camped at the base of the trail. Me and my two cohorts did a brief warm-up hike on a trail that is right in camp and goes downhill away from the site. It was a nice way to see how we would react to a higher altitude, even if 8,000 feet is relatively low compared to what we would experience throughout the real hike.
We started the next morning at about 8:30 a.m. At the trailhead there’s a weighing station for your bag. Mine weighed in at 31 pounds, which was the lightest of the three of us. Jeff’s was 36 pounds, and my best friend Doug had the distinction of the heaviest load – 41 pounds, which included the bear canister (used to thwart any unwelcome hairy visitors).
As one might expect when climbing a mountain, you are immediately on an incline, and it wasn’t too long before I was huffin’ and puffin’. This was remedied with methodical short breaks. After the first mile or so I got into a groove. But when we got up to the marsh area where it levels off a bit (I believe at about 10,000 feet), I started to get my first signs of what I presume was altitude sickness. It was only a subtle headache with a little bit of an effect on my vision (almost like a buzz, without the fun). That, combined with feeling beat up all over, made me contemplate setting up camp much earlier than expected.
This, of course, presented all kinds of complications, since I would have to camp alone if the guys were to continue to trail camp at 12,000 feet… still about three miles away.
After Doug talked a little sense into me, we sat for about 15 minutes, ate a Clif bar, and pressed forward. Thirty minutes of hiking passed and I was back into the groove. We made it up to our campsite at 12,000 feet. If memory serves, we arrived at about 6:30 p.m., which made for a solid 9-10 hours of hiking.
I was flat out tired, and still had some of the minor signs of sickness (no nausea, though). I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it was a good idea to hang here the next day instead of pressing forward to the summit. I was being a little conservative, but considering my experience level, it was a wise decision. That’s because it saved me 10 miles of hiking on day two, which would have been combined with the mandatory remaining six miles to reach our cars.
As Doug and Jeff made their way to the summit, I had all day to stare at my surroundings. The air was dry and it was windy. The silence was occasionally broken by falling rocks on opposing mountain sides. The sound was reminiscent of galloping Clydesdales or a truck driving across a gravel-lined driveway. The fact that these could have been 50-100 pound rocks was not lost on me.
My only company was a constant morning wave of marmots visiting for a chance at a stolen meal. Shy, they weren’t. In fact, one snuck up within a foot or two of me and stole one of my energy bars!
The dry and windy conditions made frequent hydration necessary. Luckily there was an ice-cold glacial stream that ran about 100 yards from our camp, just over a ridge of rocks. To illustrate the oxygen deprivation at 12,000 feet, there were times when I would walk across the ridge and have to stop halfway because I was out of breath.
After enduring 10 hours alone, I came to realize that I needed all the energy I could muster on our final day, because Jeff and Doug returned from the summit an hour later than expected. In fact, when I lost radio contact with them for two and a half hours, I started to mentally prepare for a solo descent that evening or the next morning if, God forbid, something happened.
Luckily I got a call from Doug as I was half asleep at 4:30 p.m. telling me they were on their way.
When they returned, I learned that Jeff got within a couple hundred yards, but didn’t push it because he had all the signs of altitude sickness. Not to mention the two of them were running out of daylight. They returned to camp at 6:30 p.m.
More than half of our six mile descent was in the dark. As you will see in one picture of me crossing a snow-covered cliff (on the way up), it made for a challenging descent, and would have been even harder had I pushed myself to the summit.
Our descent took four hours. Much quicker than our ascent, of course. But it was not without challenges. For one, we were in the dark with only our headlamps to illuminate the 5-10 feet in front of us. It helped immensely. And in some ways, the dark made us lock into the immediate focus of putting one foot in front of the other.
But, we had to traverse two snow crossings that were flat out dangerous to start with, but now we were going downhill… at night. That meant icier conditions and more chance of slipping. If you slipped, you were in trouble. There was no proper trail in the snow, just previous hikers’ footprints where you had to trace their tracks. I can honestly say it was the scariest moment in my life. It took all my focus and patience not to rush across and make a false move.
After I crossed the second and more challenging snowy hillside, I sat with my leg shaking. Sure, it was due to some fear and adrenaline. But, it was also sheer exhaustion as it took all my leg strength to balance the nearly 40 pounds on my back. I had the bear canister part of the way down, which pushed me to my limits. For a more skilled hiker or mountaineer, this would have been a fairly pedestrian crossing. But, for me, it was an intense moment I will never forget.
The weather was fantastic last weekend. Clear and crisp. And even though at trail camp at 12,000 feet it was cold (about 30), once I got in my bag, I actually had to shed a layer.
I had no cell phone coverage above 9,000 feet, so I thought my wife may have started worrying about my safety since we were running late. To my surprise, she was fine. She tried consoling me about the fact that I didn’t make it to the summit. But I assured her that was never really the point. I had no ego-driven goals. If I did, I could have easily given it a shot. If I made it to the summit, that would have just been icing on the cake. But making it to the 12,000-foot level was an accomplishment this amateur hiker is proud of, and something I can build upon for future adventures.
My destiny is set.
Mt. Whitney awaits me, and two fellow travelers. On June 7th, 8th and 9th we will make our trip to the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.
After spending 30 minutes on hold to reserve three spots out of only about 100 that were left, I felt like I was a teen again trying to score floor seats for the Van Halen concert.
I should probably be scared as hell, but I am making progress in my training, which is helping with my confidence. In fact, I went on my first serious hike this past weekend. And it kicked my butt. Six miles of hilly terrain in Auburn, California, and the first mile was practically straight up. With 15-18 pounds on my back, it was certainly tailor made to test my fitness level.
While I made it out pretty much unscathed, only a little calf soreness in the following day or so, I have some serious work ahead of me. I was pretty weak (maybe even nutritionally depleted) that night at dinner. So it goes to show that endurance training is not just about the exercise, but how you handle your delicate nutritional needs. If six miles was a challenge, wait until I have to nearly double that… two days in a row… at elevations I’ve never been to in my life.
I better start looking for my next hike.
My Mt. Whitney hike is one week closer, and I still don’t know what date we will be going. But I do know that it will be in the first week or so of June. So, last night I had the panic moment that I fully expected when I got about 5-6 weeks out from my first big hiking trip. As in, “Oh #?&%, I need to get serious.”
Like in the TLC show I Can Make You Thin, I need to fight my inner eating voice that tells me that it’s okay to cheat today, “you can be better tomorrow.” Well, with the aforementioned “panic moment,” the time to be serious is now. I’ve decided that I will be hardcore with my diet six days of the week, allowing for one cheat day.
I’m also stepping up my actual “on the job training.” This weekend I’m taking a day trip to Sierra Buttes in Tahoe National Forest, California. The hike will be about 6-7 miles and about 8,000 feet above sea level. Not bad preparation but still only half the mileage of Mt. Whitney and 4,500 feet lower. I’ll let you know how sore I am, and even better, publish some photo evidence of my trip next week.
I’ll leave you with a couple of tips that for anyone doing long-term endurance exercise, like day hikes:
– An hour or two before your trip, drink about 20 ounces of water to make sure you’re hydrated.
– Stay hydrated during the exercise with a sports drink, or water with an energy bar.
– And when you’re done, guess what, more hydrating.
See ya next week.
I just got back from a dental appointment. While that was smooth sailing, it’s been like pulling teeth trying to get back into my fitness routine. For the last 3-4 weeks, I’ve sputtered somewhat, getting into the gym one day, then not seeing it again for another 3-4 days.
Luckily, I’ve maintained my weight.
My Mt. Whitney plans are looking slimmer each day. My friend, and coordinator of the trip, says there are a couple dates that we can still apply for in June. But something tells me that we will need to start thinking about plan B.
Our two main choices of alternate locations are Yosemite Park and Lake Tahoe. From there, we will need to narrow it down to which trail(s) we will want to explore.
Anyway, back to my fitness, or lack thereof. While I could be panicking that my fitness routine has hit a wall only a few months out from a major hiking trip, the good news is that I walked about 10 miles up and down the streets of San Francisco last week, and I had nary a sore muscle to show for it. I’ve progressed!
My lower back rehab has suffered since I’ve been bad about my consistency. But, I’ve found that the pain is generally relegated to morning stiffness, and that’s all. If I get back into daily core workouts, I think I may be able to step up my cardio and even consider some more challenging leg and mid-section routines (like lunges).
For now, the fitness ball beckons. I’ll leave you with my lunch recipe, that’s not altogether exciting, but it is somewhat nutritious:
Grilled Chicken with Collard Greens and New Potato
I’m far from being a chef, so this is super simple. Take two moderately-sized chicken tenders and place them in a Pam-sprayed pan. Cook on medium heat and add your favorite Mrs. Dash seasoning. Boil about a fist-sized portion of collard greens in water, drain and season with just a hint of garlic salt and red peppers. I place one new potato in the microwave for about a minute/minute and a half, then season with just a little butter and parsley.
You’re probably looking at about a 300 calorie meal, and you’re getting a healthy green vegetable (collard greens are packed with nutrition, including 70% of your DV of vitamin C in a single cup).
There’s been a minor setback in my Mt. Whitney conquering plans. We didn’t win the lottery. See, you pick dates that are best for you, then you are entered into a lottery. From there, it’s up to chance.
This isn’t to say we have no chance to climb Whitney this Summer. We just need to go for a second round of date options.
It would be a letdown if we don’t make it, but I still plan on a challenging hike, which means I will still document my progress here at Diets in Review. If Whitney doesn’t work out, we’ll probably stick to California, or possibly Oregon.
I just got back from San Francisco, where I visited for five days. It’s an exciting town. One that I fulfilled several indulgences, one of which was actually exercise. I probably walked more than 10 miles, and when you picture what the streets of San Francisco are like (hint: not flat), I probably countered not doing any strength training, and eating out every day. It felt really good that I encountered almost no physical pain after my extensive walking. Before I started working out again, I would have been sore all over.
So, I have no plans on looking at the scale in the next few days. And the fact that I’m battling a nasty cold doesn’t help me get back into the swing of things. I made a decision to discontinue my physical therapy for my back injury, mainly because I’ve pretty much memorized the routine I was given.
Once I get over this cold, I’ll hit the gym and man the fitness ball to get my core strength back in gear. And the good news is that I’ve met a couple potential hiking buddies, which I needed badly. I’ll need to pack up a backpack and lug around 20+ pounds to get a better sense of what kind of shape I’ll need to be in.
Next week this time, I’ll give you a weight update, and hopefully an update on our climb plans. I fear it will not be good news (the weight part), but I’ll do my best to prove myself wrong.