By the summer of 2014, I had nine of the 50-peak goal under my belt, but had yet to “solo” a mountain. It was always with a partner or a team.
Mount Whitney, California’s highest point and the tallest in the continental U.S., would serve as my solo test.
Hopeful daydreaming, right before sleep, that a large Aspen tree branch would split and crash through my tent. That way I’d have an excuse — I wouldn’t have to climb alone. No such luck. The sunrise at 5:30 a.m. at Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Campground on Sunday morning reminded me it was time to start on the Mt. Whitney Trail. Fear and wonder would have to wait.
Months earlier, tons of friends and I entered the Whitney Lottery in the spring, hoping for a permit. We lost. But the parks department released random days as climbers failed to get their paperwork or payment in on time.
As a result, I was able to procure a one-night permit for four without choice of the day. Bastille Day, July 14. A Monday. And all the pals that said they would go? Busy. But that’s a climbing (and life) truth best learned at an early stage: you simply can’t rely on anyone else; if you want to do it, plan on completing every step alone.
Paid for the permit and began the logistics. Find a flight from Ohio to LAX. Renting a cheap car. A hotel for Saturday night in Lone Pine, the portal to the peak, after a long day of travel. Getting an acclimation plan. Gear, food, route, map and most important of all, conditioning.
There are not too many alcoholic, fat mountain climbers. I was 6-foot-1 and around 185 pounds. Over two months, I dropped 20 pounds and did a lot of mind-numbing forest running along forgotten Ohio fields and farms.
My motivation was my dead friend who died in a fire during our freshman year of high school. When training sucked the most, I would hear John’s voice insulting and berating me, telling me how much I’ve taken for granted and to push harder.
There was (little to) no drinking during training. Wasn’t quite sure what to do with my hands on the flight to LA.
Day 1: Flew into Los Angeles and drove to Ashland native Seth Emmons’ (aka The Myth) house, where he lived with his SoCal blonde psychologist wife. She became Dr. Emmons, after not wanting to be called Dr. Cox her whole life.
Their house was modest by LA standards, but well-maintained and cost more than all my paychecks, ever, combined.
The Myth suggested I stop at his house on the way to Lone Pine for a hearty vegetarian breakfast. Some old friends from college, Trish, The Heat and The Iceman, who were living out there as well, also showed up for the send off. The Heat brought a copy of my novel for me to sign. What a good friend.
“Wait, you have a book?” Trish asked.
“Yeah, it sucks; don’t read it,” I said.
Her interest continued to grow, asking more about the climb and my life and other books I’ll write. Oh, Trish. A decade ago, she was the gorgeous girl in the group that was always nice, but never showed any interest.
But now, she couldn’t hold a candle to my wife. This isn’t resentment, or look how cool am I now; just funny that sometimes they bring the dessert tray out after you’ve already stuffed yourself. “Way she goes, boys,” to quote Ray, Ricky’s dad in “Trailer Park Boys.”
The Myth and I stopped at the local grocery store for food and last-minute supplies and I was baffled they didn’t provide bags — now I always take my own. The rear view mirror showed The Myth next to the high palms in the parking lot as I started the 4-hour northeast drive out of traffic-coated LA.
Day 2: After resting in Lone Pine Saturday night, in the cheapest (and consequently dirtiest) motel I could find, it was off for acclimation hikes Sunday morning. Pine forests so drought-stricken everything cracked under your feet. High desert no moisture atmosphere, drying out the throat and eyes.
The hours of hiking without a destination concluded and I drove back to Lone Pine to get a to-go pizza before heading to the Cottonwood campground. The World Cup final was to begin shortly. I’ve watched every game of every World Cup since ’94. People were pounding pints of amber ales in the open-air restaurant and I thought how awesome it would be to get wasted with strangers in a small village in California and watch my Super Bowl.
A feeling of general disgust overtook me, and I walked out with my cardboard takeout box and made my way up to the Cottonwood campground.
There are many different methods of acclimatizing for Mt. Whitney. Most just drive to the Portal parking lot area near the start of the trail and crash beside their vehicle for a day or two. The Portal area is a rat race. The locals show their teeth.
(Dear residents and rangers around Lone Pine: I’m sorry the mountain is overpopulated. I’m sorry it once got destroyed. But I didn’t do it, and more importantly, it’s not your mountain. You didn’t build it, contribute at all to its existence and you did not pick where you were born. Do you ever take a vacation? I hope they spit in your food when you do.)
My advice is heading to Cottonwood to get acclimated. It’s 10,000 feet, compared to the Portal’s 8,300, and way less crowded. The drive up was amazing, as there are mountains on one side, and sheer cliffs on the other that lead to an endless flat plane that is Death Valley, the lowest point in the U.S.
At Cottonwood, I proceeded to drink close to two gallons of water. It’s simply the best way to move new white blood cells to needy areas and to acclimate. The endless throat waterfall immediately cured my headache and the more I moved, the better I felt. (I was also yelled at by a Ranger for standing too far away from my fire at the campsite. I was 7 feet away. Seriously. Fascism in the forest. The last line in Kerouac’s “Big Sur” is, “The woods are full of wardens.”)
Day 3: Monday, I was up early and drove back to Lone Pine and grabbed breakfast, before starting the trek from the Portal trailhead around 9 a.m.
The 6.5 miles to Trail Camp (my base camp) was a lot like many of the elevated peaks I’ve traveled around New Mexico and Colorado — giant red pines, well-rounded massive boulders, mountain lakes and gushing streams. At Trail Camp it was all alpine, and I was glad to be tree-less.
Base camp can be a mental struggle. There’s usually a lot of time left in the day, so you contemplate going higher. Other climbers will pass you and you think about your weather window. What if lightning keeps me from summiting tomorrow? But it can be extremely dangerous approaching a ridgeline late in the afternoon, when the clouds and storms typically roll in.
Seven hours of killing time until dusk, sitting on boulders in a barren field, spires from the peaks as just black outlines in the distance. Watching the dots of climbers descending towards camp, completing the downclimb of the “97 switchbacks” that would await me at 3 a.m.
A few other tents were at camp, and two men in their 60s began a conversation with me.
“We’re highpointers, only got four more to go,” one man said.
“Cool, I just started highpointing myself. Only got nine. But I’m doing every peak east of the Mississippi in winter,” I said.
“Really? Have fun doing Katahdin in Maine in the winter,” he said.
“Can’t be much worse than the wind on Mt. Washington or the -14 degree night we spent on Mt. Marcy,” I said.
“Well then, you’ll be fine,” he said.
“What do you have left?” I asked.
“Only really Denali, but not sure if we’ll ever make it,” he said.
“Whoa, so you’ve done, like Rainier and Hood?” I asked.
“Yep, did both in my 50s,” he said.
Crawled into my two-pound tent around 7 p.m. and when my foot hit the side, I felt something hit me back. Freakin’ marmot was playing footsie with me. Marmots are the gross groundhogs of the mountains.
Again, the same horror and doubt in my mind. Not sure if I’d really get up and start alone, in the dark.
I fell asleep and was dreaming about walking on a skinny plank over a river and I heard someone’s watch beeping on the other shore. I wanted them to turn it off so I could focus. It was my wristwatch. One dream over, one beginning.
Day 4: On Tuesday, there wasn’t supposed to be rain on the summit ’till around noon, but I planned for it anyway. Rocked the lightest hiking/climbing crossover shoe ever invented, by North Face — waterproof and steel plated. Then soccer socks as compression rags that I could pull up past my knees, pocketed shorts and my Patagonia windproof/waterproof shell bottom.
On top, a quick-dry Columbus Crew jersey, light fleece and Patagonia shell top. Packed hat, gloves, thicker fleece, water purifying tablets, GoPro, Band-Aids, trail map, food (the gel had almost frozen so it was like chewing hard caramel in the morning) and wore a headlamp.
Was in the low 40s when I started from Trail Camp and up the legendary “97 Switchbacks.” The section was so steep that you could only zig zag back and forth, and there were 97 of those sections.
All my training leading up to this, I would always repeat, “The 97 Switchbacks,” when I got tired. Switchback 27 was the last source of water. A buried stream that you had to dig out the rocks around to access. Mostly dirt water flowed into my Nalgene. I don’t like the weight and waiting associated with pumps and straws. I fill up on the go, drop in a germicidal tablet and continue to climb.
An hour in, around 4 a.m., I saw other headlamps below just starting to ascend. I was expecting more suffering. But the H2O pounding and fitness paid off, and I destroyed the switchbacks without rest. So great to see the Trail Crest sign at the top of the switchbacks, welcoming me to Sequoia National Forest below, but the darkness prevented a view.
At sunrise, dense fog and very light rain accompanied me along the ridgeline, just below the summit. I couldn’t see anything. Four feet in front of me, that’s all.
Where’s the summit? The trail was gone. I ambled around a bit, then found rock walls where people had camped at the top. Heard voices. Followed them through the mist veil. Arrived at the top as the weather dramatically changed. Grabbed a quick whiteout photo near the summit plague with a flag that said, “John Tuttle,” to honor my deceased buddy and motivation. The Ace of Spades was in my hand as well, as a co-worker suggested I take the rock n’ roll gods with me for extra protection. 14,505 feet, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
Two guys, a woman (that had come from another route) and I were huddled in the summit hut. A storm had started out of nowhere. I said I was gone from this mountaintop. The men agreed, but the lady wanted to wait it out. Wait what out? It would continue all day. The only way you die on Mt. Whitney is due to lightning. Everything I ever read and what the ranger at the permit station was most clear about was lightning. If there’s rain of any kind at the summit, get off immediately.
I literally ran down and back to Trail Crest. Again, no views into Sequoia National Park, no eye-bleeding stares into the some of the tallest trees, made to look like model train props from that elevation.
Back at Trail Camp base camp, the inside and outside of my tent was soaked. Marmots had chewed through a guy’s tent yesterday and I read it’s best to leave your tent open when you summit, allowing them to poke around and then leave. It also was open for the rain to spill in.
The downpour at base camp soaked through everything, adding a good five pounds to my pack when it was all loaded up. It took 4 hours 55 minutes to complete the 9-mile summit bid. Then another 6.5 miles out to the Portal. 15.5 miles total on Tuesday, continuously hiking for eight hours.
I thought, I’m done with high base camps — hauling a 30-pound pack for 13 miles is stupid. Would just do it all in a day if I had the choice again. Little did I know, 13 miles (22 roundtrip) and 30 pounds was nothing compared to what awaited me in Montana and Wyoming.
Driving back to LA, I finally got reception and called my cellmate.
“Hi, honey, I did it, I made it,” I said.
“Great job, babe. I think a found us a house to buy,” she said.
It would be the first and only house I ever owned.
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.