Pitch black, 1:30 a.m. I park the car, making sure there are no candy wrappers or lipstick or lotions whose smells might entice bears to break in a window. We cross the darkened road and walk the hundred yards to the sign, “Mt. Whitney Portal”. We weigh our packs on the grocer-scale hanging below the sign. Barb and Robin each carry almost twenty pounds, most of it water. Mine, at ten pounds, will likely feel heavy by the end of the day. We attach our miner’s headlights to our caps and begin the steep incline. It is dark but for the tiny spots of light shining a few feet in front of us like fireflies greeting us in the summer night.
It is cool but not cold. I do not need my gloves or heavy jacket. I feel groggy and off-balance, the result of the Tylenol PM I took trying to catch a few hours of sleep before the midnight wake-up call. I walk unsteadily across the log walkways placed over some soggy bogs. I slip on rocks poking above the gurgling water of the still-dark stream crossings. I will myself to concentrate, not wanting to let a tiny pill spoil months of hard labor and expectations.
The five of us track the trail in the darkness, comforted by twinkling lights of hikers ahead of us. We briefly chat with those on their way down the trail, seeking confirmation in what we are doing. Some summited the day before. Others are turning back, the altitude or the steepness too much. We silently entreat the gods of the mountain that we will not be one of those groups later.
My legs slowly become steady, my euphoria controlled, my stride even. We are quiet, in our own cocoons, hiking together. We do not want to lose a companion or be selfish of our desired pace. We share beams across uneven boulders, steps carved in the granite, and unexpected hairpin turns. As the sky lightens, we pause and watch the multi-colored sunrise from various angles as we bend and weave our way up the mountain.
At base camp, the brightly colored tents of those with two-day passes dot the landscape. I am reminded of the bright flags of hikers from many nations together in the rarified air of Mt. Everest base camp. I eat an English muffin with peanut butter, fuel for the next stage of the hike. I absorb the kaleidoscope of pink, orange, red and finally burnt yellow color of the “needles”, the sheer granite rock formations in front of us. I refill my water bottles, enough for almost six hours on the trail, wondering how tiny iodine tablets can rid the water of dangerous bacteria.
Anxious to continue, we slowly separate, each in her own rhythm tackling the soft ground between the bulky rocks of the increasingly steep grade, the unmarked entrance to the infamous switchbacks, our nemesis. The switchbacks are deceptive; the ninety-seven turns with almost 1600’ elevation gain will take us almost two hours. The three men ahead of Barb and me, visible at every other turn, are counting; finally with relief, they yell out switchback number seventy-five, almost there.
The extreme physicality of the day hits me—this is arduous. My body is working, the goal is ahead, but the pure joy of being in the stark beauty of the Inyo Forest is fading. Finally, Trail Crest, the final marker before the two and a half mile push to the summit, greets us. Barb and I nod silently to one another. Our relief is evident. We drop our backpacks alongside others, easing the load for the final ascent. We will retrieve them on the return trip.
Unencumbered by the dead weight, I feel free of the earth, light in stride and spirit. I do not think about the trail ahead or the descent back to the portal. I am present here and now, no before or after.
The ridge to the summit leaves us totally exposed to the beating sun, the thin air, and the rocky almost hidden trail. The steady stream of hikers gives some security to our mission. Yet, each step gingerly tests the stability of the rocks; a fall would be deadly. Up and down, over and over, the exhaustion wears on us.
We pause to catch our breath and soak in the spectacular vista. The town of Lone Pine is two miles below, Sequoia National Park is to the west, the John Muir Wilderness with its imposing peaks is to the east, and miles below, and we see Consolation Guitar Lakes. The yards tick away when suddenly Barb stops.
“I can’t do it. My legs hurt. I can’t take a deep breath.”
We step off the trail, allowing other hikers to pass us on the narrow ledge. The rocks are uneven and bulky, the incline steep. A precarious place to stop, I need a moment before responding.
“You’re being silly. We only have a mile to go.”
Barb is strong. She kayaks as soon as the rapids are navigable in the spring. She bicycles over logs and boulders. She chops her own wood for heat. She is mentally determined, indefatigable and forthright.
“We’ll summit by ten o’clock, take pictures and have a snack. Your kids will be so proud of you. We’ll be back off the mountain well before any chance of bad weather.”
“What if I can’t?”
“Barb, we’ll just take one step at a time.”
“I don’t know.”
“We’ll do it together. Okay?”
We start again and continue slowly but steadily, one foot in front of the other. Another thirty minutes pass as we slog through stone fields when we round yet another edge of the backside of the ridge and catch sight of a gently sloping plateau covered with gigantic granite boulders. Brightly clad hikers, resplendent in fire-engine red, sunshine yellow, and emerald green, dot an area the size of several football fields. Barb and I look at one another, somewhat perplexed and then, joyous. Although I had imagined a peak where only two or three hikers can stand at a time, we’re at the summit. The 1909 Smithsonian stone hut is in the near horizon. Hikers laughing and posing for photographs are on the ledge near the southeast ledge.
Barb and I hug one another, tightly, and continue to the precipice. A white-and green-lettered National Park Service sign heralds us to 14,496.811 feet. The marker, installed in the mid-1930s, marks the trail as the highest in the United States. We laugh, lamenting the granting of statehood to Alaska in 1959 with its Mt. McKinley taking over the landmark honor.
The vastness of this perspective on the world, the varying shades of blue, the clarity of the air, and the sting of the wind, makes me smile. I sit for a moment away from the crowd, drinking in the enormity of this place, not fully comprehending that I’ve made it to my own mountain top.
Strangers take photographs of us with the empty sky as our backdrop. We sign the guest book at the tiny stone cabin. I eat my once-frozen Snickers candy bar, still firm and delicious. Our stay here is short, only twenty minutes or so. With a last glance, Barb and I begin the descent to the portal.
Our euphoria does not last long. The descent is difficult. My knees and thighs rebel. My left baby toe sports a huge blister that is rubbed with every other step, the pain excruciating. My heart beats rapidly as I slip a few times on the switchbacks. The free-fall is unimaginable.
Is this how an astronaut feels tethered to his space station? Totally free and absolutely frightened? The snaking trail among the rocks and boulders is endless in front of me, the summit too far back to remember the triumph.
The trail in daylight is a wonder, though. Crystalline lakes nestle at the foot of magnificent granite peaks. Soggy bogs and ponds are laden with brilliant green lily pads. Spectacular panoramas of craggy peaks and deep valleys shaped by glacial and river erosion meet us at every turn. The shimmering green of the trees in the distance stand in stately contrast to the monochromatic granite rock beneath my feet. I wish I were a painter able to capture the evolving colors and lights. I am afraid my memory will not hold all that I am seeing and feeling and sensing.
I lean heavily on my poles to deflect the pressure off my knees, perking up with the congratulations of hikers still ascending. I focus on each step, deliberately, judiciously, and tenderly. I stop more frequently for water and snacks. I lose Barb in the distance as she gathers strength, like a homing pigeon fixed on its shelter.
One final bend, the portal is just ahead. Fourteen hours ago I stood here with butterflies in my stomach. I am exhausted, spent, yet exalting in the sweetness of having reached the sky. Maybe, just maybe, I even hear my father’s voice whisper in the breeze, “You did it. You only had to have faith in yourself.”