June 12, 2013
15 miles today
Going up Whitney
Shelter at the top of Mt. Whitney
SLaCK, Orbit and Red on top of Whitney
Lake of the mountains
Mount Whitney’s bowl
SLaCK ascending Whitney
Plans evolve as information arrives. A simple comment changed everything, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The plan itself was to have a very leisurely morning, then hike eight miles to the base of Mt. Whitney, at 14500 ft, the highest mountain in the continental U.S. We would then store most of our gear in the meadow at the base, climb up five miles to just above Guitar Lake and camp. Early the next morning we could climb the remaining four miles to the summit in time for the sunrise. Plans like promises.
Breakfast was slow and communal. Red Beard had carried in pancake mix. Slack mixed up peanut butter from some dehydrated mix he had found in a hiker box. Lunch box tossed in olive oil. I figured out a way to turn my pot lid into a frying pan that would fit over my stove. And Orbit told everyone she believed in them. And that is how we passed the long morning, mesmerized and salivating as Red lovingly cooked up 30 sand dollar sized hotcakes. His method entrancing. After one side was cooked he would slide a small spoon under the cake and move it few inches off the pan. There he would wait, the cake balanced precariously, until the Zen moment hit him to flip. His accuracy rate hitting the tiny pan was a staggering 87%. Completely worthy of one of those knucklehead cooking shows.
The plan started according to itself. Moved along rock strewn paths through the kingdom of the marmot. A beaver like animal that is always fascinated by the rock around the corner. Arrived at the base meadow in the afternoon with visions of a sun soak, food and nap followed by a casual stroll to Guitar Lake. However, a PCT hiker walked into the vision. He mentioned that he had been on top of Whitney that morning and that a small hut in the summit was unlocked. Gears shifted. If we hustled, we could climb 4000 ft in time to see the summit, sleep in the hut, catch the sunrise, the make our way to Forrester Pass. Being the oldest in the jump I did not abuse caution. We were off by 3:00.
The photos will explain the scenery to you in ways that I cannot. Again and again I stumbled off path because my eyes would not stay down. The 7.6 miles to the summit never allowed for the next step to be lower than the previous but the pack was light, so all was good. Eventually the trail arrived at the edge line which was interspersed within Nepal like rock bridges that fell away sheerly to ones right and left. Then through some snow and a final clamor to the high point. Can one ever tire of hiking down on the rest of geography?
The sunset was still locked in future, but the cold wasn’t, so I headed for the hut. There to greet me, were Mok Mix and UB, two PCT hikers with the same plan as us. The hat was on 8’x8’ closet. UB said he was sure I would fit. I smiled as I said “And the three other behind me?” UB smiled back. All would be fine. It was 6:30 PM.
We crowded in. Various mathematical formulas were proposed to solve the sleeping puzzle, none of which appeared promising. Dinner formed and the hut being to warm. Feeling returned to the extremities, but so did my old high altitude nemesis nausea. Thus, what little I could get down was self force-fed. Sunset commenced and I gave it the respect it deserved, but the minute the green flash didn’t appear I fled the stabbing cold back to our oasis. Conversation dominated the dim light and the highlight was UB’s story. A condensed repeat.
UB heard of the PCT while living in San Francisco. He decided he could knock if off in 90 days. He trained hard at the gym and started the trail at 6’3” and 195 lbs. His first step took place on April 17. To complete the trail in 90 days would require 90 consecutive 30 miles days without a break. Challenge the PCT to a duel and she will shoot back. UB started fast and light putting up big miles. He lived on gel packs. The one night a mountain lion circled him during a night hike. In the ensuing standoff a cactus tore up one leg and recluse spider bit the other leg, which translated into a one-week hospital stay. Back on the trail he pushed hard to make up the miles. By the end of the first month he was down to 165 lbs and his body reeked of ammonia. A sure sign he had begun to consume himself. Rest and fattening sloe him. But still be pushed. Then he blew out his knee on a fast downhill. Another medical visit to be fitted for a knee brace.
The low point came, as it always must in a comeback story, on the descent into Walker Pass. A misplaced step, a fly in the eye, who knows? But UB broke. He hurled his hiking poles off a cliff, then his stove. He went to the dirt and rallied against the injustice of the trail. Tears exhausted, he sat up. What exactly does one do alone in the middle of nothing after beating the earth? No words of sympathy, ho helping hand. You get up and move on. And that is what UB did, but with a new destination, San Fran over Canada. As UB looped into Yogi’s Trail magic kitchen Walker’s Pass he figure his PCT sojourn was over. But the trail had warmed up to UB and gave a little love. “How about an ice cream sandwich?” were the finest words he heard under the blue roof. With that simple question, Ub returned the trail in spirit. Then he met Mok Mok, an Australian woman who counseled patience. UB began to see the trail as an experience rather than a race to Canada. Realizing he had taken as many zeros as hiking days to date, he changed his approach to savor over speed. When I met him on Whitney he couldn’t stop laughing at himself. I love guts.
We lay down in a contortionist jigsaw and attempted to summit sleep. For me it was not to be as nausea had brought along its high altitude had brought along its high altitude buddy insomnia. Still I was smug in my warmth, as the cold grew ever angrier at the intrusion of our shelter.
On the Pacific Crest Trail
Hiking the PCT for the Kids of Escuela Verde
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