If all things went as planned, I would have summited Mt. Whitney two years ago when I first started at UCSD. At the time I was planning a solo ascent, solely because I knew nobody who would have willingly climbed it with me. Now I’m not sure that this is exactly how the story went, but I recall that it went a little something like this:
Mike and I were sitting down having a beer (likely Anchor Steam) talking about some of our goals in life. When I brought up mountains that were on my list Mike showed little direct interest. What did seem to make a dent was the talk of danger and satisfaction of making it to the top. When I asked Mike if he wanted to climb Mt. Whitney he quickly said “Fuck Yeah! Are you kidding me?” A climbing partner was found, and a step was made towards a major goal being carried out.
In the days leading up to Mt. Whitney I was excited, but gladly willing to jump ship at the earliest opportunity. When I called Mike on December 17th to check in we decided to do Whitney instead of Half Dome. If the conditions in Yosemite were even remotely damp we would have been forced to abandon our plans. Partly because of this, and largely because Half Dome was simply “not big enough” for Mike, we decided to attack Whitney head on in the winter.
I have said many things in my life, and I have often not gone through with them. I’d say “I’ll go here” or “I’ll do this” only to never accomplish anything. I’d stay in that same damned town, sit in the coffee shop on campus, or cop out with some excuse or another. My finances have never helped either. But as Bob Dylan said, “The times, they are a-changin.”
I called mike before I started packing our gear on December 18th.
“Mike?” I said.
“You sure you want to do this?”
“Of course, what’s up?”
“Well I’m just about to start packing up our gear and didn’t want to pack if you had any second thoughts.”
“Hell no, let’s do this!”
“Fuck, I kind of knew you’d say that. I was going to jump ship if you were fine with it.”
“We are doing this. I’ll see you at 4PM.”
My heart started beating double time as I began packing our gear.
I got to MIke’s restaurant at 4:30PM after stopping by REI and saying farewell to my mom. I picked up some last minute supplies and edibles to get us up the mountain. It was a good call.
We left Mike’s restaurant at 7PM and drove straight through to Yosemite. We took the 140 to the park and took 120 to the 395. The weather was really unusual for Yosemite this time of year and we ran into almost no slow. After sliding a little on black ice I made sure to tone my speed down on the 140.
We drove through the night and eventually made it to Whitney Portal after driving through the town of Lone Pine and missing out turn. We continued for another 10 miles before we realized our mistake. As we approached the portal I shut my lights off whenever possible. We marveled at peaks in the distance and joked of death. Largely because at this point I personally thought it was a possibility. Having never attempted a mountain, let alone one in the middle of winter, I was frankly out of my element.
At 5:30AM we made an interesting call. We had just arrived and sat in the dark deciding what to do. Both of us felt pumped and were ready to go. At around 8000 feet, I had planned on camping for a few hours and getting some sleep. This would also let our bodies acclimate to the altitude. As you may have guessed, we didn’t do this. Beginning on Monday the 19th, Mike and I began to ascend the mountain. I had personally been awake for 22 hours at this point, though I couldn’t feel it. We stepped out of the car into the freezing air and changed our clothes. Donning our baselayers, softshells, and hardshells, we grabbed our packs and took off. I made a terrible call and took my backpacking boots and not the insulated plastics I had purchased for Shasta. This critical error resulted in me canceling our trip at 13,000 feet.
Mike and I made good time and stopped only often enough to rest for a few minutes and eat energy bars. We hiked throughout the day and felt like we were making great time. The weather was supposed to be clear for our few days and it held unbelievably well. Aside from no sunlight on the north eastern face, we were very fortunate. By 1 or 2PM we were both still going and under the assumption that we had made it to our base camp at 12,000 feet (by my logic at least). We stashed our gear, confident that we could continue on and make a summit attempt. With only minimal gear we continued on and soon realized that we were shy of our target base camp by around 500 feet. Acknowledging this error we turned around as we began to feel the effects of no sleep. It definitely didn’t help that I refused to trust the altimeter on my phone.
We returned for our packs and began to head up to 12,000 feet. After only a few hundred feet I told Mike that I didn’t want to go any farther. I was exhausted and would have willingly slept in the snow by this point at 4PM. We decided to make camp on an exposed snowfield. The wind was picking up and we made some basic errors in setting up camp. We stomped out the snow well, but my decision making regarding setting up camp made the next hour miserable.
I have an amazing tent (2 of them actually). I purchased a pre-Black Diamond Bibler Awahnee tent years ago from a Marine in Santa Rosa. This tent is a two person expedition grade tent that allows you to climb inside and set it up from the inside. As I began to do this, I had Mike blow up the sleeping pads outside of the tent. He froze. I climbed into the tent and left my boots outside. They literally froze. Solid. My fucking boots froze solid. Not a fun experience. I would spend roughly 15 hours drying them out. On a trip planned with state of the art shells, tents, and other equipment, I screwed up the shoes. Damn.
Mike and I eventually jumped into the tent and zipped the entrances shut. Cold and tired we tried to warm up before I made our dinner. I brought a Western Mountaineering -40 degree bag (the Goretex Bison) for myself and a 5 degree bag (Sequoia) for Mike. Summitpost said some people went as cold as -20 but I thought we would be perfectly fine as most people go warmer. This was a bad call according to Mike. His feet froze that night.
The boot failure I experienced was a mistake on my part. I screwed up plain and simple. The stove failure I experienced at 11,500 feet was another story altogether. My Jetboil PCS would not create a spark. I had tested it in the parking lot at the portal and it had worked fine. This was not the case as Mike and I pondered the thought of not being able to eat that night. I quickly realized that I had emergency matches in my “go bag,” only to realize that I had moved them to another bag months before. After tearing through my gear I found a flint and steel that Mike had gotten me for Christmas the year before. This was perhaps the biggest break we had gotten so far. We ate beef stew that night like kings. Speaking of kings, we were the only two people on Whitney that night for all we knew. Short of the two climbers at the portal we found camped there on our way up, we hadn’t seen another soul. It’s worth noting that we forgot to purchase a permit in town. We asked the guy in his tent what to do, and he recommended saying screw it and just head up as running into a ranger was a 0% chance this time of year.
Mike and I had fallen asleep at 4:30PM, before the sun had fully even begun to set. I spent the night trying to dry my boots and wrapped them in my hardshell to prevent water from leaking inside my sleeping bag. The other thing I tried to keep from freezing was water. My Canon G7 seemingly loved the -20 Fahrenheit weather, but my boots and Platypus insulated carrier did not. I awoke 2AM to a still night and terrible desire to pee. The tent was frozen inside and out and the condensation from our body heat was frozen on the interior tent walls. I opened the tent on my side and quickly relieved myself within inches of the tent. I was not going to go outside of that tent if I could help it. As I lay back down I glanced up and saw the stars. Thousands of them. More stars than I had ever seen. With the tent open the wind sent chills to my bones (and Mike’s, as he had gotten up to relieve himself as well) and I quickly shut it. Too cold for the stars. What a crushing realization on my part.
Mike and I had planned to set out at midnight or shortly after to finish our climb. As my boots were still frozen at midnight this obviously was not going to happen. We eventually departed at 9AM and continued to freeze as we shut down camp. Determined to move quickly, we left the majority of the gear hidden and took only the alpine essentials (as I consider them . Water, ice axes, crampons, and our rope.
We figured we would summit well before 2PM and could then make our way down the mountain. As it became more and more beautiful we began to encounter snow that seemed well worth using snow shoes with. We had left our snow shoes with our other gear, and getting back to them would have been a nightmare.
By 13,000 feet we were about to dig out our ice equipment before I told MIke I had had enough. After nearly two days of my toes freezing I was genuinely afraid I would lose the damned things. They had begun to crackle when I moved them and it terrified me. The hand warmers I had brought along did not want to work, either. To the disappointment of us both we turned around. Fortunately we made amazing time down the mountain. When moving quickly my feet had begun to warm up. As we moved slower the higher we got, the reverse was true.
When Mike and I had returned to the Land Cruiser I had realized several things. Though while a failure in the simplest of terms, the trip had been largely successful for a number of reasons. First and foremost it opened my eyes. It was a realistic goal and one that Mike and I simply needed to tackle.
That first step out of my house was the biggest step I took on that whole trip. That may be one of life’s biggest lessons. Take chances and push yourself. Welcome to living. Seriously, I had never felt more alive than I had on this trip. Driving through the night and knowing the world is out there waiting to meet you is a great feeling.
Second was planning. If I had planned better I would have chosen the proper boots. I wouldn’t have frozen and we likely would have summited. That said, I had worked my last few days at my job on the 15th of December after doing going away dinners all week long. I had moved out of San Diego and back to the Bay Area on the 17th. After a night of drinking on the 16th I drove back to the Bay Area. The next day I packed and departed for Mt. Whitney. Had Mike and I not been pressed for time, we likely would have planned better. Needless to say, we have a job to finish when I return from New Zealand.
After 24 years on this planet I’m not satisfied with just being myself. I have told myself I am good “as is” in moments of naivety. I’m not. I will become stronger, wiser, and a better person before this is all said and done. I must continue to grow. It’s that simple. The more I think back on Whitney 2011, the more it feels like a success.