It’s often said “the journey is more important than the destination.” I’m not sure what wise man, or wise ass, coined that phrase, but after three failed attempts of the Mountaineer’s Route on Mt Whitney in winter conditions, I called bull shit.
I set about to summit on my fourth attempt. Making it to the top allowed me the luxury to look back on a five year relationship with Mt Whitney (2006-2010) to see if an learnings had penetrated my thick skull. Talk a walk back in time with me…
In April 2006, I attempted my first big mountain. The climbing bug had just bitten me and I spent 6 months acquiring the skills (basic mountaineering course, Sierra Club Snowcamping training series, training with Courtenay Schurman of Body Results) to prepare for a four-day winter ascent of Mt Whitney’s Mountaineer’s Route.
Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states standing at 14,505 and the Mountaineer’s Route is 8,000ft of steep snow slopes requiring a heavy pack with provisions, climbing equipment, and winter worthy gear (clothing and sleeping system). I was a newbie climber and I chose to go with International Mountain Guides just based on the price and itinerary
Those four days were the most physically challenging in my life at that point. The 52# pack felt back breaking and the shortest day was 6 hours of ascending. Down lower on the mountain, the temps were higher and the snow created a sauna effect that threatened heat exhaustion. Higher on the mountain, the temps lowered, wind picked up, and a storm blew in causing me to struggle to stay warm. The steep slopes and sense of exposure looking down then forced me to focus my awareness on each step in a way I had never had to focus before. My competitive side struggled with the fact that I had prepared diligently, yet the others seemed so much stronger and faster than me.
Alas, we reached the infamous “notch” less than 500ft below the summit, and the two guides decided to turn us all around. They could see a storm blowing in from the west and wisely assessed that there was not enough time to get us all up and down the final exposed chute safely. I was supremely disappointed that all the months of physical preparation, skill building and logistical planning failed to result in a successful summit.
However, I recognized that it was an excellent lesson to learn early on. No matter how much you have prepared, how much you have spent, how bad you want it, the mountain may have other ideas.
In April 2008, I went back with three swell fellows – Rob Martin, Chris Alger, and Bill Kish. We were well prepared and well suited for each other. We planned an ascent over three days and the first day we blasted up to the moraine around 12,500ft. I felt strong and was happy with my climbing partners. Unfortunately, Bill started feeling bad when we arrived into camp and his headache worsened over night. Typically symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) improve with time at altitude so Bill wisely chose not to ascend further and Rob wisely chose to stick with him.
Chris and I set off at around 4am and crossed the slope that is the one major avalanche risk. We knew that the avalanche forecast was relatively stable with the exception of southeast slopes with sun exposure – just as this slope had. We saw some horizontal cracks which are not a good sign and another guided group we chatted with said their shear tests were positive.
We had worked backwards with the timing to try to be back down and off the slope before 10am, but I really got the heebie jeebies going across it. Chris and I were slower than we had expected due to the altitude and Chris’ lack of experience on snow with crampons. I kept thinking about the fact that the slope was a terrain trap. Even if someone were able to dig us out quickly, we could be decimated by the volume of snow that could accumulate. I was also thinking about Chris’ wife, a dear friend and maternal figure, and felt it wasn’t worth the risk to keep going. As we were about half way up the main chute on the way to the “notch”, I decided to listen to my intuition and turn around. Thankfully, Chris seemed very relieved when I made the call and did not protest.
We rejoined Bill and Rob and descended to a set a lower camp for our second night before hiking out. I remember having the best time joking around with those guys and singing and dancing to random songs blasting from tiny iPod speakers. We may not have summitted, but we definitely had a blast.
April 2010 rolls around and the four of us – Rob, Chris, Bill and myself – are back for more. We were joined by Bill’s new climber girlfriend, another gal named Sonni, and a dude named Jason.
Chris and I had packed a rope and some rock and snow gear to set protection in the final exposed chute; however, my pack was around 55# and I wasn’t in as good of shape that year. I felt that my ability to even get to the chute would be compromised if we carried all the technical gear so I convinced Chris we should jettison it. He agreed and we carried onward up the mountain.
Everyone seemed to suffer a bit more with their heavy packs this time so we camped at Upper Boy Scout Lake (below the moraine camp). This meant a bit of a longer approach on our summit day. We set off dark and early and made good time up to the “notch.”
Fortunately and unfortunately, the weather was fabulous and there were several teams ascending and descending the final exposed chute. Sonni quickly and wisely decided not to climb the chute as she was the least experienced of the group and making a mistake in the chute could result in a 1200 ft fall. Bill and Cindy were like mountain goats and seemed to float up the chute. Rob, Jason, Chris, and I started off on the steep slope together.
The snow was thin over the rocks and it was disconcerting to me. I couldn’t get full purchase of my axe or my crampons in spots and there were sections of rock sticking through the snow. I climbed up a slabby section of granite with my crampons skittering and realized I would have an awful time downclimbing if I kept going. I’m a snow climber and not much of a rock climber, having very little experience down climbing. I told the boys I was turning back and they forged on.
I was disappointed with myself to have come so far for the third time and turn around, but I felt the mountain simply wasn’t worth dying for and I had to recognize my experience was not in sync with the route conditions. Later Rob told me that he and Jason sat at the summit for a while contemplating their descent and almost regretting that they had pushed on to the top. They carefully descended and I watched on pins and needles as they kicked some steps in three or four times before feeling comfortable to weight each foot.
A guided group was being lowered and I also wished I had been strong enough to carry the extra gear and rope so that we could do the same. One of the guided clients dropped a water bottle and it nearly nailed Jason right on top of his helmet as he finished the last few tenuous moves descending back to the notch.
We all regrouped at the notch and descended together, me with a heavy heart knowing the third time was not the charm. However, the party we had back at Upper Boy Scout Lake really lifted my spirits!
At this stage, it was beginning to feel personal. I was frustrated with all the supportive comments from friends about how it’s really about the journey and not the destination. I would exclaim in frustration, “F@#k the journey. The whole point of the journey is to get to the destination!!!”
In September 2010, I hatched a plan that *just* involved hiking the peak, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Given I decided just a few days before the weekend and the Whitney permit lottery was closed out many months prior, I chose to enter via a trailhead 36 miles south of the summit of Whitney. My plan was to start at Horseshoe Meadows, hike cross country up Old Army Pass and camp, summit Mt Langley (14,026ft) and continue around the backside of Whitney to summit. It would involve traveling a total of 48 miles at altitude to summit two 14kft peaks, and I would do it alone (also see Sierra Journal “Taking Whitney from the Backside”).
The first day I hiked 8 miles and camped on the moonscape of Old Army Pass pitching my tent into strong winds. I arose and began hiking at 6am to summit Langley by 9am. As I was descending back toward the trail, I startled a group of three male hikers. We struck up a conversation and they were somewhat incredulous about a female soloist but friendly and good-natured. They were on the same itinerary as me and we were all uncertain how far we would get on day 2. I bid adieu and pushed hard to reach Crabtree Meadow at sundown logging a brutal 18-mile day.
On day 3, I only hiked 6 miles to a small alpine lake above Guitar Lake both to recover from the tough previous day as well as the sleepless night caused by the coyotes yipping around my campsite. That small lake was also the likely last water source before heading up the backside of Whitney. I settled in and was enjoying the views when I see the three musketeers come over the horizon. They were joking that they were convinced I was really just a myth – they were wondering if they would ever see me again or if I was just a figment of their imagination.
They became my new best friends when they shared their cheesy quesadillas with me for dinner and we decided to team up the next day. My plan was to get up at 1am and get hiking by 2am in order to time the summit as close to sunrise as possible. Once at the top of Whitney, I would still need to hike the last 11 miles down to the Whitney Portal and beg for a ride back to my car at Horseshoe Meadow.
We arose according to plan and I paced our new little group up the switchbacks leading to Trail Crest. We were slow and steady but made amazing time and summitted together around 7am. The shadows of the Whitney crest were cast in alpenglow on the mountains to the west.
It was glorious to be at the top of the highest point in the lower 48 after more than five years of trying. I loved that I made it there with my new friends (and to this day, they continue to invite me on their annual boys climbing adventure!!!). I have a tough time describing the swell of emotion that typically overcomes me when I reach a summit, and the feelings were amplified many times given the long history I had with Whitney. I can only say that I had to hold back tears of joy.
Now that I have reached the destination of the summit of Whitney, it’s easier for me to look back on the long journey and smile. I can see how far I have come as a climber, a leader, and a person. Whitney has tested my physical strength, my mettle, and my decision making. It has provided me with the opportunity to connect with other wonderful human beings in a situation where all barriers and pretenses are removed. And it has shown me the beauty and power of nature.
The journey has indeed been worthwhile, but never would have happened if I had not focused obsessively on that destination.
I’d like to climb the East Buttress route next, a full-on multi-pitch rock climb (Jeff B! Still got my eye on you!), but now it will purely be about the journey. The destination has been reached.