Journey versus Destination? Whitney Set Me Straight

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…

ATTEMPT #1

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.

Heading back down the gully to Iceberg Lake with IMG in 2006. Check out all that rental gear!

ATTEMPT #2

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.

Chris descending at lower left as the alpen glow hits in 2008

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.

ATTEMPT #3

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.

The last frontier on Whitney in 2010. I turned around soon after I took this shot.

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!

ATTEMPT #4

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.

Self-portrait at the summit of Mt Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states.

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.

EPILOGUE

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.

Guide to Bay Area Climbing Groups

When I first started climbing in 2004, I knew no one that climbed and all my friends thought I was completely insane.  I relied a lot on guided trips to gain skills and experience, but that was expensive and the fabulous people I met on those trips were scattered around the country.  In the years since, I have slowly built a network of great climbing partners, many of whom I have met through local organizations.

As I often get the question “How can I meet climbing partners?”, I thought I would write this brief guide to Bay Area climbing organizations and provide my personal perspective on them.  I welcome others’ perspectives on these groups as well as any groups I may be missing.

American Alpine Club Sierra Nevada Section – this regional section of the AAC is chock full of super experienced climbers who are also very social.  It can be difficult to break into the AAC community as you need to attend one of the periodic events such as the Pinecrest Climb In or the ice climbing weekend at the Lost Trail Lodge, but as a climbing groupie, I appreciate the opportunity to meet legendary climbers such as Royal Robbins, Jack Tackle, and Allen Steck.  They also have a great annual holiday dinner at Spengers in Berkeley.  The AAC offers many other great member benefits such as Global Rescue insurance for the nominal $75, but you can sign up and attend most of the events as a non-member as well.

Legendary Fred Beckey and Allen Steck at the annual holiday dinner

Annual ice climbing weekend at Coldstream Canyon near Donner

American Himalayan Foundation – although not a true climber organization, the AHF is increasingly reaching out to the climbing community to raise awareness of the issues faced in the Himalaya.  I never miss their annual AHF dinner as a chance to meet others, both climbers and non-climbers, who are passionate about the Himalaya.  They typically put on a good show with interesting speakers and this year they’ll be featuring Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, and Jimmy Chin.  The dinner price is steep at $200; however, you’ll get a receipt for the portion of your dinner that is tax deductible (it was ~$135 in 2011).

Everest summitters John Gray, Tom Burch (former AAC SNS Chair), and Apa Sherpa (world record holder for # of summits) at the AHF annual dinner

Jim Wilson and author Emilie Cortes with Sue and Phil Eshler, the first couple to climb the seven summits together

Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit  – a mountain rescue unit for climber networking?  Indeed, if you are interested in putting your climbing skills to good instead of evil, consider joining BAMRU or another mountain rescue team.  The trainings will keep you fresh, you will meet lots of other civic-minded and technically competent folks while building positive karma by helping locate lost hikers and climbers.  If you don’t want to join, don’t forget to donate in case you need their help some day!  Membership is $40 (yes, you pay for the honor to rescue others!), but the community is priceless.

Personal Rock Skills training in Tahoe

Rock Rendezvous – I have been a member of RR for a few years, but truthfully have failed to take full advantage of their benefits.  They are focused more on technical rock climbing, offer a monthly slideshow meeting, and priority camping in high demand locations like Tuolumne Meadows.  I have met some other great partners that were members of RR.  Their membership fee is very reasonable at $35.

Sierra Club Peak Climbing Section – this activity section of the Sierra Club focuses on non-technical peak bagging, although technical rock, snow and ice trips may be offered as private trips.  They hold a monthly slideshow meeting the second Tuesday in Palo Alto which gives you a chance to learn about a new region or climb, get to know other members, and hear about upcoming trips.  Amazingly, membership and trip participation is free.  It’s a friendly open community and most of the members are extremely active climbers.

Peak climbers at the annual PCS BBQ & Gear Swap

At the top of Mt Morgan with PCSers

Sierra Club Snowcamping Section – since when was snowcamping considered climbing?  Well, having mad snowcamping skills is critical on a snow or glacier climb, and could just save your butt if you ever get stuck out in a freak winter storm.  Many of my best friends and climbing partners have come from my involvement in the snowcamping section.  Seems like folks that have a penchant for suffering also have a lot of patience, tolerance, and are easy to get along with.  They offer an annual snowcamping training series for as low as $100 (Sierra Club members early sign up) to $125 (regular sign up for non-members) and alumni trips for a nominal fee of ~$25 (note: you may be able to attend alumni trips if you can demonstrate mastery of skills elsewhere).

Snowcampers on Echo Peak summit during record breaking low temps

A few others I know exist, but haven’t had much direct experience with, are Rock Ice Mountain Club in Santa Rosa, Bay Area Mountaineering Meetup, Berkeley CHAOS, and Stanford Alpine Club.

I hope this helps you on your personal quest to form a great group of climbing partners.  Don’t forget though that the responsibility goes both ways – you need to be a great climbing partner in order to foster lasting partnerships.  You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest climber out there, but you should 1) be at your personal best, 2) accurately represent your skill level and fitness, 3) consider the needs of the team/group as well as your own, and 4) follow through with your commitments.

Happy and safe climbing!!!