Rock Creek camp to the summit of Mt. Whitney
June 21, 2014
We all sleep in this morning. J was drooling over the creek last night, looking at the golden trout swimming around, so when we wake up I tell him to get out there – I’ll pack up camp this morning. I pack up slowly, making breakfast like I’ve got nowhere to be, while Teal and Bluesman do the same. Yesterday was more of a push than it seemed – normally I wake up feeling like a brand new day, but today feels like it’s picking up right where the last one ended, with a few too many miles on my feet.
J comes back with a little golden trout gasping in his hands. “Should I keep it?” he asks. “This is the biggest one I’ve caught – they’re all pretty small.”
“Doesn’t seem worth it to just keep one, if they’re that size,” I say, looking down at the little guy. I was hoping for some fresh fish, but it doesn’t look like today. At least I know that J can actually catch fish. All he’s brought is the top two sections of his fly rod, his line, and some flies – leaving the rest of his rod and reel at home. After a month and a half of lipton pasta sides and freeze-dried food, something fresh and real is mouth-watering.
We head out at 10:30 – no alpine start for our summit expedition. It’s summer solstice today, the longest day of the year, so we have few extra minutes to get up top before sunset. Up, up, up over the ridge, then down a bit to Crabtree meadows and the side trail to Whitney. Crabtree meadows is soft, green, lush – the greenest thing I’ve seen in years, probably. There’s a good film of high clouds in the sky today, and sundogs rainbowing around the sun. They make us a little nervous for the climb, but we split off from Teal and start the 9 miles to the top.
We’ve only made it a mile when I start feeling bad. I’m exhausted, but this is different. There’s a latrine there, by the ranger station, and I visit it, then turn around and visit it again, then half a mile down the trail I visit some pines… My gut is a mess and I’m nauseated. “J, I feel bad. I think the elevation is getting to me.”
“Oh man. Are you ok?”
“I feel bad, but think I can make the push,” I tell him. “If things don’t get worse…”
“Do you think it’s elevation sickness or a stomach bug?”
“I think it’s elevation sickness. I’ve had it before, and this is what it felt like – exactly like a stomach bug. So I guess it might be a stomach bug.”
“Keep me updated,” says J.
“Don’t get too far ahead,” I request.
I feel bad, but I don’t feel worse, so we keep going. At Guitar Lake, 5 miles from the summit, we water up and cache our bear canisters. Between off-loading the bear canister, three days of food, and part of the tent, my pack feels like it’s full of helium. “So this is what it feels like to be an ultralighter!”
“This feels great,” agrees J. He carries up three liters, I only take two – I’m carrying as little as possible – I want to make it to the top. Bluesman leads the way and we start the climb.
Switch, back, switch, back, switch, back. My head is spinning, so I ignore the scenery and focus on the trail – the drop-off is nothing I’m interested in experiencing. My legs are like machines as long as I don’t stop – step, step, step. The cute cirrus clouds of the morning are looking heavier, and I spot some low, puffy ones. Dangerous ones. “We might have to turn right around at the top and come down,” I think. “I probably shouldn’t be here – I don’t have enough gas for that – I’m too tired.” Without J and Bluesman I would definitely turn around, but they’ve both got mountaineering experience, and I trust them if I end up needing help. Step, step, step – across the ridge now, with window views across the entire basin and range to the east. A couple snow patches, and one last long traverse and we’re there. We’re here! The summit! I can’t believe that the 360 degree view can be so much better than what we had half a mile back, but it’s amazing. Mountains forever, north, south, east, west. Trees to the west, desert to the east, spires and ridges and icy blue lakes below. I feel drunk on the thin air, dizzy, slurring my speech. “I can’t believe I made it!” I yell.
“I knew you had it,” says Bluesman. “I knew you had it in you.”
There are a few other people up there – day hikers – but they leave to get down before dark, and the three of us have the entire summit to ourselves. “The Lord is my shepherd!” declares Bluesman. “And He knows what I want! That’s how it goes, right?” he grins wickedly.
“Mm, something like that. Pretty close, probably,” I grin back.
There’s a summit shelter up on top, built by the Smithsonian. It’s locked up except for one small room the perfect size for three hikers to sleep. The clouds are looking suspect, but it seems like they are passing to the east, so we are probably safe up top. We put on every single layer of clothing we have and go back out to watch the sunset.
It looks like the clouds of Mordor, orange and red, big billowing masses across the mountains all around us. I’m an Arizona kid, and I’ve seen my share of unspeakably beautiful sunsets, but I think this one is in the running for at least top five. Wow. I feel so bad, but I’m so glad I’m here. I’m glad I made it. I’m glad I’m so strong, both body and heart, to get to spend midsummer’s night on the highest mountain in the lower 48, with J and with Bluesman.
A lone figure appears on the horizon, and it turns out to be Kentucky, another thru-hiker. In general, I don’t approve of trail names that are just the name of the state you’re from, but in Kentucky’s case, it works. He couldn’t be more Kentucky if he tried. “I hiked 21 and a half miles to get up here by sunset,” he drawls. “With the elevation, I figure that’s like a double-double.”
“21 and a half??” I ask, impressed.
“Yeah, I really wanted to get up here for the first day of summer.”
“You made it, buddy.”
“Yeah, I did,” says Kentucky, pleased.
The light fades and we huddle back into the summit shelter. There’s room for Kentucky, and we invite him over and over, but he insists that he’ll sleep outside, in one of the bivy sites with some wind shelter. He does sit down for a while though, to change into warmer clothes. “I think I’m going to have to get out at Kearsarge Pass,” says Kentucky. “I’m almost out of Kool-Aid.”
“Kool-Aid?” asks Bluesman, bemused.
“I drink pounds of that s###,” replies Kentucky, totally serious. “I’m running low and I’m feeling it, I need more sugar, I’m going to start crashing.”
Kentucky goes out to set up his bivy, and we tuck ourselves in for the night. “Kool-Aid,” says Blueman, still bemused. “Kool-Aid!”
“Must be his power food,” I say.
I feel bad. My muscles are full of grated metal, my joints are exploding with pain, and my insides are not ok. “I feel bad,” I tell Bluesman and Dirtnap, in their sleeping bags on either side of me. “I feel real bad.” I writhe in discomfort, shaking with cold and exhaustion. J snores softly and Bluesman drops off. I think I could sleep if I could just stop shaking. Hours and hours and I feel bad! I finally can’t take it anymore and go outside and blow out my bowels. It helps a little, but not much, and I shuffle my own excrement into a grocery sack I brought with me. I pace around outside, just agonizingly miserable, and J comes out with some water for me. “My mom gets elevation sickness every time she goes over 8,000 feet,” he tells me, “then she pukes and she feels better.”
“If I could puke I think I would,” I reply, “but I can’t. I’m glad you didn’t come out a few minutes earlier,” I add.
“I waited until I heard you whimpering, then I figured it was safe.” I’m kind of pathetic right now.
He gives me some pepto, then I finally lose it, and vomit in front of the hut. Over and over until there is nothing left, and I’m totally empty – empty of everything, of pain, of energy. I sob from exhaustion there in front of the pool of puke, on the top of Mt Whitney, on my knees, under a billion blazing stars. They’re the most magnificent stars I’ve ever seen.
I scoop my vomit up with the rest of my excrement – not looking forward to packing that out – but you can’t leave your crap on the top of Mt. Whitney. I drink what’s left of our water and go inside. “Are you ok?” asks Bluesman.
“Yeah, just puked my guts out.”
“I know – I could hear you.”
He could hear everything – I realize I don’t have much dignity left. “We can go down right now,” says Bluesman. “If you need to get down, we’ll get you down.”
“I think I’m ok now. I’d rather wait till morning than do this in the dark.”
“The dark’s not a problem if you need to get down.”
“No, I’m ok.” I am ok, ok enough. I lay down, and I relax and drift off. I hope morning comes soon.