Hiking Mt. Whitney Exhilaration in the thin air at 14,495 feet

THE HIKE UP California's Mount Whitney was going fine at 12,000 feet.

I was feeling only shortness of breath, a light head, a heavy sweat, hot sun, cold wind and uncertainty about the path ahead. Luck was with me on this Alpine-style fast hike up the highest mountain -- 14,495 feet -- of the lower 48 states.


There was no headache, backache or stomachache, muddled thinking, exhaustion, cold, clammy skin, or other signs of altitude sickness, the unpleasant malady fixed only by retreating downhill.

And so far there were no threatening clouds that might manufacture lightning, one of the big killers in American mountains. Three weeks earlier on this same peak, lightning killed one hiker and hurt 14 others seeking shelter in the metal-roofed summit cabin originally designed for serious star-watching rather than for protection.


At high altitudes, the human body is an alpine flower, adaptable but fragile, and the risks are numerous: falls, getting lost, avalanches, rockfalls, crevasses, lightning, hypothermia, frostbite, sunstroke, snow blindness, heart attacks, bears, bad judgment and combinations thereof.

Why go? After hiking up 85 mountains and reading many mountain books, I am not sure myself. I'd thought about climbing Mount Whitney for 11 years after reading an article about it. I liked Whitney's Lawrence-of-Arabia desert feeling, the Sierra vistas with no trees above 11,500 feet, and the odd, ancient summit.

Moreover, the trail is rough and challenging, with its grade of 30 degrees or more, but the climb does not require ropes, pitons, helmets or vertical gymnastics.

Why indeed go? Mountains are magnets, drawing people to a world of risks and images far removed from below. The hazards and the thin air momentarily make a tiny blue flower and its neighbors an entire beautiful universe. And for a peak bagger like me, it was one more peak to bag.


More than half the hikers who try the main Whitney Portal Route fail because they are out of shape, get altitude sickness, face bad weather, get hurt or have other problems. About 7,000 people make it to the top each year.

My hike began from Whitney Portal at 8,361 feet, and I was alone. A son in San Francisco who hiked with me for a week in Yosemite in April couldn't make it.

It's safer to hike with others, but that's not always possible. I knew there would be other climbers on the trail. And I told a friend my route and my starting and finishing times.


I got going an hour before sunrise, wanting to knock off a big chunk before the sun got tough. Also, it's better to walk in darkness when you're fresh.

The climb would cover 22 miles and 12,200 feet up and down in one day.

I strolled up into the John Muir Wilderness and the first thrill of the day -- dawn in the clear air of the hills, four hours' driving time from the poisonous smog of Los Angeles. The eastern sky over the Inyo Mountains began its wake-up calls, from pale blue to gold. About 6 a.m., the sun appeared.

It was typical of thrills in the mountains: The good ones are in slow motion.

"Beautiful," a woman said as she and her companion joined me in snapping a picture. I could only agree. But all of us were panting and starting to worry about the demanding hours ahead.

"Going to the top?" she asked.


"I hope so," I replied.

"My idea too," she said. "I don't know if I can do it." None of us was sure. It was 8 a.m., we were soaked with sweat and the pinnacle of Whitney was far, far away.



A couple of hours later, with the trail growing steeper, I rainto trouble: a sinking feeling in my stomach. Not nausea, but close. During a stop, I drank some water.

Doubt crowded in on me in the form of questions: How hot will the sun be? How much time for resting? How fast can I move without getting sick? What about those cumulus clouds over there?


Successes and failures can take turns on 14,000-foot mountains.

I had reached the top of Pikes Peak, Mount Sherman and Mount Evans in the Colorado Rockies. But on Mount Rainier I quit at 10,000 feet because my pack was too heavy for the Marine Corps pace set by the guide.

Another time, on Colorado's Longs Peak, I quit 900 feet from the top out of sheer terror: The steep rocks were covered with September ice. And on Mount Wilson, another Colorado peak, a painful back problem forced me to retreat.

But this was to be my day to bag Mount Whitney. Handkerchief out, mop the brow.

The 15-pound daypack had tools for heat and cold: Sunscreen to block out ultraviolet rays, clothing layers for 40-degree cold on top, two pints of water, iodine pills to purify ground water if needed, a flashlight and other gear for overnight bivouac if needed, and some cookies and chocolate.

The pack also had room for candy wrappers and other trash collected on the return trip, an environmental practice learned from a hiking friend.


I began uphill again. The stomach problems eased, then disappeared.

Here the trail made 98 switchbacks in a stretch requiring 100 minutes to complete. The walking was slower. I was alone with my thoughts.

Stops each fourth or fifth turn. Same for other hikers. Sip of water. People passing each other with few or no greetings now. A patch of ice and snow protected by shadows. Rocky path glaring in the sun. Pikas, ratlike animals without tails, disappear behind rocks. Flowers called blue sky pilots force their way out of stones. Down below, the ponds grow smaller and get a darker shade.

Handkerchief out, mop the brow. The sky is so blue, the sun so bright, the clouds so puffy and we are so slow.


At 13,000 feet, 2 1/4 miles from the summit, double vision hit me. Each eye worked well alone, but together they misfired. It was frustrating because at this point in the climb the whole western horizon, including dozens of Sierra Nevada peaks, had come into view.


There was nothing to do but close one eye at a time, and for the rest of the day I switched from one eye to the other. This robbed me of depth perception, of course, and on the way down I took a bad spill, landing on my shoulder.

The double vision had struck and disappeared once before, in the Colorado Rockies, so I worried little. Later my ophthalmologist in Baltimore would say it was nothing serious, probably a neurological glitch caused by insufficient oxygen.

Suddenly there was a right-hand turn and a sign, "Mt. Whitney -- Two Miles."

Walking to the summit was like crossing the knuckles of a giant, ancient fist. The knuckles have corners where the rocky, dusty trail twists around one corner after another. The fingers, turned down at the first joints, are mountain ribs hundreds of feet high, exposed by the ice ages perhaps as long as 3 million years ago.

But geology wasn't on my mind during stops every 10 minutes to sweat more and breathe deeper and lose more ounces (six pounds altogether). Oxygen was about 65 percent of what it was at sea level. The handkerchief was wrung out for the dozenth time. Another solo hiker fell in with me. We grunted together.

If we strained we could see the small summit cabin where lightning had killed a hiker three weeks earlier. To us, it signaled only rest.


"You've got this much more," said a downhill walker holding thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

I smiled but could think only of climbers of 25,000-foot Himalayan peaks taking three breaths for each step. How did they do it, often without oxygen masks?


Finally, we struggled up the summit slope of gradual granite slabs, stopping every minute for more air. We lost the trail, but it mattered little because we could see people resting ahead. Past the cabin, the mountain simply ended at a grand escarpment, and so did we. The uphill was no more. The town of Lone Pine was a green oasis 9,000 feet below in the desert.

Atop Whitney, this August day was extremely bright, very windy and in the 40s. The surface here is remarkably flat and is said to be 60 million years old; the ice that scoured the rest of the fist never got this high.

The broad top may have originated as a lowland plateau, but was continually pushed higher and higher by frost heaves as the mountain grew from below and was eaten by the ice from the east. Had the ice ages continued, Mount Whitney eventually would have been gnawed away by erosion and ice. A fist full of air.


The summit ritual took over. All of us -- about 15 people -- were quiet and contemplative. We checked the summit plaque and American flag, took pictures, signed the register beside the cabin and read the new warning, added since the fatal lightning accident: If a lightning storm threatens, go back down the trail, don't stay in the cabin.

I took in the dozens of peaks and lakes including Tulainyo, the highest freshwater lake in North America (12,802 feet) only a mile to the northeast.

After a 7 1/2 -hour climb, I stayed on top just 20 minutes. That was enough. Mountain walking is a pastime full of oddities. To the west, a heavy rain was falling on the Picket Mountains. It might shift to Whitney and bring lightning. The wind was rising.

The climb was half-done. Now for the 5 1/2 -hour descent, a separate adventure altogether. The same trail would draw me back down where, in the later light, the mountain would look and feel different from the other direction.

It was time to go.