The sun shone and the sky was a hearty blue. But everything else looked gray. No trees. No wildflowers. Just bleak rock. The heat was suffocating. Every dozen steps, I stopped to pant. My pack weighed too much. I should've left my clothes and food at Trail Camp. All I really needed was water, an energy bar, and a fleece pullover in case a storm blew in.
The hardest part was coming to terms with my flailing spirit. No matter how many staggering steps I took there was still more trail. Something happens to distance in altitude. It changes. Tricks you. Time has little meaning. A kid in swim trucks jogged by clutching a bathtub toy. Not kidding.
To make it worse, I saw a massive snowfield in the distance, blinding and clinging to a slope. Hikers the size of ants marched single-file across the expanse. We'd already spent 9 hours on the trail, peaking 14,000 ft. No matter how much I wanted to give up I forced myself to go on. One miserable, dust-caked boot in front of the other. The trail just went on and on.
Through a dizzy haze I recognized the historic stone shelter on the summit built by Gustave F. Marsh and a slapdash crew in 1909. How many trips had they made up and down the mountain? Leading a stubborn string of pack mules? I could only imagine. Marsh had a few close calls, "During the time of putting up the building, I stayed on top 43 days. I had 15 men to start with and only 5 at the finish . . .. we heard muttering of thunder way over towards Arizona and the clouds rolled up the mountain . . . I told the men to get under cover. But one by one they ran down the mountain . . . So I went to bed and covered up my head, like a kid, till the storm passed over . . .."
Financed by the Smithsonian Institution, the shelter once housed astronomers and other scientists conducting research from the land's highest peak. Today the hut is used as an emergency shelter. But beware: a hiker was killed in 1990 after ducking inside during an electrical storm.
The stone walls looked so close. I reached out. They vanished in the hypobaric hypoxia air. I took another step, swearing. Finally, finally, I clambered onto the rocky 14,491-foot summit: Mount Whitney. The highest point in the continental USA. It was 2 p.m. Ten exhausting hours since we'd left Whitney Portal.
Christine drew me into a congratulatory hug. "Time to go."
"I just got here."
She nodded toward the moody-looking thunderheads, swollen black masses tumbling in from the northwest, a reminder of why we were here in the first place. A few years earlier we'd been forced to abort a 6-day backpacking trip.
Our first day out we were trapped on an exposed ridge, Cottonwood Pass, 11,180 ft., where Pacific Crest Trail traverses the southwest slope of Cirque Peak. It started to hail, ice the size of peach pits, striking us like ball-peen hammers. A fist of thunder grabbed the ridge and shook it. Lightning split the sky.
We hit the ground, ducking inside our rain slickers, as if that could save us. When we looked up the tarp on the back of the pack mule flashed as a jag of lightning struck it. The mule shimmied, fell over. Three of the women in our party were on the ground, one unconscious. Smoke rose from her hair. Jagged black marks etched her face. The injured women were airlifted off the mountain by helicopter during a break in the storm, flown to a nearby hospital, examined, and released.
"Byrd Surby died up here from a lightning strike," Christine said.
"That was in 1904."
"And on a single summer day in 2018 there were 1,610 recorded lightning strikes-most were on the east side of the Sierra Nevada."
She was right, but the thunderheads didn't look that threatening. I crawled onto a jutting ledge with a feeling of great accomplishment, knowing Trail Camp, Consultation Lake, and 10.7 miles of trail were below us.
From an absurdly windy spot I scanned some of the highest peaks in California: Mount Langley, 14,027 ft. and Mount Muir, 14,015 ft. to the south; Mount Williamson, 14,375 ft., Milestone Mountain,13,641 ft., and Mount Brewer 13,570 ft. to the north, all bleached out and barren. Tulainyo Lake, the highest large alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada, offered a sparkling contrast in the northeast, while Owens Valley in the east looked sullen in a thick brown haze.
I scrawled a few emotional words in the register, joining thousands of hikers who'd scaled the summit this season. Though most had not attempted the single day ascent. A horrible realization hit me. We'd only gone half way. We still had to go down, all 10.7 miles. I suddenly suffered all kinds of new ailments: dizziness, stomach cramps, and nausea.
Down we went, Christine in the lead, as always, lurching over and around heaps of rock. The nausea was so bad I had to stop every 10 or 20 steps. I stumbled over the uneven trail below the Needles with its sheer drop-offs, stopping, starting, stopping, then staggered down the switchback.
As the day ended the glint of our headlamps danced jigs on the trail; we picked up the pace, downshifting into Zen mode.
At nine o'clock, Pacific Daylight Savings Time, exactly 17 hours after beginning this Marquis de Sade marathon, we saw headlights in the parking lot below. Christine got to our car first, excavating a bottle of champagne from an ice chest in the backseat. I smiled so wide you could scrape the mosquitoes off my teeth.
Sherry Shahan's Alaskan-based adventure novels include Ice Island and Frozen Stiff. Her travel articles and photographs have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Backpacker, Country Living and many other magazines and newspapers. See more at SherryShahan.com.
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