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

September 11, 1990|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

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.

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