Miss Whitney–I paid her a visit


“You’re lucky when you live in California, where the million dollar views are free.” *

A wall of granite and the most amazing azure as backdrop.Check her out! Talk about fantasy novels in 3D. I read little fantasy, but thought I was in one many times during this 16 hour hike on Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states and just a few hours northeast of us. Kista, my trail boss (really I love what I learn following in her footsteps!) and I set out at 4 am August 2nd with the aim of summiting Mt. Whitney around 11 the same morning. The Whitney Portal’s elevation is about 8000 ft and the summit 14,505, a gain of 6,500 feet. NICE! I felt alert, fit, excited and truly ready for the adventure ahead when we closed that trunk of her car in the parking lot, headlamps lit and total silence surrounding us in the dark.

I felt like a little girl who was staying up all night to see the stars and giggle, especially as we drove into the area from Lone Pine a wee bit earlier. I remember looking up, head sideways out the open window and upside down bowl of a night sky littered and crowded with hundreds of lights and below on my face a huge smile planted. The day before when we had visited the portal and got our bearings, I looked up at the tall range of mountains and was a kind of floored and tight chested, breathing labored and sort of an “oh shit, that’s where we going?” thread pumping in my chest. Altitude adjustment. Yes that’s it. That’s what this is going to be, an altitude adjustment.

So back to the trail head. First couple hours are smooth, passage over rushing water and rocks, check. We hit a nice tree line and first lake as the sun is pretty much established itself all around us, still that hint of the night fading. Several hours in (maybe 11,000 feet up) we hit another lake, a chalky periwinkle. I haven’t been up high like this and near water, a truly brand new environment. Magical? yes. A little ways down the trail I got the joy of filling my first wag bag (they do keep this mountain clean and with a reported 20,000 visitors a year it’s good they have this policy firmly in place). Why so proud I wondered?!

I didn’t know the next leg of the hike was going to be as tough as turned out to be. In looking back over things I felt mechanically very sound. Cardio was strong. I had been on some hikes with Kista this summer that were long and been exposed to up to 10,500 feet of altitude which is about as high as you can get in the Angeles National Forest where we did out training. I had no issues with the outer left foot or inner right knee that were possible. I was well fueled, hydrated, had my poles as friends for my upper body for steady full body motion. Feet were blister free and the weather couldn’t have been better. I had no pains, joints felt oiled and smooth and I was feeling very happy. I had a full commitment to this adventure, no apprehension at all. I had that sense of wonder that keeps a hard long trek fresh, already sort of tucked away questions like “Why do this?” and “What will I see? How will I feel?”

I hadn’t really entertained what the onset of altitude sickness would feel like. I knew it was a thing that could happen but my body wasn’t really scanning for this, plain and simple. It crept up all sneaky like around 5-6 hours into the hike. I slowed down and drank water. Kista and a nice guy Ron we had met along the way would hang back and watch to see that I was coming along and encourage me. Kista asking, “Mia water?” Me, “Yes”. I kept up but my paced slowed down. I would look around and just feel myself trying and getting somewhere. This went on for a while and as it did…..

A new question crept in. “Can I be in the moment and take the next step?” Around 12,000 something feet up my footing was not so solid. I huffed and said it was hard to really get a stable footing. The trail was getting increasingly more rocky and technical and I would take breaks, move slow and remember to breath. I wasn’t even that upset that I was slowing down considerably. I cried a little which released some of the fog buildup in the head. I didn’t have a headache just began to fade out. Things were a little trippy and dream-like.IMG_5639

I got to feeling much better when we hit the crest trail. I thought, “I’m much better. I can do this.” For the couple hours prior, I had been so in my body without much thought. Again focusing on walking with some brainfog. If I were watching me I’d see, breath in, plant poles, move feet and move on. Occasional water sips and stop, and repeat. I felt a little compassion for myself when I got to this point as recognizable life and thought and a sense of capacity (breathing that is) returned.

It was short-lived. The next chunk of uncertainty came on pretty fast. I had Kista checking on me and coaching me along but as the trail got more intense and craggy she knew we were going to have to take stock of the situation in a new way. I was walking “poorly” again and folks around us were suggesting I stop and rest. I did and got really nauseaus, puked up some liquids and cried a little more. It was so completely surreal and incredible where we were and I was feeling such strong limitation. I wasn’t gonna “make it” and be even more blitzed. I wasn’t upset about it, more soaking in how unforseen it all seemed. Here’s the wild card girl. I realized that I was in different somatic space than I’d ever been in before. We chatted and were already 9 or so hours into the hike. The summit was about a mile away but not a 20 minute walking mile. More like the hardest part and I wasn’t well. With this condition, esp. with the ataxi you have to descend to get better. We decided to descend.


I had a few thumbnail size corn chips (thank you kista–salt!) and off we went. I stopped walking like a drunk person pretty soon after we began heading down and within a couple hours I was brand new. I had shed that sluggish, strange heaviness and felt energized all over again. We grabbed some incredibly cold fresh water from a fast moving stream and had about 5 hours left to go. I was a happy as a clam, truly because we made the right decision and I accepted the change of plans, the beauty in the limitation and was truckin back down the trails all the way home! For me, I had imagined the trip being all about signing the log at the top and sharing in the 360 views of the highest pt in the US (now writing that sounds badass!) but that’s not what the trip served up. I may very well try again with some other prep in place but more than anything my take away is this:

Mother nature provides the time, space and place to be with yourself on the trails (as well as an awesome friend–Kista leading the way)IMG_5413
and she offers the uncontrollable unknown to see if you’ll listen, take notice and always take care.I am pleased I listened, that I was open-minded and able to take direction and left that stubborn, gotta be this way kind of energy somewhere else.

Miss Whitney, as I like to call her, has been there a very long time. I may very well visit her again sometime soon and see what’s going on. The experience of true adventure is a step into the unknown.
I like that. A solid step that is!

*Quote from Barbara “Cutie” Cooper’s book entitled Falling in Love for life:Inspiration from a 73 year marriage

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