Mt Whitney, Hell Yeah!


This is me a couple of days before my ascent of Mt Whitney in September of 1991. Mt Whitney is the highest summit in the contiguous United States, topping out at 14,505 feet. Now you may think I did the climb in the traditional way, overnight carrying a pack with essentials. No, I did it differently. I bagged it in one day.

Janet and I were near the end of one of our Western vacations. We had flown out to LA and rented a Mustang GT convertible. We drove around Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, Malibu, all the famous spots. It was fun. We headed on over to Death Valley and checked it out. We discovered some ghost towns along the way. But I was getting antsy. I was in the prime shape of my life, 32 years old and I hadn’t worked out for a week. Janet had no interest in doing anything physical. It was time for a run.

We had stopped in a little town called Lone Pine. It’s located at the eastern side of Mt. Whitney. Walking into the hotel I stopped for a moment and gazed at the mountain. At that second I knew I had to try it.

I woke up early next morning. I didn’t have any gear except my Patagonia baggies, a cotton tee-shirt, and my running shoes. We stopped at a 7-11 and got a liter of water and a bag of gorp on the drive over to the trailhead. I told Janet to meet me back in the lot at 5:00. There I was, alone at 7,300 feet elevation. Only 7,200 to go. All up.

The first few miles were not too steep. I was able to keep a good pace. Then it ramped up. I slowed to a fast walk on the steep sections. When it leveled out a bit, I ran it even if it was only 10 yards. My heart was working hard at 160 bpm. It seemed like I was going forever, going, going, going. When I crested the tree line the vista opened up and you could see the entire Sierra Nevada range. I get to one particularly tough section of scree. It was relentlessly steep and marked by continuous switchbacks. It was more like being on a stepper, or one of those steep Mayan pyramids. Only much higher. You couldn’t walk this section, much less run it. My water was long-gone but I was really pumped and determined to make it. I was damned if I was making a trip out west without doing something bold. I kept going hard.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I had lucked out with the weather. My goal was to top out by 3:00, tellling myself if I didn’t reach it then I was to turn around and head back down. I knew I didn’t want to be caught up there in the dark. Hours into the run I felt fatigue setting in. But my mind told my body “not today you’re not getting any break – we are going up this thing”. Time was running out. and I could see the summit was still a long way off. Suddenly, at around 13,000 feet, the trail leveled out at a ridge traverse. I got a second wind in that thin air and I stepped it up. I was running at 13,000+ feet, just insane. I passed a few backpackers, they stared at me incredulously in my baggy shorts and tee while they had their Polartec fleece and Gore-Tex jackets. I wonder what they really thought. Ha.

I only spent a few minutes on top. Off in the distance there was some weather coming in, and I started heading down. I broke into a pretty good run, watching where my feet were landing on every step. All those winters of trail running in Beaver Creek State Park paid off. I was scrambling down like a mountain goat. Absolutely flying. Just hitting the top points of the scree, high-siding the trail berms. I was in the zone. And I ran all the way down that mountain, 7,200’ drop in eleven miles.

My thighs filled up with blood, the quads were screaming. It was bliss. And when I reached the trailhead, it was the best feeling of my entire life. I had just done something truly daring, so daring in it’s audacity, that I was very happy. I went and got bold on a big thing, and I did it.

I got back to the trailhead at almost exactly 5:00. Janet was waiting in the parking lot. She had spent the day drinking in a cowboy bar. She was very intoxicated. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter because I did what I wanted to do, and it felt great.