Mount Whitney, the Beautiful
By Jesse Mathison
Normally people begin preparing for Mt. Whitney several months before the climb. Every hiker must have a permit, of which there are limited amounts, and usually the yearly allotment is reserved by the end of January. Legality aside, there’s also logistics, such as rental cars, thermal jackets and the always-useful can of bear mace.
My friend and I had decided to take a trip to California primarily to visit Yosemite and Big Sur, both of which are gorgeous and worth a trip in their own right, and then thought to detour and try our luck getting a permit for Whitney. I wouldn’t recommend traveling to California with the intention of climbing Whitney without already having a permit; 99 times out of a 100 you will be disappointed, and while you can hike without a permit, if you’re caught by park rangers you will absolutely be escorted down the mountain and assessed a hefty fine. And though park rangers are generally mild mannered and friendly, you don’t want to draw their ire; they take nature very seriously.
So after sleeping in our car for the night, my friend Johnny and I walk into the park office, ask for two permits, and have them about five minutes later. As usual we find ourselves without much of a plan and without adequate gear, and realistically we have to start the ascent that day, as we have a two-day permit. So we head to the local K-Mart and find two bulky sleeping bags rated for freezing temperatures, which take up the entire main compartment of our packs, and then stop at a local outfitter in Bishop, California, where we grab a few insulating layers for the climb. The temperature in Bishop, mind you, is about 90 degrees, while the expected temperature at the summit is somewhere in the low 20’s. All of which means we have a Climb ahead of us.
The ascent starts with switchbacks, of course, which basically means a great deal of walking with slooooow and little elevation gain. Think zigzagging up the side of a mountain. For hours on end. Left foot, right foot, left foot, repeat, repeat, etc. etc. ad infinitum. Of course I’m surrounded by the prodigious beauty of Mt. Whitney, but usually my head is pointed towards the ground as I try not to think of the weight on my back or all of the many steps left to take. My pack is actually quite light, but all you ever think of while hiking is how nice it would be jettison that infernal backpack and lithely run to the summit. And then, inevitably, the worst song from 1994 is stuck in your head and won’t leave, and you ask yourself why you are here and if it’s really worth it, just before you round a corner and see something like this:
Oh yes, you remember, it’s all quite worth it.
The climb continues on more or less in this manner, trudging through the at-times tiresome drudgery of locomotion. Often there is silence and the ambiance of nature, and this is when companions make more of your travels than solitude ever could. It’s always nice to have someone there who understands your pain, someone to whom you can bitch and gripe every so often. Eventually day turns to dusk turns to night, and Johnny and I find ourselves trekking through the dark and serene wilderness. We pick a flat spot to camp, unaware of exactly where we are on the mountain or how much further there is left to go. It’s windy and cold (20 degrees at most) and I get into my bag with gloves, hat, thermals and fleece. Five minutes later I’m down to boxers; who would think a sleeping bag from K-Mart actually works?
The next morning I awake to the most beautiful sunrise of my life. What was at first a thin strip of sunlight in an otherwise grey sky soon cuts through the fog and shines with an exquisite color. Stumbling through darkness, we had inadvertently set up our camp on the shores of a very small lake or a somewhat large pond, the perfect setting for morning. Well, there’s your motivation to push on.
We drop our packs and continue on feeling less encumbered and so much lighter. The next section again begins with switchbacks, then the terrain transitions into fields of boulders, which is aggravating, to say the least. But in the distance you can see a small peak and an endless blue sky, and there is an air of excitement in the hikers you meet who are on the descent. So you put your head down and keep walking.
Then, the summit.
I was introduced to nature by chance, really: a hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail with college friends. I was hooked instantly. The people you meet are uniformly wonderful, the scenery beautiful, and the days so full. There’s nothing to do but follow a trail; rest when you like, make a campfire, watch the sun rise and set and feel the passing of a moment. That’s all. You feel so alive when not weighed down by the mundane or the irrelevant, and the world is gentler. The aesthetic is simple, and in this hectic, tiresome, and sometimes lonely world of ours, beauty is something we all need.
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Photos by Jesse Mathison