Each year is meticulously planned out with extreme precision, intention, reason, and insight. Location of races, distances of races, timing between races…it’s all part of a larger plan. Each year is part of a greater plan. And even this past year when the intention was LESS to be planned, it was still with reason. And between the races, the training, and the “mental break” periods.. there lies a very important category. Playtime….. I already knew where our playground would be this year. Climbing Mt. Elbert last year and moving to California right after, it meant one thing. Mt. Whitney.
In life, I’m a dreamer. A planner. A do’er. I have the tendency to come up with crazy ideas and intensely push them on others around me. I can become overwhelmingly consumed. As someone with this tendency, very rarely do I personally meet people who shock ME in this regard. That is, of course, until I met Don and Randy. 25+ years my senior, these guys put me to shame. When the light bulb goes off and I make the call to them as to what fun adventure I’d like to do this year, I hear, “What are you talking about? I already booked it. You coming?” or, “I’ll be in Colorado two weeks before climbing Mt. Massive, but how about the next week?” On top of becoming dear friends, they are also my response when the norm says, “If you keep doing that, you won’t be able to walk by my age.” Yeah….. right.
Waking up at 7am Saturday morning in Lone Pine, it occurred to me how NORMAL it is to wake up in a strange place, near massive mountains, and my buddies Don and Randy be close by. While Randy took the day to go bonding with some other 14′er and his son-in-law’s, Don and I were going to get up to 11k feet and hang out before calling it an early evening for the real trek up Whitney the next day.
After a quick breakfast and some coffee talk, Don and I started up the Meyson Trail. We talked and took pictures, making our way 5 miles and 3k feet of gain, up to the three lakes near the bowl nestled in the top of the mountain.
There we sat and overlooked the view. It was as if the world stood still. At one point I even asked Don to listen.. there was silence. Talking about past running adventures, making new plans for future running adventures, there was something special about that day. It was a good moment. A happy moment with my friend. Three weeks to the day we’d run 100 miles in South Dakota. Today, we were in the Sierra’s, running around the base of the tallest mountain in the continental US. This is what life should be about.
That night we hit the sac early for our 2:30 am wake up time. I would have to drive home immediately after we’d finish and knew I needed to get off the mountain at a decent time to hopefully avoid falling asleep at the wheel. So, as planned, we hit the Mt Whitney trail head at 3:30am. Not even half a mile up Don and I had to turn off our headlamps to notice the beauty of the nights sky. You can’t imagine how many stars we saw, framed by the dark shadows of the mountains. It was breathtaking. We stopped and stared in awe, only to see a shooting star zoom across the sky. Does it get any better than that?
We made great time up the mountain, rising with the sun. It painted an angelic masterpiece on the tips of the mountains above. It was magical.
My biggest concern for this trip had been my legs and whether or not my injuries, or frankly the 100 miler, would have residuals. But I was feeling very strong. We made it to base camp around 7:30am and started the infamous 98 switch backs. Oh my.. they weren’t lying. I’d had a headache starting around 7am and it was definitely not going away. Despite my not wanting to eat, I kept choking down food and drinking.
Finally, we made it to the top of the switchbacks and to the two miles to go sign. A lot of people were regrouping here and I decided to sit down and have some water. All of a sudden my stomach did a flip. With my back to the rocks, the narrow trail in front of me, and the sheer drop off just beyond that, I proceeded to kneel over and puke my guts out. And no, this wasn’t like my graceful upchuck at Lean Horse. Unh Uh. This was far more violent. And worse.. with no space to claim my own, poor hikers had to make the narrow pass by me. Luckily, at this height, things weren’t exactly “busy”. I proceeded to empty my stomach, this time it being “entire body participation required” as everything clenched vigorously. Man that was some workout. It hurt. When I was done, the gorgeous landscape of mountain tops, sheer drops, and the sun slowly rising, was the last thing I wanted to see. In my bed, curling up into fetal position seemed more appropriate. This was not food related. This was quintessential altitude sickness.
Thinking back to how sick I felt after Elbert, granted, nothing quite nearly severe as this, I realized… maybe I don’t deal well with altitude? Don assured me I would feel better as we walked away from my splattered guts, and decided I should keep going. Well if anyone knows this next section, it’s extremely technical, windy, and dangerous. But I was determined. We moved quickly and actually made the next mile in great time. Finally, the summit came into sight. We’d have to make our way just underneath and around the bend before making the final last push to the top. The closer we got, the more sick I felt. I stopped to sit. This seemed to intensify the feeling, as if being stuck on a rocking boat when you’re sea sick.
I’ve never been sea sick and hope I never have to be, because I. WAS. MISERABLE. So, with the summit a stones throw away, without regret, I decided I’d gone far enough and needed to get down. AND FAST. I told Don to push on since we were literally right near the top and to catch up. I just wanted to get back to the switchbacks so I could really start the decent. Let’s put it this way, I felt so awful, I basically ran the next 4 hours to the bottom without stopping. Only about half way down with 5 or 6 miles to go did I start to feel even a little better.
They say altitude sickness can affect anyone and there are no specific factors that correlate with susceptibility. Both times I’ve climbed a 14′er, I’ve gotten sick. Something’s gotta be up? While yes, I was pretty much staring at the summit and most people would have continued on or said, “How could you turn around when you’re right there?” Listen. Don’t mess around with your life. Nothing is worth it. I do know personally, I NEVER want to feel like that again.
On a lighter note, Whitney opened my eyes to just how big my backyard really is here in Cali. I really can’t wait to explore more of the Sierra’s. Not to mention, looks like I’ll be doing an overnight on Whitney next year