I’ve done a lot of ambitious things in my life, but amongst the hardest was waking up at 3 AM to climb the highest peak in the States, trek 7,000 feet of elevation, by myself, then hike back down with enough time to make it home for dinner. Some could call me crazy, but I don't think I'm alone in the fact that I crave something more than a monotonous 9 to 5.
I had been dreaming of this climb for quite some time, but I was unaware it would be happening on such short notice. You see, with only a certain amount of people allowed on the summit of Mount Whitney per day, I was lucky enough to snatch a permit — even if it was with only a couple days' notice. After nearly an entire day of relentless planning, I set out just after class to the Whitney Portal. I arrived nearly 8 hours before my permit’s entry access was validated. Before I knew it, it was 3 AM and my alarm was going off. I scarfed down a cold burrito from the day prior, turned on my neon green headlamp, and started to march.
It was cold and dark, and I was alone, but the calm air and gentle breeze kept me at ease. There were some folks not too far behind me. I could see them illuminated from their headlamps. They would soon pass in front of me and disappear into the darkness ahead as I decided to take a little detour that I would soon regret. I was one river crossing away from the prime sunrise overlook, and as a bit of an outdoor photography junkie... This was an opportunity not to be missed.
I hopped stealthily from rock to rock, but not stealthily enough as I plunged straight into the icy snowmelt. Small things can turn into a big deal when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. But if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you’ve got to work with what life gives you. It was a mere 30 degrees and my fingers quickly froze as I wrung out my now soaking socks. It was a challenge to stay positive in the midst of darkness but I warmed my fingers with my breath and watched the sun’s rays begin to slowly illuminate the canyon above. It was beautiful enough to inspire a second wind of clarity.
With 4,000 more feet of elevation to go, I took a deep breath, buckled my backpack, and continued forward despite the gushing water beneath my feet. As the world got brighter, I became mesmerized. Mostly by the endless sea of granite that towered above me.
Despite the aches and pains, and despite being alone, I truly felt at home. I reached Consultation Lake at about 10 AM. This was the 12,000 foot marker. Just ahead laid the notorious 99 switchbacks. That’s right, 99 switchbacks. Though I still miraculously reigned enough strength to power through each ledge, something else would be to my dismay.
Each step that took me closer to the summit was another step towards freedom. But at the same time, each step got me closer to AMS, also known as acute altitude sickness. The symptoms usually begins with a headache or lack of appetite. Then, you’re shot with fatigue and delusion. Some time after that, swelling of the brain. Though I did not experience the extreme, I knew that when my headache worsened and a wave of confusion came over me, I was no longer in the safe zone. Maybe I would have continued on if I had someone with me, and maybe not. But I was faced with a choice, and I'm happy the choice was in my own best interest.
The trek down felt long enough to be eternity. At some point or another, both of my trekking poles snapped in half and I ran out of food shortly after. But when I did finally make it down, somewhere behind my trembling legs and complete exhaustion, laid a sense triumph. And not in the way one might think, but in a way that was subtle enough to mean something more to me than just summiting a mountain.
I think in the end, it was bigger than that.