Mt. Whitney 14,484'

August 16, 1999

Dave Svilar

Mt. Whitney stands as the highest point in the lower 48 states, albeit by only a few feet.  For that reason alone people come in droves to hike the trail to the summit.  I was one among the droves, so after three weeks of calling to get a permit I finally lucked out and got the day I wanted.  On my last day of pretending to be a chemistry grad student at the University of Nevada I drove my roommate to the airport and headed south towards Mammoth.  After killing a couple of days there I drove further south to the trailhead at Whitney Portal near 9,000'.

Signs at the trailhead warned of aggressive black bears, and instructed to take everything with a scent - even toothpaste - and stick it in metal containers provided by the park.  The trunk of my car was full of left over food from the summer, but I was too lazy to transfer it to the metal boxes.  Instead I sat on a lounge chair in the parking lot and played the two songs I knew on the guitar over and over until night fell.  After annoying everyone in the parking area, I curled up in the back of the Maxima until my alarm sounded at 4:04 a.m. (always end alarm settings with a "4").

I slowly crawled out of the Maxima, and sat in the lounge chair out in the parking lot eating breakfast.  Next to me a couple was sitting out behind their car doing the same thing.  As I sat eating my Grape Nuts we shared what information we knew about the hike, until the wife got up to use the bathroom.  The husband immediately began to share his concerns about taking his wife on such a long hike.  "I'm not sure she's going to be able to make it," he told me, "have you ever taken a girl on this type of thing?"  My reply didn't ease his concerns, "Sorry sir, it's been awhile since I've taken a girl anywhere."  After they left I poured another bowl of Grape Nuts and watched the headlamps making there way up the dark trail above me.

I finally started heading up the trail near 5:00 a.m. using my headlamp for the first few minutes.  In this area there is a band of trees between 8-10,000', but nothing below or above.  After breaking these trees the trail opened up into a large canyon featuring rock that glowed red in the early morning light.  The trail was certainly no climber's path as it meandered, switchbacked and never got steep.  An acclimated, fit individual could turn it into a reasonable run.  The canyon area was beautiful, but the mountain itself was unimpressive - the east face was steep, but the summit indistinguishable from other points on the ridge.

Even with the required permits the trail was severely overcrowded as I passed no less than 40 people en route to the summit.  Upon reaching the summit 11 miles and four hours after leaving the trail there was at least 40 more people lounging in the sun.  I laid on the summit (highest point in continental U.S.) for almost two hours enjoying the sun and views out towards Death Valley (lowest point in U.S.). 

As I made my way down from the summit I passed the couple I had eaten breakfast with in the parking lot.  I laughed out loud after seeing their plight.  They were moving excruciatingly slow in the thin air - not because the husband was waiting for the wife, but because the husband looked like he was about to die.  The wife offered words of encouragement to her suffering husband, while I just continued to laugh remembering the conversation from earlier in the morning.

After reaching the car I pointed south again en route to Santa Barbara.  Chuck was also pretending to be a grad student (he actually became a real one) at UCSB, so I was excited to catch up with him and get a good shower and sleep.  Four hours after leaving the Whitney Portal I arrived Chuck's apartment and learned from his roommates that he had taken off for one of the Channel Islands.  Tired and furious I searched Santa Barbara for a motel, but couldn't find anything in my $20 price range.  I curled up my stinking, sweating body for another night in the back of the Maxima.

Looking up at the east face of Mt. Whitney.  I believe one of those bumps is the summit.


Looking out the canyon towards Death Valley and the hills of Nevada.


Me somewhere along the trail.

-written January 2003

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