It must be my Austrian heritage, but I have always been fascinated by stories of mountaineering expeditions. While I find the climbers' combination of athletic prowess, physical endurance and pain tolerance astounding, what really intrigues me is that they reach a point, usually toward the top, of almost zen-like oneness with the mountain. The crystalline stillness of the summit somehow imparts an absolute clarity of purpose. Many hikers are transformed by the experience and describe it in spiritual terms -- of reaching into the heavens. In essence, they find God on the world's highest peaks.
Because of my genetic predisposition, and I happen to live three hours from Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S., I decided to challenge myself to see if I could reach the summit. Secretly, I hoped for more than just a great view -- I hoped to find God. I enlisted the only person I know who did not think I was completely nuts -- my brother Jim -- himself an Alpine gene recipient.
After six months of training (albeit, none at altitude), and reading "How to Climb Mt. Whitney," we headed north 200 miles to the trailhead to attempt the most daunting physical escapade either of us had ever ventured -- 22.7 miles, 13,000 feet altitude gain and loss, and because neither of us has the innate sensibility to demure -- IN ONE DAY!
To partially acclimatize, we spent the day before our little stroll at the Whitney Portal Store -- 8,000 feet, where the trail begins. A fascinating crossroads of hardcore backpackers, new agey spiritual types and goal driven, city "summit baggers," Whitney Portal Store is a combination of general store, meeting place and pulpit for Dave, the 72-year-old proprietor.
A quintessential mountain man who happens to hold the record for the number of ascents on Mt. Whitney, Dave's main passion, aside from the mountain, is scaring city folks. His many stories of lightening strikes, bear encounters and sudden storms jaunted merrily along, and his face crinkled with glee as our eyes widened and our jaws dropped. His jocular tone turned very serious, however, when he spoke about "his mountain." His voice became inflected with such reverence and awe, I felt certain I would achieve my true purpose.
Most interesting was meeting the other hikers gathered, all on different quests. Among them -- a balding but muscular 81-year-old man who, driving past Mt. Whitney, just had to reach the summit again -- for the eighth time. His eyes took on a similar glaze as Dave's when he spoke about the mountain.
Most memorable, though, was a determined looking 40-year-old woman whose longtime goal of climbing Mt. Whitney took on an entirely different meaning after she survived cancer and one year of chemo, just two years earlier. Her husband, not usually a hiker, held her hand tightly. He had trained vigorously to be with her for the ascent.
That evening we left the store after purchasing numerous power bars, a special electrolyte powder that when added to water Dave promised would get me to the top, and hearing the news that eight bears were casing the area so we needed to stow everything in bear boxes.
I heard some rustling, turned around and found myself looking square into the glittery widespread eyes of a bear!
At 2 a.m., our start time, we stumbled into the deep, black night with our flashlights to the bear box containing our packs. Although Jim's pack was there intact, I panicked because my pack, with all my food, clothing and car keys, was gone.
As I rummaged through the box, I hissed, "Jim! Flash the light in here!"
No extra light appeared.
"Jim!! Come on!!"
Just then, I heard some rustling, turned around and found myself looking square into the glittery widespread eyes of a bear! I screamed and the bear ran back.
"Jimmy!! Help me close the box!!"
My brother, perhaps remembering the many times I had wielded my big-sisterdom over him as kids, started edging backwards, though, to his credit, he was blowing his "bear" whistle and ringing his "bear" bell. The bear didn't seem at all perturbed by the music, and started moving toward the box. Sensing danger, I backed off, yelling. Upon hearing the bells, whistles and screaming, the bear gave us a somewhat puzzled expression as if to say, "You're kidding, right ?" and lunged straight towards the box.
Another hiker who had been awakened by the commotion said she had seen a pack strewn in the distance. There I discovered my pack, flung on the ground. An extremely fastidious bear had unzipped my pack, carefully taken all of the food, engulfed even the electrolyte powder, but left everything else untouched.
I was amazed at how quickly other hikers offered me food, so at 3 a.m., we, the intrepid carriers of Alpine DNA, set off on our adventure into the star-filled night.
By now, I was jumpy, convinced that every sound was a bear, but a few hours later, as the sun began its grayish, then pinkish crawl across the landscape and the stunning High Sierra scenery began to glow in the fledgling light, I inhaled the warming, pine-scented air and relaxed, certain I was headed into God's country.
As the hours went by, and the atmosphere thinned, the exhalation began to give way to fatigue. The scenery became secondary to the physical pain of breathing.
At about 9 a.m., we got to the vaunted "97 switchbacks" I had read about; two miles of rocky stairs rising from the verdant, lush trees of 11,000 feet to the desolate lunar background of 13, 500 feet.
By far the hardest part of our hike, at times I could barely take a few steps without stopping to take searing, oxygen poor gasps. I kept asking myself, Do I have a headache or nausea? -- both signs of serious altitude sickness. Thankfully, the answer was "no." I also remained acutely cognizant of whether I was feeling the celestial It -- any overwhelming spiritual connection to the Universe. Unfortunately, the answer was also "no."
Quietly and subtly, something extraordinary was beginning to happen.
What I did notice, however, was that quietly and subtly, something extraordinary was happening. I had begun to realize it about two miles earlier when my brother's boot broke. Three separate groups of hikers stopped to help us; they offered tape, glue and even an extra pair of socks.
But it really became evident on those dreadful 97 turns. Each time when I had to stop because I was completely fatigued, people hiking by extended support and even chocolate so I could go on. And I did the same for them.
We met lots of people that way, all from different places, on the mountain for different reasons, but once we learned their stories we began to care about them. A man hiking with his 18-year-old son, who had summited 25 years earlier with his own father when he was 18, was eager to continue the legacy. His voice wavered when he said his dad couldn't be with them because he had a stroke a few years earlier.
A red-lipsticked 70-year-old crackerjack of a woman who was powering up the mountain with her bedraggled 45-year-old daughter trudging behind her. A Beverly Hills doctor's wife who clearly relished the fact that she was bucking stereotypes. "I made it for my 65th birthday, I'll darn well make it for my 70th!" I gazed sympathetically at her daughter, who resting against a rock, rolled her eyes and shook her head.
A comical, red-faced, overweight gentleman hiking with a friend had me a bit worried about his health, but he insisted he was fine and kept saying, "My wife didn't think I could make it. I've trained for months. I'm taking a picture at the top so I never have to do this again!"
I marveled that, somehow, on this tiny sun kissed rocky path, soaring high into the deep blue California sky, a ribbon of humanity and caring had been created. It seemed as if every time my lungs burned and my legs trembled, and I felt like I couldn't take even one more granite step, someone was there -- offering encouragement and caring.
That's how I made it; we all did … together.
After the switch backs, it was an easier mile to the top. Along the ridge we high-fived the 81-year-old man who had just summited for the eighth time. His eyes shined as he said to us "You've almost made it." And finally, we did.
At the top I gave the man and his 18-year-old son my cell phone (the only one that worked) so he could call his dad. The 70-year-old woman was exclaiming to her daughter, "I'll be back at 75!!" The daughter, who looked haggard but elated, sighed "And I'll be with you…"
Tears wet my eyes when I saw the cancer survivor, her arm around her husband, gazing into the distance. They had clawed their way out of the scariest abyss, and now, together, stood on the top of the world. For a few minutes, my brother and I reveled in the view of the arid Mojave desert far below, and then started down. Just a few yards from the top, we cheered the overweight man who was chortling to his friend, "Get the camera! It's picture time!"
After an endless descent, we made it down at about 7 p.m. and bought some of the electrolyte mix to replenish us on the drive home. I was about halfway through the second liter when I realized my heart was skipping every third beat. I stopped drinking it, but was too exhausted to care about the consequences.
It was only after I woke up the next morning, with the electrolytes cleared from my system and my heart beating regularly, did I realize how dangerous that kind of arrhythmia could have been at high altitude, and I had some time to reflect.
In retrospect, I did find God on Mt. Whitney, just not in the way I expected. Though I did not experience an overwhelming spiritual epiphany, God was certainly there. With the bear, whose palpitating heart probably saved my own. But mainly with the people - with their goals, their triumphs, their community and their incredible potential for caring and compassion. Yes, God was there at 14,497 feet… just like He is at sea level.