As I started my turns in the upper couloir of the Mountaineer’s Route on Mount Whitney, CA, my mind reflected upon the previous 24 hours of uphill slogging, horrifically textured Mexican–style rice and the thrumming sounds of snow pummeling the outside of my tent. Since my trip to climb Pico de Orizaba in Mexico was skunked by bad luck, my personal high-point for elevation gain was the summit of the Grand Teton in Wyoming (13,776′). Mount Whitney offered the prospect of not only a high–point for walking, but also a potential for the longest snowboard descent of my life. With that context in mind, it is only natural to assume that I had been pretty excited for the expedition for quite a while.
3 Freeze–dried Meals
Multi–day ski mountaineering trips require a lot more gear than a single–day. On a normal day in the Wasatch, I can sometimes even get away with not bringing water if it’s only going to be dawn patrol. The same luxuries don’t apply for a springtime jaunt up Mount Whitney when the gate is locked all the way down by Lone Pine Campground. In the winter and spring, the Whitney Portal Road is closed 3.8 miles and 2,000 vertical feet further down canyon than in the summertime, which means your first day of hiking is about 6 miles and 5,000 vert. Although I have some remarkably light gear, it didn’t stop my pack from weighing in at 67 lbs. I figured that a rapid snowboard descent would easily compensate for my totally–not–at–all–ultra–light Burton Freebird setup. And it it did!
But no matter how fit and fast you are, heavy packs mean depleted energy reserves. This means food––lots of food. For me, it meant 3 Backpacker’s Pantry dual–serving meals. No matter how tasty the 3 Cheese Lasagna seems on the packaging, after your third bite the texture of freeze–dried refreshment starts to slowly remind you of that time when the schoolyard bully forced you to eat dirt mixed with worm guts. Every bite is a mission. Each grain of rice more loathsome than the last. Next time I’m bringing instant couscous. 2 Iconic Locations
As I settled into my evening rhythm (melt snow, purify water, repeat), the hiss of my Jetboil drowned out the sounds of other climbers setting camp. Our little group of 8 (6 skiers and two snowshoers) settled off to the southwestern portion of the Upper Boy Scout Lake plateau. On our permit we had indicated a desire to camp at Iceberg Lake, about 1300 feet higher, but afternoon lightning and a desire to ski more of the route with lighter packs quickly dissuaded us from any intent to climb further that night. I started to get really psyched as the light faded, and darkness enveloped the lake and its massive granite environs. Mount Whitney is the tallest landmark in the contiguous United States, and an obvious destination for skiers, climbers and hikers of all abilities. And although my mind contemplated the summit, I couldn’t help but think of the other iconic landmark 85 miles away: Badwater Basin in Death Valley––the lowest point in North America. I wanted to tick both these destinations off my lifetime achievement list so badly I could practically taste the salt of Death Valley. It turns out it was just the aftertaste of my Tetrazini.
1 Wag Bag
Summit Day went off without a hitch, although my body wasn’t psyched on the Diamox that I’d taken, and was vehemently rejecting it. The only hitch was that my morning “meeting” had been met with stage fright, so all the food I’d eaten for the last couple days was still lodged firmly in my large intestine. Upon reaching the summit, however, all that started to change; I retreated into the the lightning shelter for the highest poop of my life (so far). Refreshed and considerably lighter, the next 24 hours resulted in the longest snowboard descent of my life, as well as lifetime descent. We went straight from the summit of Mount Whitney at 14,505′ to Badwater Basin, over 200 feet below sea level. It’s not everyday that you get to drop nearly 15,000′ of vertical in a day.
Life has high points and low points, and sometimes it feels as though they’re almost back to back. In those times, it’s critical for me to remember that the joy is in the freeze-dried tetrazini and summit wag bags and uphill slogs with 67 lb packs and barefoot strolls though the lowest point on the continent. The low points and the high points are all part of this incredible journey we call life, and if we can embrace that, the difficulties just start to fade into the wonderful white noise of experience.