By Michael Lanza
On the long, uphill hike toward the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, in the middle of April, the alpine sun and wind behave like a couple married for far too long, who take their frequent disagreements to extremes that make everyone else uncomfortable. The sun offers us a hug of much-needed warmth one moment, only to later leave us wilting in its inescapable, unrestrained heat. The wind arrives at times precisely when we crave its relief from the sun’s thermal oppression, and at other times entirely unwelcome, an icicle knifing into bone. We alternately wish for and desperately try to avoid both of them.
But at this moment, somewhere well over 11,000 feet above sea level on the east side of California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the wind is definitely not our friend. And the sun seems willfully deaf to our silent pleas to show us a little more love.
I shoot a glance at my son, Nate, 15, who has the body mass index of a legal-size envelope. Layered up in a shell jacket over a fleece, a warm hat, gloves, and soft-shell pants, he’s pacing a small, circular trough into the snow, trying to warm himself and not entirely succeeding. I can also feel the wind starting to thicken my marrow, and the body language of our companions communicates that most of them feel the same. We’ve been standing still for only a matter of minutes, on a short snack-and-drink break. Now, as we’ve done most of this day just to stay warm, we need to get moving again.
It’s the second morning of our four-day ascent of Mount Whitney. Tomorrow, we hope to climb Whitney’s Mountaineers Route to the summit, armed with ice axes, crampons, enthusiasm, and if all goes well, an adequate degree of acclimation to elevations that most of us rarely encounter. In fact, our high camp at 12,000 feet, which we’ll reach within an hour, will be higher than several people in our group have ever been, including Nate. And from there it’s another 2,500 feet to the summit, where reduced air pressure has an effect similar to cutting the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere nearly in half compared to sea level.
I’m sure everyone’s wondering whether they will stand on that summit tomorrow. But I’m thinking mostly about Nate, and flashing back in my mind through the long chain of moments, reaching back many years, that have brought us to this spot here today, and the deceptively slow but persistent pace of time that has transformed my little boy into a young man.
Big City Mountaineers
Nate and I are in the John Muir Wilderness, in California’s Eastern Sierra, with eight other people whom we met in person only within the past two days. They include our three mountain guides from Sierra Mountaineering International, Tristan Sieleman, 38, Lindsay Fixmer, 35, and Trevor Anthes, 40. Tristan and Lindsay are affable joke-tellers who clearly delight in leading people on adventures in the mountains. They remind me of young musicians just starting to make it big: They appear to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Trevor is quieter, choosing his words carefully; but when he does say something, it comes from a deep knowledge base about how to travel safely through the mountains.
The other five members of our party are readers of this blog who signed up to join Nate and me on this climb, which we’re doing as a fundraiser for a fantastic organization called Big City Mountaineers that introduces urban teens to the wilderness.
Since 1989, BCM has been providing wilderness-mentoring experiences to underprivileged urban youths. Every year, BCM partners with youth-development agencies and professional field instructors to take hundreds of teenagers on a weeklong expedition that includes a five-day wilderness backpacking or canoe trip. This year, upwards of 800 kids age 13 to 18 will participate in a BCM program, increasing the likelihood of these kids staying in school and not getting involved in violence or drugs.
After I announced plans for this climb at this blog last fall, five readers of The Big Outside signed up for it, all telling me that it represents not only an opportunity to challenge themselves personally, but they were also drawn to the goal of raising money to help get more kids outdoors. Collectively, we raised more than $25,000 for BCM.
Molly Baab, 40, who works for an e-commerce site and lives outside of Boston, is an avid rock and ice climber who met her husband through climbing; they now have a five-year-old daughter and are introducing her to the outdoors. Molly turned 40 last year, and promised herself she would climb a big mountain to celebrate. When I announced this Whitney climb, she told me, “I went from unsure about it to signed up in 10 minutes.”
Tim Brosnan, 56, of Annandale, N.J., a senior vice president with an international risk-management firm, has hiked throughout the Northeast, in parts of the West, and in Spain and Nepal. He speaks fondly of his wife and three grown children, and told me this climb gives him a chance to “do something to improve the lives of kids who haven’t been as lucky as we have.”
For Nick Ornella, 31, a pharmacist from Cincinnati, tall and lean with an easy smile, this is his first major mountain climb; he has mostly day hiked and car camped and once backpacked 73 miles on the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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John Kelly, 66, a retiree from Maple Ridge, B.C., who hasn’t retired from adventure, has backpacked for decades and walked Spain’s Camino de Santiago and the Snowman Trek in Bhutan, one of the world’s highest and most challenging treks, crossing nine passes over 4500 meters (15,850 feet) in elevation.
Frank Weber, 39, of Hardeeville, S.C., whose frequent laugh carries across the campsite, is an Arizona native and avid backpacker. He and his wife have taken their three young kids on numerous outdoor adventures “since before they could crawl,” he told me, and “we have watched them flourish in the outdoors, which has solidified for us the importance of unplugging children from our hyper-connected world to let them experience nature.”
We’d all agree with Frank on that point.
Camping at 12,000 Feet
When the wind becomes too much, we resume lumbering uphill, carrying 40-pound backpacks stuffed with camping and climbing gear, food, water, and clothes—except for Nate, who’s carrying about 25 pounds, which is still one-quarter of his body weight, while I haul some of his gear and food. As we pass over a snowy crest, the full, daunting East Face of Mount Whitney and its neighboring spires come into view, canine teeth of sheer granite intruding upon altitudes usually the exclusive domain of clouds.
It’s the rare kind of scenery that forces you to stop in your tracks, unconsciously, because simultaneously walking and intellectually processing this view overloads the brain. I’ve hiked through some of the most beautiful places in America and around the world. Looking up at the East Face of Mount Whitney reminds me, perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve been, of the surreal towers of Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park.
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More than three hours after leaving our first camp at 10,300 feet near Lower Boy Scout Lake—where we awoke this morning to find ice in our water bottles—we stroll onto a broad, snow-covered, flat area below the East Face: our high camp at 12,000 feet, more than two vertical miles above sea level. It’s afternoon, the wind has mostly died down, and there’s not a speck of shade in sight. With no escape from the direct sun reflecting off snow, it feels like we’re slowly boiling in a cauldron of dry air.
Standing around in T-shirts a couple hours after we had shivered, everyone steals long gazes up at Mount Whitney, highest point of land between Maine’s forehead and California’s tail, looming 2,500 severely vertical feet above us—comparable to the relief of the famous face of Yosemite’s Half Dome, but nearly 4,000 feet higher in elevation. We’ve hiked for two days to reach this spot, and still, the summit looks very far away.
When the sun drops behind a notch in the row of spires beside Whitney, the temperature plummets like a ball rolling off a table.
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Trying to Raise a Kid Outdoors
Almost nine years ago, when Nate was a 40-pound six-year-old carrying a stuffed dolphin named Flipper, he and I backpacked the 18-mile, Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake loop in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, a rugged hike that goes over a 9,200-foot pass and has some of the prettiest mountain lakes in Idaho. It was actually our second “boy trip,” the name Nate gave back then—and that we still use today—to our annual father-son adventure (a tradition I’ve also established with my daughter). But it was our first real backcountry adventure.
That three-day hike doesn’t seem all that long ago to me, of course. But for Nate, those nine years represent more than half a lifetime of growing physically and gaining maturity.
We’ve since taken several boy trips, backpacking in the Sawtooths and the neighboring White Cloud Mountains and rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park. Every year, I’ve picked an outing appropriate for his stamina and abilities, and each time, he has shown an enthusiasm that turns my heart to butter. My wife and I have taken the same approach on family adventures with both kids; and from sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay to rappelling into slot canyons and hiking Mount St. Helens, they have always risen to each new challenge—not only delighting in the adventure, but taking visible pride in their ability to do something that they realize many people would never even attempt.
In an age when most kids seem to have been surgically attached to their electronic devices, and rarely get outside to play the way their parents regularly did as children, I’ve found that family-driven outdoor activities are one of the primary ways that my kids connect with nature.
But climbing Mount Whitney may be the hardest adventure Nate and I have attempted together. For us to reach the summit, he has to acclimate to an elevation more than 3,000 feet higher than he’s ever stood. And he’ll have to do that on a rigorous summit day involving 2,500 feet of climbing snow, coming on the heels of two strenuous days of carrying a heavy backpack uphill. He’s never done this sort of climb before.
Nate has been doing everything one can do to prepare for climbing a big mountain, from training for the past four months at home to drinking water assiduously since the evening before we started hiking from the Mount Whitney Trailhead, at over 8,300 feet. Now, in our tent on our second evening, at 12,000 feet, he tells me, “I think I’m pretty well acclimated.”
I tell him I’m confident he can do this. But there’s really no way to be sure he’ll make it.
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Mount Whitney’s Mountaineers Route
On summit day, Tristan wakes us a little while before the first light of day starts bleeding into the sky on the eastern horizon. But it’s surprisingly mild, several degrees above freezing, and clear and calm as we walk around camp by the light of headlamps, wolfing down a breakfast of oatmeal and hot drinks and getting into our clothing, mountain boots, harnesses, and crampons. Tim elects to enjoy a relaxing day in camp; he was feeling the elevation hard on our first two days, and has the maturity to accept his limits. Everyone else starts kicking steps in the frozen snow at 6 a.m., hiking toward the stunning wall of sheer granite pinnacles now glowing like gold nuggets in the dawn light.
Mount Whitney’s Mountaineers Route technically begins at the base of a 1,400-foot-tall gully that splits the mountain’s eastern flank right around the corner from the East Face. That’s where, a bit over an hour after leaving camp, we stop in warm sunshine and chilling gusts of wind—that troubled married couple arguing again—to tie together in rope teams. Varying from roughly the width of a five-lane highway to a country lane, the gully is filled with snow most of the year, pitched at an angle ranging from the steepness of a black diamond ski run to steeper than a double-black diamond. While this mountaineering route does not see anything approaching the thousands of hikers who walk to the summit—or try to—via the Mount Whitney Trail every summer, it does receive a steady stream of climbers from spring through fall. We’ll encounter several other parties today, including two skiers and a pair of rock climbers from Alaska who tell us ironically that they “were hoping for some warm rock climbing.”
When the wind dies down for periods of several minutes, we’ll heat up until another cold blast rips through the gully. “The weather’s actually perfect,” Tristan says to me during one short break, when we’ve stomped out personal platforms the width of our boots to stand on while we remove packs and grab drinks and snacks. “The wind blows just when you’re getting too hot,” he says.
About two hours after roping up, we scramble through bands of loose rocks and snow to reach the gully’s apex at a shoulder called The Notch. Then the Mountaineers Route makes a hairpin turn to enter a shorter but even steeper gully of snow and rock slabs rising for 400 feet. We step into the mountain’s shadow and blasts of wind that make it feel much colder even than the air temperature, which is probably below freezing. We move quickly, eager to get back into sunshine and out of this gully, where the threat of falling rock, inadvertently kicked loose by climbers above us, looms as a constant danger.
We reach the summit plateau, a wind-scoured, granite plain littered with rocks, and take the easy stroll to Whitney’s crown. At 10:30 a.m., four-and-a-half hours after leaving our camp, we all stand at the brink of cliffs falling away for thousands of feet to our campsite too far below to be seen. And we spin slowly around to absorb a view of scores of snowy High Sierra peaks, many rising to 13,000 and 14,000 feet, some in the John Muir Wilderness and others in Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks, all of them lower than the rocks we’re standing on.
With little wind and the sun evenly balanced with the cold temps, we linger at the summit for 90 minutes, taking pictures and just quietly celebrating having reached the roof of the High Sierra.
That evening, after we’ve all hung around outside talking and laughing until the dark and cold chased us to our tents, Nate tells me, “You know, this has been the best boy trip we’ve ever done, and it makes me excited to do bigger ones and climb more mountains like this.” I tell him I would love that.
And then Nate says, “Being out here just changes how time passes. I think about how I’m doing this right now and soon this will be over and I’ll be doing something else.”
Then my 15-year-old philosopher-son tells me, “Time is funny.”
Yes, I say to him, it sure is.
For information about Big City Mountaineers and its Summit For Someone program, through which you could take a guided climb of a variety of U.S. and international peaks while raising money to help BCM introduce young people to the outdoors, see bigcitymountaineers.org.
See all of my stories about adventures in California national parks and about family adventures, as well my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” and Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures.”
Guides Sierra Mountaineering International, sierramountaineering.com.
Contact Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, Lone Pine, CA, (760) 876-6222, fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recreation/recarea/?recid=20698.