By Gwen Dawkins
In the iconic 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch, “Her Sister’s Shadow,” middle sister Jan laments that everything comes so easily to her older sister Marcia. She asserts, “Marcia makes such a big deal about everything. Every time Marcia turns around, someone hands her a blue ribbon….I’m tired of being in Marcia’s shadow.”
While her parents try to counsel Jan on Marcia’s hard work and merits, Jan finally blurts, “Well, all I hear all day long at school is how great Marcia is at this or how wonderful Marcia did that. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
That’s how I feel about my recent trek up Mt. Whitney. Only, I’m not whining!
Every day and in most conversations since completing this endeavor, I somehow namedrop my Mt. Whitney feat. It really has been, “Whitney, Whitney, Whitney!”
On August 6, 2021, at 2:48 a.m., six adventurous friends (Allison Railo, Anki Vinneras, Deb Ross, Erika McEnroe, Jessica Bandy & Noelle Masters) and I hiked up (and down) the highest mountain in the 48 contiguous states. We reached the summit at 14,505’* and came back down again –– all in one day! Along the way, challenges surrounded not only our group but also many fellow hikers: sleep deprivation, heavy packs, Altitude Sickness, not enough water, too much “engineered food,” and bodily aches and pains. However, the beauty, adventure, awe and empowerment eclipsed any feelings of hardship. It was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!
Statistically speaking, only one in three hikers make it to the summit. In fact, we ran into a couple at the fabulous Lone Pine Market the night before our hike who shared that two members of their party had to be helivaced off the mountain. That information compounded already looming questions about whether or not we would make it to the top. However, we are proud to say that every one of us made it to the summit and back that day! Ranging in age from 48 – 58 (me!), we already felt like badasses before the hike — Mt. Whitney has sealed the deal for all of us even more!
Mt. Whitney Is A Big Deal!
Like Marcia, I’m making a big deal about hiking Mt. Whitney. It. Was. Hard.
The Mt. Whitney website describes it this way: “The 22-mile round-trip hike will challenge even very fit hikers. Expect to hike 12 to 14 hours to the summit and back. Consider starting before sunrise. Be prepared to hike in the dark. The Mt. Whitney Trail is a non-technical, but strenuous, route to the summit when it is free of snow.”
We were thrilled to get permits for August. Snow and its required equipment appealed to no one. Still, with stellar weather ahead, how long the hike would take was a nonstop consideration during our four months of training. If the average time is 12-14 hours, some of us reasoned, “We should do it in 12 because we are fit!” But that also begged the question, “Who are the ‘average’ people hiking Whitney?” We ventured that mainly only fit people are hiking the mountain. For our group, 16 hours was the fastest time. Some in our group had to hike in the dark both at the beginning and the end, with a total hiking time of nearly 18 hours. We did take a few breaks here and there, but we were on the move for the most part.
The Altitude Got To Me
If you’ll recall from previous posts here and here, hiking Mt. Whitney has been a longtime dream. I vacillated between hoping and figuring I could do it. But I was worried about my arthritic knees (which, treated with KT Tape and patella straps, didn’t bother me at all). Also, living at just 300 feet above sea level, I didn’t know how the altitude would affect me. On one of our training hikes, we met two women who had hiked Mt. Whitney while enduring Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and it took them four hours to climb that last two miles. I believe this mildest form of Altitude Sickness got me too.
If you know anything about Mt. Whitney, you’ve heard of the notorious 99 switchbacks. While most people complain about the monotony, that did not bother me because I was looking at the ground most of the time and wasn’t counting! But I did get winded toward the top of the switchbacks. Therefore, I felt consoled when my friends also got breathless and took breaks. Upon reaching Trail Crest at 13,645’ and the final 1.9 mile stretch to the top, I was relieved — until I wasn’t.
From this point forward, my headache intensified (think ax lodged in brain) and my ability to breathe deeply disappeared. Before long, Jessica and I were pulling up the rear, walking 10 – 15 feet, then resting and taking hits of oxygen. There were several moments when I questioned my ability to make it to the summit even though it was “right there.” That would have been a major bummer for me since I was one of the main instigators of this mission. However, Jessica and I took heart in the fact that a group of 20-something guys was leapfrogging us at our exact pace! The effects of the altitude truly surprised me despite taking Diamox and plenty of Excedrin.
Once I got to the summit, I took the prerequisite photos (Thank you, Erika!) but knew I needed to get down before I would feel better. I was the only one in our group really affected by the altitude, so I began speed-walking toward the bottom. It was during this six-hour decent that I began to get squirrelly. You know how it is when you’re starting to get drunk, but then you deny it? That’s how I was acting.
When my friend Noelle asked me if I wanted sunscreen, I curtly said, “No!” Clearly, she didn’t understand that I didn’t need sunscreen because I was almost done with this hike! So when the group rested longer than I thought necessary, I headed out on my own. I barely spoke to Allison as I passed her. “Must get down” was my only mantra.
My friend Anki, who had been the first to summit, caught up with me in the last two miles. Despite the drop-off at the trail’s edge, I was tripping a little and careless with my footwork. I kept telling her I was fine until she stopped me and said I was “acting drunk.” She made me eat and drink, which I didn’t want to do. But I had enough sense to trust her and followed her instructions, walking behind her at a slower pace than I was keen to. A cough that started in the car only got worse overnight. Hotel personnel said it was a classic Altitude Sickness symptom. I woke feeling improved but noticed I couldn’t take deep breaths until we were well below 3,000 feet on the way home. I definitely felt improvement with each passing day once home.
Carol & Mike Brady’s Advice
Back to the Brady Bunch: During Jan’s meltdown about Marcia, her parents explained, “Nobody has smooth sailing all of the time.” And, “Marcia has her disappointments too.” As for Jan, they advised, “Do something about it. Get out and develop your own talent.” Although I had some challenges, they were minor compared to experiencing the natural beauty of the Mt. Whitney Wilderness Area; the physical challenge of pushing myself to new heights; and the camaraderie of my wonderful friends. Now, I am no longer in the shadow of the highest mountain in the lower 48. I climbed Mt. Whitney!
Whitney, Whitney, Whitney!
*How high is Mt. Whitney, really? The “accepted” elevation of Mt. Whitney has changed several times. In fact, the signs at the summit have different elevations. For my ego, I’m going with the highest accepted elevation: 14,505′. Just don’t look too closely at the Mt. Whitney sign we chose for our photos — we picked it for the nice contrast with the background, rather than the number on the front.