Tales of the Trails – Mt. Whitney Edition Pt. 2

The last three miles of the first Mt. Whitney summit attempt in August were the longest three miles of my life. I had a strange out-of-body type of experience on the way down and I have no idea how I even made it all the way. Perhaps it was the quick pace set by my friends Jeff and Nancy. Or maybe it was Jeff’s calling out the mileage on the descent, giving me hope that the trailhead was near. Somehow, even with the encouraging words from Jeff, I grew more and more discouraged as I saw headlamps snaking up the trail below us, indicating that we still had at least that much further to go.

Every inch of me was in pain. The few places that weren’t were downright numb. I felt as if rigor mortis was settling into my body while I was still in it, and that non-sensation should have frightened me, but I was even numb to fear. My headlamp had even grown dim as the batteries needed replacing, but I refused to stop. I knew that if I had stopped for even a moment, I wouldn’t be able to start again. So I walked in between Jeff and Nancy so that I could use the light of their headlamps.

By the time we finally reached the trailhead, I thought I was hallucinating. I looked up into the sky and noticed millions of stars, something I had never seen before. I glanced at Nancy and told her I had never seen that many stars in the sky and felt like something was wrong with me. She assured me that there weren’t any more stars in the sky than normal, but because of the light pollution in the city, the stars are not all clearly visible to us. While it was a comfort to know that I wasn’t hallucinating, that did little to reassure me that something wasn’t terribly wrong.

Jeff offered to treat us all to a pizza in Lone Pine as we were all famished. When we got there, I walked across the street to the hostel where I stayed to leave my backpack in the room and I could barely stand. Going up the stairs was excruciating. Somehow I made it back to the pizza joint and attempted to eat a slice of pizza and rehydrate with some green tea sweetened with honey. I had to force a small bite of pizza down and I probably only drank half a cup of green tea. I couldn’t sit at the table any longer and bid my friends goodnight. As hungry as I was, it was very surprising to me that I couldn’t eat or drink. When I got back to the room, I went straight to bed.

There had only been one time in my life that I could remember not having an appetite. I was fourteen, it was Thanksgiving, and I had the flu. It was the most awful feeling ever to be at my grandmother’s house around family and lots of food, and unable to touch any of it. After my failed attempt to summit Mt. Whitney, I had that feeling multiplied by ten. I was also severely dehydrated, as well as physically and emotionally spent. I later discovered that I had a pretty bad case of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), which could have turned fatal. Thank God, it didn’t.

The next morning, I loaded up on electrolytes, which I badly needed, and had a big breakfast up at the Whitney Portal. After that, I felt refreshed. However, I couldn’t stop looking back at Mt. Whitney staring down at me in the distance and feeling bummed that I didn’t conquer her as I had intended. I knew it would be at least a year before I would have another go at it and I tried to let it go, but be thankful that I at least made it as far as Trail Crest, which by all purposes was the summit at 13,600ft.

When I returned to L.A. and pondered my failed summit attempt, I lamented over the fact that I had given up on some dreams that I had held dear to my heart for many years. I also noted that I had given up on summiting two peaks and felt that the two instances were somehow connected. I didn’t know for sure if that was the case, but it was worth consideration. I wondered what to do about it.

The answer came suddenly when my friend Walter, the leader of the Mt. Whitney conquests, posed the idea of going back to the mountain to take care of business once and for all. I wasn’t going to have to wait another year. I would take on the mountain again, and I would do it on my birthday, celebrating with epic flare. It would be the birthday to remember.

Tales of the Trails – Mt. Whitney Edition Pt. 1

I know I shared this story in my previous series, so forgive me if you have already read this. Since this is a new series, I feel the need to share it again because it ties in so well with this tale from Mt. Whitney.

When I was in my late teens, I was an active figure skater and even competed in a local championship in Houston, where I placed 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in three categories. After the championship, I wanted to embark on a new quest, so I decided to take up ballet.

I had just graduated from high school and got a part-time job at a local department store. I worked two evenings out of the week, so I wanted to find a beginning adult ballet class that would fit around that schedule.  I discovered Act One Conservatory of Dance and, although they offered a beginning class, it wasn’t on the nights that I could attend.  The only class available was the advanced Company Ballet class, a class designed for professional-level ballet dancers.

The owner of the company, Mary Niles Warren, a retired principal dancer of the world-renowned Houston Ballet, said that she’d only had two beginners start in that class and they both quit.  She allowed me to come to class one evening and observe.  When asked if I was up for the challenge, I said yes.

So I started attending this class twice a week.  Though much smaller than I am now, I was the largest dancer in the class, plus, I was top-heavy, which made the training slightly more difficult.  Initially, I had no idea what any of the five basic positions were, let alone a simple plie.  But I listened and took notes on everything Mrs. Warren taught.  Eventually, I became stronger, and soon I was able to dance in the lead position at the bar during rehearsals.  I was also cast as a Swan Maiden in the Company’s production of Swan Lake.

It didn’t faze me that I was attempting something that could potentially defeat me.  Actually, the thought of failure didn’t even cross my mind.  I embraced every day, one step at a time.  Each time at the bar in front of the mirror was a new opportunity to shine.  I didn’t see myself as inferior to the other dancers, even though many of them could lift their legs high above their heads, do the splits, and extend their limbs further than I could even imagine. I knew I had a place in that class and in that company.

In a rehearsal for Swan Lake, one of the principal dancers was absent.  When it came time to rehearse the Pas De Quartre, there were only three dancers present for the number when there should have been four.  Because I had watched the routine so many times–even practiced it at home when my parents weren’t around–I knew the number and offered to stand in for the missing dancer.  Surprised that I even asked, Mrs. Warren allowed it.

At the end of the number, Mrs. Warren jumped up and shouted, “Wow, Joyce!”  She was amazed and excited, as were the other dancers.  The beauty of Act One was that there was never a spirit of competition amongst the dancers.  We were all very supportive and encouraging of one another.  That I came in with no ballet experience, whatsoever, and then stepped up to the plate for this crucial dance routine was an encouragement to the other dancers to push themselves and work harder.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be performing the Pas De Quartre in the production of Swan Lake, no matter how well I did during the rehearsal.  The part had already been cast and I was just filling in during an apparent emergency.  However, I still approached the work with precision and grace and I owned that moment in the spotlight as if the role were mine.

My first trip to Mt. Whitney on August 21, 2011 turned out to be one such “rehearsal.”  My intent, of course, was to reach the summit that day.  I had trained and conditioned myself for months, read books and performed Internet research on the hike and brought along everything I thought I needed for a successful climb.  I even began the hike two-and-a-half hours ahead of the group, so that I wouldn’t be so far behind.  However, I didn’t reach the summit that day because of several factors, which turned out to be a good thing, because if I had tried to push for the summit on that particular day, I quite possibly could have died.

Tales of the Trails: The Adventures of the Fabulous Five – Pt. 4

I glanced around the arch, circling it several times to find something, anything that would lead me to Arthur. I didn’t find even a clue, and I was becoming more and more worried. Puzzled was more like it. I stood underneath the arch, looking through to the other side, and I saw a breathtaking view of Mt. Whitney just beyond.  I stepped onto the rock and stopped directly under the arch. Suddenly, I was overcome by a strange sensation–something like AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).  The weird thing about it was that I wasn’t at a high altitude, so there was no reason for me to experience those symptoms.

I thought that perhaps if I stepped through the arch I would end up passing through to some other world where I might find Arthur.  Then I thought better of it.  How silly a thought.  Being a writer, sometimes I let my imagination get away with me.  But maybe it wasn’t such a silly thought after all.  It was obvious that Arthur was close, yet not so close.


It was Arthur’s voice again.  He sounded more desperate this time.  I had to do something, but I was afraid to go it alone.

“Guys!” I shouted.  Eddie, Farrah and Gina emerged from the boulders.  “I think I found Arthur.”

“Where?” Eddie stood behind me at the arch.

“Follow me,” I said.  With that, I stepped through to the other side of the arch.  Immediately, the wind was sucked out of me and I felt as if someone had grabbed hold of my lungs and squeezed them with all their might.  I was engulfed by a blinding light and my head was spinning as I was sucked into some sort of vortex.

I heard a deafening roar and then, suddenly, everything just stopped.  I thought I was dead, but then felt something warm and rugged on my face.  When I realized it was the ground, I knew I still had life in me.  But I couldn’t move.  I opened my eyes and glanced around, but everything was a blur.  From what I could make of the surroundings, it seemed as if i were in the same place as before.

The sun was blazing hot and I desperately wanted to get up, but I couldn’t.  I could feel my arms and legs, so I knew I wasn’t paralyzed, but for some reason I was immobile, no matter how hard I tried to move.  I was suddenly gripped by fear as I realized that there was no sign of life and no sign of Arthur.  I wondered why I heard him earlier, but now that I was in this “place,” I didn’t hear a thing.  I didn’t even know what became of Eddie, Farrah, or Gina.

The one thing I did hear was a gunshot.  It was distant at first, but then another shot rang out that seemed much closer.  Dangerously close.  I then heard what sounded like a stampede, then more shots, getting ever so close.  I knew at that moment it was time to arise from the dust, but I still couldn’t move.

I tried to speak.  “Arth—”  It was no use.  I could barely form the word on my lips.  The stampede grew closer and closer, until I could feel the earth trembling beneath me.  I heard another gunshot.  This time, I could almost feel the bullet pierce the air right next to my face as I struggled to will myself up from the dirt.  I’m dead, I thought.

Suddenly, I felt a strong set of arms wrap around me and I was lifted from the ground.  My vision was still blurred, so I couldn’t make out the figure.  I was being shaken as the figure ran with me and then whisked me across something hard.  As I began to fall over, I felt myself being held up, supported by a warm body pressed against mine.  A slew of gunshots resounded, causing my ears to pop with each release.

“Yah!” the man shouted, and we began to move–or rather gallop–across the desert.  At that moment, I knew that I was riding a horse.  What I didn’t know yet was who had just risked his life to save me?  And where was he taking me?  More importantly, where was Arthur, and was this mystery man going to take me to him?  Or had something terrible happened?

Tales of the Trails: The Adventures of the Fabulous Five – Pt. 2

Despite my misgivings regarding the Lone Ranger look-a-like, I went to the Whitney Portal Store to enjoy a big, hearty breakfast with my friends. When we passed the Mt. Whitney Trailhead, all of us cringed at the sign as we had gotten our fill of the Mt. Whitney trail.

We went inside the store and were greeted immediately by the famous Doug, a happy and charismatic man who seemed to love meeting new faces. He began taking Arthur’s order as I glanced around the store to check out some gifts and trinkets.

My attention was drawn back over to the counter where there was a little commotion between Arthur and Doug. They were acting up and having a good time. Two personalities that instantly clicked.

When it was time to place my order, I noticed some books on sale at the counter with maps of the Mt. Whitney trail in them. When Doug noticed me checking out the books, he grabbed one, wrote an inscription in it, and handed it to me, free of charge. I thought he was kidding at first, but he was serious. What a nice man.

When Doug went back to the kitchen to prepare his world famous hotcakes, I flipped through the book and noticed that some recipes were included in the back, even the recipe for the giant hotcakes.

Doug returned and brought out two–rather four–plates of hotcakes. There were two hotcakes, but because of their mammoth size, they had to rest on two plates each. Arthur ordered one and so did I. We couldn’t believe our eyes. These were literally the biggest pancakes we had ever seen. There was no way any one person could eat an entire cake. However, I decided I was up for the challenge.

We all sat out on the patio and, amid a swarm of bees, ate our breakfast. Arthur shared his hotcake with Gina and Eddie. I tried to eat mine, but ended up splitting it with Farrah. The two of us still couldn’t tackle it and most of it was left behind.

The bees were out in full force. I tried my best to scarf down my scrambled eggs and bacon before they could get to it, but I couldn’t eat fast enough. The bees obviously liked Arthur; his plate was covered with them. I had never known bees to be carnivorous.

“What’s the matter?” Doug’s voice boomed from the window overhead. “You can’t eat all the hotcake?”

“I tried, Doug. But if I eat one more bite, I’m going to barf,” I said.

“What do you mean? You don’t like the hotcake?” Doug appeared hurt.

“Oh, no, of course I like it. I love it, actually. It’s just that it’s really a massive pancake and my stomach can’t take anymore.”

Doug chuckled and left the window. I stared down at my unfinished pancake, knowing I’d have to toss it. What a waste.

We sat on the patio talking, laughing, shooing away bees, taking pictures of visiting chipmunks, and greeting weary hikers as they sat down for breakfast around us. We could tell which ones had just completed the Whitney hike because they all had “the look,” as we called it. That tired, drained, washed out, ugly, dirty look that we all wore the day before.

After taking a few more photos of chipmunks and blue jays, we headed back to the cars with the mysterious arch on our minds.  I glanced at the restroom near the parking lot with the strange feeling that I should pay it a visit, but I didn’t really have to go at the moment, so I got in the car.  By the time we reached Movie Road, I was brewing and stewing, and not because of the intense desert heat.

Tales of the Trails – The Adventures of the Fabulous Five Pt. 1

The morning sun blazed into the window of the dorm, immediately rousing us from our peaceful sleep.  Farrah and I were the only two remaining in our room as our other roommate left before either of us awoke.  As we began loading our things into the cars, we met up with our other hiking friends, Eddie, Arthur and Gina, who were preparing to leave as well.

After we got everything settled into the cars, Eddie asked if I’d like to join them for breakfast before heading back to L.A.  They were considering eating at a place across the street from the hostel, but suddenly, I remembered a legend I’d heard about a place Mt. Whitney hikers go to eat these enormous hotcakes prepared by a man named Doug.  According to the legend, whoever can finish one of the hotcakes gets their meal for free.

The town of Lone Pine holds so many legends.  There is even a fountain in the middle of town where if you toss in a coin, you are supposed to meet your true love.  It’s sort of like the Trevi fountain in Rome.  I’m not very superstitious, but since I’ve been waiting years to meet my true love, I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to try it.  So I tossed in a dime when no one was looking.

I went inside the hostel office to inquire about the legend of the hotcakes and was told that we could find them at the Whitney Portal Store, thirteen miles from where we were.  Since the attendant said it was worth the drive, we decided to try it.

We set out onto Whitney Portal Road and pulled off to the side of the road to take some pictures of the rock formations.  Suddenly, a mysterious man in a pickup truck stopped and asked Gina and I if we would be interested in seeing some points of interest on a map he showed us.

The man, who introduced himself as Johnny, looked like he came straight from the set of Bonanza.  He wore a cowboy hat, tight cowboy pants, boots with spurs on the backs, and a bandana.

“Has anybody ever told you that you look just like…”  I couldn’t even finish my sentence.

“John Wayne,” Johnny said.  His lips pursed into a cunning smirk and he laughed.  It wasn’t a jovial, fun laugh either.  It actually sent a chill down my spine because of the somewhat sinister tone.

The map he brandished showed places where you could see certain rocks that were in shapes of different animals, such as Rabbit Rock, Hippopotamus Rock, Elephant Rock, and so forth.  Johnny then pointed to a rock on the map shaped like an arch.  He told us that if we didn’t get to any of the other places we at least had to go to the arch.

Gina was intrigued and so was I.  I motioned for Arthur, Eddie and Farrah to come over to see if they would be interested in going to the arch.  According to Johnny and the map, all we had to do was make a left turn on Movie Road.  I thought that was an interesting name for a road out in the middle of rocky terrain surrounded by mountains.  Apparently, the road was named as such because of all the westerns filmed in the area back in the day.

While everyone was on board to go see the arch, we were all hungry, so we decided to go see it after breakfast.  Johnny seemed somewhat taken aback that we were going up to the Whitney Portal Store for breakfast.

“You kids beware of that Doug.  Hopefully, you’ll catch him on a good day,” said Johnny.

“What is that supposed to mean?”  I said.

“And you might want to check out his book.  He’s got a lot of info in it on Mt. Whitney.”  With that, Johnny tipped his hat to us and left.

The five of us looked at each other, puzzled.  Eddie was the first to move.  “Well, let’s get going.  I’m ready to get some of those hotcakes in my stomach.

As I prepared to get into my car, I glanced down Whitney Portal Road and noticed Johnny’s truck moving very, very slowly.  All of a sudden, I was overcome by a strange feeling, an evil foreboding.