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.