Upon reaching the Trail Crest, Razzle and I dropped our packs to forge ahead unencumbered by the weight of water, protein bars, WAG bags (unused) and salami. It’s the little things that matter at 14,000 feet, and dropping the packs was a sweet feeling, a sign that we were almost to the summit.
She may not mean to be, but Mt. Whitney is a tease. She hides her summit when you’re on her shoulders, letting you think you’re almost there when you still have so far to go. I’ve felt that way for the last several months. As you’ve all so gently pointed out to me, with every victory I still need to be conscious of the length of this journey I am on. It’s for life. It’s a journey with no definable end. Which is why it’s so crucial to remain in the moment. There will be no time where anything is certain, where all the cards are dealt. I find beauty in that now.
Even though we could see people making the last turn for her rounded edge thrusting out over the valley below, we weren’t assured of ever stepping on the top of the lower 48. Since embarking on the trail in the dark of night I never took for granted that I would reach her crown. It wasn’t until we started passing people who cheered us on that I felt I could be fortunate enough to sign her ledger, marking in time my achievement.
The altitude sickness had softened, but it was still there, reminding me that at any time it could surge. We remained in the zone. 100 feet apart on a trail of boulders and slabs and rubble, surrounded by the fierceness of the blue marble. Every 20 feet or so I would pick up my head and attempt to absorb the flashy beauty rolled out beneath us. As I plotted my way along her collar bone I felt the power of the planet and came to understand fully that I am merely renting space here, but she is forever. She is formidable, and I was humbled. Spent, on one level. Re-birthed on another.
Her collar bone led to her neck, another ascent, which led to the wide plateau with still an up-slope, dotted at the top by the cabin we had all seen in pictures but was hidden from view by her crown. Visible only to those who took the time to climb her. As I s l o w l y pulled the granite behind me with each step, I thought of the barefoot shiatsu massage I received from Mary on my 15 year wedding anniversary at the Fairmont Sonoma. I’m certain that all the steps of all the hikers that made time in their busy lives to spend a moment in awe felt just as good to Whitney as my shiatsu did to me. I could almost hear her purr.
I have butterflies writing this…
300 yards from the summit I came upon a group of six hikers descending from the peak. They glowed. Their smiles broad, their eyes lit up, they beamed achievement. That beautiful feeling of having set out to do something and nailed it. They paused to cheer me on, with one man, a tall, blue-eyed, rugged beauty standing directly in front of me. I looked up at him and said,
You know, I think I’m done. I’m gonna head down. She beat me.
I turned to walk away, laughing discreetly.
You don’t seem like that kind of girl.
I paused. Closed my eyes and smiled.
He’s right, I’m not.
We turned to each other and belly laughed. As much as one can belly laugh at 14,400 feet. Winded, we hugged and went on our way.
That, kittens, is a perfect encounter.
I live for that.
Razzle, being the lady that she is, waited patiently for me to catch up. We finished the climb together. We hugged, we laughed, we moved slowly and gingerly, and we probably both thought at least once about the 11 mile descent that was to begin in about 15 minutes. Even with that thought in the back of my mind, my smile was so big it threatened to topple me over. I think I might have even looked a little crazy. I was just blown apart with joy.
There were about 15 people on the summit when we arrived. Mainly guys in their 20s and 30s, and a family of four we had seen earlier on the trail. Bolted to the side of the rock shack was a large but shallow metal box that contained the book we had the honor of signing to commemorate our climb of the tallest mountain in the lower 48. A half dozen people gathered around, some debating whether or not to sign, as if it was cooler to summit and not sign, like it’s cooler to not wear a wet suit when swimming in the bay.
If that is so, I’m proudly not cool.
My hands were cold. I didn’t know if I could hold the pen. I was definitely tipsy with adrenaline and the affects of the altitude. While I wasn’t crying, I felt like tears were shedding from every pore. If I shook my arms back, I would send a spray of joy in the shape of wings to the sky. I waited a moment to sign the book and admired the smiles that adorned the faces of a small group of people who could say, We made it.
It was my turn. I clumsily held the pen. My writing speed was cut in half. I signed Cleo…
And then I wrote my maiden name.
In the blank space next to name and city, where people express what they may, I wrote:
And then I cried.
We moved away from the cabin and approached the western most tip of her crown. Razzle asked a fellow hiker to take our picture. He captured a photo of us that I so wish I could share with you. We stood side by side, with the valley and the peaks in the west behind us. From the sky Whitney’s peak is a smile; a full on I am thoroughly to my root happy smile. So it’s no wonder that it’s impossible to do anything else but smile while you are there.
As he pressed the button to take the picture I felt myself surge with joy. This was the moment I had trained for, a celebration of how far I had come on my journey. I can say I have never, ever smiled so broadly. The only other time I smiled like that was on my wedding day. I didn’t think of that then – no shocker there – but I’m glad I made the connection now. On my wedding day I smiled with joy and thoughts of a beautiful future, and on Whitney’s peak I felt the very same thing. Only this time my feelings of joy and optimism came from within me, nurtured by nature.
Not because of another person but because of a mountain. A mountain that will always be there for me long after I am gone.
As the hiker handed Razzle her camera, a man to my right said,
Now that was a million dollar smile.
I nodded in agreement.
It’s the best I could do for a priceless view.
We smiled, saying without words, Nicely done.
I noticed a climber on his cell phone as I turned to look west.
Wow. I don’t get cell service at my house but he gets it here?
I pulled out my phone and sure enough I had 2 bars. I had to call my mom.
Now, I am certain there were hard core peak etiquette practitioners on the mountain, but I didn’t care. If I ruined someone’s moment because of a 2 minute call to a remarkable woman who encourages me, roots for me, guides me and loves me unconditionally, well, they need to chill out a bit. It’s not the end of the world, it’s the top of the continental US. I got caught up in the moment and wanted my mom, who walks with me everywhere I go, to be with me on Whitney.
She was thrilled to receive my call. That’s a moment I will always remember.
A moment shared between the two of us that will forever evoke feelings of pure bliss.
I cannot say the same for the descent.
And by no means can I say the same for thing for what awaited me upon my arrival home.