Razzle and I share something in common, in addition to completely loving each other. We both have an issue with spiders. Since moving to Marin I’ve really come to love those little (and large) eight-legged fuzz balls. Truly. I can’t say the same for Razzle. But, keep in mind she lives in the East where the humidity makes everybody bigger and angrier. Especially arachnids.
I had some run-ins in my former home with dead spiders that were so big they had knees. If I invited one in for a cup of tea he’d need a mug to satisfy his thirst. They call them tree spiders for a reason – they have legs like tree trunks. I over-killed spiders that made their way into my home with such force that the word got out. Eventually they just meandered on by and hit up my neighbors. When I moved to Marin I began a process (much of it unconscious until the Pocket Call) of shedding my fears. Starting with the ‘ders, as I liked to call them.
But enough about arachnids and back to Razzle…
She’s got some fears. And, because she believes in balance, she is also fearless. Razzle rides horses bareback, bungee jumps, births cows, plays hockey with former NHLers…she’s basically all game all the time. Her fears are spiders and heights. She apparently also is not keen on the idea that it’s possible to be attacked by bears because you have salami in your backpack. I’m with her on this one.
As we approached the Whitney Portal my butterflies started popping dark chocolate covered espresso beans. They were playing murder ball in my belly. I’d like to think it was only about the climb, but it was about the bears. I would become a total blathering mess if one of those pawed my pack. All the Ranger training would go right out the window and I’d lay on my back thrusting my neck skyward and say, Kill me. Quickly. Oh, and here’s my bag of almonds.
So now we’re both tweaked.
We approached the parking lot. The darkness was thick, like the air had shut its eyes and we were looking at the back of its lids. We could see nothing. You know those bears are too smart to be hanging around like teenagers on a street corner, so the headlights didn’t illuminate any large and menacing beings.
We had the packs out of the car, on our backs and were through the cattle shoot before you could say, Hydrate! Neither one of us mentioned the total lack of bear sightings, but I believe our sighs of relief created a dust storm in the valley. One obstacle dealt with and now we only have 22 miles to go.
With headlamps doing to our forehead what Botox could only dream of, we set out on the Mt. Whitney Trail full of desire to be smart, pace ourselves, and reach the summit before lightening strikes. Even at this point, as I’m putting one foot in front of the other on the very path I have dreamed of for months, I have no idea what to expect and I have no idea if I will succeed.
I have to say, it’s not unlike a wedding day.
Before we wrapped a mile my headlamp illuminated some cool stuff. And some s l e e p y arachnids right smack in the middle of the trail. I didn’t flinch. Neither did Razzle. Then we got to our first obstacle course, a line of rocks over the lip of a waterfall we could only hear and not see. I’m not the most graceful kitten in the litter, and the pack on my back did not help matters, but I went as slow as a sloth and ever so carefully placed my flippers on those stones making it to the other side. Razzle could have peed and filtered a liter of water before I pulled off that accomplishment.
Then we came upon the logs. No one told me I had to do my best Nadia Comaneci to summit Whitney. If that had been discussed I would have chosen bull riding. Or arachnid wrangling.
I managed to flat-foot my way across the first log and then, on the second log, I started the self-slandering…I wasn’t graceful enough to do this and I didn’t have good balance. Of course, I immediately started to sway as if the tectonic plates beneath me were doing the Rumba. I stopped. I breathed. I smiled. I started to repeat out loud: I am centered. I am balanced. I am a gymnast. Now, nobody is going to buy that third statement, but in the moment I did. And it worked. I repeated it over and over until I dismounted the final log and stuck the landing.
Razzle was basically smoking a pipe and kicking it on a chaise lounge by the time I caught up with her. The logs were just anther version of a flat path to her.
As we continued up the trail I settled down and turned inward. It was time to focus. Time to ground. Time to be one with the mountain. The sound of rushing water was all around me. But I had no idea from where it came. I could only see that which was lit by the headlamp constricting my brain. Which was only a small inkling of what was to come.
The beauty of starting the climb in the dark is that it required me to focus. Not because the trail is so difficult to follow, or challenging to traverse in the first few hours, but because I had only a small circle of light to stare into. My eyes focused there and all my energy was directed at that circle of light. By mile two I was in the zone. Breathing slowly in through my nose and out through my mouth. My body downshifted, shed the nervous energy and worked the way I hoped it would. I felt strong. And tried to not think about the fact that my hips were killing me, and I still had 20 miles to go.
As the sun started to rise in the East (Which I was sure was the West – I am slightly directionally challenged.) I began to see the massive granite boulders that lined the path, and the wildflowers that softened their rigid sides. I wanted to run to the sun and kick it into the sky so that I could rip off my headlamp and not miss a drop of Mt. Whitney’s beauty.
Nature’s striptease was nearing its climax. I was ready to do a little striptease of my own. The headlamp had to go. It was giving me a headache.
The morning was overcast, which was a total blessing. It had been hot as Venus the day before, with not a cloud to provide relief for those attempting to summit her Granite-ness. I was already sucking up more water than an acre of lawn in Phoenix; I couldn’t imagine how much I would have had to consume had the sun been following us closely the whole day. Thankfully it needed a little alone time behind the clouds.
We pressed on. In daylight.
I had to remind myself to look up and around, but the need to watch my flippers and be sure to not fall or step on any ants (bad mountain karma) forced my eyes to the ground.
We’re on the switchbacks, says Razzle.
You could have knocked me over with a chipmunk tail.
I started to feel like this was a little too easy. For a second. And then I thought it was easy.
Yep. I’m with you. Famous last
words thoughts. Two steps from death. I was getting ahead of myself and had to dial it back. Stay in the moment. Stay right here, right now. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Find the rhythm. Breathe. Slowly.
I like switchbacks. I enjoy the zen-i-ness of snaking back and forth across the face of a mountain. Each time I rounded a corner I made progress. It felt good. Razzle and I were in our own little bubbles, pecking our way up in altitude, one vertical foot at a time. Heads tilted down, we carefully dodged loose rocks and walked over cobblestone laid by trail workers who deserve a spa day or 10 for all the labor that was clearly evident over the 22 miles of near perfect trail.
I was certain we were making great time until Razzle pointed out the tiny little heads bobbing along above us, way above us. They were STILL on the switchbacks. Wow. These puppies went on forever. Well, at least until about 13,777 feet.
I began to feel pressure on my head again. It was unsettling to know I didn’t have the headlamp to blame. This was the feeling I had hoped to not experience. The altitude was making its presence known. I reached back for my water bottle, as I had a thousand times before and took a huge swig. I was ingesting so much air with every gulp that burping, which had been elusive most of my life, was happening with the same frequency as blinking. Blinking was happening with less frequency than normal because I so did not want to fall. I couldn’t stomach the idea that someone would have to carry my out of there, or worse, a helicopter would be summoned.
(PS: How’s this for creepy…Tom Cruise was in the house – or at least in Mammoth, filming. Had I seen him hanging off the runner of a copter dispatched to fetch me I would have flung myself off the mountain.)
I was fairly certain I hadn’t done a shot of tequila on switchback #30, but I was feeling a little tipsy. Which at first was kind of cool. But when the hangover kicked in before the party got started I knew I had to stop.
I’ve got to take a break, Razzle. I’m starting to feel the altitude.
We took off our packs. I peed. For the 10th time. And ripped open a protein bar. Leaning on my trekking poles (May the mountain bless Doug for life.), I took in the raw, sharp beauty of Whitney. Granite cliffs shot up from meadows dotted with lakes that looked like small spills of blue or green food coloring. They were often easy to overlook because lakes don’t come that tiny. And these weren’t. It’s just that we were so high and they were so far down there.
A short break, a bottle full of water, some salami and a protein bar and I was starting to feel a little better. I was uplifted by the fact that the headache began to ease. That was good sign. A sign that I was acclimating. I tried to not get caught up in the fact that a few other hikers were having a hell of time, pausing frequently with their heads hanging forward, trying to lower them even an inch to alleviate the pressure from the altitude. I didn’t want to send any energy in that direction, so I came up with another mantra:
My brain is small. My brain is small. My brain is no larger than that of a marmot. I, Cleo Everest, have a tiny brain.
It worked. Likely permanently. I’ll need to take that into consideration if I have to take a test anytime soon.
Razzle needed to keep moving. I needed to slow it down. We put some distance between us. I was beyond impressed at her speed. This is the chick you want to climb mountains with, and basically go through life with – nothing stops her.
The push to complete the switchbacks required a real partnership with myself. I was so focused on each next step that I can say without hesitation that I have never lived so fully present in the moment. The only way to summit Whitney was to complete the switchbacks and they couldn’t be completed if my head was on the summit.
The pressure from the altitude waxed and waned. I kept the water flowing in, nibbled on cheese, almonds, chocolate and coconut, protein bars and more water. Each bite or sip relieved the pressure on my head for a short period of time until eventually I left my body. I was so in the zone I was in another zone. One that was at sea level. It was the only way to go.
My legs, shoulders and back felt great. My feet were completely content. But my head was pissed. So I shelved it and pressed on.
The other unfortunate side effect of the altitude was the issue with my essence. Essence in the Everest household is the word we use to describe flatulence. To use it in a complete sentence goes something like this: Mommy, I just let out my essence.
I let out my essence all over that freaking mountain. I probably altered the landscape, if not the ozone layer. Hey, we all respond to high altitude in different ways. My body was busy, busy, busy. Everybody had job to do. Thankfully, the feet and legs and back were on it. The rest was TBD.
Finally, thankfully, gratefully and all sorts of hell yea!, we arrived at Trail Crest. Due to my lack of trail analysis, I thought it was a hop, skip and a jump to the summit from Trail Crest.
Had I hopped, skipped or jumped I would have died. What stretched out before us was slightly more complicated and hugely scarier than the switchbacks. Oh, and it would require ascending over a 1000 feet across two miles to get to the shack on top of the lower 48.
And now I felt like I had done a shot of tequila, 3 jello shots and held my breath to get rid of my hiccups.
I was dizzy. From the altitude and the view that stretched out before me. I can truly say that I know how it feels to be in awe. To be so taken by a sight that you almost can’t even remember how amazingly beautiful it was to behold. It doesn’t seem real in the moment or thereafter. It’s dangerously close to being hard to comprehend.
As I looked out on miles of peaks and valleys, lakes and forests, I thought of how the Earth is awash in beauty, heaped with gorgeousness. The sheer number of places where nature rips the breath out of you is mind-boggling.
I began the last push to the summit with tears streaming down my face. That’s a fairly dangerous state to be in when climbing over boulders, dizzy from the altitude and flush with excitement that the summit is within reach.
And then there’s Razzle’s fear of heights…