The Zen of Mountain Climbing

I’ve been heading up to Mt. Whitney on a yearly basis for a while now. I’m not quite sure when it started, because I have a love-hate relationship with the mountain. Every time I get there, I am amazed, awed, and thrilled to be there. Then, at some point on the climb, the positive emotions turn negative – I get tired, I posthole for a couple miles, or something minor happens and becomes frustrating. I then vow never to go back. After about six months pass I think to myself, “I should really go to Mt. Whitney”, and the cycle starts again.  This year, due to some external factors, I had to make my yearly trip earlier than usual (Last week, I talked current trail conditions here), and while I was climbing/mountaineering/hiking along, I realized that I had a tip to share about climbing Mt. Whitney. I’ve shared many tips, but the main tip, I realized as I sat under perfect blue skies at just above 12,000 feet on an icy slope, is that it is more than fine to turn around on Whitney, and in fact, turning around on Whitney, or any mountain, for that matter, can make your climb into a better experience – and not just for practical life-saving reasons.

Inyo National Forest, April 2013

Hear me out: I didn’t summit Whitney this year, and I don’t have a problem with admitting that, as it was one of my better climbs. I feel that this is what makes the difference between a veteran climber, and a novice climber. A novice climber feels the pressure of having to make the summit at all costs, and when they don’t, in my experience, they come up with the x, y, and z of excuses of why it didn’t happen. A veteran climber, on the other hand, simply states the obvious: that there were adverse factors, but admits that they personally didn’t get it done. To prove this theory, I need look no further than my last climb of Whitney. From two miles in, I had to find my own route; I was on ice; I was on snow; and there was a stiff, vigorous breeze that was pushing against me at around 25 mph; and in the chute, the sun partially melted the snow and slowed my progress to a crawl.

Mt. Whitney Trail, April 2013

Mt. Whitney Trail, April 2013

Depending on how I tell the story; any one of those reasons could be used as an excuse as to why I didn’t make the summit. But here’s the deal: I got a late start. That was on me. I wasn’t moving as fast as I could. That was on me. I didn’t bring snowshoes. That was on me. Finally, perhaps my conditioning could have been a little better, because my conditioning could always be a little better. Those external factors? Well, it’s Mt. Whitney. In 2007, when I successfully climbed it with my group, I woke up in the middle of the night at Trail Camp, and headed outside. At that point, there were 35-45 mph wind gusts ripping down the mountain. The temperature? A balmy -1. The climb? Yeah, we made it up to the summit and back down the next day in those same winds. As for snow, I’ve seen more snow on the mountain in 2002, 2005, and 2010, just to name a few times.

As for the chute, in 2010, we made good, but not great time on our ascent, and got trapped in the chute in that same molasses like snow and ice – but we still summited. To top that off, on that same climb, we had to hustle off the summit to avoid an unexpected thunderstorm. That storm also dumped snow on us during our descent. All of that happened on June 21st – the summer solstice! My point? On Whitney, like any big mountain, there’s always going to be problems. There’s just no two ways about it. This is a true story: every mountain, including Mt. Whitney is always going to throw everything it can at you. The weather is always going to be an issue. The altitude is going to always be an issue. No matter how good your conditioning is, your conditioning is also always going to be an issue. The reason these things are always going to be an issue is because mountaineering – the climbing of mountains - is challenging; namely because mountains themselves are large, immovable objects, and are inherently challenging. Mountaineering is meant to be a challenge. After all, it’s not sleeping. It’s meant to challenge every aspect of your being.

Mt. Whitney Trail, April 2013

Mt. Whitney Trail, April 2013

This challenge is also what I’m talking about when I talk about the difference between novices and veterans. In my opinion, and not everyone may agree with it, a novice makes those excuses I talked about above, because they feel like they’ve failed the challenge of climbing the mountain. A veteran, on the other hand, understands this point: that the challenge is only failed if you endanger yourself; or other people. Whether you make the summit is immaterial. The challenge is how you respond to adversity – the mountain. Sure, the summit is the most tangible example of whether one completed – and rose to the smaller challenge; but the real example in my mind as a veteran climber of whether one has risen to the mountaineering challenge is whether one made it back down safely – irrespective of whether one has “bagged” the peak.

I turned around on Whitney this year, because I knew I didn’t have enough daylight left to summit and safely descend. Sure, I had the gear; and sure I had the skills. I also knew that I was the only one on the mountain that day. If something happened to me, and accidents do happen on Whitney, I would be on my own, in a bad way. I turned around because the challenge was to get down safely at that point, and come back another day. Sure, it was easy for me because I’ve been on the summit eight times. But, I’ll be honest: as a veteran, I would have turned around even with no summits under my belt, because the mountain is always going to be there.

That’s the awareness I’d like to leave novice climbers with: the mountain is always going to be there – but you won’t. If you’re in a spot where it’s “go” – or “don’t go”, give the “don’t go” serious consideration, because you can always come back. Sometimes, when you don’t go, as well, you not only place yourself in a better position in terms of surviving, you place yourself in a better position for appreciating what’s out there, and that’s what I’d like to leave you with. I don’t know how big the mountaineering community is world-wide, but I’d be willing to guess that even with the increase in popularity the last ten years, it’s still fairly small. We, as mountaineers are a minority of the populace. We are a community that will hike, climb, and yes, mountaineer into some of the remotest spots on the planet. These are spots that most people will likely never hear about; and may likely never see. These are spots that most people will likely never experience, even if they are popular spots like Mount Whitney. Irrespective of whether a far summit is achieved, we as mountaineers have a duty to appreciate what others cannot; and appreciate what beauty there is in the world.

So, if you are on Mount Whitney later this year, or on any other peak, and your trekking poles seem heavy, or your ice axe keeps sticking, stop, look around, appreciate the challenge, appreciate the environment, and appreciate the moment. Maybe you make it up; maybe you don’t, but the important thing is that you accept the challenge of returning, and the challenge of appreciating what you, and only you are seeing at that moment.