Winter Climbing Mt. Whitney, 2005 Style, Part 4

At dawn, the sun rose from the east, cutting through the shreds of high clouds in the east, and illuminating the Sierras in all of their glory. The early morning light came down and reflected off every snow covered cornice and crevasse of the mountains, brilliantly casting the snow in pure white light and the sky in royal blue. I quickly placed my sunglasses on to forestall snow-blindness and reapplied sunscreen on my exposed areas, and inside my nose as well. All of the lakes I passed were hard frozen; Mirror Lake and Consultation Lake, both a glacial blue. At ten, I was at trail camp, just below where the switchbacks would normally be.

The switchbacks weren’t present, which wasn’t surprising – after all, the trail hadn’t been present for the ascent after the first half-hour. There was, however, a direct line to the Trail Crest that had been tramped in by mountaineers. Ahead of me were two parties of three people each, roped in and headed slowly up the face. After a brief rest, I fell in as a distant third party in the line to reach the summit. Uphill at this point was a laborious slog through hard ice and a slowly melting top layer of snow. Each step, I checked my balance and footing. The air was thin, and the wind coming over the mountain ripped at each breath I exhaled. It was miserably and hauntingly enjoyable.

Looking back down the valley from the face, I gazed at the white expanse I had trekked up, clear and empty in the morning air. I watched the two people in front of me struggling on the slope. I knew that I would not be joining them on the summit. It was already ten-thirty in the morning, and I was tired. I had been moving – slowly, for sure, but moving nonetheless over for seven hours. Noon was my drop-dead time; the time where I had to turn around and head back the distance to the car. I knew that although I had made good progress, there was no possible way for me to reach the summit in an hour and a half. I sat and let my breathing smooth, taking in the pristine surroundings.

The mountain had triumphed, and I felt very sanguine about it. I had been to the top before, and had nothing to prove to anyone. There was no one around to hassle me for miles, and the day was fantastic. I slowly eased one step back down, back to my life which I had left at the bottom. I also knew two things; that I would remember this climb better than my two prior climbs in which I had reached the summit; and I also knew that I would be back again, because it was there.