Reflections on my Mount Whitney Experience: Two Years Later

Two years ago I joined two friends in an attempt to summit Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. We never made it. Instead, we found ourselves in over our heads and wandering directly into the search for a missing hiker. The experience had a major effect on me —I carry it with me every time I head out into the woods, and I’m a better outdoorsman because of it.⠀⠀⠀⠀

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Two years ago two friends and I tried to summit Mount Whitney. At the same time, a search was on for a lost hiker. The experience wasn't what we has planned, and it has stuck with me ever since. Here's what I learned on that trip.“So you never summited?”

Believe it or not, that’s the reaction I’ve gotten from a lot of people when I share the story of my Mount Whitney experience. I suppose it’s a normal enough reaction — that was my goal when I left for the trip, after all.

But a lot happened in the two days and one night I was on that mountain. I know that sounds dramatic, but the experience had a profound effect on me that still hasn’t diminished. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it changed how I approach outdoor recreation. I think about it every time I head into the woods, and I’m a better outdoorsman because of it.

Now, two years later, I want to reflect on my Mount Whitney Experience.

If you haven’t read my series about my Mount Whitney experience, I recommend checking it out. The series is a long read, but it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done, and provides significant context for this post.

My Mount Whitney experience started innocently at the trailhead with two friends.
I started the day happy and optimistic, excited to spend the night on the mountain.

First things first, I’ll say the thing that most people don’t ever want to admit — we probably shouldn’t have been on Mount Whitney at all. Not on those days, not in those conditions. The SAR guy that we talked to said as much, although not directed toward us. I say this knowing that Tim and I have a lot of outdoor recreation experience, but we still probably shouldn’t have been up there. If we shouldn’t have, the tourists without crampons, ice axes, trekking poles, or backpacks definitely shouldn’t have been.

And yet, we all were.

And we did a lot of things wrong.

We almost walked into a lethal snow-melt waterfall. We could barely figure out where the trail was at times. I barely managed to self-arrest when I fell into an uncontrolled slide down the mountain.

This snowmelt waterfall plays a prominent role in my Mount Whitney experience
We almost walked directly into this waterfall from above. The exact same thing, we would later learn, that happened to the lost hiker. I lost my footing to the side, entering a dangerous slide.

As it turns out, the 10 minutes of training with the ice axe I got at the hands of the outfitter wasn’t enough to ingrain the information in me. I don’t blame the outfitter, I blame myself. The responsibility was mine. I was unprepared.

That unpreparedness seems naive, and perhaps it was… But I also can’t help but feel that a lot of people went up the trail not understanding the conditions. Because if Tim, Jon, and I, with our experience and gear, weren’t able to safely make the trek, what of the hikers with limited experience and no gear? The ones who got a one day permit, and had the expectation that they could summit?

Another aspect of my mount Whitney experience — the ice axe that saved my ass.
The “ice axe that saved my ass” will always have a place of honor in my home.

In the end, we did the most important thing right — we looked at the situation and decided to bail. We didn’t do so perfectly, but we made the right call. And that’s much more important than a summit selfie.

I Returned Home with Gratitude

During our stay on the mountain, I found myself feeling an odd mix of conflicted emotions. Exuberance from overcoming dangerous challenges, exhaustion from pushing myself too far, sadness over a lost hiker, and even guilt from enjoying myself as much I did during the experience.

The most surprising emotion that welled up as part of my Mount Whitney experience was gratitude. As my tent mates slept — or tried to anyway — I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude. I was awestruck with it.

There's no denying that I saw a lot of beauty on Mount Whitney
There’s no denying the beauty here. It’s no wonder so many of us want to head up the mountain.

A list formed in my head, composed of the things I was grateful for. It started with the immediate — I was thankful that I was safe, full of backpacking meals, and warm in our tent. That we had a fire which I later learned was prohibited.  I overflowed with gratitude for the Black Diamond ice axe that kept me from breaking my legs, or worse — and that by the grace of the gods I managed to stop myself from careening down the slope with it. I was so thankful that we were safe.

But that list expanded into my whole life. My gratitude extended to friends like Tim that had my back and weren’t afraid to bail out when necessary. To my family, my wife, and the sum total of my being. I know how melodramatic that sounds, but I continue to feel that gratitude to this day, even if it’s not always at the forefront of my mind. It has made me a better, safer, more self-aware adventurer.

I will always be grateful for my experience on Mount Whitney
I will always be grateful for this experience.

How Can We Make These Experiences Safer

Not everyone experiences that flood of gratitude, just like not everyone decides to bail out. There isn’t a comprehensive set of stats, but a quick search will show that some people end up needing rescue — and others end up dead. I can’t say whether or not bailing out would have changed anyone’s fate — accidents can and do happen regardless — but so many people all but refuse to bail.

People get incredibly invested in what they’ve planned to do, which I understand. Only 60 people per day get permits for overnight backpacking trips on Whitney; 100 more get permits for day hikes.

The Mount Whitney Trail crosses into the John Muir Wilderness
Crossing into the John Muir Wilderness on Mount Whitney Trail

Once people”win” the lottery, make the trip, and start up the trail they’ve already invested a lot. They don’t want to turn back. But a lot of those individuals also develop a cavalier attitude about the experience — and why shouldn’t they? People tell stories about heading out in the morning hours, summiting, and getting celebratory beers that night. They think of it as a beginner’s mountain. They got the permit, so how bad could it be?

Ask the hiker whose remains were later recovered 100 meters from where we slept on Mount Whitney.

I understand that Rangers have neither the time or the resources to vet applications for permits — further, I’m not suggesting that we should turn anyone away from wilderness recreation. So how can we make these experiences safer? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have two ideas.

The SAR helicopter that retrieved the remains of the missing hiker on Mount Whitney
An important lesson we should all take to heart — it’s always better to not be on the mountain wishing that you were than to be on the mountain wishing that you weren’t.

The first is that we need to treat adventure as a community. We need to look out for one another out there. And sometimes that means being a Debbie Downer and telling fellow travelers that they’re not prepared for what’s ahead. That’s a very uncomfortable conversation — I’ve been on both ends of it — but it’s much better that the alternative.

The second idea is that we need to eliminate the notion of a beginner’s mountain. There is no such thing. Mount Whitney can — and does — take lives. We have to abandon FOMO and ego, and realize that it’s okay to bail out from our primary objective and just enjoy some time with friends.

A view from Mount Whitney Trail
There’s no such thing as a beginner’s mountain.

When in Doubt, Bail Out

Earlier this year I watched the Academy Award winning documentary Free Solo, in which professional climber Alex Honnold becomes the first person to ever free solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He climbed an incredibly complex 3,000 foot monolith alone, unaided, without any ropes or safety equipment. I found myself very pleased when at one point in the film, Honnold makes an attempt only to turn back, bailing out.

He’s a professional who has conquered fear on a level many of us never will. He has accomplished something that no one else ever has before. And he had no problem bailing out when things didn’t feel right. We all need to take a page out of that playbook.

When in doubt, bail out
When in doubt, bail out. Without shame or reservation.

There’s a difference between pushing yourself and putting yourself in harm’s way, between calculated risk and foolishness. It’s hard to see when you’re on that line, especially if you’re inexperienced.

The Value of Experience

I’ll be the Debbie Downer — trying to summit Mount Whitney probably shouldn’t be your first backpacking or mountain experience. Not when snow still covers the mountain in May or June, when the right equipment and — more importantly — the right skills are necessary to stay safe. Head up in July or August and give it a shot, but don’t be afraid to bail then either. Altitude sickness is a real thing. So are fatigue, hypothermia, and dehydration.

A morning view of the Sierras, before my Mount Whitney Experience

I’ll try to head back to the mountain during one of those months. Because I do fully intend to go back and summit Mount Whitney someday. We have history, she and I, and there are just some things I don’t like to leave undone. But when the time comes, it will be on summer days. Even then, if conditions aren’t right, I’ll bail out. Without embarrassment or shame.

And you should too.

 

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