Klimbing 4K8Z: Whitney 2002

Written by Rick Noble, California, USA

Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney“Whitney’s up there.”  I pointed to the High Sierra passing by on the right.  After a great weekend with family and friends at Mammoth Mountain, we headed south on 395, passing Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous US.  “And I’m going to climb it.”  My family gazed up at the sharp granite peaks and then back at me.  It had been years since we had been hiking.

Learning to Love the Mountains: KTS is Born

I had spent many summers growing up at Camp Dudley in Westport New York and learned to love the mountains – backpacking in the Adirondacks and Green Mountains every chance I got.  Years later, when my own girls were young, Karen and I took them to the Adirondacks several times a year and they learned to love the mountains, especially being piggybacked up to several summits.   But, now in the fall of 2001, we lived in San Diego, my girls were 7 and 9, and it had been years since my piggybacking days and decades since my backpacking days.

Learning To Love The Mountains“Why don’t you do a hike-a-thon for diabetes?” Kate asked.  Kate was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was only 16 months-old, and now 9 years-old, had already suffered through more than 23,000 blood checks and 8,700 shots of insulin.  And, Kate had a great idea.  Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes was born.

OK, how do I do this?  My backpacking gear, what was left of it, had been old and worn, 20 years ago.  So, I headed to Adventure 16 in Solana Beach and not only found the gear and clothes that I needed but also a sign-up sheet for training and hikes with A16 guides, including a planned hike up Whitney in the summer of 2002 (which I was told would be the last “commercially guided” trip up Whitney due to a change in rules).  I started talking, explaining about Kate and diabetes and the great idea that Kate had and why I really needed to be on the Whitney trip.  The A16 folks loved it and signed me up.  I would get in-store training and gear review, then an overnight hike to break it in and see if I was up to the planned 5-day Whitney hike and, if so, I’d be heading to Whitney in the summer.  Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes was launched.

The 1st Challenge of Many Firsts

I began to tell friends and family.  And, in February 2002, I headed to the annual Super Bowl Ski Trip with a bunch of friends.  We usually headed to Alta, but this year we decided to go to Tahoe.  And, while skiing Squaw and Kirkwood I told them all about KTS and got my first pledges of support for the fundraiser.  But then, on the “last run” in the deep powder on Northstar, I hit a stump and blew out my knee.  A torn MCL would be my first challenge of many firsts on the first Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes.
Beginning of KTS
Home Again in the Mountains: It’s Good for Your Soul

A couple weeks later, I was back at Mammoth for family ski week, but I spent the entire week on the stationary bike rehabbing my knee.  I then started training with my first hikes in the local mountains around San Diego.  On each climb, with one of my hiking bibles “Afoot & Afield in San Diego” in hand and my golden Daisy at my side, I discovered wonderful trails and 6,000ft peaks in my new backyard.

Home Again In The MountainsIn May of 2002, I joined the A16 team and headed for my first backpacking overnight in years, my first in California and my first above 7,000 feet.  I met up with my group and A16 guides at the trailhead at Idyllwild, a wonderful hamlet nestled in the San Jacinto mountains that reminded me of the Adirondacks, except that at over 5,000”, the town is higher than the summit of Mount Marcy, the New York State highpoint.  As I unloaded my gear, I felt an amazing sense of déjà vu, peace and calm, home again in the mountains - “It’s good for the soul,” as Karen loves to say.

On the Trail with Jackie & HED

My pack felt heavy but comfortable as we started off at about 5,600”, and the group moved easily up the trail.  Back in the days at Dudley, when I lead trips, I usually let the others walk ahead and I took up the rear.  Now, decades later, I found myself naturally falling into the same position.  I took up a conversation with my A16 guide Jackie, and discovered how lucky I was.
lake in mountainssleeping bag in mountains
mountain peaksstanding on ridge
camping in mountainssun on mountain peaks
Jackie, I would soon learn, is a singer songwriter, attorney and former Deputy DA in LA, and passionate hiker and mountaineer.  And, in the mountains Jackie is a self-described sufferer of HED, hyper-ecstatic-disorder, which leaves her with an infectious never-ending smile while she chats and sings her way along the trail.  We easily made it to camp at about 7,000 ft, the highest camping that I had ever done, and I quickly saw what drought can do to a forest.  The dirt was dusty and grass and ferns brown, and a usually flowing creek was just a few mud puddles.  And, I also learned how much technology had advanced.  Back in the days in the Adirondacks, we would have been left with a bandana to strain and iodine tablets to purify muddy water, but now with new filters in about 20 minutes we had enough clean cool water for dinner and breakfast and the next day’s hike.  Food always tastes better in the mountains, especially on short hikes when the variety of food that you pack is rich, and that night was no exception.  After a great meal and lots of talk, for me mostly about KTS and hope to climb Whitney, we were off to a great night sleep.

Neil Diamond & The First 10,000+ Peak: San Jacinto

The climb up to San Jacinto Peak is awesome.  A nice well marked trail, climbing through woods with just enough breaks into clearings with great views and beautiful meadows, that time passes quickly, especially with HED the whole way – smiling, chatting and singing.  We went through a variety of songs from different genres before I found myself signing Neil Diamond.  I’m not a good singer, but there’s something about Neil Diamond’s songs that make that ok.

“Where it began, I can't begin to knowin'

But then I know it's growing strong

Was in the spring

And spring became the summer

Who'd have believed you'd come along.

And, after few rounds of “hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you” . . . we were approaching the peak, and my first hike above 10,000 feet.  I’ve been that altitude often while skiing, but it’s a lot different when you hike it.  And after “Sweet Caroline” we were “Far, We've been traveling far, Without a home, But not without a star.” “They’re Coming to America” and stepping up on to the rocky peak of San Jacinto at 10834 feet.  Not only the highest summit had ever reached but also the biggest vertical view I had ever seen.  With adrenalin rushing (as much from the realization of KTS as my fear of heights), I gazed too the East, and looked straight down 11,000 feet to the desert floor.  And then turning up to a bluebird sky and I knew KTS was off a truly awesome start.  I couldn’t wait to get to Whitney.

Horseshoe Meadows: Enjoy the Journey & We’ll Get There for Kate

A few weeks later, I was thinking about San Jacinto as I drove past Lone Pine and up the road to the Whitney Portal.  I then turned south and drove 20 miles up the steep mountain road to the Horseshoe Meadows and the trailhead for the Cottonwood Lakes.  Even caught myself singing a little adrenalin-filled “hands touching hands” as I looked off the edge of the road and the sheer long drop down to the high desert floor, and felt the rush with “They’re Coming to America” as I turned into parking area at about 10,000ft.  I was really glad I had spent the day before back at the Mammoth Mountain ski area and sleeping at the Alpenhof Lodge above 8,000” to gain some acclimatization.

I unloaded, and gradually the team for the first KTS met and introduced each other.  The team would be led by Jackie, who already was showing signs of HED and Steve, a strong, former tank commander in the Gulf War, who had a quiet power that made you feel safe and confident - glad to have him as the guide.   The team was great and included father and son doing the big climb together, one from an LA museum and another who worked for the agency that came up with those talking cows that love California cheese.   After a few introductions we began the gear inspection, unloading everything onto the tarp for Steve and Jackie to confirm that we each had everything we needed and to try to make us feel ok about leaving things behind.  We then divided up the group gear: tents, pots, stove, gas, food, water pumps and bear canister.  With our gear ready, it was time to enjoy an awesome dinner and to hear about the plans for the hike and the attempt to summit Whitney.  First, though, Jackie and Steve explained a few of the rules of climbs: “hike it in, hike it out,” “leave it better than you found it,” “drink, drink, drink” H2O, “listen to the guides” and “enjoy the journey.”  We’ll give the summit a shot, but respect the mountains and the #1 rule is to get back safe.  So, whether or not we get a chance to summit, the team will get back safe.  We then shared stories about why we were here and what we wanted to get out of the climb.  And, on my turn, I told the story of Kate and Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes.  But, I said, I was fully on board with the rules that Steve and Jackie had explained.

We then packed up for the night and headed to bed.  It was a beautiful night and I decided to sleep out under the stars rather than in the tent.  Before we tucked in, Steve and Jackie walked around to see how we each were doing and if we had any questions or concerns that we hadn’t shared with the group.  I said no.  Steve smiled: “We’ll get there for Kate.”  I fell asleep smiling under the stars and, except for waking when the brilliant beacon of the moon rose and shone in my face, enjoyed a great 1st night sleep on the 1st night of KTS.

Keep Climbing until We Find a Cure & Enjoy the Journey

We woke at dawn, gathered our gear, packed up, enjoyed a great breakfast and headed to the trailhead.  After a few photos, we were off.  The pack felt heavy, I realized I had probably taken more than I needed, and we had the full load of food and gear to take for the five-day hike.  I tried to convince myself that it was the heaviest that our packs would be for the whole trip.  And, after a short way, and a couple adjustments, the pack felt good enough to barely notice it, and my mind turned to thinking of why I was here, starting to climb for Kate and the millions with diabetes, and their friends and families.  Thinking about the years of trying to manage the disease and the cost, financial, emotional and physical, that the disease exacts.  As I hiked those first couple miles of the first KTS, I vowed to get to the summit of Whitney, to raise awareness of efforts to cure diabetes and to raise funds to support them.  I vowed to keep climbing until we find a cure.  And, I recalled the rules the Steve and Jackie set.  We’ll give it a shot to reach the summit, a cure, but if we don’t get there, we’ll be back to try again, and again.  And, the second rule, we’ll enjoy the journey.

Fire in the Mountains: It’s Snowing!

Enjoy the journey.  The words echoed in my head as I focused on every detail that I could.  The colors of the leaves on the trees, the different kinds of pine, the ferns waving in the sun, the small white wildflowers, the tiny trail toads hopping by, and then up to the gentle warm breeze, the blue sky and puffy white clouds, and the snow.  It’s snowing!  Actually, snowing ash.  A little at first, the then a lot, not a blizzard, but close, and the air filled with smoke.  The Sequoia National Forest to the west of us was burning.  The McNally Fire, caused by folks being careless with fire, was raining ash on us miles away.   We kept going, hoping that the wind would shift or would get above the smoke, but it stayed with us much of the day.  And, as we stepped out of the forests, the views were blurred by smoky haze, but the meadows, ponds and brooks that we passed were beautiful.

We camped that evening by large mountain lake, not sure if this was one that was known for its golden trout, but the water was clear and cold.  We enjoyed a good meal and then were sure to clean up and keep the food away from camp; we were now in bear country.  And, while the area we were in was not known for bears, Jackie and I shared convictions that we were bear magnets, having seen more than our fair share of the magnificent animals in the past.  So, we were happy taking the extra steps.  Especially, since I was now going to sleep outside under the stars each night.

Battle on New Army Pass

We woke at dawn.  The wind had shifted in the night and the air was now clean and cool, and the sun was just beginning to warm the horizon.  There had been heavy dew and the outside of my sleeping bag was a little moist.  Morning in the mountains!  And, my body was a bit stiff as I rose to take it all in.

Jackie and Steve had been up for a while and already had water boiling for coffee and oatmeal for breakfast.  Part of the plan for the trip was to keep mornings easy with a light and quick breakfast to allow us to break camp and be on the trail early.  A good plan, especially on longer days.  And, this was going to be one of the longest days of hiking on the whole trip.  The warm coffee was perfect.

In minutes, we were on the trail again.  Now above the trees, hiking between ponds cut into granite boulders.  At about 11,000’ we passed a group of volunteers repairing the trail.  I recalled doing trail work in the Adirondacks, often moving rocks and fixing logs and boards to allow hikers to avoid deep mud sections of trail and prevent further erosion. Similar concept here, but in the Sierra it was all about the granite, and creating paths and steps to allow hikers to more easily ascend certain sections.  After a water and snack break by one of the highest lakes, we headed up to the switchbacks that would take us to New Army Pass.  Like they sound, switchbacks are zig zag trails and steps that allow hikers to hike up exceedingly steep sections of mountain faces. Some find switchbacks painful and somewhat monotonous after the beautiful trails below, but I marvel at these magnificent works.  Who built this?  How did they ever do that?  Taking in each step as we ascended.  And, seeing or feeling that some of the group were struggling under their 50-pound packs, it was time for Neil: “And when I hurt, Hurtin' runs off my shoulders, How can I hurt when I'm with you? Warm, touchin' warm, Reachin' out, touchin' me touchin' you, Sweet Caroline , Good times never seemed so good.” So good, so good.  And we stepped off the switchbacks and onto New Army Pass, my first time ever at 12,300’!

We dropped our packs and explored a bit and took a few pictures, and then found a good place to break out lunch.  We each packed our own lunch, and mine was simple and good for each day: cheese for summits (aka “summit cheese”) jerky, triscuits, bars, nuts, dried fruit and M&Ms, and lots of water.  After lunch, some took a chance to lie back in the sun and enjoy a few moments of rest while others of us explored.  And, the explorers found a few big piles of snow behind huge rocks, protected from the sun.  We loaded up, with arms full of snowballs for a sneak attack on the resters in the sun.  Steve bore the brunt of the battle, and announced, “OK, grab your packs.  We’re off.”  In minutes we were heading down the Western side, different from the Eastern side that we had climbed up, and more spread out.  And walked down in the afternoon sun for miles, until we were walking past streams and meadows and then again back in the woods.  After a few more miles we were at our campsite by Rock Creek.  The ones that we had originally planned for were taken, but we pushed a bit further and found a great campsite for the evening.  Down in the woods, it would get dark sooner, and it was already dusk when we arrived, so we quickly set up our camp.  I lay out my ground cloth and sleeping bag beneath two large pines on the edge of a meadow.  And, after a long day, we had a simple dinner, and fell asleep with ease.

Be Prepared . . . For a Rescue

We woke to a cool, moist dark dawn in the woods.  My legs and back were sore and a couple toenails were black and blue from the pounding they took on the descent from New Army Pass. Steve and Jackie were already up with boiling water and the coffee and oatmeal tasted even better than they had the morning before.  We broke camp quickly and headed up the trail from Rock Creek.  Before too long, the trail leveled off and widened, and there were signs of horse tracks along the way.  Because of a change in the rules, this A16 lead trip would be the last “commercial” trip up Whitney, the idea behind the change was that the “commercial” trips brought in larger groups than self-guided climbs and larger groups threatened more damage to the wilderness.  While fully supporting the goal, I think the rule change had been misguided.  The “commercial” trips, I believed, and had now known, were guided by folks who took the wilderness to heart, and lived by the rules that I had always followed since my days back at Dudley: “hike it in, hike it out”, and "leave it better than you found it".  When I saw the horse trail, I recalled back in the Dudley days a canoe trip in Canada where, after a full day of paddling, we arrived at our campsite in the wilderness only to find that it had been frequented and literally trashed by groups on horseback or horse-powered all terrain vehicles.  We had spent hours cleaning and packing up the trash and burning or burying that which we couldn’t carry out.

After a few miles of along the trail, a couple young boys, with torn jeans, ripped sneakers and packs that appeared to be losing contents stumbled up to us from the other direction.  We waved hello but they kept going.  A while later a couple others, similarly attired, wandered up to us, moving a bit slower than the ones that had gone before.  We learned that they were part of a youth group from the Southwest, I won’t say who or from where, but their ironic motto is “Be Prepared.”  Steve and Jackie stopped these wanderers and asked the questions and learned that they were part of a group that had been hiking for a few days, and were due to be in Rock Creek this evening. But their leader had fallen and hurt is leg, and so he had sent them on ahead, while he tried to figure out how he would get there.  Several minutes later we passed another one from their group, not moving so well and actually carrying a plastic bag of what appeared to be his clothes.  And then, a couple minutes later, another hobbled up, and then two more, one of whom was definitely a father-leader type.  He said he was not the injured one, who he had left near the Ranger station where we were headed.

We took a break for lunch and a rest under the pine trees, where the dirt had turned to sand.  More like a beach then a trail.  Moments later we were beginning a descent and when the trail turned we got our first glimpse of a granite giant rising above the trees and peaks ahead: Whitney.

After another 30 minutes, we were approaching the Ranger Station and met up with the Ranger and the injured leader.  Steve and Jackie talked with the Ranger and then the injured leader and moments later the injured leader was on his feet starting his journey over to Rock Creek with each step supported by Steve’s hiking poles.  What I had initially felt about Steve was proving true.

A Night by the Campfire and a Day of Rest

We hiked past a huge beautiful meadow and for about an hour more until we arrived at our camp site, in the woods, on the banks of a roaring stream and with a full site for a campfire.  We set up camp and gathered wood for the fire and Steve and Jackie explained that we were going to stay in this great site for most of the next day.  While Guitar Lake is picturesque, a blue jewel surrounded by sharp granite peaks and passes, it’s barren and prone to wind and rapid weather changes, and it can be crowded by folks heading to or from the summits and passes.  So, we would move up to Guitar Lake late and camp briefly before making our summit attempt.  We built a big fire and enjoyed a great dinner that night and shared lots of stories before heading to bed, much later than we had on any of the prior nights.  We slept late the next morning, and after a leisurely breakfast we had a couple hours free.  A few of us took the opportunity to do a little bushwhacking up a nearby ridge to get a grand view of the huge meadow that we had past the day before and then back for lunch and rest.  In the early afternoon, we broke camp.

Singing to Guitar Lake

The group was in great shape as we trekked along past meadows, streams and steel blue ponds.  HED had set in and laughs, chatter and song filled the air: including lots of Neil:  “Home, to a new and a shiny place, Make our bed, and we'll say our grace, Freedom's light burning warm, Freedom's light burning warm, Everywhere around the world, They're coming to America, Every time that flag's unfurled.  They're coming to America!” We then stepped into a huge granite basin surrounded by rough, sharp granite peaks, and dropped our packs on the big flat rocks by the deep blue water of Guitar Lake.  At 11,600’, this would be my first camp above 11,000 feet.  I looked about, awed at the sight of Whitney and the other peaks and the view back toward the valley.  The sky was red, sailor’s delight, a beautiful sunset and a still warm evening. And, amazingly, we were all alone.

As the stars emerged and the cool turned crisp, we had a light supper and listened to the plan.  We would wake at about 1:00am, break camp and make our way up Whitney, hoping to summit in the early morning.  We checked our gear, including headlamps, packed it for an easy departure, and crawled into our sleeping bags.  At Dudley, we always talked about the Dudley Dome, the sky filled with stars.  The Adirondacks, being a huge wilderness area, boasted a brilliant dome.  But the stars that emerged that night filled a dome that rivaled any I had ever seen, and at 11,600’ you could almost reach out and touch them.  “Hands touching hands. Reaching out.  Touching me, Touching you.”  So good.  So good.  My mind raced.  The adrenalin of being so close, the question of whether I could make that final push and summit, the altitude, the idea of waking at 1:00am.  I thought all about why I was there.  About Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes.  About my vow to keep climbing until we find a cure.  About how I had gotten there, and how much I was enjoying the journey.  I tried to relax.  I looked up again at the mountains, and then at Guitar Lake, cold, calm in the still night.  “He maketh me lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

Stairway to Heaven

I opened my eyes in the cold, pitch black star filled night, and heard the sound of the stove heating water.  Time to get up.  I found my headlamp, right next to me, and all my clothes in the base of my sleeping bag, where I had left them to make them easy to find and to keep them warm.  In minutes, I was up and packed and eating a little cinnamon apple oatmeal – sweet, warm, good.  And a few moments later, we were hiking.

hiking group photoAfter a short while, we began to climb the switchbacks that hugged one side of the mountain.  On one side, loose rocks rose sharply up a disappeared in the darkness and to the other the mountain fell off sharply in to the blackness.  My awe of the trail almost overcame the adrenalin-rush from my fear of heights and realization that we were making the summit attempt.  We kept climbing.  Before too long, the sky had lightened enough to see that “guitar” of the Guitar Lake below.  We had already climbed more than 1,000 feet.  More than half way to the trail crest, where the trails from the East and the one we were on from the West merge.  And, at my first time at over 12,750’, I was beginning to feel the altitude, but feeling great.  One member of our group though was beginning to struggle.  Once you pass 12,000 feet, with every step the air pressure and oxygen levels get exponentially worse.  We kept going but she was laboring.  A short while later, we stopped and Jackie and Steve talked before the group resumed the climb with Jackie, while Steve stayed with one who needed more rest.  A little Neil seemed right: “Far, We've been traveling far, Without a home, But not without a star.”

The day was definitely lightening as we stepped on to the trail crest at 13,700’.  We dropped our packs and got out our water and some food, and looked back at the amazing view of Guitar Lake, 2000’ below.  We looked back the rocky, switchback trail that we had just climbed, and found Steve and the other member of our group on the move, not far behind us, and moving steadily.   I was happy and a little amazed to see them almost to trail crest, but Steve looked funny.  I then realized why.  Steve had his own big pack on his back and he had her pack on his head steadied by his hands.  “We’ll get there for Kate.”

After a short rest, we were off: “Their coming to America!”  From the trail crest.  It’s a mile and a half scramble long a crest trail with jaw dropping drops and views and then along rocks and often snow (even in the summer).  In the latter part, everyone can take whatever path they choose.  After a few false peaks, the stone hut on the Whitney summit comes into view, and with each step and deep breath, you get closer, until you realize that you are there:  at 14,497’, the highest point in the contiguous United States, the summit of Mount Whitney!  KTS!  We had made it, reached the summit and raised over $60,000 to help find a cure.  Take that diabetes!
mountain meadowstanding in mountain meadow
After a wonderful time taking in the view and all that the summit brings, we headed down to the campsite on the East.  We settled in that night, away from many of the other hikers, and planned to rise to see the new dawn in the morning.  After a beautiful sunrise, a little breakfast and final pictures, we headed down to the Whitney Portal.  It’s not a short hike, but with riding the high of the summit, and the increasing level of oxygen filling your blood, the trip to the Whitney Portal went quickly.  Almost too quickly.  We stopped briefly at the Whitney Portal, but couldn’t say our goodbyes, not yet.  The group headed to Lone Pine, and over the best tasting pizza and cold beer that you can imagine we all revisited the entire journey that we had just shared, with most everyone saying how much they appreciated being a part of thenext to mountain lake first KTS.  Many asked, “What’s next?”  And, after many long trail talks with Jackie, I knew that after reaching the summit of Whitney, "next" was to learn mountaineering, with crampons, ice axes and ropes, and the greatest mountain for that: Mt. Rainier.  And, so for me, Mount Rainier would be next.  Steve was last to speak, and with tears in his eyes, said you never know what’s going to happen in the mountains, but from the start he wanted to do everything he could to make this trip a success.  Every step of the way he was thinking about Kate and the millions of kids like her who needed a cure, and being a part of the first KTS was magical, he said, keep climbing and we’ll conquer diabetes.