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Climbing Mt. Whitney Pt. I

By Emily Brochu
On March 1, 2019

It sounded as if the mountain around us was breaking off into large chunks and tumbling down to flatten us in our tent. The intense cracking was so ear-piercing I could not imagine what else the sound could be other than our impending doom. All I could think about was how Jessica and I were supposed to be in our new house off campus, participating in typical syllabus week activities as we begin our junior year. Instead, we were laying in a tent at the bottom of a mountain playing hangman by headlamp, and trying to block out the soul-shaking storm.

Whenever we thought the weather had calmed down and we would be able to get some sleep, another storm would roll in and the ground would be shaking and we would be groaning. After the first few hours, fear was replaced by irritation and I almost wished a boulder would crush us. Somewhere, and somehow, in-between storms we both drifted off for a few hours.

When I opened my eyes next, early morning sunlight had placed a soft glow inside our tent. I could hear Debbie and Michelle outside boiling water for oatmeal and coffee; my evidence that the mountain storm did not kill us all. Jessica was still sleeping, so as quiet as possible I wiggled out of my down sleeping bag and unzipped the door to a rush of cool mountain air. I slipped on some running shoes and came out from under the tent fly to stretch. With my hands reaching for the sky I gave a sleepy good-morning wave to the other women in our group, six of us in total, when they just smiled and pointed to something above and behind me.

The very same rocky peaks that I thought were falling apart were now drenched in this golden-yellow glow I didn’t even know was possible. They looked as if someone was atop them squeezing daffodils, dripping honey, and harvesting sunshine from the sky to mix them all together for the ultimate morning light show. Mt. Whitney: she woke up like this.

Although beautiful, Mt. Whitney is no easy girl. Only one-third of the hikers who attempt to reach her summit make it. Altitude sickness and brutal weather are more often than not the reasons for turning back and despite our low chances, Jessica and I could not resist the chance to stand on top of the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states at 14,505 ft.

To get to Mt. Whitney you have to first drive through the middle of nowhere. Nothing but sand and Joshua Trees was to be seen in our drive out of Los Angeles and into the desert. The drive was so long we had to stay at a motel along the way in a town called Olancha. When our minivan pulled into its dusty lot, we saw what the Olancha Motel had for options that night: a teepee or a trailer.

The adventurist in me said “Teepee!” but the sun beating on my skin and the still heat clinging to me made me want to stay inside a trailer like never before. That night we ate dinner in a small wooden building next door where one woman acted as our waitress, cook, busser, and cashier. We then took a dip in their swimming pool that was filled with fresh water coming from the mountains behind our unique motel. Swimming in that pool was so pure it felt like being baptized by Mother Nature herself.

If that pool in Olancha was for Mother Nature’s baptisms, the climb to Mt. Whitney’s peak was her version of purgatory. Our first full day of hiking consisted of the most bipolar weather I’ve ever experienced. We began the day in leggings and long-sleeved shirts, and by mid-morning, we were down to sports-bras and shorts. Somewhere along the way, I felt what I thought was a pebble hit my shoulder. Then, another and another. Once the “pebble” hit my sweating skin and melted into it I realized it was hail. It was so cold at the top of Mt. Whitney but so hot at the bottom that hail was hitting us and melting instantly. It stung at first, but I welcomed the cool water that spilled on me afterward.

Even through all my trips since Mt. Whitney, that first night actually on the mountain will forever be my favorite. We camped out at about 10,000 feet that night and were lucky enough to have an entire sky filled with stars above us, and a silent lightning show below us. Jessica, my aunt Jeane, and I bundled up once the sun went down and laid out on the rocks to watch the stars. The sky was so clear I could see the beginning of the Milky Way and watch it stretch out over the entire sky and behind the mountain peaks still above us. While looking up and counting falling stars an occasional flash of light would come from below us, thankfully this time with no thunder. It was an experience in nature I will probably never be able to experience anywhere else. That night I had a heavy sleep that seemed to pass in a blink. The first thing I thought of when I opened my eyes: Today is Summit Day. 

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