We have Whitney within our sights! After soaring up and over Forester Pass (13,200 feet) early this morning, we traveled along high altitude plateaus that seemed to go on for miles, only to be rewarded with our first sighting of Whitney from 16-trail miles away. She rose, majestic and foreboding in the distance, beckoning to us and giving us our first glimpse of what was to come. Rising higher than all other peaks (14,495 feet), Whitney signaled for us, the culmination of our entire journey. Until this moment, Mt. Whitney had been only an idea in our minds, a destination towards which we moved endlessly each day. But at last, here she was. Majestic, awe-inspiring and very very real.
In two days we would be standing on the summit of the highest point in the contiguous United States, having traveled over 200-miles by foot. Having come this far with our 6-year old daughter, I could feel the build-up of adrenaline mixed with relief as I imagined the three of us rising to the peak and knowing that we had made it. We had travelled, not only through rivers and mountain passes, but through the contours of our hearts and minds to arrive at this point. And we were almost there! We all felt the rush of actually seeing the finish line and were motivated to push on in spite of the long miles.
Fueled by thoughts of completing our journey, we quickly closed the gap over the next two days between us and Whitney until at last we rested in its shadow at our highest camp of 12,400 feet. We had been on the trail for 21-days, but we felt as though we had traveled a lifetime. We had grown strong, confident, capable. Miraculously, we had shaved 5-days off our original itinerary and our visions of warm beds, hot showers, non-dehydrated foods and good friends and family had quickened our pace beyond what even we thought possible.
As we began to make camp for the night under the shadow of Mt Whitney’s west facing wall, we felt the first few drops of rain that had fallen in 21-days. While I ambled through the process of setting up our home for the last night on the trail, Paul had a greater sense of urgency and urged me to move quickly. I didn’t want to rush this moment, this last night of living the trail life and moving at the pace that I had come to love. I wanted to do things my way. And yet, as I had come to learn over many days on the trail, the wilderness has its own rhythm. It bows to no one and it demands attention.
Paul’s urgency was well placed and within minutes the soft drops of rain that were at first a welcome respite from the Sierra sun, soon swelled to dark rainclouds filled with hail. The sky opened and the rain and hail pelted our tent vigorously as claps of thunder echoed in the distance. Lightning struck in places not far away and we watched as our tent whipped under the power of the wind. We felt warm, safe and dry inside our trail home, as we had many nights over the past three weeks. We felt certain that we could wait out the storm.
Just as we were prepared to wait out the deluge, Paul noticed that the bottom of the tent appeared to be floating above water and we pushed our hands tentatively against the bulging from beneath. Water was collecting under the tent, faster than we could push it out. As long as the tent held out, we would be okay, but the storm gave no indication of letting up. Paul knew that staying warm and dry were key factors to outdoor survival, so in a heroic effort, he donned his rain-gear for the first time in three weeks, left the sanctuary of our tent and entered the storm, armed only with a half-ounce poop shovel.
As Paul expertly dug a trench around our tent to divert the water, Sara jumped enthusiastically around inside the tent, thrilled with excitement at our latest adventure. Our days had been the same for so long and this was an entirely new set of circumstances. We were excited to see what was going to happen and we welcomed the experience of not knowing. Having assured our safety, Paul returned to the warmth of the tent, where we all nestled into our sleeping bags to wait out the storm.
As is typical for high altitude, the storm ran its course after three hours. We waited it out comfortably in our tent, all feeling grateful for this adventure, as well as for the safety, warmth and good condition of our gear. When the last rain had fallen and the skies cleared at last, we ate our final dinner on the trail, as we gazed upon the Sierra sunset that would close the chapter on our final evening. Inside my head, I said a silent prayer of thanks and gratitude for all that we had been through. The good, the bad. The challenges and the triumphs. I welcomed and loved them all.
Tomorrow morning, we would wake up early and summit Mt. Whitney.