This morning we summited Mt Whitney. After 3-weeks on the trail, we had built up our strength and we were prepared, both physically and emotionally for the 2,500 foot climb ahead of us. Having slept at the base of Mt. Whitney, just above Guitar Lake, we were already above 12,000 feet and had less than 2 miles to go to reach the top. We ascended the first 1,500 feet to Trail Crest, where we dropped our packs along with all the other hikers and began the final ascent to the top. It was at this moment that I truly understood the appeal of ultralight hiking, as I was relieved of the 38-pound burden of my pack. I felt like flying up the mountain, but the uneven terrain and narrow catwalks kept us walking at a slow and steady pace. Along the way, we passed hikers who were climbing Mt Whitney as a day trip or doing the JMT Northbound. They had not had the chance to acclimatize to the altitude and were stopped along the side of the trail, gasping for breath. But not us. We had been living at 10,000 feet for over three weeks now and the air felt light and free. For the hundredth time, I said a prayer of gratitude for our strength and good sense to hike the JMT in the Southbound direction.
We all watched the peak grow closer, knowing that the top of Mt. Whitney signaled the official end of the JMT and the successful completion of our hike. As descending hikers high-fived Sara and congratulated us on hiking with our 6-year old, my pride in my family grew stronger with each passing step. When at last we crossed the snow threshold and ascended the final section of the trail, tears sprang to my eyes. We had done it. We were summiting Mt. Whitney with our daughter after 22-days on the trail. I don’t know if it was the altitude or the relief of having made it, but my head was spinning and I felt bursts of laughter coming forth from within me.
When at last we reached the top, we were greeted by fellow hikers whom we had met along the way and leapfrogged with along the trail. Many of these hikers had been with us for days and knew the trails that we had come through. These were my people. My trail family. The ones who had survived the mountain passes, the heat, the mosquitoes, the trail food and the hail storm that had come in the day before our ascent. They greeted us with cheers and clapped for our accomplishment. As had become typical, Sara shied away from the attention, having grown weary of people’s amazement in her.
Our celebration at the top was brief, but wonderful. At long last, we made contact with our families and friends with the tiny bit of cell phone power that made itself available at the top. I was so happy to be sharing this moment with the people whom I loved back home. I had missed them so much and wanted them to be part of our accomplishment. I didn’t know it at the time, but several people, including my mom, had watched our ascent up Mt. Whitney with our SPOT GPS device. When I found this out later, my heart felt warm and connected- as if they had been there with us on this epic journey. I was reminded yet again of the value of family and friends and of the importance of connection. We hugged our trail families at the top and all shared in the wonder of what we had all just accomplished.
As the clouds moved in, we knew from the day before that weather can change in an instant at high altitude, so Paul cautioned us to make haste down the mountain. The day before, from the safety, warmth and comfort of our tent, we had watched as people scrambled down the switchbacks in the rain and hail, some having panic attacks as the lightning and thunder threatened from above. We didn’t want to be stuck on the mountain in those conditions, so we relished our moment as long as we were able and then gathered ourselves for the long descent. We had all agreed that we wanted to go the distance and walk all the way to the Whitney Portal trailhead after summiting, so that we could enjoy the comfort and luxury of a hotel bed and shower that night. It would be an epic day, to be sure. Our biggest day yet- 14.5 miles, which included the summiting of Whitney and the arduous 6,000 foot descent to the Whitney Portal trailhead.
Shortly after descending the first 1000 feet, the rain started to fall. We quickly pulled out our rain gear for the first time in 22-days, put on our pack covers and continued on. It felt good to be prepared. The rain didn’t phase us and it only served to quicken our pace. Ninety-seven switchbacks and 10-miles later and we would be at the trailhead. Those were hard miles. The aggressive downhill slope was hard on the knees and back, but we were propelled by dreams of burgers, hot showers and a warm bed. We were elated at what we had accomplished, but we were all ready to be done.
The switchbacks down to the Portal seemed to go on forever, but we eventually made it. We had built up a strength and a resilience that allowed us to go the distance, even when we were tired. The oh-so-familiar childhood questions of “Are we there yet?” and “How much longer?” no longer escaped Sara’s lips. She had learned that the distance between trail markers was measured in hours and that the only way to get there was to keep moving forward.
As we rounded the final switchback into the Portal, the adrenaline of triumph and the relief of having made it through pulsed simultaneously through my body. Hikers whom we had met along the trail and at the top of Mt. Whitney clapped and cheered and welcomed us to their tables, where they were furiously eating bacon cheeseburgers and fries. I was filled with mixed emotions. While I was so happy to be finished, I also knew that the magic of the trail would fade quickly once we returned to the real world. I didn’t want this trail life to end. I knew that life would demand our attention in ways that the trail does not. Our regular struggles would return to us and we would find ourselves faced with obstacles and limitations that seem unmovable.
I am determined not to let this happen.
As long as we are alive, there will always be mountains to climb. They may be physical mountains, but more often than not, they will be the mountains of our hearts and minds. We will continue to be faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable and in those moments, we have a choice. We can give in to the doubt and overwhelm that can overtake us as we gaze upon these mountains in our way. Or we can dig deep, make contact with our own strength and forge ahead, knowing that even the greatest, fiercest mountains are conquered over time.
I hope that I have given my daughter a gift that she can hold with her throughout her lifetime- the gift of knowing that she can be anything, do anything and conquer even her own greatest challenges, fears and limitations. I can think of no greater way to be a parent than to instill in her a confidence in herself and a belief that the world is a place of magic and beauty- that she need only to believe in herself and in those around her. She may only be six years old and still believe in fairytales, but real magic is all around her, every moment of every day. And if she can believe in magic, then so can I. It is all around us. In the trees. In the rivers. In the humanity of the experiences that we all share. In our connectedness with fellow travelers along this journey of life. And in ourselves, when we conquer our own mountains and come out on the other side.
And so I bid farewell and take the magic with me: to learn, to grow, to thrive, to live. May we all be blessed with the opportunity to experience the beauty and shared humanity that is around us all the time. We need only the wisdom and humility to recognize it.
Until the next adventure…