Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mount Whitney, F-Bombs and The Hail (Mary)

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home and that wilderness is a necessity...”

- John Muir

It was quite a moment the other day.
Actually, it was more like an eternity.

My friend and I had been planning a backpacking trip to the summit of Mount Whitney.
Not the popular one day schlep wearing a fanny pack, but rather the two day haul wearing a 50 pound one.
It sounded more enjoyable.
I had done this before and he asked me to join him as he wanted to check this off of his "bucket list."

Fyi, Mount Whitney is located in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Range and is the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. At 14,505 feet, it's not quite the expedition which involves a slew of Sherpas - but there is a good chance that you will find yourself gasping for air and wishing you had one or two of them.

Day one was a hump and we made it to the base camp in great time.

And then came day two.

It was about two hours prior to sunrise when we headed up the infamous switchbacks. The sun was buried beneath a bank of clouds in the White Mountains and all was well.

Arriving at the trail crest we found ourselves looking at an ominous western sky, moving northwest and at a pretty good click too. We decided to continue on our northern ascent while keeping a cautious eye on the western horizon.

By the time we reached the backside of Whitney, we were all in. It was about 25 degrees and light hail was starting to fall. In another ten minutes we'd be at the summit where we would smile for a picture and then scram down, lickity-split.
That was our game plan.

We were a bit anxious when we reached it and we were immediately greeted by a threesome equally so. They had just summited via the East Face. The weather had turned ugly and their worried faces justified my own as they must have been racing up the final pitch as the dark cloud from the eastern sky came in on their heals.

Our eyes intersected as we watched each others worries collide above our heads, mine from the west and their's from the east.

I was the first to hear it - and it only lasted a second.

Say the word "Volt."

Now say it again and leave out the "olt."

That's what I heard.

The three mountaineers screamed "We've got about thirty seconds!"
That seemed a bit generous.

I'm not sure what happened next - the static electricity developing in my arms and in the back of my neck or the buzzing sound from the 102 year old hut perched on top of the summit. If you've ever heard an angry rattlesnake, add volume and bass and you'll get a taste of what it sounded like.
That was about the time when I told everyone to get the hell out of Dodge because we were about to get struck by lightning.

There were seven of us at the summit. Two of them ran into the hut, ignoring me as I screamed for them to stay out of there.
A metal roof? With nine lightning rods? What were they thinking?
I was pissed off. Mad at them for going inside and mad at myself for not turning around earlier.

As for the three mountaineers?
They simply vanished. Honest to God.
It was as though they were three angels who lit on the summit to tell us what was about to transpire.
The backside of Whitney is massive, exposed and the only thing that I can come up with is that they performed a record setting wind sprint in full regalia or they were vaporized by a lightning bolt.

Or maybe they were angels.

So what next?

What do you do in a blur of confusion riddled with hail, lightning and f-bombs?

Well, in the heat of the moment here is what you would do if you were me and you'd do it in a heartbeat too.

You would ditch your most accessible metallic items, sit on your pack and put the soles of your boots on the ground while hunkered into a ball. You would tell yourself that this is no fucking joke and then you would start in with "Hail Mary full of grace..."
And when you get to the part that says "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
Well... you would say that line over and over again.

My friend basically followed my lead but added his own twist when he tossed his Snickers Bar as though it were a pin pulled grenade - thinking it was his Leatherman.
Like I said, it was a blur of confusion.

As we struggled to get off the backside, this course of action repeated itself two more times before we decided to hunker down and wait for the sky to clear a bit. It did and we were off to the races. We still had a little less than two miles to cover along the exposed western crest. It was like running through a minefield while holding your breath.

Although we hadn't felt or heard any static since descending the backside, the sky remained ominous, there was plenty of lightning and we were weary. We came upon a guy who seemed pretty rattled himself and rightfully so. He was alone and was headed to the summit. He told us that a few minutes earlier, his hair had been standing straight in the air. I suggested he do an about-face and follow us over the crest. But with him being in his early twenties and most likely feeling a bit invincible, he pressed on.

Long story short, we made it back and as far as I know everyone else did too.