India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
When life gets hard…head for the hills
It all started when my bucket list trip to Machu Picchu got canceled in March 2020 because of COVID. Until the week before, the Peruvian tour company that we booked our travel with had insisted that everything was fine. A few days later, they shut down the borders. After my group dealt with the mild trauma of non-refundable ticket cancellations as South American airlines went bankrupt, one of my friends suggested a different destination: hiking Mt. Whitney – the tallest mountain in the continental US. I signed up immediately in the second-most impulsive decision of my life-neither of which I regret…
Getting ready for the madness
Our hike was scheduled for the first week of October. I had hiked before but never this far, never in the dark, and never this high (also never this cold, but we’ll come to that part later). So, for the four months of the Bay Area summer, we hiked Mission Peak in Fremont every weekend, doing it twice to get the distance and elevation gain, while regular hikers looked at us and probably wondered who these crazy guys were, who kept turning around and going back up! With that and my daily seven-minute workouts, bike rides, and runs, I had started to feel in pretty good shape – to the point that I was now worried if I had overdone the prep.
One of the most important decisions to make is what to carry vs. not. There are some essentials (meds, layers, charging pack), and then there are the big choices on how much water to take (you can refill at the lakes if you bring a filter) and how much and what food to take. This led to significant research and trials with different protein bars, almond/peanut butter sachets, and semi-unconventional dried fruit (like the dried mangos from Trader Joe’s). The best advice I got from someone was to pick the food you will really want to eat because you will lose appetite after a while, but need to force yourself to eat for the energy. This led us to the obvious answer–desi food. I’ve never relished eating a pre-packed box of biryani as much as I did on Mt. Whitney.
The big day: our Mt Whitney hike begins
One of the big decisions we had to make was whether we would hike in one shot–22 miles, 6500 feet elevation gain (8,000 ft to 14,500 ft), 12+ hours–which meant starting in the middle of the night. Or break up our hike into two parts–which meant backpacking and camping at the halfway point.
Our group of 8 was divided. I was in the “not camping” camp because 1) I’d never done a backpacking trip and this wasn’t the one to start with, and 2) Mt. Whitney was getting really cold in the nights and the chances of getting a good night’s rest seemed slim. The day hike permits are for “one day”, which meant we had to wait till 12 a.m. of that day.
Finally, four of us set off just past midnight. While my friends admired the views of the Milky Way, I wondered about the wandering bear the ranger told us about, whether I had worn enough layers given the recent snowfall, and whether the ibuprofen would really help with preventing altitude sickness (the last one was a winner, and it also helped that we acclimatized for 4 days).
Never take hiking for granite: a costly mistake
Over time, people self-paced into smaller groups of 2 or 3. That’s when I made a mistake. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go at my normal pace closer to the group in front or slow down to save energy and stay with the group behind. As a result, I ended up walking by myself for an extended period in the hardest part of the Mt. Whitney hike–past the infamous 99 switchbacks and into the Trail Crest section.
This is also when it got really cold (< 10 degrees, I had planned for 30). My hands froze. The water/Gatorade mix in my Camelbak froze. And I didn’t have a way to communicate with the others. We had 4 walkie-talkies, but I had taken none in my desire to keep my hands free and lightweight.
Out of danger
Finally, I found another single hiker and asked if I could join her. Thankfully, she didn’t think I was a random weirdo and agreed. At this point, the months of training paid off. As long as I could mentally push myself, physically I was on autopilot even though I couldn’t feel my fingers. I made it to the peak of Mt. Whitney around 9 am–roughly 8 hours after I started. There’s a small hut at the top where 3 of my group were there. My friend saw the look of shock on my face and immediately realized my fingers were frozen (I wasn’t the only one). He gave me a set of hand warmers and vigorously rubbed my hands to force re-circulation.
I’ve been around the rock once or twice
The way down was much more pleasant: less adrenaline, more time to enjoy the scenery, and of course, all in daylight. Mt. Whitney has some great views. At one point, you are above the tree line and walk past a couple of spectacular glacial lakes. I also got to see the sunrise over the mountains and look out of the “windows” where the trail narrows and you can see thousands of feet down on either side. Surprisingly, there isn’t much of a view near/from the top–the last section is mostly rubble and rocks—but the rest of the journey makes up for it.
It took us almost as long to return – multiple stops along the way, including a welcome coffee break using a camping stove. Our group split up again. This time I stuck with the lead pack and got back by 5 p.m., which was great until we realized the keys to our Airbnb were with the group behind, leading to a long wait in the parking lot. I took a nap; my hyperactive friend cleaned his car 3 times. All 8 of us made it to the top and back. We celebrated with a low-key dinner that night at the Bakersfield Punjabi Dhaba and an unexpected cake-cutting ceremony that my wife and a couple of friends organized when I got back home.
At that moment, I was exhausted and relieved. In the immediate and following days, my sense of accomplishment has grown. Mt Whitney is the most memorable, difficult, exhausting hike I’ve done and if nothing else, it pushed me to become my fittest self ever.
I still don’t have an answer when people ask me if I would do it again. To adapt from Ibn Battuta’s quote: It was a hike that left me speechless but turned me into a storyteller.
A few helpful resources for those of you who make impulsive decisions
- The most popular one – everything you need to know for this hike
- Another good resource https://trailsandsummits.com/mt-whitney/?fbclid=IwAR0KAvZWZ0RbOkqxrHxDO6TXz6Wa_6vVPOSNGXobrCE7QyUOVNZ0lOVtdyQ
- Weather conditions https://www.timberlinetrails.com/WhitneyWeather.html
- Topographic map that you can print https://caltopo.com/m/E4418