It all starts with an idea. Less than a year ago, our guy RG3 was reminiscing about his summit of Mt. Rainier. During F3 Evanston’s Sunday morning run club, the Commodore, he said the itch to climb a mountain was back. I was intrigued. He wanted it to be challenging yet accessible to all the guys who wanted to participate. Many ideas surfaced during our weekly runs. Mt. Whitney, the lower 48’s highest point, rose to the surface. I was sold. Ladybug and Cheddar too. With four of us bought into the idea, it was shared with the group more broadly. The Situation and 8-Track followed suit. It was settled. Six PAX from F3 Evanston had a plan to climb Mt. Whitney.
A Slack channel was created with the description “For those HIMs who dare to dream big. Like really big.” – it was that serious. After a long wait we even had the required permit thanks to RG3’s efforts and patience. Now it was official, on July 14th members of F3 Evanston would get their chance at Mt. Whitney. Time to do some research and training. Flights, hotels, and cars were booked (thanks The Situation for coordinating). This idea was coming to fruition.
Fast forward to Wednesday, July 13th when some of us met with a ranger at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center. We wanted to make sure we had everything needed for a successful journey the next day. We learned about a National Weather Service report of isolated thunderstorms on the day of our climb. The ranger was quite helpful in letting us know that the earlier we start the better. The last thing we wanted was to abandon our goal due to lightning. With thunderstorms expected in the afternoon, we set our go time at 1am. Fun.
Just after midnight on Thursday, July 14th phone alarms rang. We loaded the cars and made our way out of Lone Pine, California. We arrived at the Mt. Whitney trailhead and started our hike around 1:10am. Aided by headlamps and a near-full moon, we began the ascent. RG3 led the way. Adrenaline was pumping. The first several miles passed with ease. The moonlight made for some incredible dim-lit silhouettes of various peaks all around us. We crossed a meadow. We heard the occasional waterfall. We could see none of it. Marching in moonlight.
The group made it more than six miles in the first four hours. Cruising. Now above the tree line, we started the switchbacks. Not just any switchbacks. These were switchbacks with a bad attitude – 97 of them. Bare rock, and lots of it, was all that lie ahead of us. The sun was rising. The climb was getting tougher. It was around 5:20am – a perfect time to pause for some breakfast. We positioned ourselves facing east and watched sunlight make its way across the valley. Stunning. With no time to waste, we went back to work.
The switchbacks seemed to last forever but were about two miles of steady climbing. Breaks for recovery, water, and fuel were becoming more frequent. Now at the Sierra crest, we approached the same peaks from the opposite side. The west side. The side with no sun shining on it. Also known as the cold side of the climb. We entered Sequoia National Park and paused for some warmer apparel. We were now about 2.5 miles from our goal and approaching the summit from the west. Awesome.
The ledge on the west side grew narrower, and I found myself hugging (ok clutching) the wall in spots. At some point we could even see the tiny hut at the summit of Mt. Whitney. Our objective was in sight, but it was still miles away. Some found this encouraging. Others may have said it was the opposite. Either way, the final 1,000 feet of ascent were brutal. But one could see for miles – hundreds of miles. Both Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park were visible. Breathtaking.
Then there were only 500 feet separating us from the summit. The effects of altitude were becoming a bigger factor. Breaks and words of encouragement became more frequent. More switchbacks – this time up a gentle slope. The hut, while still tiny, seemed life sized. We fist bumped. We asked a hiker to snap the group’s photo. As we stood there holding Mt. Whitney signs, it sunk in – we made it to the top. It was around 9:15am.
Gazing west there were no storm clouds in sight. We had time to soak in the views, take photos, and rest and replenish our sore bodies. The feat was not yet complete. We had achieved the summit, but we were only half done. With several of us feeling the effects of altitude – 14,505 feet of it – we thought it best to start working our way back down.
I don’t have a lot to write about the descent. It was the ascent in opposite order yet with more soreness, more pain, and somehow it seemed much longer. We traded pleasantries with fellow climbers on their way up who congratulated us on our accomplishment. Back on the east side of the range, we removed layers, reapplied sunscreen, and trudged downward. Down the 97 switchbacks. Cursing seemed more frequent. Slips too. Knees sang an unhappy tune. We kept moving.
Sights that were invisible to us during the night were now surrounding us. Incredible. However, the number of photos taken on the descent dwarfed those from the ascent. We all had one thing on our minds – finishing this thing. Chatter was infrequent. RG3 continued to lead the way. We were lucky to have his experience on the team.
One of our longest breaks came in a welcoming meadow. It was the final refuel for the last several miles. Bare rock made up most of our hike during the daytime. Massive granite walls. Getting to spend time in the greenery was a treat. Onward.
We all saw it at about the same time. The parking lot! Still a mile or so away, but we were close. Our pace increased. The end was within sight. We passed through the tall timber gates, and it was official. Six PAX of F3 Evanston had taken on Mt. Whitney for a day and succeeded. It was around 4:10pm, and we had put in fifteen hours of work. Time for cheers, cheeseburgers, and texts to family members and friends. We. Did. It.
As the weight of our accomplishment sinks in, I admit I don’t yet have all the right words to describe the experience. I know this group will continue to draw courage from those granite walls. I believe there is great strength in shared suffering and there is great joy in shared accomplishment. Nothing earned was given, and this crew put one foot in front of the other when bodies begged for mercy. I hope these men know how proud I am of all of us.
We traveled about 22 miles to the tallest point in the contiguous United States and back. We climbed about 6,100 feet. We were at our best. We were at our worst. All good things take time.
I would be remiss at this point if I did not acknowledge our spouses. While two words don’t seem enough, they will have to do for now – thank you. Thank you for giving us the space and time to train, grow, and ultimately, achieve. Without your love and support we would still be talking about this crazy idea we have to climb a mountain. Because of you, we get to dream big. Like really big.
Nothing but love for this group and these guys. – Combine