Preparing for High Altitude Hikes and Backpacking Trips
Re-Education Through Nature
By: Kiel B.
I received a call one Friday evening of June, 2007 from a friend inviting me to hike up Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, with less than 12 hours’ notice before departure. The plan was to arrive Saturday evening, meet one of her coworkers at the trailhead, hike in to a suitable camping spot a couple of miles in on the trail, then complete the rest of the 22 mile hike the following day and be back to San Diego by the end of Sunday night.
This was my first lesson:
when hiking with doctors, know beforehand that they don’t have time in their schedule for pleasantries such as “acclimatization”, “breathing”, or “not turning one’s feet into ground meat over the course of one day”.
Up to this point in my life, I’d never done an overnight hike, let alone a trail more than about 3 miles. When we reached the trailhead at around 5:30 pm on Saturday evening my friend, an experienced outdoors enthusiast, stopped to check the supplies I was bringing in my 35 liter backpack.
Much to my horror, half of what I thought would be useful was deemed totally unnecessary. My friend was able to make me feel like a complete fool for knowing nothing about these kinds of activities, and every discarded firestarter, insect repellant, and nifty cooking gadget was a blow to my over-inflated sense of self-sufficient masculinity. This was my second lesson.
The hike started off in a simple enough way
Strolling through babbling brooks and leafy forests for the first time in my adult life gave me a grand, and exaggerated, sense of being “out in the wild”, when in fact it was all carefully manicured for backpackers such as ourselves. I cheerfully clicked away photos as we traipsed along, not realizing just how difficult the next ten hours of my life would be.
The trail itself was stunning. Only a quarter of the way along the trail, we came to Lone Pine Lake, a lovely first break a few miles in, located just before the timber line, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. This was the highest I’d ever been, and I was only going to head up even further for the rest of the day.
Six miles in I received my third lesson:
the stiff faux leather of my cleated shoes weren’t intended for the heavy abuse involved in climbing up dozens of switchbacks, let alone for walking dozens of miles in a single outing toting a heavy backpack. I had come to this hike foolishly thinking that any hardy shoe would suffice for the task, and the worst had yet to come from this poor decision.
Now toiling up the rocky cover of the mountain, I was starting to struggle, but it seemed appropriate in proportion to the task. My friend’s colleague was a triathlete, and at times it seemed as if she was gliding effortlessly up the mountain, even jogging. In fact, she was the reason for our demanding schedule, as she wanted to get back to San Diego before the sun set, so she could be with her child. I could feel the shadow of this baby bearing down upon my shoulders, cackling in delight over the pain I had started to feel at about 14,000 feet up, when I felt my legs give out from under me, and I thought I couldn’t go on. I laid down in a shady spot, waiting for death to come quietly, but my friends wouldn’t hear of it, and forced me on.
Thankfully, it was less than thirty minutes more to the summit, at an elevation of 14,505 feet. The 360 degree vista of John Muir Wilderness, lakes, mountain ridges and other summits was stunning. I’d never before in my life seen something so breathtaking, and at that moment, I discovered my fourth lesson. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lessons in humility and struggle on the way up, I was hooked. From this point on, there was no turning back.