Team Fox - Mt Whitney 2019
With a summit at 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney--just outside Lone Pine, CA--is the tallest mountain in the continental United States. Starting in early 2019, Team Fox recruited a team of eight volunteers for a three-day backpacking trip to climb Mt. Whitney in July. My name is Greg O'Keefe, and I was one of those volunteers.
The first step was mental: Can I do this? Do I have what it takes, both physically and mentally? Each volunteer is required to raise $5500 for the Michael J Fox Foundation. Can I get enough donations to avoid a big charge on my credit card? (I'm still chipping away. To help, please visit https://fundraise.michaeljfox.org/climb-mt-whitney/gregokeefe). It took me about a week to talk myself into it.
The second step was physical: Start training. My training plan was simple--wear a weighted day pack or backpack on the stair climber at the gym, and go backpacking around the neighborhood with increasing weight until able to carry 50 pounds for 15 miles three days in a row. It proved to be wildly unrealistic.
I split my time between a day pack and a full backpack. The day pack put all the weight on my shoulders, which I thought would make the change to the backpack easier. I did a lot of walking with 30 lbs in March and planned to increase to 40 lbs in April and 50 lbs in May. The reality was that 40 was quite difficult, even for two miles. Besides the strain on my shoulders, the weight was tearing the pack's stitching.
The need to switch to the big backpack was clear. Unfortunately, both of my backpacks were external frame. That is what I used in my youth, and I wanted to use an external-frame pack again. The first one I looked at was the actual backpack my brother and I used in the 1980s. It was showing its age (holes worn in several places, etc.), so I unwrapped a new one that I've had for several years. It is a good backpack, but it leaned badly to one side, probably due to the way I lean to the side when I walk. (Funny side note: I tend to lean forward when standing or walking, but hanging 40 lbs on my back fixes that. The lean to one side, however, is just made worse.)
Try as I might, I just could not adjust the straps such that it stopped leaning--and I think my wife was getting tired of being asked to make the adjustments, which were too difficult for my clumsy fingers. I went to the store and looked at internal-frame backpacks. I've never been particularly fond of them, but the fit was so much better that I bought one. It still leaned a little, but far less than the other. I soon could be seen walking with up to four gallon-jugs of water in that backpack. It helped a lot, but I should have stuck in a fifth.
I had picked up a variety of gear over the months prior to the trip, but the day before I was to leave I realized that my sleeping bag was all wrong. It was a huge thing with bulky artificial fill and rated to -20 degrees F. It didn't fit inside the backpack, and it was obvious that it could not be attached to the outside. Off to the store I went, in search of one last item, and a very important one. I needed low bulk, and my research taught me that the ultimate low-bulk fill material is down. It also happens to be expensive, but the advantages of low bulk and weight won me over. I bought a new sleeping bag, re-packed everything, and was ready to go.
Although the official trip was July 17 - 20 (Wednesday through Saturday), I took vacation the entire week. Monday was spent shopping, packing, and double-checking everything. Among other things, I was trying to decide whether to carry my camera (it was awkward, but I did) and my cane (I didn't). More on that later. Check-in at the hotel was 3:00, so there was no hurry getting started. The drive to Lone Pine on Tuesday took five hours instead of the expected four, but it was a nice drive. My iPhone's directions took me right through Death Valley, along the same route being used by Badwater ultra marathon runners. Those folks were running through Death Valley . . . in July . . . in the hottest part of the day. Impressive!
The guides strongly encouraged us to drink a gallon of water a day in the days leading up to the hike. I drank more than usual, but not quite a gallon a day, so on Wednesday I just hung out in the hotel room drinking water all day. Looking back, I wish I had taken the time to get to know my teammates. They were an awesome bunch, and our time together was short. However, that extra hydration seemed to pay off, because I did not have any trouble with altitude sickness.
Thursday morning we all (almost all--one of eight did not show up; I never did find out why) checked out and drove to the guide company's office in town. We got a detailed briefing on what to expect, we got our gear inspected and adjusted, we divvied up food, tents, and climbing gear--and then we got in our cars and drove to the trailhead. It was a somewhat late start, but it was necessary. The hike that first day seemed hard. The trail was both steep and rough, and it was broken by stream crossings, ledges, slabs, and plenty of steep, wet, slippery surfaces. It seemed like quite an accomplishment just getting to Upper Boy Scout Lake and setting up camp--I even took my phone out of airplane mode that night long enough to write a brief post about a hard day--but it was nothing compared to day two.
Friday wake-up was at 2 AM. I was already awake, and I suspect the others were, too. After preparing and eating breakfast, cleaning up, and packing any items needed that day, we started our hike at 3:30. The night was cold, so we were dressed warmly, wearing backpacks and headlamps. Although there was a good deal of snow, the days were warm, so backpacks were required to hold our doffed jackets, hat, headlamp, etc., in addition to climbing gear.
We reached Iceberg Lake, the last major stopping point before the summit, shortly after sunrise. From here we split into two teams and continued, with at most four climbers and a guide to a rope. Everyone but me went on; I decided to wait at the lake. Why? I thought my team would have a better chance of making it to the summit without me. It was necessary to move fast, or risk having to turn back. I can move pretty well on flat terrain or a nice trail, but day one demonstrated that the ruggedness of the Mountaineer's Route, combined with my degraded balance and coordination, made it impossible for me to move fast enough. I think it would been worth it if my team had reached the summit. When I found out later that day that they did not make it, I felt instant regret. Even if the summit was unreachable, I would like to have gone farther.
My team returned from their summit attempt several hours, and a short while later we departed, arriving back at base camp at 5:30. The other team did reach the summit successfully, and they got back to camp at 7:00. It was a long day for us all.
Day 3 somehow went by both slowly and much too fast. I had been tossing and turning since midnight and finally got up at 2:00. I saw some nearby hikers start toward the summit around 3:00. I watched the stars until sunrise. Finally it was time to eat breakfast, pack up our things, and start out. It was easier going downhill, of course, and before we knew it we were at the trailhead. A wonderful, unofficial support team was waiting for us with cold beer! After finishing our beers, taking plenty of pictures, and generally unwinding, we started to leave. Some folks had places to go and left right away. The rest of us had lunch together in town before saying goodbye. As tired as I was after three days of exertion and two nights of little sleep, I knew it would be dangerous to try to drive home right away, so I spent one more night in the hotel and then drove back on Sunday.
My training was geared toward improving my strength and endurance. More would have been good, but I think I was mostly well-prepared. The one glaring deficiency was toughening up my feet. My walks in town were on sidewalks--flat and level. The trail was anything but, and the result was blisters. My feet were pretty painful by day three, even by day two. I should have spent a great deal of time on a rough mountain trail, or a treadmill set to a steep incline, or just walking around barefoot.
I finally understand the usefulness of trekking poles. They helped me a lot in poor-balance situations and got in the way in poor-coordination situations, and there were times when I preferred to put my hands on rocks (or branches), but I get it. A trail for climbers is more rugged and less well-maintained than a regular hiking trail, and a cane just wouldn't be as useful as trekking poles.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and I am grateful to have had this opportunity. The guides were fantastic, and the folks at Team Fox ensured all preparations were made with thorough attention to detail.
For more information on Mt. Whitney, see any of the following: