Today is it. I had been quite anxious about this day. It is a big day and has grown bigger the closer I get to the mountain and the longer I have hiked. Since it's the final day it has an strong emotional aspect to it - an epic day:) I don't doubt that I will make it, no matter what, I will get to the Portal.
I didn't have a good night. I debated with myself endlessly as to what time I wanted to start and what kind of experience I wanted to have. I could start at midnight and walk all the way to the summit in the dark and see the sunrise. It would feel very appropriate to see the sun rise over the world today. Like the start of something new, a crowning experience. All too often have I not got up early even though I had committed to it and missed the sunrise. I don't feel comfortable though. I don't know the trail, it will be cold, dark and windy and I could miss the trail. I also love seeing the day wake up as I hike up the trail and see the light change and really take in all the nuances of my last hike. And then there is the safety of actually seeing where I put my feet. And so I set my alarm for midnight and see what my soul and body tell me.
I don't sleep anyway and as I get up at midnight again and check the sky and feel into myself I find that I don't want to walk in the dark. I want to see the hike fully and in the light. It is calm, no wind and surprisingly, not very cold. I get back into the tent and doubt hits me again. Can I trust what I seem to be clear on or am I falling back into old patterns of comfort? Into not pushing myself and taking a risk that I can clearly take since I know I will be able to do it? Am I forgoing a unique opportunity and will regret it later? Who to listen to? Some folks say that to get up and see the sunrise is the way to do it, some say the opposite. Which voice inside me to listen to? I notice that I am geared up, I am not afraid and I am not lazy or wanting to resist discomfort. I really don't want to go up in the dark. And again, I ask myself the key question of this whole experience: What is my hike? And it is clear: I will start at 5 pm in the dark, so I get above the first few switchbacks that I can see from here. I won't miss anything. Then I will be up the mountain half way when the sun makes it over the crests and I can take in the new day. And even though I don't sleep well, I rest at ease.
I get up at 4 am, pack up in the dark, use the wag bag I picked up at Crabtree Meadow which is challenging and funny, eat a probar and set off. I see a few headlamps ahead of me way way up which move ever so slowly. They give me a sense of the scale and way the trail is laid. I will pretty much go straight up the cliff face via switchbacks and it will take many hours. The trail is challenging as a stream has found the trail to be the perfect streambed. At times I walk fully in the water, at times next to it. I miss the trail a few times when I continue in the water but the trail veers of. And that is a new experience as well. I don't like being lost and disoriented. Especially in the dark, above 12000 feet with nobody to check in with. Now I can do it. There is a momentary panic, then I stop. I turn around and scan the area in my small little bubble of light. I trace back my steps. I look for signs of shoes or poles and ask myself how the trail usually is marked. And every time I find it again. A few hikers who come up behind me also mention how hard it is to stay on the trail. Eventually a small grey sliver of light comes up and I am actually jubilant.
I see the light change in nuances for many hours and take the time to stop, celebrate and breathe in the beauty I am part of. The physical excertion is almost negligible since I know now what it's like and the awakening day takes up all my focus and attention. I reach the point where I will drop my bag off with energy to spare. It is so windy, I just very quickly grab my chocolate and extra scarf and head off. The trail winds its way along the very edge of the ridge, at times allowing glances down the other side through openings and at times being so very narrow that only one foot fits on the trail. I have the image of walking alongside the turrets of a castle before the final ascent along a rocky slope. The 2 miles are slow miles for me, I feel the altitude and while moving along at a steady pace, I pause and take extra breaths often.
And then I see the hut and the first few hikers coming back down. About 100 feet from the summit I notice other hikers congregating at the summit and in the hut and I know that I cannot finish my hike in the middle of others. I need to finish it my way, solo. I sit on a rock, the wind buffeting me and look around me. I can see where I have come from and where I will go and the other directions still to be discovered. I feel the enormity of what I have done and the reality of it ending and having actually happened hits me. I cry and let myself be however I need to be until I am ready to move on. Despite my tears, I look around with open eyes, taking in everything, feeling into my experience. Words spill out of me: I did it. I am so grateful. I feel at home. I can do anything now. I feel whole. I feel born into this world, I belong here, into nature, into my body. I now know what my hike is and that I will stick to it. I will be back. And some cheeky voice says - you came into this world butt first - now you finally made it head first. I don't know where the words come from and they ring absolutely true.
A hiker comes by, sees me and has a soft smile on his face. I tell him that I just completed my hike solo and he honors me with sweet words, a resolution to do it himself some time and then the space to continue my tears. When I feel ready, I move up to the peak, take photos, walk around for a long time and, as it is very cold, take a break in the hut. I find some old friends here and pull out my German Chocolate Bars to share. The mood gets celebratory and we share stories. Some hikers I don't recognize, remember me and the probars I gave them which got them to their resupply spot. Eventually I know I have to leave. It is cold and I still have 9 miles to go - all downhill. I sign the book at the hut and turn back, down the trail.
Along the way to pick up my pack again I meet some more hikers, say good bye to them and congratulate them. I also meet a very determined ranger who wants to see my permit - and of course, for the first time I don't have it since this is the first time I don't have my pack with me. Fortunately she lets me continue on without a fine.
On top of Mt Whitney 14495 feet
I get to my pack, try to find sunscreen but the wind is so strong that my pack and I almost get blown over. Too risky and so I quickly move on. Another 200 feet of uphill, then over Trail Crest and down the side of Mount Whitney. Within a few feet I am in another country, no wind, warmth and a dusty trail with 100 switchbacks. Off come the layers and on comes the hat. I never make it to my sunscreen that day and pay for it with cracked sore lips in the evening.
The remainder of the hike is a long long 9 miles. I knew this and am prepared. However, the heat and sometimes wind seems relentless. Trail Camp is rocky, dusty, with lots of tents and, unfortunately, trash and wag bags stuffed under stones. It is sad to see the disrespect for nature. Some lovely lakes and creeks accompany me on my way down. I had planned to stop to cook a lunch and rest but there is no good spot and I just want to get into the valley and to the trail head. Nothing seems appealing enough to delay the descent. Lots and lots of hikers come up and I am so glad I am not among them. I don't think I ever want to go up Whitney from this side. Outpost camp with it's waterfall and lovely meadow is the only spot I could imagine camping and hanging out. And I am glad that Strider convinced me that I would not want to have another night along the 9 mile descent but rather get to the Portal - "smelling the barn" she called it and she was so right.
The last miles are breathtaking and remind me of Yosemite Valley with the huge granite walls and pine trees and waterfalls and streams alongside the trail. I leap frog with other hikers and am able to arrange a ride to Lone Pine and from there to Independence. I am lucky, indeed! And then I can see the road and then I can see the parking lot and then there are lots more switchbacks and then the final turn of the trail. I go to the bathroom a final time on the trail, honor the signs that are the start of the Mt. Whitney Trail and find a hiker who can take the photos of me arriving at the Portal. Shade, trash cans for my wag bag, reception for my cell phone to share my arrival at the Whitney Portal and read the wonderful emails from my families in the US and in Germany. My brother hopes I can celebrate with a beer and so I do. I drop my pack at the store, get a veggie burger, fries with ketchup, a Sierra Nevada beer (of course) and drop into a chair next to a hiker. We chat, more friends come; this is turning into a party.
And as all parties do, this one also ends and we drive to Lone Pine, out of the mountains into the plains and stark dusty, rocky Owens Valley. After a pause and ice cream in Lone Pine, I get my ride to Independence and the Moutn Williamson Motel where my fresh clothes that I had sent and my resupply left overs are waiting. I am stuffed from the veggie burger and don't eat again that night - a shower, stretching out in bed, a book, a few emails and a lovely long chat with Doug, the motel's co-owner. Tomorrow I will see Strider again, have many phone calls with Germany and a few US friends and eat my heart out. Otherwise, I will be having slow days, gazing at the mountains, visit a gallery or museum and slowly get used to civilization again in this 600 person town. Perfect!