Sunday, October 14, 2018

Mt. Whitney Birthday Spectacle/Spectacular


Alpenglow Spectacularrrrr
I often brag about my job on social media. Amazing scenery, offices of the outdoors realm where hours are calculated by the position of the sun in the sky and paychecks are bumped up by the amount of shooting stars and amazing vistas I see on a trip. I really do love what I do, but it's not always rainbows and unicorns. There is definitely struggle involved. But I believe the struggle is what makes it real and also what makes the most growth happen, with participants and instructors combined. Like they said in A League of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard, if it were easy, everyone would do it."
So for my most recent trip this year I definitely got a decent serving of growth with a side heaping of character development.
I lead trips in the fall with a private boarding school on the outskirts of Santa Barbara and this year they were trying some new ideas for trips and the one that I got put on was the backpack to Mt. Whitney, only the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet. I was beyond stoked because I did Mt. Whitney as a day hike almost exactly 5 years ago, when I first was dabbling in the outdoors world and decided to challenge myself and see more of what is out there, and also what I was capable of. In the five years since I have seen, experienced, and learned so much, from the steep, rocky, but oh so green White Mountains in New Hampshire to the granite-covered waterfall wonderland that is Yosemite National Park, I continue to live this astoundingly enriching life where I find reasons, big and small, to be grateful every damn day that I'm alive. That is why I was even more stoked that I was put on this trip, because 'summit' day also landed on my Birthday, a day that I like to reminisce about the past and also contemplate the future. This trip positioned me in a ridiculously beautiful space to ruminate...and be grateful for what I've done in the past 5 years, and my life in general.
The above alpenglow pic is the scene that I woke up to on my Birthday. It looks amazing, yes. And it was. But here are some of the behind the picture struggles that aren't often heard about a trip when you just see the pretty pictures on Instagram and Facebook....
Alabama Hills ponderin' life...
Once we cleared the traffic on the outskirts of LA (there was at least one freeway closure we had to avoid) we made our way to our first camping spot, Lone Pine Campground, at 6,000 feet in elevation and desert hot temperatures, sleeping this night was a breeze. The next day we did an acclimatization hike towards Cottonwood Lakes that started at 10,000 feet in elevation and had a slow ascent from there. Temps were a tad cooler up here. Snuck in a lesson about Acute Mountain Sickness so the group was aware of some of the risks of going up to higher elevation and the signs/symptoms involved. At lunch before this lesson the kids look at each other, blank faces, realizing they forgot to pack the main ingredients that I pulled aside that morning and told them to divide in their day packs for lunch. No tortillas. No PB. Definitely no J, and no Goldfish either. Apparently all above ingredients were packed into backpacking packs that were in the cars at the trailhead 3.5 miles away just being bear bait. Stupendous. At least we had some summer sausage and cheese that my teacher chaperone packed!
Sure looks like Fall up here...
After our day hike we made our way to our next campground, Whitney Portal, at 8,374 feet in elevation, where we had to watch our back as bears are known to deliberately snatch a day pack or two if left unattended for a moment too long. Thank god our vehicles didn't get visited by said bears while out on our hike...
Six am, the day of packing out and moving to the backcountry I start to hear the pitter patter of rain on my tent. So meditative. Meditative thoughts broken by thoughts of the kids. I lie there and contemplate the fact that a lot of the kids' packs are probably out in the rain and then also think about how I told them the first night that their packs either need to go inside their tents or in the vestibule of the fly of their tent. It's so comfy in my sleeping bag...I go back to sleep thinking it will be a good lesson for them. Man do I love the sound of rain...snoooze. Six-twenty-five, rain stops. Six-thirty, go time. I peek around and see more than half of their packs outside unprotected. Sweeeeeet. Life lesson time!
Past two days we've had some sort of toilet, now it's time to start getting real. Whitney is a step beyond just doing your deed in a cat hole. Since it's such a highly trafficked trail they have a 'pack it out' policy for all human waste. We now will have the privilege of pooping in a flattened plastic bag, tying it up and shoving it in a tube and carrying it out with us, each day climbing higher and higher and getting less and less oxygen to fill our lungs with, poop tubes, all the while, getting heavier...and definitely smellier despite the sand-like substance that resembles cat litter that we deposit with each load that is supposed to help with stench. Just some perks of the job...
Lone Pine Lake
First backcountry campground, Lone Pine Lake at 10,050 feet in elevation. Only traveled a handful of miles today but it was still a struggle, trying to catch their breath, half the kids sick with a cold/flu that they already had before the trip started, packs weighing anywhere from 35-55 lbs(mine was 51 to begin with and 55 to end, crap weighs a lot!). This night is the night I realize just how many toiletries kids are capable of sneaking on trips if you let them. I met all of the kids before the trip started to check the clothes/gear they were bringing and to chat about the trip. Part of my chat was telling them about how we were going to be carrying bear canisters and it would be best if we didn't carry that many personal toiletries because they all have to fit in the bear cans when we get to camp. I'll bring a group sunscreen I say. Group toothpaste, check, also taken care of. Well......that night I make a call for all smellies. Holy hot tamale Batman! It looked like aisle 5 at Target. Besides the multiple full-sized deodorants, there was a giant lotion, another full sized sunscreen spray, and the best of all, a giant spray bottle of dry shampoo. Yep! Gotta make sure dat hair looks goood on top of Whitney, riiiight?! Smh....
As we headed up to our next camp at 12,000 ft. elevation it starts to hail, and then snow, oh, and that’s also when the winds started whipping and reminding us how the Rangers said we would be getting remnants from the hurricane even up here. To spice things up even more there's a bright light, crash boom, all in one second...lightning position time! Kids scatter and squat, half of them this being their first time they ever saw snow. What a first!
As soon as we get camp all set up I hunker down in my tent, relaxing impossible as I’m trying to hold it up and prevent it from collapsing on me. I finally decide to bundle up even more after a couple hours to go outside and check on everyone and decide what to do about dinner. The girls’ tent is blowing on them so aggressively that you can see the shape of their bodies through the fabric. human. tent. burrito. My teacher chaperone, who luckily is a mountaineer in his spare time, is attempting to hold their tent poles so it doesn’t collapse on them. Wind whips. Oh crap, MY tent just flattened. First of 3 times that my poles snapped from the gusts of wind. I try to hold my tent up while laughing maniacally in the wind at the situation, telling the kids this will build character. Boys are singing in their tents to distract them from the wind that's blustering around outside. This day will now forever be known by this group as the 'blizzard' on Whitney that they lived through, good thing they named themselves the Whitney Warriors already. Also, did I mention for about half of this group it was their first backpacking trip ever! Dinner was decided to be an assortment of trail mix, dried mangoes and animal crackers delivered to tents in fry bake lids since we couldn’t operate the stoves in that crazy of a windstorm. That also meant no boiling water for the Nalgene, the best trick for sleeping warm in temperatures like this. Boo.
Six-forty, sunset, winds die down. Seven-fifteen, winds pick up again with a vengeance. C'mooooooon, wolf, there aren't three little pigs here!! And now there's rain to mix in with the snow. Anticipating a long night of attempting to sleep...
Sunrise at Trail Camp
I arose the next morning (my actual birthday) to a magical ice-capade where the sun was the main star and the remaining supporting actors needed to move and groove to stay warm on the stage. Water was retrieved from the lake after another hiker poked a hole in the ice with their trekking pole to get to the liquid gold. My hand goes numb as I have to dunk my Nalgene repeatedly to fill the 10 liter drom that we have for camp. Happy Birthday to me!
A handful of the kids decided they would like to try to go higher, while the sick ones wanted to stay back at camp so we split and I let my teacher head up with the more ambitious crew to the 99 switchbacks to Trail Crest and step foot above 13,000 feet and into Sequoia National Park, the new summit of the trip. The remaining kids stayed with me at Trail Camp and made miniature snowmen and had snowball fights. Once the Trail Crest crew came back down we had lunch, packed up camp and moved back to down to Lone Pine Lake again to position ourselves in a closer, and hopefully warmer spot for our last night out. It was definitely closer, only 2.5 miles to hike out in the morning, but questionable how much warmer as we woke to frost on tents and frozen water in the droms. The kids were still defrosting and wearing puffies hours later when we were in the high desert getting In-n-Out for our post backpacking adventure celebratory lunch.

On our last night out in the backcountry we were having our usual dinner meeting but changed it up a bit, because I wanted to hear everyone's highs and lows, but especially because this was a new trip for the program I wanted to get their feedback for the future. Despite all the craziness of this trip and the extreme weather that the kids had to endure at least half of them said they would love to do the trip again and try for the summit. Also a couple of 'roses' were the time they 'endured the blizzard' in their tents! There are kids out there that apparently have a harder time parting with toiletries than they do technology. There are kids out there that are coerced into going into the outdoors, enduring all kinds of trials and tribulations, and would do it again in a second. There are kids out there that care about nature, adventure, and the benefits of going out there and challenging yourself. There are kids out there that care. Knowing this made me feel like there may be hope for the future after all. The combination of hearing those words tumble from the kids' mouths and waking up to the high alpine winter wonderland that glistened and glimmered in the sun while the jagged peaks were caressed with alpenglow made it for one of the best birthdays ever. Even with all the crazy...I'll take crazy any day.....here's to now!


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