The Mountaintop – Part II: Strand

(As I mentioned, I had asked Kat and Strand to write about their experiences with our Mount Whitney climb. Strand is a nurse, professionally.  Here is Strand‘s story.)

I am not an athlete. I have never hidden the fact that I lack athletic skill, so many people looked quizzically at me when I announced, “I’m climbing Mt. Whitney.” Their faces, I am sure, mirrored my own when MS proposed a trip to climb the highest mountain in the lower 48.  I agreed and thought little of it until I realized this was not going to go the way of our many other Winesday schemes.

So I bought my ticket, put in for vacation time, scanned the training plan and the reality of this trip started to seep in. Then Wednesday, August 24th arrived and while packing, panic set in. This required a call to my sister.

“What if I can’t do it, what if it’s too hard, what if I’m the one who gets sick, I’m FREAKING OUT.”

“Laura, why wouldn’t you be able to do it? You’ll be fine, I am so proud of you, stop being silly.”

Then that was done. My sister, the rock of my life, dispelled my fears.

Later that day, I was in a town car with MS on our way to JFK.  MS looked over at me with a huge smile:

“We’re doing this, we are actually doing this” and for the first time that day the excitement took over me.

Thursday arrived and the three of us were atwitter with excitement. We arrived in Lone Pine after a classic car ride with Tom and Linnie (MS’s parents), barely managing to avoid Tom’s infamous side trips. As we collected our hiking permit, we gazed up at Whitney for the first time. She was big.

Kat and I took Diamox, a glaucoma medication that is sometimes used to prevent altitude sickness. Interesting side effects: tingling of the fingers and toes, carbonated beverages tasting flat and maybe just for me: totally feeling stoned. Also ketchup tasted way salty.

We drove to Whitney Portal to help acclimate to the elevation. MS quoted our hike guru and informed us we should “run around and do jumping jacks” to get our hearts pumping in the thinner air. Guess who was the asshole that wore a sundress and flip-flops? While Kat and MS looked like serious hikers, I was hopping around in place in my bright green dress.

The rest of the day was spent fulfilling tasks: sandwich fixing; switchblades purchasing. We collapsed at 6pm before the hike.

Of course the hostel’s alarm did not go off. MS the ever-ready planner had her back up alarm set.  Then we packed on the layers, checked the packs (again) and headed up to the portal. Little did I know then how much I would come to hate the word, “up.”

Growing up outside of DC and then moving to NYC, I have not had a lot of experiences with complete darkness. Light pollution has been a constant nighttime companion of mine.  When we ascended the mountain I was rendered speechless by the sky. I have never seen so many stars, the sky was filled with these bright dots I had always learned about but never really grasped their brilliance.

Every so often during our breaks we would flip off the headlamps and look at the sky. I was fascinated. Little dipper! Big dipper! Orion! Why oh why didn’t I get the glow in the dark constellation map?

As we climbed, I tried to convince myself and/or accept that the tingles from the Diamox were NOT altitude sickness.  I did NOT want to be the one that had to go down because I was sick.  But otherwise, our first few hours were calm and uneventful.

Then the horizon started to glow. Sunrise was what I was looking forward to the most. Working nightshift for two years deepened my appreciation for sunrise. The sunrise on this particular day meant something so much more — all that “stuff” you carry with you didn’t need to be there anymore once that sun rises.

One day this past year,  MS and I were sitting at her round table chatting about life; about the changes we’ve been through and will go through. We’ve both had/were approaching milestone birthdays and she said, “this is going to be our year, and on that mountain we’ll see that, it’ll all become clear.”

As the sun crept up over the Sierra Nevadas, revealing the snowy peaks around us, that sunrise started to wash away the “stuff” and made things clear.

I made no effort to hide the fact I was unprepared, I did not do the reading MS assigned.  Ergo, I asked some basic questions, such as: how is the hike broken up?  Which parts are the hardest? The answer to those two questions is: four parts and the third part.

We finished the third part and reached the crest, thank you Jesus. Seven hours in and we were finished with 3/4ths of the hike. We encountered a rugged looking man in shorts and a t-shirt who inquired, as many had, about when we started our hike.

“1 am? You’ve got to be joking, you girls are really dedicated. We started at 3:45 am, blah blah blah…”

My first thought: “thanks, dick. Congratulations on making me feel less than awesome. You win the crest. Whatcha got in those nalgenes? Crystal light pink lemonade? Manly. MOVE ON.”

By then, Kat was starting to struggle a bit with the air. Working with lung cancer/surgery patients, I was used to breathing issues. I used a favorite visualization technique in which I instruct the patient to take a deep breath like they’re smelling a rose, then exhale like they’re blowing out a candle. Kat, bless her heart, tried but I hope to never have her as a patient.

While the third part was more physically challenging for me, the fourth part was where I came dangerously close to hitting a wall. But there was briefly a down part.  Silly me should have realized that there would be a back up. I had had enough breathtaking scenery — where was the peak, how much longer, is that it? Is THAT it? Are we going to have to go as far as THOSE people?

I asked MS:

“I assume that is the peak?”

“I have no idea, Strand”

“Lie to me, Meredith.”

“Yes that is the peak.”

“We’re not going to have to cross the snow, right? Those people are taking a different way, right?”

::pause:: “No, Strand, we won’t have to cross the snow.”

Rational me was well aware that MS was doing what I asked of her. Irrational me was standing at the edge of the snow, looking down and thinking, “Bitch lied to me.”

We were close, I knew it.  At this point Kat was lagging behind some, but the end was near. MS was right behind me encouraging me. Then we turned a corner and there it was: the Smithsonian hut. I dug deep to a place I have never tapped into and moved my legs a little faster. As MS and I reached the cabin my eyes welled up and spilled over.

I did it. I reached the mother fucking top of a mother fucking mountain. Not just any mountain, the highest mountain in the contiguous US. We paused in this moment to await Kat who was moments behind.

As we scrambled over to the tippy top to soak it all in, my feet no longer hurt, I was not longer exhausted, all I could feel was sheer joy.

I somehow had cell phone service and called my sister to tell her: I AM ON THE TOP OF A MOUNTAIN.

After about 20 minutes, we saw some dark clouds rolling in, so we started the descent.

Remember that relief I felt when we descended a bit in the fourth part? I was in the front of the group and flat out said, “I am not going back UP, I am done with UP, I don’t want to.”

MS looked at me blankly.

“Strand, you have to.”

“No.”

“Str…”

“No.”

“There’s several ways off this mountain, only one gets you there in one piece.”

::foot stamp:: “FINE.”

After that I held my composure, mostly.

The down was fine: some hail, some rain, and occasional thunder. MS informed us that in the event of lightning we were to throw off anything metal and run away. Ok, that was frightening.

Having hiked in the dark then became a major frustration because we had no reference to how close we were to the end. My mind was shot; I hit that wall HARD.  But then we saw the end; we reached the end, and I cried, again.  As we came down I saw Tom and thought, “ok it’s not my dad, but it’s A dad, so that’ll do.”

Later on, looking over the pictures with Linnie, she commented, “look at all you girls in all the pictures with your shit eating grins.”

At the BBQ the next day, Linnie confessed that she and Tom had figured Kat would do fine and Meredith would definitely make it to the top, but they didn’t think I would be able to do it. Now, true I was not prepared, but guess what world, I WON Mt. Whitney.

As I wrote in the logbook atop the mountain, never again will I say I can’t.

3 Comments

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  1. Totally enjoyed reading what both Kat and Laura had to say. Laughed my head off while reading this one! You all deserve congratulations for what you’ve accomplished. I don’t think I could have done it.

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