Mt. Whitney

The highest point in the lower 48 is Mt. Whitney at 14, 495 feet in elevation. Here, sunset paints the mountain with a late light golden glow. (Ian Parker)

She was sprawled in the mud, her whimper more from exhaustion than pain.

"Blanch is down!" I yelled to Jacquie. Seventy-year-old Blanch had fallen, but she had fallen in style — on the way down from the summit of 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney. Her 36-pound backpack had her pinned like a turtle. Her lumpy tent sack had come loose and slipped to one side; it had thrown her off-balance and now dangled by a strap. Her soles were caked with dirt. Those sneaker-type boots weren't good for a trip this tough, but that was the only footwear that would fit around her bunions. She was a sight, but there was no time to commiserate.

We had to descend to Trail Camp near 12,000 feet. Jacquie and I strapped the errant tent and bulky sleeping bag onto our packs. "You go ahead," Blanch said. "I'll see you at camp."

Jacquie replied firmly, "No way are we leaving you. The Buddies stick together."

And we had. We had not been out of one another's sight (except to, well, more on that later) for five full days. We planned this adventure to celebrate our major birthdays — Blanch at 70, Jacquie and I at 65. Nine months ago, it had seemed like a great idea to do a 42-mile, six-day backpack around the remote west side of Mt. Whitney, up to the summit, then down the standard climbing trail. At this moment, we weren't quite so sure.

We were exhausted. It was 4:30 p.m., and we had been hiking since 5 a.m. And we weren't at Trail Camp yet. With a mighty collective sigh, we righted Blanch and resumed our trudge. Luckily, our summit euphoria spurred us to put one foot in front of the other.

Earlier that same day we had stood in triumph on top of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The weather was glorious, and the view was stunning. As I turned a complete circle, there was nothing above me but sky, a very different perspective from my everyday view — trees, traffic lights and billboards — in Ventura. In the distance, I saw mountain ridges in every direction.

From my eagle's perch I concentrated on burning the images and route we had traveled into my mind. This once-in-a-lifetime experience was part of me now.

Most of the 60 or so people on the summit that day were younger than we were. But we felt better than most of them because we had taken the slow and steady approach, stopping to drink and eat every hour or so. In high-altitude climbing, the tortoise far outshines the hare because the body can better process the limited oxygen. We had passed many young bucks sprawled along the trail, gasping for breath and clutching their aching heads.

Step to the side, boys. The Old Bags are coming through.

Just keep walking

How did I come to this birthday on top of the world? It started with the Buddies and a Brainstorm. Our determination and mental discipline set us apart from others our age. We don't quit. For example, what's the big deal with a blister? A superficial skin wound. The pain subsides after five minutes; just keep walking. And what about bad weather? Put on your rain jacket and just keep walking. Of course we are not foolish, but the discomfort that stops most people is a minor detail to us. Just keep walking.

We don't complain. (Our husbands are not invited because they whine.) We laugh. And we laugh a lot on a trip like this.

Jacquie Kaner weighs 125 pounds, is as strong as an ox and a major gym rat. She is our navigator and loves to study maps and routes. She always knew where we were. Blanch Kosche is around 130 pounds and trains by walking to the store and carrying her groceries home in her backpack. She cracked two ribs a month before our trip, which meant she couldn't breathe deeply for a while. But she just kept walking. Blanch is our domestic. She had a plastic bag, a string or a bungee cord for every possible occasion. She even carried a miniature wire whisk to whip up her dried milk.

I also weigh 125 pounds (well, OK, maybe 127, as I had been hitting the cookies pretty hard before the trip). I love to day hike and go to Curves gym. I am our worrier. I worried that it would rain (it didn't), that we might miss a turn (we didn't) and that my back might give out (it didn't). But worrying is the flip side of planning, and I am good at that. This birthday Brainstorm was my idea, so I felt obligated to organize our trip.

There are two main Whitney routes: Up and Down, the standard 22-mile roundtrip, going in and out the same steep trail, which is what most people do. Or you can do what we did, and what the big kids do, which is to go Up and Over, starting at a distant trailhead, hiking a giant horseshoe-shaped route, and coming down the main trail. We would carry our packs and our body weight up a total of 8,320 feet, according to my cumulating altimeter watch.

My first job was to figure out where the trailhead was. I used four maps to determine where to leave the main highway, turn at the road junctions, find the right parking lot, then start hiking the correct trail. After two nights peering through a magnifying glass and holding map corners together, the driving and hiking route finally came became clear. It's old fashioned, yes — no map programs or GPS — but it works.

The U.S. Forest Service limits the number of people in some wilderness areas, including Mt. Whitney. We could apply for a permit six months before our desired exit date. We set up a telephone call schedule, and Jacquie snagged our permit on the third day of trying.

All three of us live at sea level. Our entry point was at 8,000 feet. We had a choice: Should we sleep on the ground at the trailhead so we could acclimate a day sooner or go to a motel in Lone Pine? The decision was easy: We opted for a bed, steak dinner, wine and a final shower. With age comes wisdom.