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.
We carried our gear in backpacks. Mine weighed 36 pounds on Day 1, 27 pounds when we came out. I brought a lot of food, and I ate it. Jacquie's pack weighed 44 pounds to start and 40 pounds at exit. She carried a lot of the group gear, including our stove, and ate some of my food. A fair trade. Blanch's pack weighed 38 pounds at the start, 30 pounds at the end. I felt a little guilty because she was the one turning 70, and she carried a sack of dried kiwi fruit for me when I freaked about running out of food.
Packing for a major backpack trip takes three days: one day to find and assemble the gear, one day to pack and weigh equipment, and one day to prepare food. The actual packing required a bathroom scale and a kitchen scale. Weight was the enemy. My back is fragile, and I didn't want to carry more than 35 pounds. That conflicted with my need, desire and requirement to eat a lot and to stay warm at a high elevations. The solution was to make everything do double or triple duty. Instead of a down jacket, which was useless when wet and compressed so much I couldn't use it for a pillow, I used my synthetic fuzzy jacket, which was warm even when wet, made a great pillow, kept me snug in camp at night and would wrap around my bear canister to keep it from poking me through my backpack. When in doubt, I always went with the lightest alternative.
I love to eat. And I need to eat. I have tremendous endurance but no energy reserves. I am one-half sandwich from insanity. This is a problem on a long hike because most food has water, and you don't want to carry that. The goal is to add the water from creeks or streams. We would use the butane stove to boil water and pour it into things, not to cook. The basic rule is 2 pounds of food per day; for six days I wanted 192 ounces of calories.
Grocery shopping for this trip was bizarre: I was looking for the most calorie-dense food per ounce that wouldn't spoil without refrigeration. For six days we didn't care about nutrition; food was fuel. Bacon bits, nuts, peanut butter, and salami, yes. Fresh apple, no. Dried apple, yes. Snickers bar, emphatically yes, two per day. And for the peanut butter? Whole-wheat tortillas with preservatives. They lay flat and just fit into the bottom of the bear canister.
Bears. I believe in bears. I believe in bears because two years ago a paw ripped open my tent while I was sleeping. The bear claw invaded my tent because I carelessly left an apple 6 inches from my scalp. The apple should have been in my bear canister. A bear canister is a sturdy, Lexan plastic cylinder, about 8 inches in diameter and 13 inches high, weighing 2 1/2 pounds; at night you stash it away from your tent and let the animal play soccer with it. For someone with my appetite, a bear canister is a serious constraint on what can be carried. That's why all food must be as dense possible and hold up to serious squishing and squashing.
Breakfast was a plastic bag of three-fourths of a cup of granola, one-third cup of dried milk, a big shake of bacon bits, and chopped dates. Add cold water and eat. A typical lunch was two tortillas wrapped around sliced salami and string cheese. Plus, of course, a Snickers bar. The best dinner was one-third of a bag of instant mashed potatoes, ready to eat the minute the hot water was stirred in. To that I added a shake of Parmesan cheese, sunflower seeds and bacon bits. Tasty.
We would get out of our tents when the sun hit camp, usually around 7 a.m. The morning sunlight sparkled off the lakes where we were often camped. It took us about two leisurely hours to have breakfast, restuff our sleeping bags and tents, and measure out our lunches. We would take off the clean long underwear we'd slept in and put on the Uniform. That's what I called the nylon pants, T-shirt and long-sleeve shirt we hiked in each day. Then we hoisted all our worldly goods onto our backs and started to walk.
We averaged 1 mph, seven miles per day. At high elevation that's all we could do. We used the pressure breathing technique, which consisted of gulping a breath of air and momentarily holding it in the lungs as a swimmer does, trying to get every ounce of oxygen. We sounded like puffing steam engines and had to drink lots of water to replace the moisture we exhaled.
We had a wonderful time trudging steadily along, our hiking sticks clanking with every step. The September weather was perfect: Temperatures rose during the day to 90. The thermometer registered a low of 36 degrees one night while we camped at 12,000 feet.
About midafternoon we would get into camp (a level spot near a water supply), drop our packs, pitch our tents and wash our faces. Things were pleasant until the sun went down. Then it got cold. We were too far above the tree line to have fires. So after eating dinner, we went into our tents and crawled into sleeping bags. We each had our own lightweight tent because we like our personal routines. At night we could hear tent zippers as first one, then the other of us got up to answer nature's call — the nighttime price for daytime hydration.
We descended to Trail Camp, where the herd of Up and Down hikers camps. It was already cold at 12,000 feet, and as the sun set, it got colder. Here above the tree line, the terrain looked lunar. A cold breeze blew. We pitched our tents among a jumble of rocks. The ground was so hard that my tent stakes wouldn't penetrate so we tied the tent strings around rocks and mounded rocks into a bigger pile to withstand the incessant wind. Instead of the privacy and solitude we had known, we were now in a high-altitude happening with people from all over the world.
The lack of privacy complicated our use of WAG Bag Kits, a new Forest Service sanitation requirement for high-altitude hikers and climbers. Most times in the woods, people go a hundred feet away from the trail and/or creek, dig a hole and do their business. After dirt and brush cover the hole, things decompose. But at high altitudes waste doesn't decompose; it freezes into unpleasant little piles. The kit consists of two heavy-duty plastic bags. The first is the size of a plastic grocery sack, only more durable. In the bottom is a small amount of gel. You duck behind a rock, drop your trousers, and pull the bag up over your hips. Then you wrap the bag and store it in Bag 2, a heavy-duty type with a good zipper-type seal. (Advice: Tie your bag on the outside of your pack. I didn't, and my clothes picked up an odor.) At the parking lot, a specially designed dumpster is just waiting to receive your offering.
We trudged the final seven miles and headed for the world's best hand-cut French fries, available at the Whitney Portal Store. As we scarfed our first fried food of the week, we celebrated our friendship, determination, commitment and courage. We beamed, we glowed and we told our tale. We made sure to tell everyone we had gone Up and Over, not Up and Down.
We had been weary, sore, blistered, aching and worn out, but we just kept walking. The Buddies had bagged Whitney. We walked into the unknown and emerged intact at the top of our world.