In the summer of 1976 a small band of Caltech astronomy grad students arrive at the base of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States. These kids are rock climbers, with ropes, harnesses, pitons, carabiners, and lots of other mysterious gear. I come along to take photos of them and help carry their stuff.
Mount Whitney rises in the Sierra Nevada, its summit just short of 14,500 feet, on the edge of Sequoia National Park. To get there we drive from Pasadena in southern California, over the San Gabriel mountains that bound the Los Angeles basin, and up the central valley. The land is dry; clouds from the Pacific have already dropped most of their moisture before they arrive. Much of what remains plus groundwater goes south to the thirsty big city via the L.A. Aqueduct. Big white dishes of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory stand in line to the east.
We turn left from the arrow-straight highway at the town of Lone Pine and begin driving up a series of switchbacks into the foothills. We can't yet identify Mount Whitney, since broken lands in the foreground and nearby peaks confuse the scenery. Finally we reach the end of the road, Whitney Portal, 8,300 feet above sea level. We park, empty the cars, sort food and tents and equipment, distribute loads, shrug on backpacks, and start walking.
There's a hiking trail to the top of Mount Whitney, 11 miles long. It's strenuous but straightforward, and thousands of people blister their feet on it every year. My astronomer friends are climbers. They want to tackle the East Face of the mountain: a cliff half a mile high, with cracks and ridges and plenty of tricky puzzles to work out. Snow and ice have melted except in a few shaded spots. The climb is well-mapped, and my comrades have planned their route. It's a technical challenge well within their skills. I'm not going.
But first we have to get to the starting point, our so-called base camp. We hike up a ravine and look for trail markers: little cairns of rocks, or blazes painted on trunks of stunted trees. We find some for a while, and then get slightly lost. The path we want to take to the East Face crosses a stream, Lone Pine Creek, "at a big rock that looks like the Matterhorn" according to our guidebook. Unfortunately, every big rock looks like the Matterhorn to at least one of us. We zig-zag through scrubby brush and then have to scramble up a steep slope. It's trivial for the experienced climbers, but I find it tricky, especially with a heavy pack unbalancing me. I'm wearing my watch with the face on the inside of my wrist to protect it. Of course that's precisely the wrong orientation; the crystal grinds against the granite as I reach for handholds. (When we get home, a frugal Turkish physics student helps me polish it smooth again using Ultra-Brite toothpaste as an abrasive.)
Finally we find our mini-Matterhorn landmark and get back on course. Piles of pebbles by the trail are frequent, and somebody jokes about all the Boy Scout labor that must have gone into making them. A couple of hours later the sun is setting behind the mountain and we're in position for tomorrow's work. We pitch a pair of tents at Iceberg Lake, elevation 12,300'. The landscape is Martian: desolate, frigid, almost lifeless, with boulders scattered across a blue-gray stone valley that we have all to ourselves. We boil water over a tiny stove, gulp reconstituted freeze-dried dinners, sip hot tea, and retire to shiver in our sleeping bags. A couple of us have slight headaches but nobody is bothered so far by altitude sickness, a risk above 10,000' for the non-acclimated who stay more than a few days. Our plan is to go down again quickly, before trouble can develop.
Early next morning the astronomers get ready. They show me the route they plan to take, and I prepare to follow them --- through binoculars and telephoto lens. Before they leave I take a few dramatic close-ups of each with the peak in the background. They point out the "Mountaineer's Route", an alternative and much easier way to the summit which they hint I might like to try. It's a couloir: a channel of broken rock on the northeast shoulder of Mount Whitney, a steep scramble that doesn't require ropes or special abilities. John Muir took it to the top long ago. I thank my friends for their suggestion, but I'm not interested.
The climbers check their gear one last time and turn west. I lose sight of them for a while among the nearby ridges. They reappear as they work their way up the East Face, red and orange jackets bright in the morning sunlight against the stone. Through a long lens they're buglike specks creeping upwards, pausing, regrouping, and climbing again. I snap photos at what might be critical moments, transitions from one pitch to another. The silence is profound.
Then coming up the trail to our tents a lone hiker appears. He nods and walks by, continuing on toward the mountain. I catch sight of him next through binoculars as he moves, smoothly and steadily, up the walls and cracks. He overtakes my friends in about an hour, and without rope or companion proceeds past them to the top. They recognize him: Galen Rowell, a famous climber and author. He signs the register at the summit and walks back down the hiking trail, making a one-day jaunt out of our three-day expedition. That's the difference between a master and a strong amateur. (On the other hand, if Rowell had slipped and fallen, his career would have abruptly ended.)
The astronomers make it to the top by mid-afternoon and celebrate. Then they descend via the Mountaineer's Route and rejoin me as the shadows of evening begin to deepen. They're exhausted and happy. We boil water, eat up most of our supplies, look at the bright stars for a few minutes, and crawl into our sleeping bags. The next day we pack up everything and straggle down to the cars. An excellent trip; nobody got hurt.
Saturday, May 27, 2000 at 13:58:52 (EDT) = Datetag20000527