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On Top of the World

(9/12/05) We were one of the few fortunate hikers who were able to obtain a permit to climb Mt. Whitney on the prime weekend slot of Labor Day weekend. Our mission: delivering a Caring Fore Women bracelet to Mt. Whitney summit as a fundraiser to fight breast cancer.

We spent four days on the pristine setting around Mt. Whitney adjusting to altitude before attempting to summit. The day hike to picturesque Cottonwood Lakes was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The lakes and the trail to it were very peaceful, scenic, and uncrowded. It was difficult not falling asleep as we sunbathed in the warm afternoon sun next to the lakes. We went skinny dipping in the invigorating water to wake up and freshen up. (Sorry guys, these pictures stay in our private collection -- hehe)

The weather during our trip was fantastic with clear skies every day. Except for the summit morning hike, the hiking temperatures were perfect. During the course of the trip, we spotted marmots, deer, and pheasants. I was hoping we would spot a bear, but no such luck. We made many new friends on the trail, many of whom we bumped into repeatedly at our planned campsites.

One of the highlights of the trip was catching my first fish ever. With a backpacker's fly rod, I was able to hook a beautiful Golden Trout at Mirror Lake. I couldn't think of a better place to catch my first fish, as the sun and mountains reflected off the water while dusk neared and fish danced out of the water for their late afternoon feeding. I attempted to fish just like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, but instead got my hook caught in the bushes numerous times. I'm sure it was very entertaining for the folks watching from the trail. Fly fishing is definitely a skillful art.

Thanks to Jet Boil's new pot support, we were able to pan-fry the fish. I packed the olive oil, garlic, and lemon, just for the remote chance of catching a fish. It was yuuuuuummmmy!

Summit day was packed full of adventure. This was the moment all the training hikes and preparation really paid off. We started hiking at 2:30am from Trail Camp at 12,000 feet to make it to the summit in time to watch the sunrise. The wind chill brought the temperature down to about 18 degrees. It was so cold that our drinking hoses froze solid. And that was while the packs were in the substantially warmer lightning hut. There was no moon. It was pitch black out. There was just barely enough light to illuminate the horrific shapes of the needles and forbidding landscape and the sheer drops to our sides that were for us at the time -- bottomless. The visions came right out of Lord of the Rings. I thought, My gawd, we really are playing out this movie, ring and all.

Jimm started keeping count of the ninety-seven switchbacks to the top. We couldn't stop and rest because we didn't have enough layers to retain core body temperature at rest so we kept moving. Fortunately, we did not have any major problems with altitude sickness, except for minor sinus effects, bloody noses, bloating, and shortness of breath.

As the wind continued to pick up and the temperature kept dropping, our new primary goal became making it to the lightning hut at the summit to warm up to prevent hypothermia. At one point on the ridge, the trail did a full circle around one of the needles. OMG, did we get off trail? I checked my compass a few times over the next half mile to make sure we were heading north and climbing. To my relief we were heading in the right direction.

The lightning hut was now only a few yards ahead of us. As we approached the shelter, I started sobbing. The spectrum of emotions that ran through me were overwhelming. We made it to the summit from Trail Camp in only three hours.

The views at the summit at sunrise were unbelievable as we
witnessed alpine glow dot the highest peaks and deep shadows outline details of the terrain as far as the eye can see. Although hundreds of miles away, the Pacific Ocean was big, blue, and beautiful in the horizon to the west.

We had a moving ceremony for the delivery of the bracelet on a ledge where our feet dangled about a thousand feet over a sheer cliff. It was the only warm place on the peak where we could feel the warmth of the sun and be sheltered from the biting wind. The warmth of the sun felt like the warmth of my mother's smile as I said a few words before burying the bracelet. Beauty, courage, and most of all, hope, surrounded us. Although we were the only ones at the summit, we knew we really weren't the only ones up there.

The morning we summitted was one the toughest moments of my
life, but it was also one of the most rewarding. It's a priceless memory I will reach for whenever I need the kind of strength that can only come from the skies above.

Although the event has passed, it's not too late to make a pledge. Coming soon is a video that captures the event.

Special thanks to Jimm for his awesome photo contributions, including the cover shot. His photos are labeled wjimm. Jimm deserves a medal not only for climbing Mt. Whitney, but also for a task more difficult -- putting up with me.