Climbing to the Top of the States

Jack Taylor/Photo Editor

Internships and co-ops are an excellent way to spend summer break. But life is short and summer breaks for college students are quickly becoming extinct. These few short months can be worked away in an office or they can be filled with adventure. Summer is the time to explore the unknown, test your limits, reach new heights, and embrace the grandeur of the world that we live in.

One on the more precious gems that is rarely sought after is the icy caps of Mt. Whitney. At 14,505 feet in elevation, it is the highest peak in the continental United States. The shortest path to the top is 22 miles round trip and climbs over 6,600 feet. At the ranger station, my father and I received our permits to summit with a warning.

The ranger tells us that the icy peak has not thawed yet and that it is too dangerous to climb without an ice axe and crampons. He gives us our WAG Bags and bear cans, and tells up to be safe and be off the mountain by Wednesday before the blizzard strikes. My father and I exchanges nervous glances as we remember a friend of ours that attempted to climb this very mountain nearly 10 years ago. His icy climb to the summit ended in tragedy and his memory weighs heavy on our minds.

We equip ourselves with axes and crampons, pack our gear for the two day journey. Before bed, we take altitude sickness pills.

This medication makes your blood more acidic and fights off the severe altitude related illnesses that can occur at elevations of 8,000 feet and become more severe above 12,000 feet.

We woke before sunrise to a sense of unease and numb hands. The medication causes a tingling sensation in our fingers so severe it is painful. We begin our long climb. The 40lb. packs are heavy on our backs, but we press onward and upward. By mid-afternoon, we reach the lower camp at 10,000 feet.

By sunset we reach our upper camp destination at 12,000 feet. Here the temperature is five degrees below zero fahrenheit which is negative 20 degrees celsius for my standard units friends. The air here is thin. There is 40% less oxygen here than sea level and I feel it. Each breath is weak and unsatisfying.

We set up our tent against a large rock to shield up from the harsh wind and we settle in for a short, but very cold night.

At 4:30 a.m. we open our tent with tingling, frozen hands to the cool blue moonscape of base camp. I stumble into the blistering cold and thin air and have the unique pleasure of using my WAG Bag behind another rock. I will spare the details. If one wishes to know what that means, I suggest looking it up on the internet.

After storing my deposit, we pack our bags, strap on the crampons, and grip our ice axes tightly. We sink our spikes into the ice and begin the climb. The initial ascent is an icy scree slope called “The Chute” which climbs 1,200 vertical feet in less than half a mile. Each step I take is planned. I strike the ice with the axe and ensure it has a strong hold. I pull myself up a few inches and kick the ice beneath me trying to hook my spikes into the slope.

I push myself up with caution as every other step my foothold breaks and I fall onto my axe. Many times my axe is the only thing that saves me from tumbling down hundreds of feet into a boulder field.

Three hours later the intensely grueling ascent was behind us. With three more miles to the summit my father and I, along with our new climbing buddies, are determined to complete our journey.

We traverse ridge lines with sheer drops thousands of feet high. One slip and chances of survival are almost non existent. We remember our friend, and proceed with extreme caution. One heavy step in front of the other and we bring ourselves to the summit together. We drop our axes and bags and enjoy the spectacular views. We don’t stay for long, as we have an 11 mile trek back down. We hike through the night with headlamps and collapse at our car by 10:30 p.m.

The next morning, safely at the base, we cannot see the mountain. The predicted storm arrives and the mountain is slammed by snowfall. We are exhausted and relieved.

When you push your body to the limit, there is no more liberating experience. It allows you to accomplish feats that seems impossible and opens the opportunity to see places and experience beautiful moments that few have the chance to enjoy. Challenge yourself in areas beyond academics. Life has more to offer than internships and jobs. Live life to the fullest and find some adventure, it’s always out there!