Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mt. Whitney - Day 2

This post is a continuation of the previous post Mt. Whitney – Day 1

It was 4:00 AM on Monday morning, July 13th. I had slept only 2 hours the previous night. Needless to say, I woke up exhausted. The wind which was howling yesterday night had mellowed down a bit. It was still cold outside, and an extremely long day of hike awaited me. In the wee hours of the morning, the mountains glistened under the clear moonlight sky. I managed the morning chores courtesy this moonlight and my headlamp.

I tried to put the exhaustion and the nightmarish experience of yesterday evening behind and look forward to the long day ahead. At 5:30 am, laden with a backpack filled with water and food, we began on our final ascent of 5 miles (2500 ft) to the summit. Our first obstacle was the 97 switchbacks which weaved to the Trail Crest. After witnessing a beautiful sunrise, I kept marching forward, trying to minimize the breaks.

With fresh set of legs, I led the group for most of this part of the trail, while carefully keeping an eye on all my compatriots down below. We took periodic breaks to catch up with the entire group and ensure everyone is doing well. Group hiking teaches you valuable lessons in team dynamics. The most important I have learnt is that the group is only as strong as its weakest member. The best way to improve a group’s performance is to empower its weakest member. (Yeah, I am still in B-School essay application mode :)) )

The midnight freeze had left most of the trail icy. There was one treacherous turn where the narrow trail was completely icy and the railings were placed so far away as to be useless. The only way to climb these few steps where to find hand-holds in the hard snow on the right and try to get traction by digging into the ice below. This was also the first and probably the only time on the trail I realized that – One slip and I can die on this trail.

After ascending through these 97 switchbacks, we reached Trail Crest at 13,600’ and were quickly welcomed by some outstanding views of the Western sierra & Sequioa national park. There were snow clad peaks as far as my eyes could see. At the bottom, there were beautiful lake filled valleys. The view almost wiped out the strain of the last 2 hours of hiking and propelled us further. Soon we were walking on granite lined rocky trail to the summit.

The last 1 mile to the summit was the hardest. Above 14,000’ the altitude finally seemed to catch up with me. A mild headache, feeling of dizziness and lack of appetite slowed my progress. Ronnie suffered from similar symptoms, and we made it a point to make periodic stops and hydrate ourselves. Enroute to the summit, we would stop to talk to people descending the peak who would be kind enough to give words of encouragement. Atlast, we crossed the huge snowfield and made our way to the summit. 4-1/2 hours after we set hiking in the morning, and exactly 24 hours after we began the Mt. Whitney trail, I had finally reached the summit at 10 am. I was relieved…… be continued - Mt Whitney - The Summit.

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