Get Out of Town!
So Close, yet so Far
February, 2020 - Issue #185

"We couldn't move faster than
the ANGRY MASS of dark-gray
clouds to the west. Although we were on the summit ridgeline, it would
reach the peak before we did."
We were that close.

But still, we had to turn around.

Although we could see the summit, its signature stone hut, and even the people inching their way to the top, it was clear our summit push on Mt. Whitney was over.

Still, the decision wasn't easy. We were more than 9 miles in, with about 1.5 miles remaining between us and our goal. We had come so far, but we had to face the facts.

We couldn't move faster than the angry mass of dark-gray clouds to the west. Although we were on the summit ridgeline, it would reach the peak before we did. If we continued, we would be exposed above tree line, at the mercy of a thunderstorm.

We paused to weigh the decision, alternately gazing at the peak and then back at the approaching storm. Then the hail started. That confirmed what we knew but didn't want to admit. It was time to turn around.

Our situation epitomized the old cliche: So close, yet so far. Of the 11 guys in our group, mostly father and son combos, six made the summit. My son Drew and I were among the four bringing up the rear.

Months of planning. Miles of training. Weeks of parsing trail reports. And it came down to an hour. Had we started hiking earlier, or shortened our breaks along the trail, we likely would have summitted ahead of the storm. It was hard to see it as anything other than a defeat.

We pulled on rain gear before making our retreat. The hail ticked off my nylon hood as we retraced our steps along the rocky trail.

Lightning exploded in the distance, matched immediately by booming thunder that rolled off the surrounding granite walls in cacophonous echoes. I cringed out of instinct, my shoulders drawing up around my ears after every volley. The lighting was far enough away that I knew we weren't in immediate danger, but hiking at 13,000-plus feet of elevation seemed to put us on eye level with the storm.

The hike down was long, but knowing it was unfinished made it feel longer. Tell other hikers you were forced to turn around before the summit and they will compliment your prudence and say in consolation, "But the mountain will still be there." In other words, you can always try it again.

A well-meaning, but certainly not comforting, thought. Mt. Whitney is regarded as one of the most accessible 14,000 foot plus peaks because summitting doesn't demand any technical mountaineering. But climbing the tallest mountain in the continental United States doesn't come easy.

The hike requires scaling 6,000 feet of elevation. The air gets thin up there, so shortness of breath is a given. Headaches and nausea are also common side effects from the lack of oxygen.
Then there's the distance - 11 miles one way - plus the difficulty of getting a permit. The trail is so popular, a hiker quota is needed to keep it from being overrun. Rangers issue more daily permits (100) than overnight (60), so most people opt to hike it in one day like we did.

All of that means you'd like to make it to the top the first time and not have to contemplate a second attempt.

But now's the time to start planning for it. The permit lottery runs February 1 through March 15. Drew wants another go. And Laurel, my oldest daughter, backpacked in the Sierras this summer for the first time, so now she wants to try Whitney.

It's still hard to think about another attempt. Especially when I remember the 97 switchbacks (Or is it 99?).

But we were that close. How do we not go back and finish it?
Eric Harnish lives in Castaic.

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