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Bragging Rights

From the Top of Mt. Whitney, It's Easier to See the Long Road You've Traveled

April 14, 2002|PHILIP REED

I'm standing in a hotel lobby in Lone Pine when I hear a voice from behind me: "I've been dreaming of the Sierra." I turn and find a strange little man gazing out the window at the peaks to the West. Is he talking to me?

"I'm from Scotland and, oh sure, we have beautiful mountains there. But not like this. No, no, not like this. That's why I dream of the Sierras." He doesn't seem to expect a response. He smiles wistfully and slips out of the room.

My first thought is, "Did that really happen?" But then I realize that he has, in a way, articulated my own thoughts. I've been dreaming of the Sierra too. It's been my goal to climb Mt. Whitney since I was a kid growing up in New England, reading stories of the Old West.

When I was young, I suffered from insomnia. So I'd read Westerns late into the night until I thought I could sleep. Then I'd stare at the map of the United States on my wall, the Western states illuminated by a street light out front. Finally drifting into sleep, my imagination would be filled with the magical names of the West, the Rocky Mountains, the Bitterroot Range and, yes, the Sierra.

So now, at age 49, I'm standing in the lobby of the Dow Villa Hotel, where John Wayne bunked while he filmed Westerns in the nearby Alabama Hills. These parts were also frequented by another hero of mine--Humphrey Bogart played Mad Dog Earle, a bank robber on the lam, in "High Sierra." Tomorrow I'll finally be in those mountains too, climbing the highest peak in the U.S.--or, at least, the Lower 48 states--at 14,497 feet.

"It's crunch time," says another voice. It's my brother, Pete, who has come out from the East to climb with me. "We have to be up in six-point-five hours so we better rack out." He's a civil engineer who somehow corrects me each time I cite a mileage, find magnetic north or read a map.

Back in high school, Pete and I climbed most everything New Hampshire's White Mountains had to offer--including Washington, Adams, Chocorua. Despite the danger of wickedly unpredictable weather conditions, those mountains now seem so tame. The trail head for Mt. Whitney, at 8,360, is more than 2,000 feet above the summit of Mt. Washington.

Our climb is a reunion of sorts. Pete stayed in the East and works on the roads and bridges of New England. I ventured west to spin yarns as a California writer. Tomorrow we'll climb together for the first time in decades. Though we're not young bucks anymore, we'll need the strength and stamina of youth; it's a 22-mile round-trip with an elevation gain of more than 6,000 feet. Most people do it in two days. We'll gut it out in one 16-hour grind.

"I just want to be able to say that I did it," Pete explained to me some months ago when we planned the trip.

Bragging rights. It's what everyone wants. It's what I've said all these years since the urge first hit me. But is there something else pushing me?

The alarm rings in the darkness of our room six-point-five hours later, followed by my brother's sleepy voice: "It's crunch time. Let's hit the trail." A glance at the clock: 3:30 a.m. We had set out everything the night before--water bottles, energy bars, wind breakers. We gulp coffee, gobble oatmeal and head for the car.

Outside it's cool and absolutely still. Looking down the main street of Lone Pine, I see sputtering neon signs for cafes, bars and sporting goods stores with names that include "Bonanza" and "The Totem." The only fast-food chain is at the north end of town. How much longer can Lone Pine escape discovery? Each time I drive back into town from my home in Southern California, I brace myself for the inevitable invasion of corporate logos. Thankfully, the ghost of the Duke still roams these streets. But once Wal-Mart arrives, he'll get the hell out of Dodge.

We drive up a snaking road to the Whitney Portal and park across from the trail head. We don headlamps so we can see the trail. And begin hiking.

"Look up," Pete says. Above me are the brightest stars I've ever seen outside of a "Star Wars" movie. Constellations leap out; every point of light belongs to a bear, a hunter or a crab. For a moment, I feel like a real mountain man, navigating by the heavens. Then I turn my headlamp back on, chomp on a high-protein bar and hit the trail.

After several hours, the sky behind us pales. Then the rising sun strikes a rock face high above us with a yellow brilliance. It's hard to imagine that we'll be above those peaks later today.

Soon we reach a barren, boulder-strewn landscape with scattered snowfields. Above, the east wall of Mt. Whitney looks down, challenging us. The hardest part is about to begin--96 switchbacks that will take us 2,000 feet up to Trail Crest at 13,777 feet.

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