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Peak condition

Heavy packs, steep grades, lots of mileage. Four hikers out to scale Mt. Whitney transform local summits into a backyard boot camp. Diane Wedner trudges up Mt. Lukens with the group to find out what it takes to train for the highest point in the continental U.S.

July 05, 2005|Diane Wedner

John RADOVICH fords Big Tujunga Creek at the base of Mt. Lukens, knee-deep in the churning daiquiri mix studded with slimy rocks.

"I've changed clothes three times, and we haven't even started climbing yet," he says after crossing the frosty stream. He sits down to dry feet that are chilled to a bright pink, then tucks them into thick socks and a pair of well-worn 8-year-old Hi-Tecs. Over the span of 10 minutes and a measly quarter-mile, he already has removed his boots, strapped on a pair of Teva sandals, changed back to his boots and shed his gray long-sleeved shirt in favor of an orange T-shirt.

On this late-May hike, Radovich, 52, a tall, fit boat carpenter who works for the Los Angeles Harbor Department, resumes the slog to the 5,074-foot summit of Lukens. But his sights are set on a peak almost three times as high and about 200 miles to the north, a monster that makes you push yourself "until it feels like your muscles are on fire and you're going to puke," according to one hiking pro. Radovich is training for Mt. Whitney.

For him, the Stone Canyon Trail up Lukens is an excellent Whitney primer, an ankle-challenging rocky route that narrows to a steep path overlooking Big Tujunga Canyon. And though it's low by Whitney standards, Radovich will ascend 3,000 feet over 4 1/2 miles by the time he reaches the highest point in the city of Los Angeles, a punishing course that builds muscle and endurance for the big hike to come. For now, he and three buddies concentrate on the wildflowers and poison oak choking the trail rather than the relentless steepness of the mountain mercifully obscured by deep mist.

At this time of year, Whitney's appeal as a nontechnical, high-elevation mountain turns Southern California trails into prime training turf. Though the upper reaches of the 14,497-foot peak above Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierra are still snow-clogged from winter's big blast, hikers and backpackers aiming for late-summer ascents are swarming local mountains to condition their bodies -- and minds -- for the highest peak in the Lower 48.

Those who decide to backpack to the summit will spend the first day gaining about 3,700 feet in elevation before stopping at Trail Camp, a treeless, boulder-strewn flat point that sits a mere couple thousand feet below the top. On the second day, they'll trudge up the 90-plus switchbacks to Trail Crest -- the first glimpse into the heart of the Sierra at 13,000 feet -- and straggle the last mile and a half to the rocky summit. Others will do it all in one day: a 22-mile hike-a-thon with more than 6,100 feet of gain.

Before his first-time face-off with Whitney on Sept. 21, Radovich will boost his endurance by working out in the gym and walking to build up his mileage. His friends will log about 12 miles a week, hiking trails in the South Bay and Griffith Park. On weekends, the group will hike up progressively steeper and more challenging local peaks, saving the toughest ones above 9,000 feet for the weeks closest to the trip -- high peaks that will help them acclimatize to Whitney's thin air.

On each hike, the group also will increase the weight they carry in their backpacks to the 45 pounds they'll tote up the main Whitney Trail to camp overnight. With their wilderness permits secured -- 60 permits a day are handed out for overnight stays, 100 for day hikers -- and gear assembled, Radovich and the others are concentrating on intense physical conditioning, which separates successful summitters from the what-was-I-thinking crowd.

Bill Kirk, a five-time Whitney summitter who already snow-camped on the mountain earlier this year, recommends a 45-minute exercise regimen four to five times a week over several months, leading up to a couple of 16-mile day hikes at elevations higher than 4,500 feet shortly before attempting Whitney.

Mountaineering expert Greg Patrick, who gave a recent Mt. Whitney clinic at REI Redondo Beach, emphasizes the need to train, train, train.

"You need to push yourself until you're in 'the zone,' where you can't sing, your lungs are exploding, then stop, wait five or 10 minutes, and work up to longer intervals," Patrick told a group of 30 hikers. "Push yourself hard over short intervals."

He added that the harder hikers train mentally and physically before the trek, especially if they're not already fit, the better they'll do on the real deal. "The question is whether you want to suffer a little during training, or a lot the day of the climb," he says.

Despite the rigorous training schedule, Catherine Whittington, 61, a soft-spoken escrow company assistant, had no problem persuading Radovich and Sierra Club hike leader George Denny to accompany her up Whitney this year. She met them and fellow hiker Barbara Brown last year at a wilderness skills course sponsored by the local chapter of the club. Whittington took Denny's navigation class, and the pair found that compasses and topographical maps weren't their only reasons to show up each week.

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