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Portrait - Pacific Crest Trail Journal - 2012

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City: Northampton
State: MA
Begins: Apr 27, 2012
Direction: Northbound

Daily Summary
Date: Tue, Jun 5th, 2012
Trip Distance: 770.4

Journal Stats
Entry Visits: 3,316
Journal Visits: 20,787
Guestbook Views: 1,020
Guestbook Entrys: 35

Pacific Crest Trail Map

On the descent of Mount Whitney

The sun is overhead and the air has warmed to near freezing when Heesoo and I hike down from the highest point in the continental United States. Heesoo wears all of his layers of clothing -- base layer, shirt, insulating jacket, rain jacket -- and I wear all of mine -- lightweight shirt and lightweight rain jacket. On top of this woefully inadequate clothing I drape my 10 degree down sleeping bag, wearing it over my shoulders asa shawl.Despite the wind, we are giddy with relief to finally be so warm. As we walk, we discuss what happened, analyzing the decisions we made that morning.

"I think aiming for a sunrise hike was reasonable, given what we knew about the weather at the time," I say. I recall the group picture before the summit attempt, Heesoo, Castle, Opus and I standing smiling in front of the moonlit mountain, stars visible in the clear night sky. It was 2:20 AM and the weather was calm and a nostalgically warm 30 degrees.

"I think we went too fast," Heesoo says. "We had summit feaver, and didn't stop to make careful decisions." I remember how suddenly the temperature dropped and the wind picked up, and how we pushed forward faster for fear of stopping."I think we failed as a group," Heesoo continues. "We should have made our decisions together." I nod in agreement.

"I should have turned by when Castle did," I say, adding, "for my sake as well as hers." I think about the last time I saw her, around 5:30 AM, 1.9 milesfrom the summit. On the other side of the mountain the sun had just risen, but on our side it was still dark with a relentless freezing wind. I had left Heesoo and Opus up ahead to return the jacket I borrowed from Castle -- I wince to remember it; letting her loan it to me was another mistake -- and was surprised by how cold she was. Her hands were too numb to operate zippers or clips, and I had to help her take off her pack and put the jacket over her rain coat, and then put her pack back on. She was shivering, and a patch of salt water tears was frozen on her right cheek. This image sticks in my head.

Why didn't I go down with her? I ask myself this, and try to determine the answers as honestly as I can as I hike down. Heesoo's thermometer, which he checked ten minutes after I left Castle, read 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but worse the wind was howling at somewhere between thirty and sixty miles an hour, making it difficult to stay upright and impossible to stay warm. In this weather I wore a few ounces of lightweight clothing. When I returned the jacket, I unstuffed my sleeping bag, wrapped it around me, and raced toward the summit, clinging to the bag as if my life depended on it (which it may well have) as the brutal wind threatened to tear it from my hands.

So why did I go on? In part for the glory, challenge and danger of it, certainly, and because I knew there was a summit building on top. I knew that if I made it to the summit, I would be safe, and this was enough to convince me to risk the freezing wind that nearly blew me off the mountain.

In retrospect, the two pound down sleeping bag was indeed sufficient to keep me mostly safe, if not comfortable, but I hardly knew this at the time, nor did I consider the decision deeply. The decision to push forward was, for myself, not so much the wrong decision as one made without enough thought.

Why didn't I turn back for Castle, if not for myself? She was clearly showing signs of the onset of hypothermia, and I let her head down alone. (Opus would turn back a few minutes afterwards, but I had no way of knowing this yet.) The justification I gave myself at the time was that I respected her enough to be able to take care of herself, that I didn't need to be overly protective of the one female member of our party. But I find that this justification doesn't stand up to my own later scrutiny, and as I think about her shivering body, I would gladly trade my summit for the ability to take back my decision and head back down the mountain with her. It's what I would want someone to do for me, and it's what the type of person I want to be would do.

I think about the view, the panoramic mountains lit by the red early morning light, and I do not regret having not taken any pictures of it. My only summit photo is of myself inside the summit cabin, my sleeping bag around my shoulders, my beard coated in frozen ice. This is what I want to remember, not the spectacular view.

The tiny stone cabin was missing a door, and several feet of snow had drifted inside. I rolled my sleeping pad out on a section of the three foot high snow bank that had been flattened by the previous occupants, and then climbed inside my sleeping bag and stayed there for the next six hours, trying and only slowly succeeding to get warm. Outside the cabin Heesoo would do something similar in his sleeping bag, risking the wind for the warmth of the just-risen sun. Both of us, we decide afterwards, were considerably more hypothermic than we had realized.

The morning provided an adventure with enough glory for the danger to seem glamorous in retrospect -- certainly an adventure fittingly extreme for the tallest peak I am ever likely to summit. Perhaps if it had just been me on the mountain I would allow my memory of events to drift toward this idealization -- eventually recounting the story of conquering the tallest mountain in the lower 48 despite freezing, gale force winds, armed only with my sleeping bag and living to tell the tale.But that is not how I want to remember it. I see Castle's face in my mind, see the frozen tears on her cheek, and I know that Whitney tested me, and that in summiting, I failed.

(Update: For Castle's perspective, see her blog, )

Entry 36 of 36
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Journal Photo

Pacific Crest Trail - 2012

Mexico to Canada has a nice ring to it.


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