A great Fall climb with a friend that became an epical descent. Bob on the summit of Mt. Whitney, California, 14,595 feet.
The great American mountaineer Ed Viesturs once said, “Getting to the summit is optional; getting down is mandatory.”
Well said, but when you’re so focused on the summit of a peak, that bit of detail can sometimes be overlooked.
My partner, Cathy Gildea, thought it might be a Fall adventure to climb the 3,000-foot east face of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Though not technically difficult, the location, size and height require some fairly competent mountain skills. The plan called for a ten-mile approach to the base of the mountain – including bushwhacking through some stubborn willow fields.
Cathy and I made to the base of Whitney in pretty good time and were able to set up our camp and enjoy the evening. Cathy and I had been climbing together for about five years and had been through a number of great ice climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing and fly fishing adventures, but this was our biggest peak together. We had both climbed Denali prior to Whitney, and she had even summited Aconcagua – a peak that I didn’t summit until 2008.
How hard could it be?
Other than the high altitude – for sea-level, Silicon Valley types – the climbing was moderate to easy. We hit it early, slept well and got on the mountain just after first light. We had water and snacks and were looking forward to a great day.
We made good time on the East Face, uncharacteristically finding the right route and staying on it. We were cruising through most of the climb until we got caught behind a slow party. Trying to be conscious of time, I bypassed them on a much more difficult but parallel route. At this point, leading a difficult crack at over 14,000 feet seemed like the logical thing to do.
How hard could it be?
My confidence came from that fact that Cathy was ever the watchful belayer. It’s what makes her a great Mom to two young lads these days.
Still panting like a dog at my belay, I brought her up and we continued the regular route ahead of our other climbing friends. But the day was slowly, but surely, taking it’s toll.
Cathy had taken some ibuprofen for various aches and pains that morning and was trying NOT to drink any water for fear of slowing us down. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But, as we continued to climb into the warm Fall afternoon, she began to get dehydrated.
We moved quickly over some of the easier ground and soon found ourselves on the summit and heading for the descent route known as “The Mountaineers Gully.” We hit the gully with rapidly vanishing daylight, feeling home free with only a 2,000-foot descent ahead of us, when Cathy grew ill and began vomiting.
About every 10 to 20 minutes, she would have to stop and expel. Darkness quickly over took us, and the night began to grow grim. Being in the gully, we had no moonlight. Even the beam of my headlamp was being consumed by the dark. At one point, we came to edge of a 200-foot cliff that we only knew was there because we could feel the updraft.
Still, we struggled onward and downward for hours until we reached a small tarn at the base of the mountain. Still 30 minutes for our camp, we drank deeply from the small lake figuring that it would take Giardia a few days to catch us. As she drank, Cathy began to feel better and we both learned a lesson about ibuprofen, hydration and big mountains that day.
We were happy to watch the moon rise another night from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
One thought on “Sometimes the Summit is Easy”
Here’s to a less epic descent from the top of this next one! See you in Kathmandu in a few days. Travel safely.