The Tractor Beam: A Day on Mt. Whitney

Feel the pull of the wilderness in the crags of the High Sierra

By: Jeff Young

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We climbed the first switchbacks in silence. Our headlamps floated upward like paper lanterns released from the high desert. There were five of us when we broke camp, trudged toward the trail, and swallowed stale Clif bars. Our day began at 3 AM near Whitney Portal. The air was a potpourri of sugar pine and sagebrush.

The tallest peak in the continental United States is but a butte compared to the stone titans of vaster ranges, yet its majesty is not diminished by any contest of height. On its southern flank a series of prominent needles, magnificent in their own right, tilt their brows in adulation to the sovereign of the Sierra Nevada. We planned to ascend from sea level to 14,500 in less than 24 hours; certainly no Bad Water Ultra, but no picnic at Land’s End either.

The only sounds were our boots on gravel, the garbled voices of streams swelled by an El Nino winter - and suddenly - the haunting wail of a lone mountain lion. In the dark we mused on encountering the big cat. I imagined seeing its lithe silhouette float amongst the yarrow and cow parsnip. 

I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The isolated mountains are a sleeping beast, furred in Ponderosa pine, curled in hibernation on the Great Plains; a giant bison lolling in a sea of grass on the horizon. Officials claimed mountain lions were so prevalent that a hunting season was enacted to cull their population. I still have never seen one. 

The hike from the portal to the summit was perhaps 6000 feet of net elevation gain; not technical, but grueling for a day hike. I sought the summit with four-coworkers, one of whom had managed to snag the elusive permits from the lottery. We drove from San Francisco to Lone Pine the day before the hike. 

The air in San Francisco is almost thick with electromagnetic communication. In the bay we were millennial nodes in a technocratic machine; collecting information, parsing it, then emitting it back out into the clickbait-sphere. Here we were nothing. No cell service. No HipChat. No jobs, no leases. Here we were pilgrims. Ascetics. We only had two duties: get to the top and clean up your shit. 

Ok you got me. There were at least several pieces of non-technical Patagucci being worn and rumors abounded that rare Pokemon haunted sparse pockets of cell service. Non-withstanding, we were wilder than we could have ever gotten during the work week. 

The sun plunged through the sky like red hot iron into cobalt water. We entered an ancient Sierra city. Orange rays burst over the ramparts of granite fortresses and ricochetted off the buttresses of igneous cathedrals. The light poured into glacial sluices and splashed alpine courtyards with sanguine stains.

We marched through swampy meadows. I half expected to see a bull moose foraging in the water lilies. Horsetails blanketed fields. The spry green segments of each stalk belied their antiquated origins. They are living fossils. They grew on the earth while the Sierras still slumbered beneath it. They are time travelers; their wisdom was spun on a geological scale.

The lupine-garnished trail meandered through mirror-still lakes. We stopped for water and for breakfast. A man limped towards us. We hailed him. He did not reply. His eyes gazed passed us; through us. He was drenched in sweat. We asked if he needed food, water. He brushed us aside: 

“The altitude got me this time. I’ll try again.”

The forecast called for rain but the sky showed no sign of it. It was a grey-blue dome hung with a halo of smoke from distant fires. It was hot. We put crushed snow in our hats and soaked our bandanas in frigid water. As we gained elevation the ecosystem changed. Verdant meadows gave way to lichen-flecked boulder fields. The sun felt closer. 

A few tents and bivouacs crouched among the boulders at the base of the switchbacks: Trail Camp. The inhabitants were moving about their alpine village, filling Nalgenes and packing tents. It was a fully fledged summer’s day at that point. I am fairly certain I spent 15 minutes draining water from Trail Camp Pond with my LifeStraw. 

The infamous switchbacks spanned 2000 feet of elevation in 97 jagged twists of the trail: The Stair of Cirith Ungol (I was just hoping for no huge spider at the top). From Trail Camp they looked like a comfortable challenge; a steady grind. Type II fun (if you’ve never heard of the fun scale, look it up). They were daunting as expected, but by no means insurmountable.

A comfortable challenge? That certainly was the altitude speaking. I could feel each heartbeat in my skull like the water hammer in an old plumbing system. Tunnel vision. Pain cave (as one of my friends aptly described it). 

We slayed the switchback serpent then stepped onto the trail crest in single file; triumphant. At the top a massive marmot sat perched on a granite throne. He had situated his toll booth at the convergence of eastern and western trails; maximum tourist traffic.

“One Oreo please.”

“You’re not getting anything dawg.” 

“Go kick rocks.”

We admired his strategy but knew better than to feed either his ego or obesity. 

The last stretch of the trail was the most magnificent. We joined forces with day hikers and grizzled JMT’ers for the final approach across the summit plateau. The route creeped through scree and clung to sheer pinnacles like a leafless vine. Several needles plunged upward from vast talus fields like prows of ships from stormy seas. The trail ran parallel to these needles and the voids between each were framed vistas. Tiny pockets of snow hid slumped in shadows. 

We quickened our pace when we saw the stark horizon created by the summit. The most grueling parts of the trail were bereft of its charismatic motivation, but on the plateau it pulled us in with a tractor beam. We raced passed the Smithsonian Institution Shelter, snapped some pictures of the summit placard, then gazed into the abyss around us. 

We reveled in our delirious success with whiskey, Oreos, and salami. The smokey horizon expanded in 360 degrees of granite peaks around us. 

In the distance thunderheads rose in darkened plumes. We expedited our descent. The first branch of lightening shattered the sky and thunder rattled our teeth. We pounded the trail back down the mountain, across the switch backs, trail camps, boulder fields, and meadows glistening in the rain. Here it is represented by a few sentences, but the descent is half the journey, half the story, and most of the soreness. The summit is the goal of the ascent. Going down? Barbecue and mac and cheese. 

We descended to Whitney Portal and passed through the threshold between the heights of Valhalla and scorched badlands; the membrane between the wild and the tame. 

My phone vibrated as it returned to service and was awakened from its slumber. I, on the other hand, felt myself falling asleep as e-mail notifications filled my field of vision. The pilgrimage over, I returned to my cog-role in society. The phone glowed as my mind dimmed and the last molecules of wild air left my lungs. 

Back in the bay I looked passed three excel-covered screens and out over the streets of the Financial District. In between e-mails and coconut waters I felt the faintest pull of the tractor beam return. 

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.