Not with a Bang, But a Whimper

You probably know the cliché? How do you climb Mt. Fuji? One step at a time. How do you climb Mt. Whitney? One foot in front of the other for about 12 straight hours.

I first fell in love with the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1980s, when I drove up from Los Angeles, where I was working, to see the Owens River project. I had read an account of how LA and William Mulholland stole the water of the Owens Valley to feed LA’s insatiable thirsts, and I wanted to see the infrastructure. My philosopher friend Donald Rutherford and I made the journey together in my Honda Prelude. We didn’t do much climbing, but we were both overwhelmed by the beauty of the foothills at Lone Pine, the otherworldly isolation of Mono Lake, and the realization—I was 24—that there are whole portions of the planet that are so stark and so forbidding that humans essentially shy away from them.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains tower over the valley below with stunning magnificence. The dramatic effect is much greater than on the front range of the Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming. I followed the Owens project from its intake all along the Los Angeles Aqueduct to the San Fernando Valley, and I have been fascinated and repelled by gigantic industrial water projects ever since.

Clay on Mt. Whitney. Photograph by Russ Eagle.

I’ve wanted to climb Mt. Whitney for twenty years or more, but it has never happened, because life kept getting in the way, and I didn’t ever want to do it alone, and not that many people are willing to entertain the thought of climbing straight up for eleven miles.

When I mentioned the possibility to my friend Russ of North Carolina last year he did not reject the idea out of hand like everyone else. So we entered the lottery and got assigned October 10-11, 2017. Russ flew in a day or two earlier from Carolina. I flew to Reno from Bismarck, rented a car, bought provisions, and drove down the eastern base of the Sierra to our embarkation point. My pack was 15 pounds too heavy. So was I. But I had one great advantage. I have learned long ago that it is not your body that is the issue in these strenuous adventures, but your soul. So if you really want to do it, no matter how ill-prepared you are, you can succeed if you heart and mind are right.

You will remember that Thomas Jefferson climbed to the top of the pitiful little Natural Bridge in western Virginia and said that “few men have resolution to walk to the parapet of fixed rocks and look over into the abyss.” He said that he involuntarily had to get down on his hands and feet and that “looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ache.”

Wow, Mr. J. There’s the strenuous life! Try the headache you get at 14,500 feet. Try looking down a sheer cliff face two or three thousand feet to a ledge at the lip of the next precipitous drop. I thought of the elegant Mr. Jefferson as we labored up along the creek and the alpine lakes, as we performed the 99 switchbacks of the most vertical ascent of Mt. Whitney; as we passed the tree line into a moonscape of glacial moraine. He’d have had someone already at the top with some fine cheese and a bottle of Bordeaux red.

Ascending Mt. Whitney was in many respects more in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt than Thomas Jefferson. Roosevelt famously climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon in 1881. The Matterhorn is 14,692 feet high, 187 feet higher than Whitney. Roosevelt was 22 years old. I was 62—but now, a week later, I feel only 114 or so.

The view from the top of the Sierra Nevada is so spectacular that it beggars the English language. That’s what Jefferson meant when he said at the Natural Bridge, “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here.”

Clay and Russ on the summit of Mt. Whitney

Indeed. We summited, as the professionals say, about 1 p.m. on Wednesday October 11. We would have high fived if we could have lifted our arms above our heads. We kissed the ground, took a selfie, and began the long, almost endless, return to the parking lot. Hiking down you begin to get a sense of how much pure climbing it took to get to the top of the mountain. And you have a long time to reflect on the status of your life: physical and mental fitness, what you really still want to accomplish, how you define yourself as a man, a human, a citizen, a lover of existence, and where you really stand on the spectrum of the active vs. the contemplative life.

It was absolutely worth it, I can tell you that. I would do it again, though I would not do it again without significant training. I will surely lose my right big toenail in the next week. (I’ve been there before). I lost a fair amount of dignity, of course, and some illusions about myself, and some of my sense of eternal youth. Fortunately, there were no hospitals to check into when we got down to the valley floor, so we had to gut it out, and now, a week later, the memories are all sweet and deeply satisfying.

I fell in love with California all over again. I fell in love with America’s broad reach and magnificence. And I realized that I must never say no to life-affirming opportunities. That is the road to the Barcalounger, the bag of Cheetos, and Hogan’s Heroes marathon.