Monday, June 29, 2015

Mount Whitney and Alexis: My Trip Up and Down the Killer Mountain

Do you see that very highest point? I was there if only for a few brief seconds.

My trek up Mt. Whitney came up in a recent blog. I said I would tell the story, which I'm not sure if I've done before. That's a problem with a really old blog. It's hard to remember what I've written about before. I'll start thhe story. If I conclude tonight, great. If not, it can keep until tomorrow.

It was July of 2004. Matthew and I were nine-and-one-half. My dad would have been in his late thrties. My Uncle Steve would have been in his early thirties. None of us had before attempted  Mt. Whitney, which, at 14, 505 feet above sea level, is the highest point in the lower forty-eight contiguous states.

If one could drive from where we were following the same route that a bird might have flown, the travel would not have been all that long, as Mt. Whitney's western base sits at the edge of Tulare and Inyo counties in California, which would not be all that far (less that 100 miles, I would guess) from Freeway 99. The trailhead, however, sits on the other side of the mountain, just west of the Owens Valley, near the town of Lone Pine. This is a considerable drive from the Sacramento area, from where we were coming.

My dad was concerned from the very beginning about the elevation gain and the effects it might have had on any of us, but particularly on Matthew and me.  Contingency plans had been made for if any one of us had experienced extreme problems.  if one kid had been unable to go higher, Uncle Steve would have continued on with the other kid while my dad took the ailing kid back down. If an adult had experinced a minor problem, he would have come down alone. If he'd had a severe problem, we all would have descended.

We arrive in Lone Pine - the town or village with the hotels closest to the Whitney Portal. Lone Pine had an elevation of  under 4, 000  feet. Dad and Steve had considered camping for at least one night at the Whitney Portal, which had an elevation of almost 8,000 feet, but had decided that the benefits of added exposure to high elevation were outweighed by the importance of a couple of decent nights of sleep. Instead, we spent two days hanging around the Whitney Portal, exploring trails and amusing ourselves while being exposed to greater elevation, then returned to Lone Pine at dark to have dinner and sleep.
We stayed at maybe a Comfort Inn or something similar.

On the morning we began the actual attack on Mount Whitney, we were awake well before the sun was up. Everything but our toothbrishes and the clothing we would wear the next day had been packed in the car already so that we could get a very early start on the mountain. Matthew and I had those flashlightthings that went around our heads for any time we hiked in the dark. Dad and Uncle Steve had regular flashlights. The sun had not yet peeked above the Sierra Nevadas when we hit the trail. 

We initially hiked just about six miles to the base camp where we would spend the night. We got there relatively early with serveral hours of light remaining. It's recommended that hikers move around and get exercise to help to acclimate to the elevation, which we did. We had only packed a tiny bear box because our plan had been to descend all the way the next day unless we couldn't possibly make it any further, so we just packed enough exttra food to ward off starvation. The bear box needed only to  be large enough to hold the food we'd carry with us for the next day plus our emergency stash for the following night. We needed it so the bears wouldn't feel complelled to enter our tent and enjoy our hospitality.  

Some hikers pack small stoves and prepare gourmet meals on the trail. The people camping next to us were eating chicken fettucine Alfredo with broccoli, along with garlic bread and Caesar salad. My dad and Uncle Steve decided against carrying all that equipment, because Matthew and I would prefer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches anyway. My dad and Uncle Steve had large Subway sandwiches. They packed potato chips, which we didn't get to eat very often back then and considered a rare treat.  They packed a lot of beef jerky and trail mix to go along with our sandwiches. They decided we could find a decent restaurant after our descent and make up for any lost nutrition then.

Water is always an issue on Mt. Whitney hikes. You carry what you need
up to the base camp, then refuill there, but the water there has to be treated. My dad had tablets to go into the water, which would have made it taste worse than  swimming pool water, but the people camping next to us were kind enough  to let us boil water on their stove and then to share trheir purifier. My dad said he was still a bit suspicious, but if we contracted giardia or any  other water-borne illness, the symptoms wouldn't appear until long after we were home, and we could be treated medically if it happened, and chances were that it wouldn't kill us. Beyond that, there was no guarantee even the tablets would protect us against everything. At least we had water that we didn't have to practically gag ourselves getting down. Remaining hydrated is important in any elongated form of exercise, but when altitude is also a factor, hydration becomes critical.

Sleeping in sleeping bags in tents in cold weather (even in July it's cold at 6,000 feet) is not conducive to a great night's sleep, so we all awoke before the sun did. We had our breakfasts of  granola barss, bread, jerky,  plus instant oatmeal and egs that the neighbors shared. The eggs were hard boiled, and essentially practiaclly on my Donner Party list, but my dad told me to eat the white and give him the yolks and not to say a word, as the neighbors were being extremely gracious in sharing. I ate the whites of both eggs, while my dad ate both yolks. Both of us were happy that way, and the egg whites really weren't all that bad. I no longer eat boiled egg whites just because it would be a waste of the yolks, but if someone offered me a boiled egg white, I'd be happy enough to eat it.  They're really not that terrible if cooked firmly.

We quickly packed up our belongings to leave at the base camp. We packed our tent because the plan was not to stay another night. If we'd needed to alter our plans, we would then set the tent up again. Once again we beat the sun to the trail for the remaining roughly five miles of steep uphill climbing. So far, everything was going well. Adrenaline was compensating for any lack of quality sleep Matthew and I had missed.
The first four-and-one-half miles went without event, except that Mathew tripped and skinned his knee.  Uncle Steve cleaned the wound, spalled a large Band-Aid on it, and all was well. 

Matthew and I had been given both small doses of Ibuprofen(my dose was really small because I sometimes have digestive upsets with normal-for-my-weigh dosages of Ibuprofen) as well as  doses of a prescription drug called Diamox. (My dad ha tried both drugs on us a week earlier to check for any adverse effects on either of us.) My dad had researched it and had decided that research indicated that both drugs  were effective at preventing or lessening altitude sickness. They seemed to be doing their jobs. Steve, too, had taken both drugs. My dad had only taken Ibuprofen.

We seemed poised to make it to the summit without the slightest impediment when, at two-tenth of a mile from the summit, I began coughing.  "She just inhaled some dirt, " my dad explained away the coughing, though there was not a speck of dirt within miles of our location. We kept walking, and the coughing intensified.  Though it was a bit steeper, we wlked faster, my dad pushing me along.  I didn't want to complain, so I didn't, but my head was pounding. Maybe three minutes after we reached a marker indicating we were one-tenth of a mile from the summit, I threw up. Then Matthew threw up. My coughing became so barky yet deep and throaty that breathing became difficult.

Uncle Steve said, "We've got to get these kids down, John."

A couple of young guys were passing by on their way down. "The peak's not even one minute away. You can't quit. Take your backpacks off and carry them to the summit, tell them to have a look, and get them the hell down. Don't quit now. I don't think you can do much more damage than has already been done."

Against my Uncle Steve's better judgment, they threw off their backpacks. My dad thrw Matthew over his shoulder, and Uncle Steve carried me. Dad put Matthew on his feet and said, "Take a quick look, Matt. You're probaby higher than you'll ever be again on land."

My Uncle Steve put me on my feet, but I immediately collapsed. "You've seen all you're going to see. We've gotta get you down this mountain."

I hacked away as Steve carried me back to the backpacks. The young guys who had offered the advice that we had to go to the summit if we'd made it that far carried  my dad's and Steve's backpacks for a bit as they all walked as quickly as was safe  to get to a lower atitude. I can remember trying hard not to throw up on Uncle Steve's back as he carried me over his shoulder.

After maybe fifteen minutes we paused. The men talked. One of them had a knife. He suggested taking everything out of my dad's backpack, cuting holes for my egs, and putting me in my dad's backpack. With even just the fifteen minute's worth of descent, Matthew was doing a bit better and could soon walk on his own, they thought.

So they hacked away at my dad's pack until they had leg holes for me, which made it like one of those infant/toddler backpacks. That summer I believe I tipped the scales at a whopping thirty-seven pounds, so the backpack could certainly support my weight.  I remember my weight e=well because i had gone for a physical and my Uncle Steve had practically gone ballistic and the lowness of my weight.

I was still hacking and barfing away. Something my Uncle Steve had said led one of the young guys to believe he was a doctor. One of the young guys was a medical school student, though I don't know what year. He said to my uncle Steve, "This would be medical emergency, right?" 

"Yes," my dad and my uncle answered in unison. It was decided that one of the two of the guys would stay with us and the faster of the two would hurry ahead as fast as he could to summon medical aid to meet us. 

Matthew wasn't quite stable, so my uncle Steve carried him while the other guy carried the remaining backpack. After maybe a mile, Matthew could walk, so my Uncle Steve took the other backpack. We were apparently traveling at breakneck speed. We reached the base camp. My dad said he hated to do anything so environmetally irresponsible, but he was either going to pay someone to cart our tent, sleeping bags, and bear box out, or pay the fine for leaving it there. We were not quite at the halfway point, but the terrain was less steep at that point.

I mainly remember at this point trying so very hard to throw up to the side so I wouldn't get any barf on my dad, though there really wasn't anything left in my stomach. The time has faded my memories,  but I don't believe I was coherent at that point anyway.

At some point maybe a mile or two after passing the camp, we met up with paramedics, who came bearing a hand-carry stretcher. They put me on it and stuck an oxygen mask on me. They had Oxygen for Matthew as well, though someone just carried his tank in a backpack and he walked along.  My Uncle Steve and the other guy periodically piggybacked him.

I was in and out of consciousness, but I heard my dad ask the paramedics if they wanted his credit card right then or if they wanted to send him a bill. He knew that the service wouldn't be free. If a person gets himself or herself ont Mt. Whitney, he or she is expected to get himself or herself down, or there will usually be a price to pay. The paramedics just took down contact information.  

Matthew and I were loaded into the ambulance, and my dad went with us. My dad  had enough cash in his wallet to hand three young guys two hundred dollars to retrieve our tent and sleeping bags. He said to toss them or to do whatever they wanted with them. A ranger witnessed the transaction, so that took my dad off the hook if the guys had taken the money and run, but they apparently did not.

My dad told my Uncle Steve to get a decent hotel room in Lone Pine for the guys, which was probably the Comfort Inn.  He gave Uncle Steve his ATM card and asked him to take a thousand dollars out of his account and give it to the guys for their troubles. They apparently didn't want to take it, but my uncle insisted.  

Later on, my dad was able to help the younger guy get into medical school, and he wrote a really good recommendation for an intership position for the guy already in med school.  The guy ended up getting his first choice as a match. He might have gotten it anyway, but my dad's recommendation may have helped.

Matthew was treated with oxygen and I don't know what else at the hospital, and released after a couple of hours. Uncle Steve and Matthew stayed at the same Comfort Inn or whatever that we had stayed at two nights earlier. Uncle Steve got food for himself and Matthew, who had already developed an appetite,  and brought food to my dad.  

I had  developed pulmonary edema and had to spend the night in a hyperbaric chamber and also had to have fluid drained.  My dad said I was a very cooperative patient for a nine-year-old. The hospital would not have released me even the next day had either my dad or Steve not been a doctor. They sent my dad with two tanks of oxygen for me. We got home as quickly as possible.  My mother was practically hysterical and accused my dad of child abuse.

There wasn't a lot that could be done, though I had to have fluid drained once more. That one I remember quite well, and I remember not being very happy about it.  Uncle Steve promised me ten dollars if I would cooperate, so I did. He paid promptly.

I like to point this out as an example of the outstnding parental care I received as a child, but I'm not really sure my dad did anything wrong. He arrived a few days early so that we could acclimate to the altitude. He possibly could have turned around at the very first cough, but we were so incrredibly close to the top even by that point that  I would be disappointed now had we not gone all the way to the peak, even though I don't exactly remember it.  I at least know I've been to the very highest point of this part of the world.

In terms of Denali or Mt. Everest, forget it. No one could ever pay me enough to get me on either of those mountains.


  1. Wow. Scary story. But also a great example of how we sometimes rely on the kindness of strangers. (To quote Blanche Dubois.)

    1. The strangers were very kind, and they couldn't tell by the rags that we were wearing that my dad could pay them. Plus they really didn't want to take the money. They were just kind.

    2. I bet they've made wonderful doctors.

  2. I once climbed Mount Aragats in Armenia. There are four peaks and we did the second highest. I didn't get all the way to the top, but my friends did... I probably could have made it. I was close. One Armenian lady climbed in heels. Made me feel like a loser.

    1. Climbing a mountain in heels? The duggars would attempt it in flip flops.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Chuck, i'm using my junky laptop because I'm not supposed to use my school computer for personal use. I read about halfway through your comment, then when i scolled down, it accidentally deleted. i read to the point where you suggested I
      include a picture of myself at 9. i could check on it. my parents don't like me posting many pictures here, though I do post a few. I try to keep them happy sionce I'm living on their dollar even though I'm a legal adult. My mom is just worried that something here will give away my identity and possibly interfere with a future career. 9My last name is not really rousseau. it is french-Canadian, though.) i'll check it out

      I'm really sorry for deleting your response. i've only done it one time before, and then it was not deliberate, either.

  4. That is okay. It was very nice getting an apology from you. I did not know that you were limiting your pictures. As far as giving away your identity, your teachers and fellow students know who you are and 2 teachers have made a joke about what you have said in your blog. My mother said to not tell anyone anything that you do not want everyone to know (before the internet existed). My concern is do not say anything here that could cost you the presidential election someday. Although people elected Bush president after they learned he had been convicted of drunk driving.

    I love that you are so open, honest and sincere in this blog. People with children should know what happened to you since not everyone has a doctor as a parent. I cannot judge your father since he took you along since he loves you. Also he had hoped that you would be able to tell people that you climbed Mt. Whitney at age 9. And you did except for about 2 blocks. If you are ever being interviewed for an important position, you can always say that you know that you can do it since you climbed Mt. Whitney at age 9.

  5. Most of the deleted comment was copied from a Mayo Clinic webpage. It says, "Pulmonary edema is a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs. This fluid collects in the numerous air sacs in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

    In most cases, heart problems cause pulmonary edema. But fluid can accumulate for other reasons, including pneumonia, exposure to certain toxins and medications, trauma to the chest wall, and ♦►exercising or living at high elevations◄♦.

    Pulmonary edema that develops suddenly (acute pulmonary edema) is a medical emergency requiring immediate care."

    I am extremely grateful that you did survive it. At the height of Mt. Everest, 29,000 feet, people cannot live long. Above 26,000 feet is the death zone. Wikipedia says "Debilitating effects of the death zone are so great that it takes most climbers up to 12 hours to walk the distance of 1.72 kilometres (1.07 mi) from South Col to the summit.[89] Achieving even this level of performance requires prolonged altitude acclimatization, which takes 40–60 days for a typical expedition. A sea-level dweller exposed to the atmospheric conditions at the altitude above 8,500 m (27,900 ft) without acclimatization would likely lose consciousness within 2 to 3 minutes.[90]"

  6. If we were not wthin a minute of the peak, my dad wouldn't have let anyone take me the final few feet, and they totally booked it down that mountain, Usually it comes on a little more gradually, as it did with Matthew, but i went from fine to critical in about five minutes. In some cases they probably went faster than was safe, though they were all sure-footed. If they'd lingered at the top, I would have been in real trouble. i think what really made the difference was the guy turning my dad's backpack into a kid carrier, which allowed whoever was carrying me to go much faster than he otherwise would have gone. My dad sais had it not been for that, they would have dumped a backpack even if it meant a hefty fine and just kept the water to put in the extra backpack. He said he would have much preferred paying a fine no matter how huge to burying another child. (My parents lost preemie twins at 24 weeks. One died in the O.R. shortly after taking a few breaths, and the other lived two days. They didn't have a chance. They were just too early. The wall of the placenta separated from the uterus [placenta abruptae] causing my mom to hemorrhage, requiring an immediate c-section. They barely saved her)

    You can also get a form of brain swelling -- cerebral edema, i think -- form extreme altitude sickness. It's probably more deadly than pulmonary edema. i'm glad nether of us got that.

    That little hospital in Lone Pine was pretty amazing in their ability to handle emergencies. probably because of their proximity to Mt. Whitney, they have to be. They're also prepared to airlift to valley medical Center in fresno, which is the headquarters for the entire U.s. National Parks systems emergency department. California National Park hospitals fly critical patients there, but they also dispatch information on how to handle national park medical emergencies both to park emergenciy response teams and to the hospitals that treat the patients because they specialize in any of the issues 9hypothermia, heat illness, altittude illness, starvation, etc0 that impact national parks. Idf it's just a classic head or bone injury, whatever Level iII trauma center nearby can handle it as well as anyone, but if it's one of those wilderness-specific issues, it's their department. I had no idea before this year that a podunk hospital in Fresno was so important.

  7. Your parents must appreciate you and your brother more after what happened with their previous twins. I appreciate you more after hearing the above. Was their previous twins also a boy and a girl?

  8. My parents' first twins were both boys, though they were fraternal, too. Their names were Nicholas and Christopher.