This story is about this year’s weird ass annual Whitney hike. I’ve been sleeping on top of Whitney every year for six years now, and each year it seems to get worse. This year I made a loop, planning to go in over Baxter Pass and out via the Mountaineer’s Route on Whitney. It didn’t happen that way. Something happened on top of Whitney that turned the whole trip into a skidmark. The story starts off a little slow, but stick with it. It ends with poop and helicopters, which always liven a story.
The way in
I actually walked to Rae Lakes all the way from the center of Independence. WHO DOES THAT? Me. I do that. I’m not afraid to walk a lot of “bonus miles” to get to a trailhead. I mean rides in cars are nice, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Why let that stop me?
I had to walk along the freeway for just a little bit, then cut into the desert on the west side and move diagonally up toward the fish hatchery to meet the winding foothill road that leads to the Baxter TH. Since I left in the evening from town, I camped in the foothills.
Baxter Pass trail is one of the steeper trails on the Eastside. Some pass trails are really easy, like Cottonwood and Kearsarge. Some are notoriously hard, like Taboose, Shepherd and Baxter. Floods and fire made the lower parts a bit tougher to follow, but it wasn’t bad. And the flowers, especially the fireweed, were gorgeous.
I liked going up the Baxter Pass Trail so much, I took a solid day and a half doing it. I left evening the 17th, and crested on the 19th. It’s really beautiful up there on the east side below the crest; I couldn’t help myself stop and camp just below tree line.
I’m trying to do more backpacking and ditch the go-go-go thru-hiking mentality a bit. I had just finished examining this new idea by backpacking into the Inyos to camp alone in a ghost town between August 22 and September 6. I’m trying something new: when I see something I like, I stay there! For a thru-hiker, that’s a game change.
On my way down to Rae Lakes off Baxter Pass, I went off trail and found this old cowboy camp:
National Park archeologists actually keep track of this stuff, so they were eager for the report.
An old blister caused a new blister. Hm.
I hope you weren’t eating. I passed a big pack trip vs. NP ranger fiasco at Rae Lakes and was happy to get past that. Yikes. Big horse traffic jam and a lot of confused paying clients. It’s one thing to hike without permits and a backpack (I don’t do that), but to bring back mules and horses without a permit?! I can’t imagine what those fines looked like.
Later, approaching Forester Pass, I think I was cranky like as blister when this happened:
I mean, come on! The guy sped up when I tried to pass him. I hiked behind them for a while until I just couldn’t bear it any longer. “Do you mind if I pass?” HE MINDED.
I hike really fast sometimes. I wasn’t trying to race the guy! But he was trying to race me. Get out of the way with that ego, dude, and suck my dust. But only because of those creepy and sexist comments. I could tell your hiking partner was horrified, and you nearly killed him dragging him up the pass at that clip.
The hike up toward Crabtree Meadow was just great. September was pretty dry this year and so mosquitoes weren’t bad at all. It makes Rae Lakes, and the entire Sierra, way better when the bugs aren’t bad.
Sometime before reaching Crabtree I met Danny, a JMT hiker. I told him about how he might sleep on top of Whitney with me. Not sleep with me, which is maybe what he originally thought, because he DID look pretty weirded out, but sleep alongside me, after some star-gazing, story-telling and tea and hot cocoa. He didn’t realize that was possible. Over the miles toward Crabtree, he gradually warmed to the idea. We picked up some wag bags at the Crabtree ranger station, where they were very happy about our LNT diligence.
On the way up I summited Mount Muir again. Muir is another 14er on the Whitney Crest. I’ve invited several people up Muir at this point but I’m learning it’s more technical than I feel like it is. I feel like it’s strict class 3/4, but everyone else I’ve shown it too freaks out like they need rope. It’s a bit steep. I figure if you’re gonna bag a 14er, why not bag 2-3 (there are three up there).
But I noticed…
While just starting to head up Muir I saw a man struggling past, heading toward Whitney. As I passed him, I chatted him up. I was trying to get a sense of whether he realized that at his pace he wouldn’t summit AND get down before dark. He was very tall and athletic-looking, but walking very slowly. He didn’t look very steady. He had a 30L backpack but it looked empty. In contrast, I was carrying a 45L backpack, very full with food and overnight gear.
He did realize there wasn’t an escalator down, right?
He was friendly and optimistic and wasn’t picking up what I was putting down. What I was trying to say is a plan to get up a mountain is only half the plan. What about getting down? The man kept struggling upward and I went about my business.
While I was on Muir, the man gained some ground, but not much – only about a mile. I caught up to him easily and began triage while hiking very slowly behind him. I asked what he had eaten.
“A couple sandwiches and some pixie stix.”
“Pixie Stix? We used to SNORT Pixie Stix when we were kids. That’s not food!!”
And that is when I knew shit was about to go down. I told him right then (5pm) to turn around but he refused.
“I’m not proud. I’ll turn around if it’s a problem.”
At the hut, he sat down and I continued to grill him about his gear and his plan. He had a headlight, and his plan was to descend.
“But you can hardly walk.”
Danny arrived and I filled him in with what was going on. We began to work together to dissuade this man from descending alone. It quickly became obvious to Danny that I had not exaggerated the seriousness of this man’s situation. I’ll call him “W.”
“Your water bottles are empty, what are you going to do about water?”
W proceeded to open his small backpack and take out a brand new twin pack of Sawyer Squeeze filters, in their original packaging, unopened. The package took up about 1/3 of the space in his backpack. What else could be in there? Turns out, pretty much nothing.
“Have you ever even used a Sawyer Squeeze before?”
W said no, but that he was sure he could read the instructions and figure it out. Right.
“It’s September, the first water you will find is at the bottom of the 99 switchbacks. How will you make it there without water? You won’t. It’s very likely you will fall, and could fall to your death. You are staying up here tonight with us, and that’s that.”
Ugh. Danny and I, instead of the fun evening planned with just looking around and enjoying a hot drink, sunset and sunrise, began a miserable night of adult care and feeding. W was fully dependent on us for his survival. It was uncanny how his brain had been evacuated by the thin air of elevation. Luckily he was friendly and fully compliant, but I was very concerned about cerebral edema. He was large enough that had he not been compliant, we might have gotten more injured than we did.
Danny and I went through our packs in the summit shelter and decided what could be shared amongst the three of us such that we would all have food, water and warmth. Considering Danny was supposed to be celebrating the completion of his John Muir Trail hike, the compromises he had to make were just so unfair. And this man had ZERO compunction. In fact, to this day I still have never heard thanks from him or his family, nor do I have any idea what happened to him after I said goodbye the next morning. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
It gets better. We see a headlamp coming up the hill. A man staggers up to us triumphantly, looking only slightly more prepared for an evening arrival than the first. I ask him if he has any supplies to help with our emergency, before he heads back down.
“I hiked 12 miles to get here. Why would I do that?” (go down)
Oh no! Juergen is grumpy at the suggestion of anything that he be welcomed warm-armed into the hut with us. In fact, the more I suggest to him how irresponsible it was of him to arrive to the summit with no plan on getting back down, and no overnight gear, the more he thinks I’m a bitch – and treats me like one. Note to self: don’t piss off a German.
I guess it was our responsibility to take care of Juergen at the summit. I just hadn’t been told.
Jurgen shows ZERO interest in helping with W’s care. He is going to sleep, then descend in the morning. I sincerely regretted giving him my cuben fiber tent to use as a blanket, as he manhandled it all night like a cheap cotton sheet. It brought back memories of the year prior, where I rescued six (SIX!) men who arrived to the summit after dark wearing things like sweatpants, jeans and cotton ponchos. WHY does this happen? What made these 8 men so incredibly short-sighted, and so willing to put other people out? For the record, after snuggling in my cuben gear all night, those six men thanked me with a handshake (!) and I never heard from them again.
They owed me at least a beer and a burger.
That’s not attitude, that’s just what happens when you put out a patient woman.
W is quiet and compliant, but unapologetic. He seems to think this is all normal. But I’m not sure he’s thinking much at all. I think he’s pretty ill with high elevation cerebral edema, which can be deadly. The best thing would be to get him down off the mountain STAT, but that’s not really an option, especially not in the dark. Jurgen certainly wouldn’t be any help, and frankly we need some rest. W is going to have to suffer the consequences of his stupid decision, and his pride. I guess we will, too.
Once we were all horizontal and the head lamps are turned off, Jürgen inserts his feet into Danny’s sleeping bag, and W wraps his arms around me and starts to give me unsolicited massages.
At least two of us are living a nightmare, and we aren’t even asleep yet.
I can’t get over the fact that the other two of us seem to think they are owed this care, and that we were sent to take care of them. Naturally.
Planning the Rescue
It’s dark. I call 9-1-1 from the summit and reach deputy Sheriff Victor. I’m familiar with him but he doesn’t know me. He’s a gung-ho robocop type, loves his guns, talks super straight. I am not getting any respect from him as a retired trauma 1 nurse who literally NEVER had a patient code or die unexpectedly. Victor works in Owens Valley where he only rubs elbows with trauma 3/4 nurses, so he has NO idea what my next-level skills are about. I am fucking good at keeping people alive, and have bandaged up mega blood and gore! I tried to explain to Victor that my concerns were based on experience. No joy.
Despite my attempts to convince him that it was serious and the W will probably not walk off the mountain in the morning, Victor just reassures me. Dude, Victor, I’m aware you can’t send a heli out right now in the dark. But at least be ready to send one in the morning? Victor to be clear, this is going on, and I’ve made my report. Good night. ARUGH.
I spend the rest of the night trying to keep W warm and hydrated. He is like a giant infant. A giant grope-y infant. I keep getting weird back rubs, and then having to readjust the “blankets” (tents, quilt, cardboard, etc) to make sure he’s covered again. I don’t sleep except a few winks. I’m very worried about him, and catching a lot of verbal abuse from the German.
Early in the morning strangers start poking their head in the cabin. Strangers start poring over the summit. They’ve gotten early starts and some of them catch the sunrise. I wanted to catch the sunrise, but instead I’m on the East edge of the mountain facing east so as to keep cellular connection with the sheriff.
“HE CAN’T WALK.”
“Walk him down.”
“I JUST SAID HE CAN’T WALK.”
“Start walking him down.”
Surprise! My discussion with Sheriff Victor is not going well.
I head into the group of people and ask loudly, “Is anyone here a doctor?” One man is a general medicine doc from Australia. I give him a touch of detail, and take him to the cabin where I have W tucked away, wrapped in my emergency blanket, with Danny watching him. I ask the doctor to assess how well W can walk. The cabin is barely longer than W’s armspan, and the doctor only has W move from one end to the other. He does it in one step. “He can walk.”
I’m back on the phone with Victor.
“He can’t walk.”
“Start walking him down.”
The Walk Down
We package W up and start him down the hill. We barely get half a mile down the tail and he has fallen a few times. I don’t try to catch him because I’m tall but he is enormous. I will get hurt if I try to stop him falling. And so I walk behind him and try to use his backpack straps to slow his falls a bit. The rocks are jagged and I’m worried this is going to end in broken bones. I don’t want to pull my back or twist my knee just because some dope hiked Whitney with Pixie Stix after failing to hike in Yosemite because of elevation sickness. It should be my RIGHT to not have to deal with that. (Weeks later at a party Victor told me I should have abandoned W. I’m not sure that would be legal.)
He can totally walk! Haha! Not!
I start to notice a smell.
I look down and see that W has wet his pants. Not long after that I smell feces.
W has shit himself.
Danny, I am so so so sorry that I told you to come to the summit to celebrate your JMT hike. But can you walk W while I communicate with the sheriff at the next window in the crest?
Me to the sheriff: “W has fallen three times.”
Sheriff: “Keep going.”
“W has shit himself.”
Soon after, I get a text message from someone else in Park dispatch:
“We are coordinating a heli. Give us about thirty minutes.”
And that was that. Danny helped walk W while I moved between my cell phone and my friend’s Garmin InReach (it was my first time ever using a rescue beacon!) coordinating the pickup location. This is less than ideal on a busy trail at 13,000 feet. We would meet the helicopter between Mount Muir and Trail Crest, at the switchbacks. As it turned out, W would leave me pretty much where I found him!
When we got to the spot we sat him on a big rock. I wrapped him in my homemade down quilt and an emergency blanket while we waited. We had to field off a lot of looky-loos. Many of them were completely dumbstruck when we would answer their question “can we help?” (obviously rhetorical) with:
“Yes. We are both starving. We’ve given all our food to two unprepared hikers who needed rescue.”
Only one hiker gave us some food, and we scarfed that down. Another hiker gave us a little of his water. Folks heading up Whitney these days really need to carry more food and water than they think they’ll need, because rescues like this happen nearly every day.
A man descended on a long rope to fetch W. He was super professional and very pleasant, and probably the most respectful person I had dealt with on my entire trip other than Danny. That was such a relief. He took my report, and thankfully also took W.
Yay! BYE W!
I will never see or hear from W again, nor will I receive any update from SEKI, who took over coordinating the rescue. He was pretty out of it. I’m surprised W had the wherewithal to at least wave us goodbye.
I know his girlfriend was supposedly waiting for him at the Portal but I never heard anything about that, either. It’s as if the problem just vanished *poof* and it didn’t happen.
Except I’ve got photos. It definitely happened.
Later I discovered shit on my down quilt. That about sums up this experience for me. It also reminded me how in 2015 a PCT hiker loaned his thru-hike sleeping bag to some really dumb people needing rescue on Whitney. They returned it to him soaked in urine, in a giant black trash bag.
I really am shocked at how nobody joined in to help him and I beyond the simplest and quickest gesture, but how dozens of looky-loos wanted to watch the helicopter rescue and got in the way. So then it became also Danny’s and my job to block the trail and keep people out of the heli zone. As if we hadn’t already done enough, now I’m also traffic control.
Of course y’all watch, and of course y’all probably told the story as if you were involved somehow. Which you weren’t other than to say “That’s SO awesome.” No – it was NOT AWESOME. I was harassed and molested while saving lives, after having been treated like an object the day before. I was without sleep, hungry and thirsty. I was uncompensated. The only awesome thing has been the scenery. I try to not let people disappoint me, but a lot of people let me down on that mountain.
The highlight was my time with Danny, who is just an excellent human being. Danny was really fun. He and I practically RAN down the Whitney trail to the Portal together. Well, actually, we did run. We felt so free! We were elated! We debriefed and vented some of the shock. I had warned him before going up that Whitney usually had some sort of drama every day, but this was a bit over-the-top. I apologized again and again. He seemed to not mind and might have actually enjoyed it, since it was such a wild story. And helicopters at 13,000 feet are cool.
His family was waiting there for him and their reunion was sweet. He had finished the JMT! I got a ride down with them to the Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine, where we debriefed and enjoyed burgers together. I’m so glad he was with me for that experience. It would have been very hard to do alone.