So, first off – it’s a bit shocking to see visitors to my other sites commenting on my blog. However, welcome to you all, new readers, happen-upon’ers, etc. Although I may feign some kind of “self-policing” by appearing to desire the blog’s audience stay limited, in reality I of course want it to grow. So come on in y’all and sit down whilst I spin ye a yarn.
I debated even attempting to write this tonight, being that I wanted to write a killer piece detailing this weekend’s events. I mean, I’m tired, I’m busted, and I don’t know how much tolerance for detail I have right now. I might start off all figurative and literary, and end up all matter-of-fact and dry. Who knows, but I’m going to give it a shot. So sit down, here goes the story of Mt. Whitney, 2004.
The crew (Melissa, Ben, Anthony, Sharaun, and myself) had taken Monday and Friday off work, giving us a long four-day weekend. The event had been planned for months. I mean, it had to have been, really. So many people want to climb Mt. Whitney that they only assign overnight or multi-day passes via a lottery system. You call or go to the website months in advance and specify a range of times you want to hike, and then they pull the names out of a hat and match them with available dates – and that’s when you’re going.
Our trip was intended to be do-able by all. And by “all,” I mean me. See, I’m the weak link in the chain with this crew. With the exception of me, everyone else is in great shape. Instead of some gung-ho commando journey, we took a very practical approach to the hike – breaking it into three days. From Whitney Portal (8,360ft), where you park your car, to summit (14,496ft) is about 11mi. Our trip was designed to get us the most high-altitude acclimation time possible before trying to summit. Friday night we’d camp at Portal (8,360ft), Saturday we’d hike to Trail Camp (12,000ft) and spend the night, allowing our bodies some time to get used to the thinner air. Sunday we’d summit and camp again at Trail Camp, and Monday we’d hike the 6mi back to Portal and drive home. Doing it this way would hopefully help us a) not die of fatigue, and b) not fall victim to AMS.
Maybe I should back up a bit first. Anthony and Ben, with friends, had attempted Whitney before – but their initial attempt was a one-day (fifteen hour) marathon hike. The day-hike passes are much easier to come by since those folks are supposed to be off the mountain by midnight the day of their pass. Ben had made it last time, Anthony stopped a little more than two miles from the summit – succumbing, like one in every four that tries Whitney, to AMS. AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness, is nasty – and manifests itself in many ways, all of which we’ll get to later. But just to baseline here, it effects “most” people in some form or another once you get somewhere above 10,000ft.
So back to the planning – Anthony got the lottery results sometime back in May. We had scored a weekend multi-day in late August. I made big plans to get in shape and whatnot before the hike, yeah – OK. So the getting in shape thing never panned out really, whatever. We had talked about doing Half Dome again, just to wear-in our bodies for the hiking “season,” but something always came up and August rolled around before we knew it. To my credit, I did wake up at 6am one morning in Taiwan and hit the hotel gym for 30min on the bike. I mean, that’s worth something, right?
Thursday night: I’m out of work at 5pm, everything’s taken care of for my absence – I’ve got it all covered. Ben and I get together and decided now is as good a time as any to plan the meals for the weekend (being as it’s the night before we leave and all). Wednesday night Sharaun and I had made trip to REI to get her some trekking poles, in hopes she could shift some of the burden onto them and save her problem knees some stress. Having all our gear ready, food was the only open item. Benz and I hit Raley’s and invented the menu as we walked the aisles.
Two dinners and two breakfasts, not to mention lunches. When it came down to it, the menu fleshed out as follows: Saturday night would be chicken and rice, Sunday night was macaroni and cheese with ham. We knew from the getgo we wanted mac-‘n’-cheese, y’know, the kind with that gooey cheese splooge that squeezes out of the shiny foil package? I think they market it as “deluxe,” but what it really is is cheesy to the max. While perusing the “potted meats” aisle for possible carnivore-friendly additions to our pasta/rice starch staples – we found what we considered to be a sign from God. Small, vacuum-sealed, foil packets of meat.
We snagged a couple chicken and a couple ham – which would comprise the dead-animal food group of our evening meals on the trail. We picked up some yummy white rice and a container of those condensed-chicken bullion cubes you used to see in your mom’s cupboard and had no idea what they were for. We figured we could mix the rice, bullion, and chicken. Likewise, the mac-‘n’-cheese and ham combo sounded equally rad. For breakfast we got some instant coffee, instant oatmeal, and cinnamon-raison bagels. They key theme centering on things that need nothing other than boiling water to prepare. Lunches would be on-trail and simple, buffet-style, if you will. One of a myriad of Cliff Bar flavors, perhaps a chew or two of beef jerky, or maybe some trail-mix. Ben and I headed home, un-packaged all the items and re-packaged them in pack-friendly ziplock bags, and left them to be distributed among the crew come morning.
Friday morning started off great, being that I wasn’t getting ready to go to work. Everyone met at the local greasy spoon for a pre-weekend breakfast. Omelets, grits, coffee, and gravy-drenched biscuits filled the table. Spirits were high, and we were all more than ready to hit the road. Full bellies and a carload of packs later, we finally hit the road around 10am. Stopping to gas up the Explorer before heading up 50 towards Tahoe, Ben lamented again about his mistrust of our chosen vehicle. It was also about this time that Anthony decided to call and get the full details on how we’d get our passes. We’ll take both of these items as separate paragraphs, respectively.
See, I gotta admit – I’ve let the Ford slip a bit. Being that she’s been, for the most part, a backyard workhorse these past months, I’ve neglected her washing and maintenance. She’s got cracked exhaust manifolds which give her a nice “ticking” sound on acceleration, and something’s wrong with the CV joints or brakes or something to where she makes an ugly and protesting “grinding” sound when making slow stops. Other than these two mechanical defects, and her “wash-me” exterior – she’s running like a thoroughbred. Back to the story.
We’re gassing up prior to the ~6hr trip to Whitney. Anthony has the confirmation for our passes, and we’re wondering if we have to pick them up today or if we can wait until tomorrow morning (being that we won’t actually be on the trail until that day). He calls the ranger station on his cellphone. I hear, “You mean they’re cancelled? Uh-huh. 10am, I see. OK, so for the whole weekend? All the passes are gone? OK, I misunderstood.” My heart drops, and no one in the car says a word as he hangs up. No one wanted to ask, are they gone? Are we screwed?
We continue to climb into the mountains, trees lining the road. Eventually Anthony comes clean: “We were supposed to pick them up by 10am today. They’ve cancelled them all. It’s my fault. It even says so right here on the confirmation.” Man, talk about crap. We weren’t 10min from home and already it was looking bad. I hadn’t told anyone yet – but I wasn’t turning back. I was gonna go to Whitney no matter what. If we somehow managed to get passes, so be it – if not, so what. Some of the crew quickly came up with the alternate plan of driving to Half Dome and doing that again, if the passes fell through. One thing was clear – no one wanted to turn around just yet.
I drive uphill in silence as Anthony’s mind must have been racing. I pause the music as I hear him get on the phone again, he gets a different person on the other end this time. Turning on his best “help me” pleading voice, he explains the situation to the new listener. We didn’t know, got a late start our of Sacramento, won’t be there until 6pm or so tonight, etc. The new girl takes the info and asks him to call back in 10min. Un-pause music and wait, pause again as the phone moves back to his ear. She got sidetracked, call back in a few more minutes. Music on again, pause again 15min later as the he makes the call yet again.
“Yeah, I messed up. I didn’t know we had to be there by 10am. What? July?! Oh, I really did get all mixed up? this is bad. I’m sorry, I really mixed this up. Really? OK. I don’t know what happened, I applied for the August lottery? I’m sorry. OK. Thanks.”
Silence in the car again. Finally Sharaun blurts out, “They were for July?!” Yes indeed, we were nearly an hour into a trip that was booked for the last week of July – only problem was, we were headed down in the last week of August. Not only had Anthony missed the 10am deadline caveat to the passes, he had the whole trip planned a month later than the passes were issued for. To his credit, he did only specify August on the lottery form, and the dates we got lined up with a weekend in August and would’ve been mid-week had we done them in the correct month. When he got the confirmation, he naturally assumed they were for August.
Long story short, Anthony poured on enough charm (over the phone, no less) to score us five last-minute multi-day passes to the Whitney trail. Something that most folks wait months for, and we got it on the drive down from Northern California. Making excellent time, we arrived at the ranger station at 5pm. Walking through the door, Anthony name-dropped his charmed contact’s name to the rangers behind the counter – saying she had reserved him some passes for the weekend. The girls manning the counter pulled out a manila envelope and questioningly eyed the contents as we waited expectantly. Not to worry though, he had managed to pour on enough sweetness for five weekend passes. The other rangers were flabbergasted, apparently Anthony had done no small feat of magic to get this particular ranger to oblige him with last-minute passes. They were proud of whatever it was he did that managed to score us the trip.
As the pass-getting wrapped up, we got the obligatory “clean your car or bears will eat it,” talk – and something new: The solar toilets at Trail Camp were not working, and we’d be expected to pack out all human waste we created on our journey. Hmm? I mean, I’ve known forever that hauling your own poop is just a part of distance-hiking, but I’d never experienced it. I’d seen “crap bags” and “crap cans” for sale at hiking and mountaineering shops, so I was familiar with the whole process – but never really thought I’d have to do it. Luckily only Anthony were listening as they explained that small detail, and it was left to us to choose an opportune time to inform the rest of the crew (mainly, the female members).
Passes in hand, we were set. We drove up to Portal and set up camp, then headed back down into Lone Pine for one last dinner of pizza and soda. Pulling up to the local pizza joint, we parked and decided this would be a good time to clean out the Ford of all bear-yummies – while we still had daylight. The crew set to lifting floormats and scouring gloveboxes and side-pockets for gum wrappers or stray french-fries. I decided to move the driver’s seat to it’s forward-most position to better clean underneath it.
Once more I need to digress and talk about the Ford. Not only does she tick and grind, she has a couple notable pieces of interior “charm.” The vinyl top to the center console is cracked and showing its stuffing, and the driver’s side chair mechanism is all busted up. The seat-recline lever is completely broken off, locking the seat-back in the perma-gangsta-lean position I prefer to rock it. The rest of the seat controls, both driver and passenger, are completely mechanized. Moving the seat forward and back, up and down, canting front or rear, etc., is all done via a wired-panel of switches on the side of the seat. On my Ford, this control panel of switches is all jacked-up. When the seat-recline lever broke, the whole panel became detached and is now hanging by wires which disappear back into the seat somewhere.
So where was I? Oh yeah, I move the seat all the way forward to clean under it. Fine, clean. I go to hit the switch and move the seat back to a drive-able position. Nothing. The seat’s going nowhere. I ask Ben, who’s cleaning the passenger seat area, if he can move his seat – nothing. I check the power windows and locks, nothing. Something’s wrong. We quickly troubleshoot the problem to a blown fuse. Meanwhile we’re still in the parking lot of the pizza joint. Despite the fact that the car is completely bear-immaculate, the driver’s seat is stuck in such a position that the vehicle is now completely undriveable and utterly useless. Not even Sharaun can wedge her legs between the seat and dash and still be able to work the pedals. What’s worse, the whole thing is motorized – there’s absolutely no way to move the seat back manually.
The fuse box in the cab is no help, it’s tiny fuses are all in good shape – although I have to bust out the owner’s manual to see what fuse covers which items. The big fuse box under the hood looks more promising, filled with 20A and 30A fuses, the owner’s manual says that one of them controls “power seats, windows, doors, etc.” A quick check of the fuse-box against the illustration in the manual immediately shows that my fuse box is laid out nothing like the one in the manual, so trying to match up the fuse positions to their respective circuits will be useless. Anthony goes for a visual inspection of all the fuses until he finally pulls what is a very spent 30A fuse.
A quick walk across the street to the local market learns us that the Napa closed at 6pm and won’t be open again until tomorrow morning at 9am. Well, that’s fine – we don’t have to hit the trail until 10ish tomorrow and we’re already planning on coming down for a good breakfast in town before hitting the trail – we can pick up a spare fuse then. But, how do we move the seat now so we can go anywhere? So, three engineers, one blown fuse, and one un-drivable SUV. Anthony comes up with an idea in short order, let’s just close the circuit – fuse be damned. I mean, all we need to do is get power to the seat motor for the 10 seconds it will take to move it back to a drivable position, right? So, we go in to order our pizza – and ask for a paperclip, our temporary fuse. Let’s see 30A try and blow a damn paperclip.
Sensing the humor in our current situation, and the possible mad-cap antics that could result from the paperclip plan – I decide we should document the whole process on film. Our little digital camera can take 3min movies with sound, so I insisted we wait to try the plan until I was rolling and had properly set the scene. Here we are, daylight fading, seat stuck so forward that no one can drive it, all our hopes resting on a bent-up paperclip acting as a makeshift fuse. I think I’ll let the video tell the rest of the story (dialuppers beware, large file).
Basically, Anthony completed the circuit with the paperclip (and his hand), and quickly realized that that 30A fuse was working just like it was designed to. There was obviously a short to ground somewhere (in a car, I think something like 115V to ground, right?) – and that fuse had melted away under the unwanted current. He got the entire short right through that clip into his fingers. A paperclip one minute and a red hot wire the next, he recoiled in pain proclaiming, “Something’s shorted!” Luckily we caught the whole thing on video. Even more luckily, once Anthony’s burned hand confirmed the short – we jiggled the driver’s seat control panel and tried the paperclip again, this time having jiggled loose the short. We were able to move the seat and get a replacement fuse the next morning.
OK, I’m only on the first day of the story and it’s nearly midnight on real-life Monday night. I have to go to bed. Stay tuned for “Part II” as tomorrow’s entry. You’ll get to hear all about exciting things like recreational Imodium usage, poisonous spider bites (a real picture of me, not for the squeamish), pooping in bags, and black and blue toenails. As for what you’ve read already, I wrote fast, and I hiked six miles and drove six hours today – so expect poor grammar and syntax errors… I’ll fix ’em later.
To close, I was deeply saddened to see the first true “blog” I ever read close up shop the other day. I found it one day while I was working an “internship” at Raytheon – coding targeting systems for tanks in ADA (read: downloading gigs on gigs of Dead from Sugarmegs). R.I.P. DAaR.