Our trip up Mt Whitney didn’t end with the glorious summit that we hoped for, but I did learn a lot from it. Probably more than I would have learnt if everything had gone smoothly. I wrote this up pretty-much straight after the climb, but only just got round to posting it.
Here are the main lessons…
- Although I may not notice it so much, I lose even more fluids at high elevations than I do at sea level. In the mountains the air is drier, and I’ll be breathing much harder for many more hours than if I’m, say, running or cycling at home. If I don’t drink at least a pint an hour, I will crash. I can’t rely on my thirst reflex to tell me how much to drink because it just doesn’t work. As an example of just how much fluid you lose, I was wandering around at 12,000 feet wondering why I was feeling so rough, and I realized I could see the vapour in my own breath. That’s fairly normal on a crisp winter morning, but this is in May and it’s 28 degrees.
- My habit of pushing myself harder and harder until I run out of steam and then recovering later doesn’t work in the mountains. If I’m going to climb big mountains on routes that take multiple days, I’ve got to learn to maintain my energy levels, stay hydrated, keep focused, and work at a constant “all day pace” for 12+ hours, and then be able to do it again the next day. Trying to get ‘er done as quickly as possible simply doesn’t work at my level of ability.
- Following a good acclimatization plan doesn’t guarantee you won’t get AMS. I was really strict, almost to the point of obsessiveness, about making sure we spent enough time at sufficient altitude before the big climb and yet altitude still played a major part in why we didn’t get beyond Trail Camp.
- Wear sunscreen. Baz Luhrmann knows best.
- The strategy when attempting a longish route should be to get high enough on the mountain that you can safely get to the summit and back in one day. Hauling masses of kit up the mountain so you can make a quick half-day dash to the summit and back is a lot more strenuous than camping a little lower and having a long steady summit day.
- Carrying all 40+ pounds of shared kit 4000 feet up a mountain to give your climbing partner a break is a lovely gesture but she won’t thank you for it when she’s feeling great but has to turn you around 2,500 feet below the summit because you’re dead on your feet and seeing stars.
- We can climb a mountain like Mt Whitney, but it’s going to take some more work and some more patience. We’ve got the raw ingredients; the right skills, enough physical fitness, the proper equipment and the raw willpower. But we need some more experience in order to bake those ingredients into an award- winning Summit-Pie.
- Beer never tastes better than when you get down after a few days on a mountain.