My favorite thing about being an outdoors instructor isn’t spending my working days out in nature. It isn’t in being a strong climber or an accomplished paddler or an expert backpacker. It isn’t getting up before the sun nor the exhaustion of a long, physically demanding day guiding clients. It definitely isn’t for the money.

My favorite thing about being an outdoors instructor is seeing the light in my students’ eyes when they try something they never thought they’d be doing. It’s that moment in a class when someone overcomes a fear of heights and reaches the top of a climb, or gets in the ocean on a tiny piece of plastic when they are deathly terrified of the ocean, or when a 60 year old woman rides a bike for the first time in her life.

Today, the employees from the Tustin REI got a free mountaineering class from Outdoor School. For most of them, it was their first exposure to snow travel. They learned to put on crampons, carry an ice axe, kick steps, self-belay, and to self-arrest during a fall. They spent the day in the snow working on the basic skills of a mountaineer.

Normally, my facebook post would be about how amazing of a day it was to be teaching outside. About how fantastic it was to have such a great group of students. How I was at the top of the snow slope giving encouragement and yelling tips as they slid down the slope.

But today, I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me doing the teaching or taking the group out or even just being out with them. Today, I was in the office sending emails and answering phone calls. Today, I had to sit out something I really, really wanted to be a part of.

This season, I wanted to make mountaineering happen for REI. Not just for our paying customers, but for the employees too. Mountaineering is why I got into the outdoors in the first place. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to climb big, snow covered peaks. The Sierras. The Rockies. The Andes. The Alps. The Himalaya. There is something magical about being in snow, up in the thin mountain air, with an ice axe in your hand, and determined courage in your heart.

I wanted to share that. I wanted the other REI employees to know what that was like. I wanted to plant that seed, to give them that starting point for their mountain adventures. Even if they never try it again, I wanted them to get an idea.

This is mountaineering. It’s fucking amazing. You can do it.

Mountaineering is what REI was founded to do. We started as a co-op to bring Austrian ice axes into America in the 1930’s. It’s the reason we have ice axes on our doors. It’s the very heart of what being a part of this company means. No matter how big REI gets, I remember that we started in mountaineering.

Yeah, it’s good business. The employees are suddenly much more knowledgeable about gear and experience. Yeah, it’ll sell more ropes and harnesses and ice axes and crampons and tents and boots. Customers will get outfitted.

But I don’t really care much about that.

I care about pushing the limits of your comfort zone. I care about overcoming fear and developing courage. I care about the quiet solitude of the up-high alpine making you a deeper and more introspective person. I want everyone to become a better person through their experiences outside. Today, I wasn’t able to be there for that.

But the thing is, I set this whole thing up. I pushed the store managers to pay for it, I got the instructors, I set up the date and times, and I made it all happen. I just wasn’t able to be there in person. I had other responsibilities.

It’s part of my new role. I accept that I can touch more lives from afar. I can’t be there for every class or for every student. It’s just too big of a job for a one person. No, someone has to do all the background work. Someone has to do the coordinating and the motivating and persuading. I’m not just a single instructor anymore.

So I miss a day with the employees of the store I grew up in and in the class I am most passionate about. I trust my fellow instructors. They are really, really good. It’s part of the role I play. I am a little sad that it’s not me.

But today, I see the pictures the employees posted. The big smiles on their faces while posing with ice axes in their hands. The groups of them on snow slopes planting their axes to the mantra of, “in-balance, out-of-balance, in-balance, out-of-balance.” Their status updates and their hashtags.

They look tired. Dirty. Bruised.

But, what I see most is pride. Proud that they tried something really intimidating and scary. Proud that they got up at the ass crack of dawn and drove up to a 10,000′ mountain covered in snow. Proud to have strapped little knives to their feet and kick stepped around on snow and ice. Proud that they were able to fall head-first, backwards, down a snow-covered slope and stop themselves with an ice axe. All these REI employees, all these brand-new mountaineers, they post their status updates all over facebook. There are so many smiling faces in those pictures. So many proud status updates and proud instagram posts.

I see all this, and I can’t help it.

I feel proud of them too.


A lucky joy…



I’m tired and sore and stiff after a fourteen hour day at work. And I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with a cold or flu.

But despite that, I am incredibly lucky to be doing a job that fills me with joy and allows me to share my love of being outside with others.

I’ll never be a world-class mountaineer or a pro climber. I’ll never be on the cover of Alpinist or be featured in a Warren Miller film. But today, I get to teach a dozen or so aspiring mountaineers how to put on crampons and self-arrest with an ice axe. I know it’s not Annapurna or the Eiger or even the Sierra. It’s just Mt. Baldy. But for a few short and sweet hours under the Southern California skies, I get to be a mountain guide. And if that’s all I get, well, it’s still pretty damned good.

Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed and I.

Lucky enough to get a pic with Cheryl!

Lucky enough to get a pic with Cheryl!

I read Wild a couple years after I lost my mom to cancer. I remember thinking how closely Cheryl’s struggle mirrored my own experiences and was amazed that she had managed to write such a raw and vulnerable memoir. Yesterday, I gave her a Snapple before her talk. Afterwards, we talked for a couple minutes and I thanked her for what she had shared. I told her that I didn’t own her book because I was poor, but that I’d love it if she could sign my library card. She was gracious enough to oblige.

My library card!

My library card!

8000m Challenge, Winter Edition

Baldy Bowl.

Baldy Bowl.

We woke up in the sub-freezing alpine hours, when the sun was still asleep below the dark line of the horizon and the glow from my headlamp illuminated only the warm puffs of my breath. Our group was nestled in the trees by Dry Lake on Mt. San Gorgonio around 8000’ and we were getting ready to push for the summit.

“Why are we doing this again?” Sean asked in the dark.

As I fumbled around in my sleeping bag, my head brushed against the low, nylon ceiling of the single-walled mountaineering tent and condensation rained down on us. I shivered in the cold.

“Because we want to live full lives,” I muttered.

Grumbling and stumbling, we hastily threw on soft shells and goose down jackets over our softer, goose bump skin. Outside, I started jumping up and down trying to warm up. I repeated the mantra in my head, “Live a full life. Live a full life. Live a full life.” I was trying to convince myself that this was a good idea.

Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge.

Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge.

This was the Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge. Outdoor retailers like REI, Adventure 16, Sport Chalet, Zappos, Gear Co-op, and others send small teams of gullible hikers and ultra runners to race up the three tallest peaks in Southern California: Mt. San Antonio (10,064’), Mt. San Gorgonio (11,499’), and Mt. San Jacinto (10,835’). They were the three saints of the Southern California skies and the three devils in our hearts. In a single day, we do thirty eight trail miles and over 10,000’ of elevation gain.

I’m a bad hiker and a poor runner. On weekends, instead of training, I smoke Parliament cigarettes and drink too much beer with my friends. Somehow, I’ve stumbled my way through the race three times. And I have no idea why I keep signing up. It’s long and painful and hard and no fun at all. Every year I tell myself I’m never doing it again. And every year, when they post that sign-up sheet in the break room at the REI I work at, I put my stupid name on that stupid list and curse my stupid self. This year, for the 25th Anniversary, they decided to host a winter version. Same three peaks, in winter, with mountaineering gear and guides. And again, I found myself signing up.

Sean looking epic.

Sean looking epic.

I wasn’t like my tent mate Sean. He once did the 8000m Challenge by riding his bike between the peaks instead of driving. 100+ miles of road cycling in the desert with heat and headwinds and hill climbs between the 38 miles of hiking. All done within 24 hours. He belonged here.

Or like my fellow REI teammate Cyndi. She was an ultramarathon runner with long hair and long legs who has got to be in her mid forties, but looks like she’s in her mid twenties.

Mark climbing on Gorgonio.

Mark climbing on Gorgonio.

Or Mark, a middle-aged Brit who worked for Zappos and had just qualified for the Boston Marathon. He confesses to me that he’s never slept in a sleeping bag.

“This is so far out of my comfort zone,” he said.
“You qualified for Boston! You ran a seven-minute mile the whole way!” I replied.
“That’s different.”
“I’m happy if I can run a seven-minute mile for a mile!”

I think he’s got a pretty big comfort zone. He’s in shape and he’ll be fine.

Our guide, Amy.

Our guide, Amy.

I had no question about our guides. Like Amy, a strong looking blonde girl in her late twenties who had just spent a month in Patagonia putting up a first ascent with her boyfriend.

“What did you name it?” I asked.
“Plate Tectonics.”
“How hard was it?”
“5.12 C1, 20 pitches.”

Just like that. A 5.12 first ascent of a big wall in alpine conditions in Patagonia. No big deal.

Kurt Wedberg.

Kurt Wedberg.

And then there was Kurt. Kurt Wedberg was our lead guide and the owner of Sierra Mountaineering International. He was a tall, imposing man who was very much in charge. Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, he’d done it all.

The day before, we were taking break in the shade of some trees at South Fork Meadows when a boy scout had walked up to Kurt.

“You guys going to the summit?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Kurt replied.
“There’s a lot of snow. We didn’t have any snow gear so we’re heading back. If you have crampons and stuff, you should be ok. Are you taking the trail?” The kid is trying to be helpful.

We look over at Kurt. We were all thinking the same thing: “This teenager has no idea who he’s talking to.” Kurt looks at the kid a second before replying. We can see him trying to keep a straight face.

“We’re going straight up. Direttissima. Right up the throat of it…” he breaks off as he starts choking on his laughter.

We all laughed at this poor kid until he had left.

Headlamp start.

Headlamp start.

The moon was high and bright and threw thin shadows off the black trees as we hiked in the headlamp darkness toward the base of our snow climb. The dozen of us snaked in a single line of shivering determination and arriving at our climb, we pulled our ice axes and crampons out.

“Wait, how do we size this thing again?”
“Which way does the strap go?”
“Um, I don’t think this is right.”

We were new to this. We bent low, fumbling around with the nylon straps on our steel-toothed crampons, trying to attach them to our newly bought and not yet broken-in boots. The sun rose over us as we climbed in small rope teams. Our guides led us, switch backing across the low-angled snow, firm in the early morning cold. I could feel a little anxiety in my team as we moved higher and the slope got a little steeper.

Climbing by headlamp.

Climbing by headlamp.

To calm our nerves, I started singing. I am a terrible singer. I like to say that what I lack in talent, I make up for in volume. So I sang, loudly and badly, “Should’ve been a cowboy, should’ve learned to rope and ride!” Country music with its cowboys and truckers and the wide open spaces always seemed appropriate to the outdoors. So I sang Toby Keith in the rising morning sun on the side of this waking giant of a mountain.

Gorgonio summit.

Gorgonio summit.

I could feel my blood warming and my adrenaline rising with my off-key voice. We climbed steadily, kick-stepping our crampon points and planting our axes. “In-balance, out-of-balance, in-balance, out-of-balance…” I kept the mantra in my head. Looking down the slope, our camp seemed so far away and only grew smaller and smaller in the distance. Upward, the summit grew larger and larger until, suddenly, we were on top.


We stood together for a moment and zipped up our jackets against the whipping wind. The clear blue Southern California sky seemed to go on forever in every direction and only the other peaks broke the skyline. I could see San Antonio to the northwest where we had come from. To the southeast, San Jacinto rose up from the desert floor where windmill turbines spun in white circles. We’d be climbing it next. We had to hurry, so we snapped a quick summit photo and started down.

On the long hike down, I kept seeing that same tired smile on the faces of my teammates. It’s that familiar look I see at every 8000m Challenge I’ve been at. Somewhere between the pain and misery and cold and heat and dehydration and painful, embarrassing chafing, we find something to smile about.

I was blistered and burnt and dried out. My quads were sore and my calves were tight. My head hurt from the altitude and strangers laughed at my sunburnt, raccoon face. But the beauty of this event was that there are no pros. There’s no glory, no press, no spectators. We all suffered together. The mountain didn’t care who you were. Triathlete, ultra-marathoner, rock climber, or cigarette-smoking me.

I did this event because it was hard. Because it was a massive challenge with three towering mountains. Because I hate climbing San Gorgonio and love climbing San Gorgonio and have lived and loved and died so many times in my freezing-cold sleeping bag and my hypoxic altitude sickness there. Because I wanted to be able to come back and say that I did do it. Because of my blistered feet at the end of a headlamp finish atop a 10,000 ft peak with other blistered children of the mountain, of freezing in the beginning of hypothermic misery with others who are frozen in body, but burning in spirit.

Because it is hard. Because it is there. Because I’m trying to live a full life and because I’m going to go straight up the throat of it. Direttissima.

So when that sign-up sheet shows up in my break room at work, I’m going to put my stupid name on that stupid line. One more time. Because I want to live a full life.

But mostly because I’m gullible and have a poor memory.

Starting up Baldy.

Starting up Baldy.

Whitney Portal Route

Whitney Portal Route
Single day, 12-18 hours roundtrip
Distance: ~22 miles
Elevation: 6600’+

Drive to the Whitney Portal. Spend the night at the trailhead. Wake up at 2 or 3 AM. Get on the trail and start walking. If you’ve trained, you should make the summit in 6-8 hours (8 – 10 AM). Spend an hour on the summit. Descend. 5-7 hours to return. Get back to car around 4-6 PM. Fall asleep in your car.

This is a good and reasonable trip plan.

The Route
You want to get as early of a start as possible. The later you leave, the higher your chances of encountering mid-afternoon thunderstorms and the lower your chances of success.

Whitney Portal Trailhead
Distance from Trailhead: 0 miles.
Elevation: ~8300′

Leave the Mt. Whitney parking lot.

01 - Whitney Trailhead

Yeah, that’s me on my first Whitney hike. Damn, I was young.

A little ways in, you’ll encounter the John Muir Wilderness sign.

02 - Entering JM Wilderness Sign

Welcome to the John Muir Wilderness.

Head up the trail past some easy switchbacks and you’ll soon encounter a log bridge over a low creek.

03 - Log Bridge before Lone Pine Lake

Sometimes there’s a creek here.

After the bridge, you’ll come to Lone Pine Lake.

04 - Lone Pine Lake

Lone Pine Lake. I’m a little older here.

Above Lone Pine Lake, you’ll enter the Mt. Whitney Zone (where permits are required). You’ll follow the edge of a beautiful alpine meadow and reach the first campsite.

05 - Meadow Before Outpost Camp

Looking back from Outpost Camp toward the trailhead.

Outpost Camp
Distance from Trailhead: ~3.5 miles.
Elevation: ~10,300’

Outpost Camp is a very nice little campsite nested in some shade with a small stream running nearby. Water quality is good (still needs filtration), and the campsites are nice. This is a great place to overnight if you are backpacking.

After Outpost, you’ll start climbing up to Mirror Lake. Ascending up from Mirror Lake, you’ll follow Lone Pine Creek and pass Consultation Lake on your left. After Consultation Lake, you’ll enter the Trail Camp area.

Trail Camp
Distance from Trailhead: ~5.5 miles
Elevation: ~12,000’

06 - Camping at Trail Camp

Camping at Trail Camp in wintery conditions.

Trail Camp is the closest campsite to the summit. Whitney’s peak will be ahead of you and a large ring of high ground surrounds you. It’s above the treeline and you’ll be exposed to weather with no shelter except the large boulderfield you’re in. Be warned, thousands of hikers and campers come through here and the water quality is very poor. Make sure to filter any water you draw from the small lake here. It’s not a very scenic campsite, but it is close to the summit and makes a great place to stop for a summit push. Another great campsite if you are overnighting up here.

07 - Trail Camp to Summit Summer

Looking from Trail Camp to the summit. Summer conditions.

Crossing the Trail Camp valley, you’ll start the real climbing. Ahead of you is the infamous Hundred Switchbacks section. It’s steep and long and high up. Enjoy the pain.

08 - Switchbacks

One of a hundred switchbacks! Fun!

Once you get on top of the Hundred Switchbacks, you’ll be at Trail Crest.

Trail Crest
Distance from Trailhead: ~7 miles
Elevation: ~13,500

09 - Trail Crest

Trail Crest. I’m so frickin’ epic right now.

Congratulations, you’re almost certainly going to summit. You’re at ~13,500’ and only a few more miles of trail are between you and the summit. At Trail Crest, you should check the horizon. Make sure it is clear of thunderclouds. Storms roll into the Sierras from the west in the mid-afternoon, and you do not want to be on the exposed summit during a lighting storm.

10 - Looking Back toward Trail Crest

Near the summit, looking back toward Trail Crest.

A few miles of easy hiking takes you to the summit hut. A note here about lightning:


Despite the presence of lightning rods on the hut, it is not designed to protect its inhabitants from lightning. People have DIED INSIDE from lightning strikes. Do not shelter there during a thunderstorm. DESCEND!

11 - Summit Hut

Summit hut. Does NOT protect you from lightning.

Mt. Whitney Summit
Distance from Trailhead: ~11 miles
Elevation: 14,505’

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Tag the summit, sign the summit register, take some pictures, and enjoy the view. You’ve earned it.

12 - Easy Button on Summit

Summit register. Easy button?!?

Here’s the one buzzkill. You’re only HALF WAY done. There is still the descent. And guess what?

Most people who get injured on mountains get injured on the descent!

Being tired and in a rush to get back to the car is a surefire way to an ankle injury. Downhill is also much harder on your joints. Take your time getting down. Unless there is weather rolling in, there’s no rush. (You brought a headlamp along right?) Go slow and get back safely.

Winter Climbs
If you get to Whitney early or late in the season, there is a good chance your hike will turn into a winter climb. Snow and ice will make the Hundred Switchbacks section treacherous and impassable. Most people take the direct route to Trail Crest by climbing the low-angle snow to the right of the switchbacks.

07a - Trail Camp to Summit Snow

If it looks like this, you’re not “hiking” anymore.

It is not a very technical route, but it does require ice axe and crampons (and the knowledge to properly use them).

08a - Snow Climb to Trail Crest

Climbing low angle snow. No helmet, bad example!

Winter mountaineering requires (in order):


Let me say that again.


Practice this.

Practice this.

Too many people get killed up here trying to fake it. This is not a place to learn on the fly. Know what you are getting into and PRACTICE.

On Poop
Yep. There’s a section here on poop. Get over it.

When you pick up your permit, the rangers will give you a Wag Bag. It’s a bag to poop in.

Yes, you have to use it. It is required.

With the thousands of hikers coming into this zone, human waste accumulates faster than it can decompose. To address this problem, all overnighters must carry (and use) a human waste bag. If you are a dayhiker, it is optional. I recommend carrying it anyway.

The kit includes a large plastic “target” sheet, a few heavy duty bags, odor-absorbing chemicals, and some toilet paper. The “target” sheet is huge. You can’t miss. However…


There’s nothing more disgusting than having the wind pick up your poop and throw it on your leg.

You do your business and add a little water to the chemicals and wrap the whole thing up in the bags. It’s actually a pretty sturdy system. Dispose of the bag at the specially marked waste containers at the trailhead.

13 - Wag Bag Disposal


If you are overnighting, I suggest carrying two. They can be reused, but you DON’T want to do that. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.

Final Thoughts
Walk all day, destroy your legs on the Hundred Switchbacks, risk snow and ice and rain and lightning, bake in the sun, get sick from the altitude, and poop in a bag. Sounds like a good time! Where do I sign up?

Go do it. It’s either that or live your safe boring life on your couch.

Don’t be lame. Be awesome.

Good luck and be safe!

Training for Whitney

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Ok, I’ve put in for a Mt. Whitney Permit. Now what?

Start training.

Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states. It is 14,505’ of quad-burning, ankle-turning pain. If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking about tagging the summit. If so, say this next sentence out loud:


Yep. It’s going to be a long day. A VERY long day.

But you should do it anyways. Because it’s good for your body and it’s good for your soul.

Outside Ed’s Five Step Guide to Training

  1. Commit to Doing It.
    1. Be decisive. Decide as early as possible to commit to the summit. It’ll mentally focus you on the task at hand and give you maximum time to train.
    2. Deciding early also allows you to train with the gear you will be using. The most critical piece of gear on this trip will be your footwear. Get your shoes/boots ASAP and start getting your feet used to them.
  2. Train.
    1. It is 22 miles long with 6600+’ of elevation. You need to train for it. Start walking.
    2. Cross-training is good, but nothing gets you ready for a long hike like a long hike.
    3. Hiker smaller local mountains and work your way up.
  3. Train Some More.
    1. Get up early. Go for a run. Spend your weekends hiking. Get strong.
    2. If you want a good indicator of your fitness, go hike the Vivian Creek Trail on Mt. San Gorgonio. If you feel good on that, you’re probably ready.
  4. Acclimate.
    1. Get high. Get to altitude. Sleep up there. The air is thin, so you’ll need to get used to it.
  5. Do It.
    1. Be a beast and tag the summit.

5 Common Reasons People Fail to Summit

  1. Out of Shape
    1. This is a long hike. Don’t underestimate how arduous it is. Come ready for a long, long day. You’ll be doing a lot of elevation gain. Make sure to do plenty of training hikes between now and summit day. Try to do a trail with at least 5000’ of elevation gain to simulate this hike.
  2. Altitude Sickness
    1. The summit is at 14,505’. If you’ve never been up to altitude before, it can seriously kick your ass. You need to acclimate your body to being at higher elevations BEFORE you arrive. That means spending nights above 5000’. Your body will make more red blood cells to oxygenate your body while you sleep. So climb something local and spend the night on top. Do this in the months leading up to the hike.
    2. Ascend slowly. Walk at a slower pace than normal. If you’re overnighting, spend your nights at lower camps and allow time to acclimate. Ascending quickly further exacerbates the symptoms of altitude sickness.
  3. Dehydration
    1. Bring a lot of water and drink it. Refill at Outpost camp. Then fill up again at Trail Camp. Then fill up on the way down. FILTER YOUR WATER. The water quality there is horrible.
  4. Weather
    1. You’re in the Sierras. There will be weather. Be ready for it and turn around if there is any question. Don’t get killed for a stupid summit.
    2. Snow. If you’re shooting for an early summit date, be prepared for snow and snow travel. You may need ice axe and crampons to ascend. With snow and ice, the switchbacks section from Trail Camp to Trail Crest will be closed and you will have to ascend the snow chute to the right of it. If you do not have experience with ice axe and crampons, turn around. Learn to self-arrest and self-belay. It’s not a very technical climb and it’s not very steep, but it can still kill you.
    3. Thunderstorms. The Sierras are notorious for thunderstorms. They usually roll in during the early afternoon, around 2PM. You should be ALREADY DESCENDING by this time. Get an early start and be on your way down. If you see thunderclouds on the horizon, you need to abort your hike and turn around. THERE IS NO COVER ON THE SUMMIT AND SUMMIT AREA. The hut has lightning rods all over it. IT WILL NOT PROTECT YOU. People have died inside the summit hut from lightning.
  5. Injury
    1. It’s a trail. There are rocks. There might be ice and snow. You will probably slip and fall at some point. Be prepared for ankle injuries. Carry a full roll of athletic tape and learn how to properly tape an ankle.
    2. Blisters can immobilize you. Make sure you wear proper footwear and break it in before you get there. Make sure you’re used to doing long days in your shoes. Carry a blister kit and know how to treat hotspots before they turn into blisters.

Whitney is a pretty major undertaking. It’s big and tall and long. Don’t underestimate the mountain and show up IN SHAPE.

Good luck and go get it!

Mt. Whitney Permit Lottery

Fourth Time

My fourth summit of Whitney.

The annual Mt. Whitney lottery is here! If you’re looking to climb it this year, I hope you’ve turned in an application. They start issuing dates in a few days! If you haven’t, here’s a quick rundown.

The Lottery
Mt. Whitney is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the ENTIRE UNITED STATES. To limit access, the Forest Service issues permits for Mt. Whitney in a lottery.

Here’s how the process works:
You send in an application between Feb. 1 and March 15. Earlier doesn’t mean you have a better chance. It all gets lumped together. If you turn in an application after March 15, they’ll still take it. You just end up at the back of the line (very low chance of getting a permit).

March 16 – They randomly start picking applications and assigning dates.
March 24 – You can see the status of your application.
April 1 – You can accept or decline your date.
April 30 – Last day to accept your date.

Last year: 38% of applications were successful. 4500 out of 11,500.

So even BEFORE you start, you’ve got less than 40% chance of GETTING a permit.

Some notes:
July and August are the most popular months.
Weekends? Holidays? Good luck.
Be flexible with your dates.

Picking Your Dates
The presence or absence of snow will be a major factor in your summit bid. Too early in the season and you might have to posthole your way to the top. Too late in the season and you might get an early winter storm dumping powder on you. Either way, snow is no fun for the average hiker.

Snow can persist on Whitney through late July. Luckily, this year has been very dry. No guarantees, but June will probably be hike-able. July and August are best, but the popularity of those months makes getting a permit difficult. Early September can be very nice. Cooler weather, but there is a higher chance of thunderstorms.

If you do encounter snow, come prepared or turn around! Ice can make the Hundred Switchbacks section from Trail Camp to Trail Crest impassable. You should have basic ice axe and crampon skills. Learn to self arrest. It’s not that hard, but it does require practice!

People die up there. Don’t be one of them.

Good luck and go get a permit!

Official Forest Service site (for more info): Forest Service Mt. Whitney Page
Official site (to apply for a permit): Whitney Lottery

Carrying Yeats

Carrying Yeats

My hair is a mess. I hadn’t showered in four days.

The meaning of life is carrying a beat-up paperback copy of William Butler Yeats along the Sierra backcountry, cursing its ten ounces of deadweight along every sweaty step, trudging under the combined heft of a pack stuffed with gear and silly romanticism, hating his portrait on the front cover and hating the foolish decision to bring it. It’s falling asleep every night bundled in your bag with a headlamp and curled deep under down reading another poem and his wandering words from half a world away, the mythical green hills of a beautiful hilly island and wondering if he would have been so enamored of its beauty if he had to clamber over treeless ten-thousand foot passes and drop into the dusty brown moonscape of scree and talus with small snowmelt ponds bereft of slumbering trout.

But it’s also getting up at dawn, heavy with sleep and missing my usual morning coffee, and hiking to the shoulder of the Whitney giant. It’s dropping my pack and my cares, and accelerating with fleet feet, energized by excitement and a sugary granola bar, running up switchbacks by other backpackers, laden like lumbering pack mules, and flying. It’s tapping the top, signing the register, and running back down. It’s being invincible, being impossible, being indomitable. It’s feeling strong and tall and so high up, so far beyond the fourteen and a half thousand feet of the summit, far up in the thin atmosphere and being so damned alive at the moment, running over loose rocks and knowing you’ll never trip, never fall, never die. And it’s zooming back to your campsite where you fall asleep again, reading Yeats in your fading headlamp light, and holding only your dreams.

Where I Am


Mt. Tyndall in the High Sierra.

You were dancing by yourself in that bar in Big Prairie just down from Mt. Goliath when we first met. It’s the one with the black and white photos of long-ago Western stars and the posters of their forgotten movies pinned to the wood-paneled walls. It was almost empty and only a couple of German tourists were shooting pool at a table in the back. I sat down on one of the dusty stools, ordered from the bored bartender, and watched you from across the room. I was exhausted and dirty from climbing all day and it was beer, not love, I was looking for. But the neon lights of the jukebox lit up your face with bright yellows and warm oranges and I knew I had to have you.

“All your life you’ve never seen a woman so taken by the wind…” the jukebox sang. You twirled in small circles, smiling to yourself and softly humming along with Fleetwood Mac. Your hair swirled down around the curves of your hips. They were long strands of blue and green and purples, brightly dyed and free-flowing, colored like the swishing peasant skirt you wore. Your wrists were encircled with small jeweled bands of rose quartz and beads. You were a bright rainbow of hippie color splashed against the drab walls.

I drank my beer, stood, and walked over.

“Are you dancing by yourself?” I asked.
“I don’t have to be,” you replied.
“Can I join you?”
“I was hoping you would.”

You smiled and the dark bar seemed to brighten a bit. Your eyes were brown pools of expectation and your freckles flaked your cheeks with youth. I pulled you close to me, and we slow danced alone in that empty bar until the bored bartender kicked us out. We shared a smoke outside and watched the stars rise in the mountain sky. The moon was high and bright and our moon shadows flirted with each other in the parking lot.

“You traveling?” I asked you.
“Yeah. I’m on the road,” you replied.
“Me too.”
“I thought as much.”
“Where are you staying? Can I walk you back?”

You leaned in close me.

“You can walk me to your place,” you said as that slow, sly smile I would come to love most about you spread across your face.

I took your hand and took you home. Home was a tiny tent pitched next to my truck on public land among the boulders of the foothills, below the jagged peaks of the rising mountains. We made love there, atop my flimsy foam pad and under the duck down sleeping bag, hidden from the real world by the millimeter nylon of my tent. We lay there, tangled in each other, and you nestled your head against my chest and curled your naked leg around mine.

“How long have you been on the road?” I asked as my fingers traced the outline of your bare shoulder.
“Just a couple weeks. You?” you replied.
“Every summer for the last ten years. Been doing this a long time.”
“How old are you?”
“You don’t look older.”

We climbed together all through that summer. We scrambled over scree and trudged through talus. We marched up peaceful peaks and down mountain passes. I’d stop to catch my breath and you’d take it away with a kiss. We’d tire through the day and exhaust ourselves on each other through the night, zipping our sleeping bags and sewing our bodies together. On Ascension Peak, you smiled that devilish smile again and beckoned me with a finger as you took your top off and the bare, white skin of your breasts gleamed like the treeless, granite landscape around us.

We roamed the highway together. Up the road to Mt. Stoney, where I watched from below as your long legs and full hips climbed up a sheer rock face. That night, we stopped at a cheap motel outside town, and I watched from below as your long legs and full hips climbed onto me. You held me tight at night, but, somehow, I knew you wouldn’t hold me forever.

We were up north, past White Wolf, when the first snows of winter fell and we got my truck stuck in a bank of fresh powder. We steamed up my truck, trying to keep our bodies and our hearts warm while we waited for the snowplow to rescue us. But as winter set in, the cold mountain air, the shivering frost that started covering our sleeping bags and our tent, it seeped into everything.

“It’s getting cold,” I said.
“I know,” you replied.
“I’m thinking about heading home.”
“Where’s home?”
“Greenton. Why don’t you come with me?”

I had climbed enough and roamed enough. I wanted to go back to a warm bed and a warm kitchen and hot chocolate around a fireplace. I looked over at you in the passenger seat. You were looking out the window and at the passing evergreens, laden with the first, fresh powder of the season.

“It’s cold there too,” you replied.
“I can keep you warm,” I said.
“I don’t know.”

We drove on in silence and light, fluffy flakes of falling snow rhythmically tapped against the windshield like a ticking clock.

I dropped you off in Mountain Ridge, where you found a job working ski lifts and busing tables. You got out of my truck, waved at me through the frosty passenger-side window, turned, and walked away. I hoped you’d look back, but you just walked across the street and disappeared into the ski shop.

As I drove the long miles back to Greenton, I thought of you and me and the space between us, growing with every turn on the highway. You were just starting your journey, just beginning to fall in love with the road. For you, winter’s whiteness was carving turns and deep powder. It was a wonderland of endless adventure. For me, the months and years I’d spent on the road had worn me down. My truck tires and my heart were bald and bleeding. Another freezing winter, sleeping in the back of my truck, bundled up in all my blankets and my gear, it wasn’t adventure anymore. It was tiring and cold and miserable. The road had taught me, in the blurring lines of the lanes, to cherish the fleeting warmth of love. But you, you haven’t learned that yet. Someday, you will. Someday, you’ll be where I am. And maybe, somehow, I’ll be there too.

Back from the TRT

One hundred and sixty plus miles over the course of eight days and I have completed the Tahoe Rim Trail. It was an amazing run of time, miles flew under my feet and the pack seemed light and my legs seemed to go on and on. Moderate up and down across forests of pine and fir and the wide open meadows of windblown grasses and the small brown grasshoppers that fly up, clicking and swarming, as I walked by.

I planned on ten hiking days, with a day off halfway through. But getting out there and energized by the sun, the trees, the joy of moving quickly with my pack, I decided to make a run of it and shoot for a fast thru-hike. I averaged just over twenty miles a day, and my final day was a twenty-eight mile push to a headlamp finish at my endpoint.

I met a dog and a bear. And coyotes yipped and howled by my tent at night. I watched small brown trout, only slightly bigger than the tadpoles, dart around in the small clear lakes, and chipmunks and ground squirrels fled from my footsteps at every turn. Woodpeckers and jays filled the day with sound, and the solitary dark filled the night with silence. I walked alone mostly, but mountain bikers and day hikers abounded. I met another group of thru-hikers and spent a few days with them, leap-frogging back and forth on the trail as I stopped for lunch or they stopped to rest, and camping with them at night. I gobbled down a pizza and beer at Tahoe City, and watched the sun fall down behind the darkening skies from a ridgeline above the Granite Chief Wilderness. Mule’s ears and wildflowers bloomed in the open hills above the great Tahoe Lake, and I could see civilization, with its buildings and boats and cars and the promise of cold beer nestled against the shoreline. And smoking cigarettes at my camp at night, sitting on my sleeping pad and leaning against a convenient downed tree, I would rest my aching, dirty feet and be filled with the satisfaction of life lived in the fullness of the outdoors, and the unending promise of adventure.

It was a pretty damned good trip.