Mother Nature Rules

           We humans have invented, created and built some amazing products and buildings.  We have traveled to the moon, the depths of the oceans and to the tops of the highest peaks.  We have figured out how to split an atom and cure diseases.  We are the most intelligent beings on earth.  However, Mother Nature is truly in charge here and likes to remind us of that with little and sometime huge gestures. 

            Haunting images of the destruction from Hurricane Sandy are everywhere.  Luckily, technology has given us the ability to predict (to some extent anyway) the path and severity of storms like these so that people can take precautions to protect themselves and their belongings.  There is no way to avoid them entirely though and there is always an unknown factor at play.  Also, luckily, these huge gestures from Mother Nature are relatively infrequent.  That said, I do feel great empathy for those affected and wish them all a speedy recovery.

             I had my own encounter with the unpredictable Mother Nature recently.  About three weeks ago was me and my son’s long planned adventure to climb Mt Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet.  We set out on a thursday for our 5 hour drive to Lone Pine, CA, where we met up with our six climbing companions.  As we approached the town we were met with fog, rain and hail; snow could be seen on the surrounding mountains.  Of course, being October we knew ahead of time that the weather could be unpredictable.  To climb Mt Whitney you must have a permit and the permits are issued in a lottery system so this particular weekend was what we were given.  We had originally planned on camping at the base of the mountain that night, but the day prior had made a group decision to stay in town because of the wet weather.  We didn’t want to start off with wet, soggy gear.  Friday morning we awoke to gloomy skies and as we drove up to the base of the mountain to begin our hike snow was falling.  It was eerie and beautiful.  We had all planned for chilly, wet weather so with loaded backpacks and excitement we hit the trail to our next destination, Outpost camp, to spend the night and get acclimated to the altitude.  At about 10,000 feet this is a popular camping spot for hikers making the climb in 2 days.  The sun was out by the time we got there and the storm had moved on. 

             We pitched tents, got water and ate.  By the time the sun was setting it was cold enough to force us all to our tents and sleeping bags.  Not such a bad thing as we needed to rest, wake up time was at 2:30 am.  Neither my son nor I slept much that night though.  He was cold and I was restless.  After hot cocoa, coffee and oatmeal we started hiking at 3:30 am.  Two of my hiking friends, Joe and Jeri had done this hike several times before and they were our mentors on this trip and knew from experience that this was the time to start hiking to make a good summit and return time.  It was cold and the trail was icy and snowy, not to mention dark…we all wore headlamps to light the way.  I will say I was the slowest hiker, the altitude was affecting me but Shaun seemed to be doing great, leading for a lot of the way.  It was hard to drink water because it was cold, so cold that our water bottles were getting icy.  About the time the sun was starting to glow on the horizon we stopped for a rest.  We were at about 12,000 feet.  Checking in with my son, he seemed exhausted and did not want to drink water or eat.  As the others moved on, tears appeared in his eyes and he said he really thought he could make it, but he just didn’t have it in him.  I was already to the point where I was seriously questioning my ability to reach the summit that day so I gave him a hug and said we could turn around if he wanted.  We did turn back and slowly made our way back to Outpost camp.  Hiking downhill on ice is harder than going up.  We both did a little ice skating  and landed on our butts a couple times.  Back at Outpost camp we lay on our sleeping bags with our feet sticking out of our tent as we warmed up and moped a little in our defeat.   It was still early in the day, and a beautiful day it was turning out to be, so we decided to pack up and hike all the down the mountain and head for home.  As we descended we both began feeling better and were getting giddy at the thought of a big hamburger at the trails end. 

             In retrospect, it was probably the best decision for us.  I hadn’t realized that the last 2 night’s of insomnia I had endured were a symptom of altitude sickness.  In fact, I felt pretty good as we started the drive home, probably just from all the adrenaline.  A few hours down the road I was hit with incredible exhaustion and dizziness.  It took all my reserves to get us safely to a stopping point and we ended up having to find a motel for the night.  The aftereffects slowly dissipated over the next several days, but left me wondering if I would have become more ill had I pushed on that day.  As for Shaun, he did amazing for a 14 year old and although he was disappointed to not make it to the top he has many more years to go and face the mountain again.  We both agreed it was one of the hardest physical things either of us had ever done.   And we both agreed that if we were to do it again it would be in the summer time when (hopefully) Mother Nature would be more cooperative!