The New York Times: How thin air and summer snow can heal the soul

Peter Eavis
The New York Times
8 Min Read
Granite cliffs seen during a hike on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Last July, a recently divorced writer who had found solace in hiking took on a towering challenge: Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. (Peter Eavis/The New York Times)
Granite cliffs seen during a hike on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Last July, a recently divorced writer who had found solace in hiking took on a towering challenge: Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. (Peter Eavis/The New York Times) Credit: NYT

A brutish granite ridge soared above us in the moonlight. The snow that should not have been there in July seemed to go on forever. We were already short of breath, and weirdly, there were almost no other hikers. Even though I had trained for this, I felt stupidly out of my depth.

We were only 3 miles into the 10.7-mile ascent of Mount Whitney, in California, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.

A middle-aged Manhattanite, I had first taken to hiking during the pandemic, when my marriage came to an end, and on those rambles, I began to see there were pathways out of the pain and confusion. I had found a new love on the laurel-lined trails of New Jersey: my girlfriend, Lucy, who was now beside me on the Mount Whitney Trail and feeling similarly overwhelmed beneath the towering Sierra cliffs.

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In 2022, I scaled Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York state, with my son. That weekend, ecstatic, we looked for another adventure. Some Google searching revealed that Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, was not out of reach for amateurs like us. I proclaimed that he and I, along with my daughter, would climb it in 2023. In the end, neither of them could make it. Lucy didn’t need much convincing to join me. Hiking had brought exhilarating new challenges and triumphs — and Mount Whitney promised those on a much greater scale.

But only a short way up, my lofty ambitions met snowy reality.

We’d been told to expect a lot of snow higher up, but we didn’t expect any this low. I had packed an ice ax and crampons, on the strong urging of the owners of a gear store in Lone Pine, the unpretentious town at the foot of the mountain where most people prepare for the climb, but I didn’t want to use them so early. It would take me forever — and we didn’t have forever. We had less than 24 hours.

Challenge accepted

Until I researched the trip, I had never heard of naturalist John Muir and his wonderful line, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” or known that much of the water for Los Angeles, about 200 miles south, comes from this part of the Sierra Nevada.

Mount Whitney, with an elevation of 14,494 feet, was named for Josiah Dwight Whitney, a Northeasterner and Harvard University professor who headed the California Geological Survey. Its first recorded climbing, by three Lone Pine residents, was in 1873. It is dwarfed by Denali, in Alaska, the highest peak in the United States, at more than 20,000 feet. But Mount Whitney offers something Denali does not: It is possible to hike up and down in one day. The round-trip trek, which mountain guides describe as challenging — even more so with snow and ice — totals about 22 miles, much of it at high altitudes.

Big Horn Sheep Park, about three and a half miles into the hike in Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. In Big Horn Sheep Park water was pouring down hillsides and rocks, flooding the vegetation.
Big Horn Sheep Park, about three and a half miles into the hike in Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. In Big Horn Sheep Park water was pouring down hillsides and rocks, flooding the vegetation. Credit: PETER EAVIS/NYT

The U.S. Forest Service runs a lottery each February for both day-use and overnight permits to go up Mount Whitney from May 1 to Nov. 1. The agency limits the number of day hikers to 100 for every midnight-to-midnight period to avoid overcrowding on the trail.

In March 2023, I learned I’d won permits for the July date I had chosen, and I started to prepare. There are no high peaks to train on near New York City, so my practice consisted mainly of trekking in the nearby hills, running more and drinking less. Lucy, who had grown up in southwestern Pennsylvania and once lived in the mountains of Arizona, had a lot of hiking experience, often at altitude, and made sure I understood that this would be nothing like what we’d done in New Jersey or New York. Dilettantism could be dangerous.

We flew into Las Vegas on July 6 and drove through Death Valley National Park, paradoxically, the site of the lowest point in North America — just 86 miles from the base of Mount Whitney — and, looking back, something of a metaphor for my emotional depths before I took up hiking.

We had 2 1/2 days in Lone Pine to acclimate. One day, we drove to Horseshoe Meadow, at 10,000 feet, a scenic spot many hikers visit to ease into the altitude. The other, we walked a short distance up the Mount Whitney Trail, hoping to get to know it a little.

A day hike up and down Mount Whitney can take 20 hours. Some climbers camp on the trail, to break up the hike, but doing so requires an overnight permit. We had to do it all in one day. That meant an early start.

Headlamps and high-water

I felt a mixture of dread, elation and, of course, tiredness when the alarm blared at 1:30 a.m. We arrived at the Whitney Portal, a hub at the base of the trail with campgrounds and towering pines, at 2:37 a.m., following online advice to start early and reach the summit before midday.

Headlamps strapped on, we weighed our packs at the Portal — with water, food, crampons, ice ax, trekking poles and not much else, mine was 21 pounds, far heavier than anything I’d ever carried in the New Jersey hills — then took off into the dark.

Within a mile, we came to a stream that hikers typically cross without getting their feet wet, a straightforward task any other July, when much of the snowpack would have already melted.

The mountains and the starry sky seen during a hike on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Online sources advised starting early in order to reach the summit, a nearly 11-mile hike, before midday.
The mountains and the starry sky seen during a hike on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Online sources advised starting early in order to reach the summit, a nearly 11-mile hike, before midday. Credit: PETER EAVIS/NYT
A hiker walks in the snow on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Locals had warned to expect snow at high elevations, even in July, but snow covered the trail starting at a much lower altitude than expected.
A hiker walks in the snow on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Locals had warned to expect snow at high elevations, even in July, but snow covered the trail starting at a much lower altitude than expected. Credit: PETER EAVIS/NYT

But the previous winter had been anything but typical in the Sierra, where heavy snow had even forced ski areas to temporarily close, and the water was raging. We had seen the stream the day of our practice run, and in the daylight, traversing it seemed, at worst, inconvenient because we’d have to take off our boots to keep them dry. But in the dark, stepping barefoot through the icy, deafening stream, with the heavy backpacks destabilizing us, was far harder and scarier than we had anticipated.

Emboldened, we made good progress for a couple of miles. Then we hit the snow that should not have been there.

Trudging through it on a trail of sorts, I guessed we were travelling well below the average pace — 1 mph — that we needed to maintain. I reassured myself that the day was soon going to get lighter and much warmer. The towering cliffs were intimidating in the moonlight, but we both felt a strange privilege to be in their presence, and that spurred us on.

Let there be light

The sun’s first rays greeted us at the top of a ridge, where we took a break to look down in awe at Lone Pine Lake, glowing in the black woods.

But the greatest spectacle lay about a mile ahead. “You’re not going to believe this,” I said to Lucy, as I cleared the last of several mercifully snow-free switchbacks and entered Big Horn Sheep Park, a valley enclosed by granite cliffs. Water was pouring into the expanse from nearly every side, creating a symphony of ripples, gurgles, splashes and thundering roars, inundating the vegetation growing there.

Dawn over Lone Pine Lake, about two and a half miles into the hike up Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Last July, a recently divorced writer who had found solace in hiking took on a towering challenge: Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.
Dawn over Lone Pine Lake, about two and a half miles into the hike up Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. Last July, a recently divorced writer who had found solace in hiking took on a towering challenge: Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Credit: PETER EAVIS/NYT

Above us, jagged peaks glowed orange, and looking back through the morning mist, we could see violet crags to the east, across the now-arid Owens Valley, which was mostly drained in the 1920s to supply Los Angeles with water, inspiring the plot of the movie “Chinatown.” I furiously snapped photographs, hoping to preserve not just that perfect light but also the triumphant feeling that our efforts had brought us to this unforgettable place.

Four miles into the hike, we passed Mirror Lake, shimmering and still, except at one edge, where its contents quietly slipped down the mountain. We then ascended steps cut into the rock, each a mini waterfall. I said a prayer of thanks to whoever had cut them.

One of these staircases led us out of the last stand of trees, and we emerged above timberline. Now, we faced the exposed mountain and at least a mile of trudging through snow until Trail Camp, at 12,000 feet, where some hikers spend the night before setting out for the summit, about 2,500 feet higher.

The sun was turning the snow into a greasy slush. A young hiker strode past us with his pack half off his back. A woman we’d met earlier, who’d last gone up Mount Whitney with her father in 1971, when she was 11, was getting smaller and smaller ahead of us on the dazzling snowfield. A ranger we met later told us that it was a welcome break to have so few people on the trail. The snow, he said, had kept the hordes away, and I felt a flicker of pride to be there.

The trail had narrowed to a sliver of trodden snow. Strange-looking depressions known as sun cups on each side of the path, along with the sound of rushing water beneath, warned us that the surface could collapse if we strayed.

As we checked in with each other, Lucy and I began to feel as if the altitude was getting the better of us. I wasn’t dizzy or gasping. Instead, I was gradually becoming less aware of my surroundings and losing touch of how much strength I had left.

The landscape seen during a hike on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. At the top of a staircase cut into the rock, the trees disappeared as the trail rose above timberline.
The landscape seen during a hike on Mount Whitney, Calif., in July 2023. At the top of a staircase cut into the rock, the trees disappeared as the trail rose above timberline. Credit: PETER EAVIS/NYT

We reached Trail Camp, sat on a warm rock and watched a marmot trying to raid someone’s tent. The peak loomed above the final switchbacks, now impassable because of snow and ice. Hikers, we learned, were instead going up a long slope of snow known as the Chute and, on their return, sliding down it on their backsides, using ice axes as brakes.

It sounded fun — something my kids would have loved. Seeing them enjoy new experiences on family vacations had been a highlight of raising them. But between COVID, the divorce and the pursuits of their own adventures, we hadn’t traveled together for several years. I had hoped the hike would be a chance to recreate the magic, and this made me miss them acutely.

Sitting there, physically drained after seven hours on the trail, Lucy and I came to a hard realization: Even after resting, we did not have the power to go one step higher. I looked up at the summit, tantalizing close, one last time. Then we reluctantly turned around and began the long descent.

I was disappointed. Lucy less so. Taking in the many wonders we hadn’t seen on the way up — magenta beavertail cactus and lavender in full bloom — we gently debated what we could have done differently. In the afternoon sun, the air of menace dissipated, and everything took on a calming, maplike orderliness in the valley below. As the air grew less and less thin, the many challenges I knew I faced back in New York felt more and more manageable.

Failure has a way of clearing the path for a big reset. Divorce had shown me that, and Mount Whitney was doing it again. The trick, I am learning, is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, for as long as you can. And that is why the mountains will always be calling me.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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