Jun 24, 2002

An exceeding high mountain
The view from the top of Mt. Whitney
Two weeks ago, a group of Waterloo grads made it to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. That's actually a bit of hyperbole, since it only ranks 28 in the list of tallest mountains in North America.
We started on a Friday evening, with two minivans driving seven hours to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. After camping out for a few hours in tents and the vans, most of us were up by 4am. By 5am we were on our way to the Whitney Portal Trailhead. While we started out as a group, we had pretty much split up into a number of smaller groups after the first 4 miles.
A 15 hour hike generally gives you plenty of time to think. When you're not thinking 'how much further to the peak?', you may ponder some of life's more interesting questions. Like 'why the !@#$ am I doing this?'. I don't know what the driving force is for climbing up a mountain. In essence we hiked 22 miles that day, and ended up at the same campsite we started at. By 3pm, we made it to the summit, which at 14,493 feet, is about half the height of Everest. It's not like you're actually reaching an especially high altitude - anyone who's been on a 747 has probably been three times as high.
Halfway to the peak, you're already thinking about going to sleep by the side of the trail. The air is thin enough to give you vertigo after hiking a hundred feet, and it was cool enough for snow and ice to wander across the trail in patches. Climbing up the switchbacks become a matter of just putting one foot ahead of another until you reach the summit. By the time you reach 4,000 ft., the air is thin enough to make your head hurt. Winds are howling around you, and the trail gets rough. You have to pull out the fleece and the winter gloves. You look up to the summit, your head pounding and feet aching, the final two miles seem to stretch incredibly further than the first nine.
Somewhere along the way you realize just how rugged nature is - piles of rocks that have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Snow that never melts. Trees and shrubs and even grass have stopped growing a few thousand feet below you. The glare of the high altitude sun blazes around you throught the cloudless sky, burning as it ripples off the icy surfaces of the lakes pooled below you.
When you look down from the summit, you realize the incredible beauty behind the piles of bleak rock, veins of ice crawling down the mountains, and half-frozen aqua lakes whose surfaces are in wrinkled with floating ice. In every direction around you, the Sierra Nevadas break the horizon while the wind bites into your skin. "What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?" What is changed by climbing up a mountain? Compared to the age of rocks and ice, what lasting value do any of man's accomplishments have?
"Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart, and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgement." Forget the pain, hunger, and cold on the way up, it all disappeared with the thrill of being at the top.

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