A light storm was looming to the northwest over Sequoia National Park and Guitar Lake while Rudy was suffering from severe altitude sickness at 13,600 ft. a half mile behind. He should not have started the climb after Base Camp at 12,000 ft. My legs and lungs felt great. I had plenty of water from a glacier fill up on the 97 Switchbacks. The summit of Mt. Whitney was less than 2 miles from where I stood. All the hard shit was behind - the 2 a.m. wakeup, the previous 10 miles and nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and those damn switchbacks, mainly.
I left Rudy for a summit push, another mile and a half, twenty minutes earlier and was uneasy with my decision. The portion at 13,600 ft to the top of Mt. Whitney is not physically challenging as the most of the 2 miles is actually downhill, flat and minor scrambles for the remaining 900ft. of gain. The safety of the trail, for one with incoherent thinking, can be especially dangerous. This portion consists of a narrow winding trail with areas of exposure on both sides, with deadly consequences of a misplaced step. It would have placed him alone to navigate this portion for over 2 hours.
The anxiety of an afternoon summit push combined with deteriorating conditions in the weather and the safety of a friend had stood in the way of my mental capacity to move forward any longer. I had convinced myself that I would still be going forward, just in the opposite direction, or downhill. Another 10 miles or so back. How long would it take Rudy to get back down in his state? Could he even make it back?
My anxiety levels were maxing as I calculated scenarios and switched from the mind frame of going up to turning around.
"I gotta go back!", I yelled.
"HEY!" I choked as I tried to gain composure to restate those words.
My father, tired but in good physical condition and generally stubborn to any type of defeat (even at the expense of his own safety) stopped and turned around.
"I gotta go back." I said again.
"Is that your decision?" He replied.
No. My mind whispered.
"Yeah." I said.
We mumbled a few parting words and went our separate ways. Something about safety and the weather and the clouds and calling a cell phone once back.
I raced the other way to meet Rudy, with a humbling view in 360 degrees. I quietly dry-sobbed as I swiftly moved along the trail, squeezing up and over large rocks in the way and between narrow passages with sketchy drops. This trip had taken almost two years in my head, disappointment would be putting it lightly.
I got back to Rudy and told him we were turning around. He complied with the manner of a drinking buddy in the morning with a bad hangover. The altitude sickness, the weight of his pack, and his dehydration/ fatigue combined, leaving him in a fairly rugged state. Reaching Trail Crest at 13,600 ft. was a challenge.
We snapped a few photos, talked for a moment, and started making our way back to go down the goddamn switchbacks. The time was approximately 1:30pm (way too late for a summit push).
Mt. Whitney in less than 24 hours stands as one of the most humbling experiences for me. The time and physical exertion pale in comparison to the scale of what is visible. The summit still remains something to do.
A self-actualized experience that was exactly what I thought it would be.
We stammered back to the car with headlamps on, in pitch darkness at 10:00pm .
The details aren’t important, but they’re there.