Jottings: Ascending Mt. McKinley
Climb every mountain.
Ford every stream.
Follow every rainbow.
Till you find your dream.
Songwriters: Oscar Hammerstein II/Richard Rodgers
As a young girl I remember listening to Julie Andrews' beautiful voice singing these lyrics as she climbed the Austrian-Swiss Alps in the film, The Sound of Music. In this musical she plays the mother of the famous Von Trapp family as they flee Nazi-occupied Austria to Switzerland. Through the years I have watched this movie many times and taken delight in introducing it and its music to my two daughters.
They obviously were inspired, too. This spring my eldest, Jill, confided that she was hoping to act on a long-held dream: To hike the summit of Mt. Whitney in California. At 14,505 feet it is the highest peak in the continental United States. Accessing the summit involves hiking the John Muir Trail over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Several months of preparation as well as obtaining back-country permits were involved. A volume of prepackaged and dehydrated food was purchased and prepared, then mailed to a mid-way, pick-up point at the Vermilion Valley Resort on Lake Edison. The resort would also provide access to a coin-operated shower. Other bathing on the month-long trip would involve only a dip in an alpine lake; no soap allowed.
Jill would be hiking with her friend, Jay, for the duration of this backpacking trip. In preparation they did several weekend forays at higher elevations than Sacramento where Jill resides. To her surprise, Jill noticed that her respiration was compromised at these elevations and so decided to acclimate for two days prior to the trip at Mammoth, an elevation of 7,900 feet. On Aug. 3, the duo departed from Devil Post Pile National Monument (twenty miles south of Yosemite) for the first leg of the adventure. Their backpacks, weighing thirty pounds each, including tents, held ten days of food.
In Jill's pack was an ultralight bear can. Any item with a scent (including toothpaste) needed to be placed in this container to discourage nocturnal visitors. Via satellite phone, nightly, Jill would contact her sister (who would then text me) when they had safely made camp. One night, when camping at an alpine lake, incessant and loud screaming was suddenly heard. No other campers had been noted. Alarmed, the two cautiously investigated, eventually shining their flashlights on a bevy of owls.
Averaging about eight miles per day, the duo walked the narrow trail once travelled centuries ago by Paiute indigenous people whose name for it is Nuumu Poyo. Typically, the trail is described as a "highway" for backpackers after snowmelt. During this Covid-19 summer, it was not nearly as busy. Yet, Jill was amazed to meet some 70-year-old hikers as well as the occasional fourteen-mule train.
As the mules would amble down the narrow trail, laden with supplies for their walking patrons, the backpackers would need to quickly scramble atop a rock to avoid being trampled. Mules held the right-of-way!
Jill's respiratory capacity and endurance improved daily during the trip, but still she described herself as a slow hiker. Perhaps it was her slow, soft steps and frequent pauses that made her less threatening to the typically very shy pikas and allowed for some rare photographs to add to the many taken of majestic terrain.
About two and half weeks into the trip, it was alarming to learn that the end destination had been changed, that cars were being moved by a friend to a different exit point, twenty miles south of Mt. Whitney's summit. With Covid spreading and southern California wildfires emerging, my maternal anxiety had grown daily. A text the next day reassured me that no, no one was ill, injured, or mauled by a bear (an on-going fear.) The duo had realized that with Jill's slow speed they could not make the summit in time remaining.
Having hiked 150 miles, Jill and Jay left the John Muir trail Aug. 26, two days prior to their planned exit and only a few days before California parks were closed because of spreading fires. On Sept. 7, 142 people were air-evacuated from Lake Edison because fire had closed the surrounding forest.
Was it a wonderful trip? Yes! Would they do it again? Yes. Indeed, they plan to return next summer to finish the trek over the summit. This mother will then resume living vicariously and worrying.
Josie Seymour is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.
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