If you followed my adventures on Instagram @valerieorsoni, you already know that my Mt. Whitney ascent via the East Face (14,505 ft) was somewhere between paradise and hell! Thank you for all the sweet messages sent through the GPS map!
First things first: why do I climb? Because I love the mountains…to a degree that I can’t quite explain! Because I feel amazing lost between the monstrous stones (and also at 30 meters deep when I go diving in the ocean). Because I have vertigo and I fight it by deliberately putting myself in conditions that challenge it, just so that I can overcome the fear and show my mind that I’m the one in charge! Note, I’m not a mountaineering pro or an expert climber. I’m just passionate and I love being in the awesomeness of nature.
Mount Whitney is a rock monster that soars to the sky at 14,505 feet, with absolutely gorgeous views that make you want to explore, climb, and conquer.
I left with a few handicaps:
But none of this held me back! #TeamNoExcuse
My departure was set for Sunday, June 24th. I headed towards Mammoth Lakes – a so-called 5-hour drive from home – but more realistically, 8 hours! I passed through some really beautiful little towns, very typical of the Wild West with their saloons and other great classics :).
I arrived to smoke from fires that have been ravaging the Sierra for a month…the horrible smell of burnt wood, and a permanent haze. I spent my first two days recovering from the long road-trip, preparing my gear for the climb, and most importantly, treating my muscle contracture.
On Tuesday night, I went shopping with my guide, Viren, with whom I took my alpine climb in March. Because of my food limitations, we spent an hour choosing the right ingredients. In the mountains, eating well is one of the keys to happiness! No dehydrated stuff for us, we’re cooking for real!
Wednesday morning, we depart for Lone Pine which is 2 hrs south, and then for the Whitney Portal where we begin our adventure at an altitude of 8,360 ft.
It’s 35 degrees! Far too hot to ascend more than half a mile in 3 hrs. There is no easy way up except for massive rocks to climb and rivers to cross. Since my sense of balance is only approximate, these river crossings are always risky for me! We don’t meet anyone along the way. It’s pretty unreal to be in nature without meeting a single living soul!
We arrive at around 3pm to a magical corner at an altitude of 11,450 ft! We’re at a small lake, bordered by bare rocks, with Whitney bearing down on us from its 14,505 ft peak. We pitch our tents and cook a fancy dinner: quinoa (it takes 40 min to cook at this altitude!), dehydrated tomatoes, grilled pancetta and melted manchego. Clementines for dessert, yum!
I go to bed at 9pm, exhausted…but I read until 11pm and then totally conk out! At half past midnight, I feel a spotlight on my face and wake up with a start! The full moon is passing over the mountain and it illuminates the lake and my tent almost like broad daylight! At the same moment, the wind starts up, first softly, but then so violently that the edges of my tent rise furiously. I can’t get out to pee! I only sleep two hours on the eve of the great ascent. Between the lack of sleep, vertigo, my painful calf, the altitude and all the other elements involved, this is proving to be more than challenging!
We’re up at 4:30 in the morning to prepare everything. On the menu: grilled ground-steak burgers and cooked vegetables with melted manchego. Yum!
We depart at 7am for Iceberg Lake, and spend 1 hour refilling our water (we use a Steripen to sterilize the water).
We take one more hour to get to the foot of the wall. When we arrive, we change into climbing shoes, and check ropes and other equipment that we use to affix the ropes in the cracks.
Here we go! Time to climb the wall that truly appears vertical (!), with an expected timeframe of 4 hrs for experts and 8 hrs for the slower ones. I will admit that since I turned 40, I don’t care about time! For me, climbing is a communion with nature, not a race. It’s also a first for me. I never did 13 pitches in such conditions and at 13,100 ft high!
The first pitch is relatively easy, I’m pleased…then it starts getting a little tricky. I literally find myself in the void several times! I have to trust my feet when my hands don’t find good spots to grip, and vice versa. When I hit pitch 6, I start feeling some fatigue in my fingers. My left index finger gets stuck in a curled up position and it’s not responding to anything! It makes it pretty difficult to clear the way (I’m the one removing the cams and other devices that are put in the cracks to hang the rope). At pitch 7, my left index finger is out of commission as well! So I climb with 8 fingers which is not super practical. It’s now been three hours since we started climbing, without really stopping at all.
Note: a pitch = a length of rope
At pitch 8, while I lean on my right hand to hoist me up 8 inches or so, lightning pain erupts in my right wrist. I’m close to tears…I won’t be able to use my wrist anymore! So I climb on with 8 fingers, and a very limited hand. On the upside, the view is breathtaking and the wildflowers are just beautiful! This totally boosts my spirits!
At pitch 9, while I’m on an overhang and struggling to remove a cam from a crack, I let go and fall into the void! I am 13,100 ft above sea level, with a 1650-ft abyss under me and my life is hanging by a thread, or rather a rope. This rope is fixed in a rock fissure using two cams. Intense is an understatement.
Remember, I’m dizzy!
I’m scared to death, frightened, paralyzed – literally – and I feel panic take over. But in alpine climbing, you can never go down…you can only go up.
I have no choice, I can’t let myself go! So I swallow my tears and my fear, and dig deep for new inspiration and strength. I know that my guide is not too pleased because I’m slow, but I forge on ahead, ascend another pitch and continue…
note: a cam = camalot = makes it possible to anchor in a crack (there are also jams and other tools which make it possible to wedge a rope when there is almost nothing to hang it on).
Pitch 11: The drama is not yet over, as here we hit a beautiful rock chimney, but strangely enough, it feels easy…
That’s it ! After 7 hours on the wall, I emerge on the roof of America at 14,505 ft! You can’t begin to imagine how euphoric I am! I want to cry with joy! My heart is bursting with satisfaction and pride. I succeeded! I’m at the summit of Whitney! Yes!
Then I see my guide’s face…he’s not so happy – he says I climbed too slow and it’s never taken him this long to get to the summit…well, that sure punctured my bubble of joy! Not a great feeling when I’ve worked this hard, but that experience only reinforced for me the incredible importance of celebrating our successes (whether big or small) – and to always do the same for others.
We don’t linger because ascending is only the first part of the adventure…the descent is quite treacherous: snow and rocks that move in all directions. On our way down, we meet people who are climbing Whitney by an easier route and will arrive 3 hours after we did! Well, slow is certainly relative :).
Our descent (3 hrs) brings us back to our tents near the lake.
We have a short night camping out, and then it’s the descent to the Whitney Portal (3 hrs), followed immediately by the 7-hour drive home. I get back at 9:30pm…what a day!
I had a short stay in the ER following my climb, due to severe dehydration, major dizziness and nausea (note: dehydration here does not mean I didn’t drink enough, but that my blood sodium was too low) and believe it or not, while I was there, I found myself already thinking of my next summit, Mt Elbrus in Russia! (If you work for a brand that is interested in sponsoring me, email email@example.com).
As always, thank you for following me, and for inspiring me to keep reaching greater heights!