Years ago you didn’t need a permit to climb Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft.) You drove up into California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, parked your car, and started up the trail.
I had been up the trail to the top a couple of times. The trail was good although not heavily used, especially in mid-June. So, with the recklessness that comes with youth we drove up the two-ane Highway 395 to the gravel road leading up the side of the mountain to Whitney Portals.
My sister’s husband was in the military and out of the state. She wanted something to help pass the time.
I said, “Let’s go climb Mt. Whitney.”
For all of today’s hiking enthusiast remember this was at a time when you hiked in jeans, cotton T-shirt, wool sweaters for warmth, and carried your gear in a knapsack. You drank the clear glacier water straight out of the streams or laced it with a dash of orange tang. If you had a pair of hiking boots, they probably took you a year of hiking to break in, otherwise you wore low top sneakers.
We slung our packs and started up the trail. The going was slow, but steady. Sis was not a hiker, and I liked to take a break now and again to enjoy the luxury of a cigarette. I felt that if Maurice Herzog could climb Annapurna while smoking cigarettes, I certainly could climb Whitney.
Consultation Lake is at an altitude a little over 11,000 feet and above timberline. Desolate, barren, and in mid-June, ice covered most of the lake. We were going no further. Above us, the 100 plus switchbacks leading up to Trail Crest, and the final mile, to the summit were blanketed in snow and ice.
Tired, footsore and hungry as the trip had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. Energy bars and freeze dried foods were a thing of the future. We sat among the rocks while my Svea 123 stove, sounding like a miniature blowtorch, heated a can of soup.
Then a strange sound floated out over the rocky landscape. We had seen a few people on the early part of the trail who were out for a day hike, but no one the last five miles or so. And the sound made me wonder if altitude had driven out common sense. I glanced over at my sister, not about to admit I had gone over the edge.
Keep in mind we are in a rocky basin at over 11,000 feet, no trees, no shrubs, snow-capped peaks rising to over 14,000 feet on one side and far below the Owens Valley and civilization and what I am hearing is truly weird because I recognize the sound, and it should not be where we are.
I can’t let it go any longer. “You hear something?” I whisper.
What a relief, I wasn’t crazy, but what were pipes doing up here.
We scrambled out of our rocky nest and made our way through a maze of boulders. Consultation Lake lay a little below us, a mirror of ice. And standing alongside its shore two men, oblivious to our presence, were practicing their individual pursuits. One lazily swung a golfing iron at an imaginary ball. The other, stripped to the waist, continued his rendition of “The Campbell’s are Coming.” So, being of Scottish descent ourselves, and having a few relatives considered somewhat out of the norm, we had to hear their story.
One had always wondered what it would be like to drive a golf ball off the top of Mt. Whitney. The other wanted to test his lungs at 14,000 feet, wondering how far the squeal of his pipes would carry over the peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
We wished them luck, since they did not appear to be concerned about the snow covering the switchbacks. We were turning back in the morning.
When we rose at dawn they were gone, Or were they ever there to begin with.