By Ethan Maurice | September 14, 2016
A certain energy was in the air. It was one of those rare mornings when you wake up conscious of your surroundings and what you're about to do because it's the day.
My sister and I rolled up our sleeping bags, broke down the tent, and packed everything with a hushed fever and deliberateness. After failing to do so almost exactly two years previous due to an unprecedented August snowstorm, we once again found ourselves at Guitar Lake, preparing to make our second attempt at the 14,505ft Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States.
It was 2:15am. Four of us stood around trying to maintain a degree of stoicism toward the effort that lay ahead, distracted and awed by the stars above. Well above the treeline, our surroundings consisted of rock and dirt, giving us an unobstructed view of the Milky Way that spanned across the entire night sky. The air felt like one would imagine space to feel if it were hospitable—cold, crisp, still. My hands were crammed into a pair of used, crusty wool socks for warmth. Unable to use my thumbs, I awkwardly attempted uncomfortable grip variations of my trekking poles.
Our fifth group member finished packing and joined us. With constrained excitement and a pinch of nervousness, we took our first steps towards the summit of Mt. Whitney. My eyes kept leaving the trail, glancing up at the towering shadow of the mountain as we made our way towards the hours of switchbacks in store for us. Devoid of light, Whitney was a black mass, a colossal silhouette outlined only by the starry night sky. Within that shadow, thousands of feet above, half a dozen faint lights slowly snaked back and forth, headlamps of backpackers on the switchbacks above who began even earlier than we had.
As if the scene couldn't have been any grander, any more mystical, we stopped to catch our breath and turned our headlamps off to notice meteors repeatedly streaking across the night sky. Only afterward did we find out we had flawlessly timed the Perseid meteor shower, watching, overwhelmed with wonder as space rock left brilliant trails of light across our view of the Milky Way Galaxy.
The next couple hours blurred together as we climbed switchback after switchback. Looking back, I remember breathing hard, constantly adjusting the zipper of my outer jacket as I oscillated between sweating and cold, and getting that slight feeling of butterflies that comes with the growth of empty space as one continues higher. An exhausting climb at such elevation, you'd think we were wishing for time to pass, but it was quite contrary. We woke at 2am in an attempt to catch the sunrise and each minute that passed meant less of a chance to witness that daily miracle from Trail Crest at 13,600ft. We relished in each step we took, a tiny victory that put us a bit closer to our goal in a race against time.
After many steps, many tiny victories, my head poked over the ridgeline. The horizon was bathed in a morning glow, but the sun had yet to rise! I bundled up as best I could and sat behind a rock to shield me from the now strong, cold blast of wind as the rest of our group caught up. No longer climbing, one loses the heat produced by their vertical efforts quickly at such an elevation. We alternated between huddling for warmth and drifting apart to gape at the scene unfolding before our eyes.
Then, the first rays of sunlight broke over the horizon. It was breathtaking. It was magnificent. It was one of the most aesthetically beautiful sunrises I'd ever seen. But there was something more to it—an additional factor, a catalyst that made the moment exponentially more satisfying, more emotionally overwhelming. That something was the work, the strife towards that moment, which also represented, in Fourth of July fashion, that we were finally going to set foot atop Mount Whitney.
Two years previous, we'd backpacked over 200 miles to reach that summit and with shorts and light rain jackets on, were denied our goal by a freak summertime snowstorm. It was now two years later. We had applied for trail permits six months in advance, paid for plane tickets, flew to San Francisco, gassed up cars and drove seven hours, hiked forty arduous miles, and set our alarms for 2am to start climbing—all to witness this daily solar phenomenon from what felt like the top of the world on the spine of Mt. Whitney. All that work, money, time, effort, and desire was satisfied as the sun beamed over the horizon, bathing the barren, craggy landscape in oranges and yellows and us in rays of warmth. It revealed a cloudless day, that no snowstorm was going to impede the last two miles to the summit of Whitney, and in all its beauty, all its meaning, that sunrise warmed my very soul.
We'd made it, and we knew it. The last two miles up to the summit of Whitney felt more like a victory lap. That's not to say it was a cakewalk, in fact, at over 14,000ft in elevation the lack of oxygen made me a bit woozy, almost drunkenly stumbling a bit here and there like someone walking home after a long night at the bar. Nevertheless, we giddily stumbled on and eventually found ourselves standing atop the highest mountain in the continental United States.
The triumph had already been had earlier that morning, though. Like kids at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, our hearts were already stuffed, fully satiated by that moment of rising sun. We sat atop Whitney for a while, gazing out at the world below. Like pizza-stuffed children, we felt no need to move. No need to switch our sights immediately to a new goal, like getting down the mountain, as we all too often do. For close to an hour we just basked in it, glad, satisfied, with a glassy-eyed gaze across the Sierra Nevada's from the highest point around for thousands of miles.
As I sat there, I thought about this sort of magic in strife. The magic in the interval between desire and gratification. Time, effort, and persistence make reaching it all the sweeter, all the more worthwhile.
Waiting for my flight back to Montana in the Oakland Airport three days later, I was reading a book I'd brought along called How Proust Can Change Your Life. I almost dropped that book when I came across a passage that described the lesson I'd encountered atop Whitney:
“If the rich are fortunate in being able to travel to Dresden as soon as the desire to do so arises, or to buy a dress just after they have seen it in a catalog, they are cursed because of the speed with which their wealth fulfills their desires. No sooner have they thought of Dresden than they can be on a train there; no sooner have they seen a dress than it can be in their wardrobe. They therefore have no opportunity to suffer the interval between desire and gratification which the less privileged endure, and which, for all its apparent unpleasantness, has the incalculable benefit of allowing people to know and fall deeply in love with paintings in Dresden, hats, dressing gowns, and someone who isn't free this evening.”
Like a slow-cooked meal, where the smells, the flavors, and our appreciation of the subtle nuances of a dish are all heightened by the time and effort it takes to cook it, our experiences are heightened in the same way—by time, by effort, by strife.