With a full tank and a goodbye kiss, Janel and I dropped CB off at school, picked up Russ, and went pedal to the metal towards the launch point of this journey, elevation -286. Thirty-four hours later, standing at 14,000 feet with my pulse pounding the back of my head, my heart sank. The cave had me locked in. It was time to turn back. 145 miles in, less than a mile to go, I could not reach the goal.
The mission was to ride 135 miles through the night and then hike up to the summit of Mt. Whitney the next morning. Starting well rested was not in the cards. We had a big push on a narrow timeline with an eight-hour drive to get there and we couldn't be late. Our ride crew Jack, Bo, and Alden are in the business of saving lives were each second counts. We arrived in Badwater, Death Valley with just enough time to put on PR lotion and sunscreen. Andy, our tireless SAG support driver called out, "4:58, let's get started". Janel and I had been moving for full tilt for nearly 12 hours, and we made the start with 2 minutes to spare. Wheew, father time did us a solid. It’s going to be a breeze after that, I thought to myself and chuckled. Once moving, the actual breeze was 108 Fahrenheit in the form of a headwind. Two miles into the ride I flatted. Though my skin was leaking like a hydrant, standing on the hot asphalt was a slice of paradise compared to the drive we just had, and besides, we only had 133 miles of smiles left to go on the bike.
The next 40 miles was a breathtaking time trial through the eons of time, with the grandest of sunsets to finish the sea level stretch. Appropriately, darkness accompanied our entry into the pain cave. Starting up a 5000-foot monolith, Jack was sucker punched into the cave with a distressed GI tract. Spending time inside this dark and uncomfortable place is how we will remember much of the next 25 hours as it circulated throughout our group.
For those of us in the clear, the desert was brilliantly illuminated with a full moon shining overhead. We laid on the desolate highway for nearly two hours. Had we failed already? Or would Captain Jack make a comeback? By way of willpower and stubbornness, Jack paced over the first of the three mighty summits ahead. For Bo, however, it just wasn’t meant to be. He too was in riding into the darkness and discomfort of the cave. Knowing his body, he wisely pulled out. The fantastic five was reduced to the fatigued four. It was midnight and we were nowhere near halfway. More than 10,000 feet of climbing remained on the bike stage alone.
Panamint Springs presents the second twenty-mile climb. For the next two hours, we didn’t talk much. Perhaps the grinding headwind was to fault, but I like to think it had more to do with the surreal desert-scape. The moon had transformed this harsh vertical landscape into 2D extremes of light and darkness. Riding with the lights off, our figures would disappear into darkest of chasms and reappeared casting brilliant shadows. Summiting the Inyo range, the high Sierras came into view some forty miles away and 10,000 feet overhead. The cold began to nip as we pedaled on the descent into the wind.
Just one, two-hour climb to go at the left turn in Lone Pine. Both my bike and body protested at this point. The chain groaned with every pedal stroke as did my legs. For Jack, it had been over eight hours since he had eaten. Could he really climb this beast on empty? Alden looked comfortable and Janel made perfect circles on our direct ascent towards the heavens. The sun returned in spectacular fashion as we neared the Portal, turning Whitney's face to gold just as we made our final pedal strokes, four hours behind our eta.
Perhaps a mistake, we attempted to sleep an hour before we set out on the second leg. By the time we left base camp, most summit parties had been hiking for six to eight hours. We traded chaperones at this point, Andy was off to get some much-needed sleep and Russ set stride on the mountain. Looking to make up for lost time, we went full gas on fumes. As the vegetation thinned, nothing more was left overhead but several thousand feet of barren granite. This marks the final place to take on water for many, many hours. Not only did our Steripen water purifier fail, but Jack's did as well. It had been twenty hours and roughly 8000kj since Jack ate, and his stomach was still rejecting food. We were high and dry, it was well past noon, and the toughest terrain was yet to come.
Absolutely breathtaking by all meanings, the demanding 97 switchbacks to Trail Crest thrusts you to the highest pass in the United States. Topping out at an altitude of 13,600, the Sierra's looked to be all but beneath us. At that point, I wished they were. My blood felt as thick as syrup, my heart rate abnormally high pounding in my head. Dehydration opened the vault door, I began to step inside the cave. At Trail Crest, Captain Jack was patiently waiting for me as Janel had done the entire switchback climb. As instructed, Russ and Alden had gone on ahead. I told Jack I was not going on to the summit. I felt bad both inside and out. How could I turn back on the guy who had not eaten in twenty-something hours? We continued up, our pace was awkwardly slow, our water packs both painfully empty and the temperature rapidly dropping as our old friend from last night showed back up and began to howl. Pressing hard, another hour had passed.
At 4 pm, 14k is not a smart place to be, not under these circumstances. Yet there she stood, above all the rest, the summit and the stone hut in clear view. In contrast, I was sinking deep into the depths of the pain cave. I had a conversation with myself, and then with Janel and Jack. The formula was simple. Without the leg speed, the summit was out of reach. With unrivaled determination, Jack set sail for the summit to meet up with Alden and Russ. Janel and I began our retreat from the heavens. Back at Trail Crest, some really cool hikers coming off the summit gave us a sip of water and some iodine tablets for water purification. We just had to descend 2500 vertical feet to use them. It was hours before we were able to get water. The temps were dipping into the 20's, my mind and body were numbing and my knees were shaking uncontrollably. As darkness set in I took a step deeper into the cave. No longer able to control core temperature, I was flirting with hypothermia.
At last, we made it to water. Alden joined us at the stop. With oxygen in the lungs and blood plasma being restored, the cave lifted and my feet began to bounce. What I would have given for this feeling near the summit. The cave was being passed once again, gnawing away at Janel and Alden. Each mile was longer and slower than the previous. The end just wouldn't come. Eventually, we started meeting hiking groups on their way up for the next day. Had we been at it that long?
As we surpassed hour 40, we finally arrived back to safety at the Portal. We were faced with another tough decision. Jack and Russ were still up there somewhere. Had Jack's GI problems returned or did he bonk from not eating for over 24 hours? We discussed walking back up with food and water, but there were just too many unknowns. Would our bodies even allow us to do so? We decided to wait it out and sleep in the car at the Portal trailhead. Nervously awakening every 15 minutes, nearly two hours passed. Finally, lights shined into the car. They made it!
Chronicling the joys and hardships of this adventure stirs many emotions. Even under the best of circumstances, 157 miles and 21k feet of climbing will put you into a dark place at times. How Jack completed this without food is beyond me. A testament to training the body and mind beyond your environment and above all, motivation and attitude. It’s not a matter of staying out of the cave, it's just limiting your time spent inside. This is why we train. To push ourselves to feel the sensations, both good and bad. As John Muir said, "The mountains are calling...", Get out there!