By Karl Keating | The New Oxford Revies, July-August 2022
I came to hiking and backpacking late in life. I remember exactly when it was that I went on my first backpacking trip. It was in California’s Sierra Nevada, south of Mammoth Lakes. The first day I hiked to Duck Lake and camped there. The second day I hiked farther, to Purple Lake, and camped there. The third day I began to retrace my steps. Along the way, I met a ranger. We spoke for a few moments, and then she said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this. I don’t want to ruin the rest of your hike.”
“Well, now you’ve got me wondering,” I said. “So you may as well tell me.”
“New York’s Twin Towers have been destroyed.”
That first backpacking trip sticks in my memory for more than one reason, as do two preparatory day hikes I took in the months immediately prior.
In July 2001 I hiked up White Mountain. At 14,252 feet, it’s the third-tallest peak in California and, by general consensus, the easiest of the fourteeners to summit. But I didn’t find it easy. Once I passed 13,000 feet, my leg muscles turned to Jell-O. The farther I ascended, the more often I had to stop to catch my breath: every hundred paces, every fifty, every twenty. At length, I reached the summit, and, at length and thoroughly exhausted, I returned to the trailhead, where I said to myself, “This, by far, is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”
I changed my mind a month later.
In August I did a day hike of Mt. Whitney. At 14,505 feet, it’s the tallest peak in the 48 contiguous states. The Mt. Whitney trail is half again as long as the White Mountain trail, and the elevation gain is twice as much.
I reached the summit later than I had hoped, but I reached it. On the way down, I passed Trail Crest, at 13,600 feet, and was about to enter the infamous 97 switchbacks. They take you, in a precipitous mile and a half, down 1,600 feet to Trail Camp, roughly the midpoint of the route.
At the top of the switchbacks, one of my toes began to bother me. I suspected a blister was in the works. I knew what I should do: sit down right there, take off my shoe and sock, examine the toe, and tape it up as necessary. “No,” I thought, “I’ll wait until I get to the relative comfort of Trail Camp.” It was a capital mistake.