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My quest to summit Mt. Whitney

By Heather BuchtaPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
Photo by Shakti Rajpurohit on Unsplash

It started when my friend Tyra won the lottery. The Mt. Whitney lottery, that is. Of course I said yes when she asked if I wanted to join. The date was months away, so, naturally, I never wrote it down. It was a hike. How hard could it be?

I’m no Mia Hamm, but I love being the girl who can dress up on a Friday night, and then hold her own on a soccer field with guys on Saturday morning.

There are always faster people, stronger people, better people. Most of the women OCR athletes in my life can kick my butt any day of the week (like serious leave-me-in-the-dust-ass-kicking), but still. I'm over 40, and I can pull off a 5:45 mile. I'm ok with that.

So when I forgot about climbing Mt. Whitney until the week before , I thought, “No problem, sis. You’re an athlete.”

Look at me all nbd. haha. #irony

Turns out there’s one small detail I didn’t take into account:

Altitude cares very little for athleticism.

I knew Mt. Whitney was high. Like nosebleed high. In fact, Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48 states, standing at a daunting 14, 505 feet. But still.

Hulda Crooks climbed Mt. Whitney when she was 91 years old!

I could do this.

Perfect day for a hike.

Tyra, Natalie, and I started our ascent late. We meant to start at 4 AM, but didn’t hit the trail until about 6 AM. So what did we do to counter that?

We booked it. I mean HAULED. We ate as we walked, powered up the 99 switchbacks, and only stopped for quick bathroom breaks and water purifying.

Nat refilling and purifying her water.

This might have been Mistake 1. One of the first causes of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is rapid ascent. To Natalie and Tyra’s credit, they had been at 7000' elevation for the past three days; hence, no big deal for them. We had climbed over 2000 feet by 7:36 am. Altimeter reading: 10,040'.

We ascended the first nine miles in less than six hours. I was drinking enough water (three liters), eating enough food; I was golden.

No filter. It really is this pretty!

Tyra and Nat showing that they've hit 12,000' elevation.

Somewhere around the next picture, I became light headed. Like “ready to pass out” lightheaded. But that’s how I feel during every race. You learn to suck it up and keep going. No room for whining. It's only 11:01 AM. You can't complain when it's still Mimosa hours.

12,000' is no joke.

And then, 1.9 miles from the top, something switched. Notice Tyra is still great. She's like, "Okay, I'll stop to give you the 13,000 sign, but seriously, let's keep this moving!"


Meanwhile, my thought was, "Hey, 13,000 feet, what the heck did you do with all the air?"


I told Tyra and Nat to go on ahead. Hitting the summit is a freaking HUGE deal. Like HUGE huge. I wanted that for them, and I didn’t want to slow them down. I would've been annoyed had they stayed back with me. If you’re an athlete, you get this.

Plus, there were myriads of hikers, and only one trail. NBD. I wouldn’t lose them. Besides, I would make it; my fierce competitive side would will me through this. I would just be slower.

Off they go!

When they left me, I was fine. Head space was good. I was just slower. But as I hiked, I became a lot slower. Suddenly, things felt… swimmy. Drunk. I was not just wobbly from fatigue. My brain was getting confused. I remember telling myself “up.” And taking a step, sitting, taking a step, sitting. I was aware I was confused. But I would coach myself, “Where ya going, Heather?” Then I’d answer me, “Up.” And I’d take another step. Then sit again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

I remember three college guys on their way down stopping. One touched my shoulder. “Hey, do you have water?”

I nodded, and my head fell back. “Whoa, kid,” I heard one say as I stared at the sky. They filled my water, sat with me, talked with me. My head cleared again.

“I’m so close,” I told them.

“We get it,” another one said. “But breathe every time you take a step. Go stupid slow.”

“Stupid slow,” I repeated and gave the thumbs up.

I started walking again. “Slower!” one shouted from behind me. “Remember! Stupid slow! Step- Breathe! Step- Breathe!”

I trudged along. But it took too much coordination to breathe at every step. I'm not a drinker. Usually my two-cocktail-limit puts me in a “dance-party-with-the-world” mood, and that's plenty. But this was drunk. Way drunk. Enough-to-get-arrested-for-public-intoxication drunk. I crawled for a bit. Then sat again.

At some point, another stranger sat down with me on his descent. I never got his name. “I’ll catch up,” he told his group. He pulled out a small can of oxygen. “Hey, you want a hit?” I nodded hungrily, pulled the trigger, took a hit, and the world was clear again.

“I don’t get it,” I said after a few minutes and five more hits of oxygen. “I’m breathing up here. But nothing’s happening. It’s like I’m not.”

“You should turn back. You know that, right?”

I nodded. “My brain feels fuzzy.”

“Too much nitrogen, not enough oxygen. There’s probably a little fluid getting in the way. Altitude sickness. It’s only getting worse from here on out.”

I looked at him. He looked at me. I bit my lip.

“You wanna keep going,” he said, like we were old friends and he knew what biting my lip meant.

“A little bit farther?”

He shrugged. Didn’t like the idea, but told me if I felt anything bad, to stop immediately. I sent him on his way to catch up with his group.

I tried again.

It’s all a little blurry from here, but I remember being ok. Making some good progress. Then turning a corner, and not being able to breathe again. Only this time there was no one around. I willed myself not to panic because I knew I’d have even less air. With my head between my knees, I looked at my altimeter. 13,760'. I was only 745 feet from the summit. This picture took me four attempts. I couldn't quite remember my passcode or where the camera button was.


And then it hit me. If I couldn’t breathe at this altitude, what made me think I could breathe where it was 745 feet higher? It had taken me five minutes to go about twenty-five feet. But I had ½ mile left.




The realization was awful. I just wept. Big heaving little kid sobs. Alligator tears. Everything in me wanted this. The peak. I could see it. But I knew something was off, seriously off. Game over.

When you grow up in team sports, you learn how to lock it up quickly. There are no meltdowns on the field. No crying because you're losing, or because someone screwed up your play, or because a ball smacked you. Can you walk? Then walk it off. The word "yet" helped me to lock it up. No, I hadn't made it to the top.


Mt. Whitney wasn't going anywhere. Of course I was going to come back. As soon as I relented and accepted a plan for "next time," for the three-letter-full-of-hope "yet," it no longer felt like defeat.

At that moment a hiker came by. I sent him up to tell my friends I’d wait for them at 12,000'. I needed to get lower quickly. The drunk seasick confusion wasn’t going away.

I stood and started walking down. But remember, I was a little confused. Like had you asked me a question, I might've just taken my finger and played with your lower lip.

Maybe ten minutes later, I looked up.

I was on a giant boulder, surrounded by hundreds of other large rocks. I turned 360 degrees. I had. No. Idea. Where I was. No sense of the trail. In my effort to get "down," I had forgotten to use the trail. That's how confused I was. And who knows when exactly I had left the trail?

Not a soul in the vast barren wilderness around me. And I was a tiny speck in comparison to the world of rocks on all sides of me. Had I been hiking for ten minutes? Or twenty? I couldn’t remember.

“Hello?” I called out.

No answer.

"Oh fuck," I whispered.

Sure, I pray all the time. But the words that erupted were raw. Intimate. Oh, crap-ish desperate. “Hey, Jesus, so you made these rocks, and I’m in them. You've gotta help me, buddy.” My voice felt very tiny.

And then I had a Bear Grylls moment.

His number 1 rule: Stay calm. When you let anxiety take over, that’s when you make dumb decisions and get hurt.

Number 2 rule: Find a source of water. It's funny how quickly I switched from "get down to your car for a cheeseburger" mode to "survival" mode.

I saw a lake a couple miles below me. Who knows what lake? But there was a lake, and thanks to super-hiker-friend Ryan Wiley who packed my backpack, I had rain gear, and some really warm stuff that fit in these itty-bitty pouches. I’d be ok. All was well again. Should I hike down to that water and stay the night?

I had the thought, Stay where you are. So like a three-year-old lost in the mall, I did. I sat and called out. It was like performing CPR on a dead guy and getting no results, and all the time, your heart is beating like mad and you’re begging the air for some sign of life. I was sitting in silence surrounded by cliffs and rocks with no sight of anyone. Over and over I called. Nothing.

Twenty minutes later, The CPR worked. The dead guy breathed.

“I hear you!” a guy’s voice echoed. “Keep talking!” So I did, and way above me, a teeny face appeared.

“Where are you?” I asked him.

“On the TRAIL!” he yelled, like DUH! “Where are you?”

“Um, good question!” I climbed towards his voice, boulder by boulder. When I finally reached him, I wrapped my arms and legs around him like an octopus and sobbed into him like he was my best friend back from the war. “I’m totally buying you a beer,” I promised this stranger.

Turns out I had led myself about 200 yards in the opposite direction of the trail. But perfect timing. Right when I reappeared, Tyra and Nat came back into view. “Hey, guys,” I said sheepishly. “I took a little detour.”

So new friend Chris hovered like a blue heeler, herding me in as I stumbled down with my friends. And literally a couple steps below 13,000 feet, my head cleared as if I had never tasted that "altitude alcohol." All my faculties came back, and though my legs felt wobbly, my lungs felt brand new. I could've run the ten miles back to the car.

We did enjoy a cheeseburger when we got back to the trailhead six hours later.

Looking back, I'm thankful for every minute of it. The joy, the fight, the struggle, the defeat, the confusion, the rescue. We need things to throw us on our asses from time to time. I was reminded of how paradoxical we all are. Fragile but fighting. Controlling yet helpless. So stupid. So lovely.

Somehow it blends to form something beautiful.

Hang in there, everyone. Nope, you may not have reached your "Whitney." But don't forget the most important word.



About the Creator

Heather Buchta

I love sports, reading, and a good glass of whiskey.

Being kind is cool.

Brevity is hard.

If I send you a note on IG, I swear I'm not sliding into your DM's.

I just like people.

Oh, and Jesus is my everything.

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