A higher calling: climbing California’s 14ers – September 1996
My pal Rick Brown is the toughest man I know. Two inches shorter, 10 pounds heavier and 12 years older than me, he is the quintessential short, wiry, older guy. I always describe him as “a machine.”
Rick is an expert alpine and cross-country skier, caver and technical climber. But it is as a “peak-bagger” – free climber of the tallest peaks – that he shines in my eyes.
He has climbed Mexico’s highest, 18700-foot Orizaba; many of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks; over half of California’s 13 14ers and the highest point in every county in Nevada.
Early in the summer for the last four years I’ve gotten this call,” Hi, sweetheart! Wanna bag a 14er?” I am soon driving to his house above Reno then in his Jeep heading down 395 to the southern Sierra – because I’m tougher than I am smart.
Last month, climbing 14,026-foot Mount Langley, I began to ponder the mystique of the 14ers. Fourteen thousand feet of elevation is the mountaineers’ cutoff point, separating the men from the boys. I’ve been on plenty of 10-, 11- and 12,000-foot peaks, but they aren’t discussed and tallied by mountaineers like the 14ers. On Langley, a peak register entry read, “My 37th 14er, 10th in California.”
I’ve driven to 16,000 in Denali and been on a train in the Andes at over 14,000 on which the porter provided oxygen. You can drive to 14,000-plus in Colorado. But it’s not the same feeling of accomplishment as bagging a 14er on your own two dogs.
The siren call of the 14ers defies logic. I enjoy the physical challenge of it, that the means are more important than the ends. And I am not a “spiritual” person, but to stand under a sky so blue it’s purple on Mount Russell’s 3-foot-wide knife ridge, gazing at 100 miles of barren peaks with sterile, turquoise lakes in their valleys is an otherworldly, Zen experience unmatched by any other sport.
Physical conditioning plays only a small part in how well you process high elevation. My friend Karen can drag a 60-pound pack around all day but can’t go over 10,000 feet without a disabling headache. A ski-patrol friend of Rick’s once witnessed the hypoxia (acute altitude sickness) death of an out-of-shape 16 year-old girl at just 8,000 feet. People have gotten off the plane in La Paz, Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world at 11,910 feet, and had a pulmonary edema on the tarmac. My brother-in-law, David, is a marathon runner yet had a very tough time on 14,494-foot Whitney, due, in part, to the layer of fresh snow that forced us to go cross country the last 5 miles.
And you can develop chronic hypoxia at any time. Sir Edmund Hillary, the legendary conqueror of 29,108-foot Mount Everest, developed a mild pulmonary edema after decades of climbing and can no longer go to high altitude. Janine Clarke, a Grass Valley climber who’s bagged the highest peak of all 50 states, sums it up, “You could climb 20 times without a problem then die at 9,000. It’s a crap shoot.”
The only time I’ve had “siroche,” the Quechua Indian word for altitude sickness, was at 13,000-plus in a Peruvian town on the Chilean border. I suspect it was due to other, contributing factors. I had a bad headache for 24 hours and left several little partially digested snacks for the neighborhood llamas.
I’ve observed that age is also not an indicator of how well one deals with altitude. Indeed, as with distance running, older people tend to fare better under physical stress, and endurance, not strength, is what sees you through. I saw guys pushing 60 on Whitney who’d come up the back, much more difficult side, then commiserated with a man maybe 10 years my junior on Langley who failed to catch his breath after 30 minutes. I climbed my first 14er at 37.
Rick always says,” Approach is all in mountaineering.” This means the ratio of miles hiked to altitude feet-per-mile gained. You breathe heavily at 1,000 feet-of-gain-per mile; I consider 1,500 feet-per-mile serious climbing.
The three easiest 14ers in California are White Mountain (14,246), Langley (14,026) and Whitney, all with distinct trails. For White, you drive to 12,000 feet then cover the final 2,246 feet of gain in about 7 miles. Langley has a 10.5 mile approach – we did the 21 miles round-trip as a day hike – with only 4,000 feet of gain. Whitney has an 11-mile approach and only about 6,000 feet of gain; most folks camp at 12,000 then continue.
My first 14er with Rick was Russell. You take the Whitney mountaineers’ route then bushwhack up to just 406 feet less elevation than Whitney – but in 4 miles instead of 11. The toughest we climbed was 14,058 Split Mountain, a seemingly inocuous 5-mile, 7,000-foot-gain approach. But you camp at 10,500 then bag the peak with 3,500 feet of gain in just 1 1/2 miles on talus and snowfields – the most gain in the shortest distance I’ve ever done.
One of Clarke’s toughest climbs was Mount Borah in Idaho, a straight-up 12,662 footer. The approach was just 3 miles, with 5,750 feet of gain in the final two. She lost toenails on that one.
It was Clarke who told me that it takes more muscles to go down than up, and my Split experience proved it. We bagged the peak at 7,000 feet of gain/loss round-trip, picked up our packs at the lake then descended to 6,000 – a total descent of 8,000 feet in 5 miles. Between that and the extreme ascent, I was still mincing around from pain in my shins and thighs a week later.
Time is critical in a high-elevation climb. Going up means slowing down. I normally walk at 3 mph and backpack at 2 mph, but I’m lucky to do 1 mph on extreme elevation. Accordingly, Rick and I can never spend more than about 15 minutes on the top of our quarry, in order to be back at the Jeep by dark.
Instead of taking lots of breaks and a long lunch, under Rick’s system we hike for an hour then sit down, force ourselves to eat (nausea is a reaction to high altitude), and rest for five minutes all day long. Sounds brutal, but it ensures we don’t lose momentum. It took us 14 hours to do Russell, 10 to do Langley, and Rick 12 to do Whitney as day hikes.
After Langley, Rick said, “Well, that was the last of the easy ones.” From here on it means “chicken-strap” belays and technical climbing. I want to do Shasta, Muir, Williamson – am I crazy? Decidedly, but the lure of the 14ers cannot be ignored.
This article was originally published on 10/15/1999.
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