The Climb To Mt. Whitney

irene olberz 4

The story below was written by Irene Olberz, who founded Sport Chalet with her husband Norbert in 1959. Read more about The Sport Chalet Story.

I was always interested in hiking, loved nature and the challenge to reach the crest of an interesting and high mountain. When I was a child my parents and grandparents took me for easy hikes to local forests. We did not have enough money to travel to the Alps or even further than that. When I was 19 years old I joined an organized group of young people to work on a farm in Switzerland for 3 weeks. This was quite an experience for me because that gave me a chance to see those wonderful mountains and the famous Swiss Alps. After we were all done working on different farms, a bus took us for 10 days all over the Swiss mountain side. I was very impressed and could not believe my eyes. I fell in love with this great scenery and almost cried when the train pulled out of the Basel.

When our son Eric was about 5 or 6 years old my husband, Norbert, and I tried to get him interested in hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains with us. But he disliked it very much. One time he pretended that his stomach was hurting. But we dragged him along anyhow and soon he forgot all about it.

Some years later we hiked and also climbed all over the Swiss and Austrian Alps. In the U.S. we hiked in Colorado, Idaho, and the Sierras in California. One day my friend Marion approached me and suggested that her husband Alex, her oldest daughter Vivian and herself, wanted to climb Mt. Whitney with me, 14,450 feet high. I listened to her and was ready to go for it. We were all in pretty good shape and thought we could make it to the top. Several people told us about those murderous 99 switchbacks starting from the 11,000 foot level. I still did not worry too much.

We started to plan our trip and picked the right month and day for it. We chose all the necessary equipment:

We got more and more excited and could not think about anything else. Finally we were ready to start our adventure.

One bright and sunny morning the 4 of us drove toward Lone Pine, where we had planned to stay overnight. We wanted to take our time in order to prevent a possible altitude sickness, which I had experienced several times before. After a good dinner, restful night, and hardy breakfast the next morning, we took off for Whitney Portal, where all the hikers parked their cars. The weight of my back pack was approximately 30 pounds. I was surprised how steep the first part of the mountain actually was. We encountered a few hikers coming down. They stopped and told us that their weight was at least 70 pounds. The reason for this astounding fact was that they carried canned food, cheese, and sausage in their back pack, which surprised me very much. How could they be so crazy? I never heard of such a thing! After chatting a few more minutes we all went our way. Our steep uphill hike got more difficult and some short stops were necessary. After a while we all decided to take a longer break for a pit-stop, taking in an energy snack, water, and resting. We really needed it. I felt an oncoming headache at about the 9,000 foot altitude, but did not pay it too much attention. At 9,500 feet I was definitely sick from the altitude, had a pounding headache, and was nauseated. Then at Mirror Lake I had to rush toward some bushes and threw up. We had actually planned to camp at the 11,000 foot level, but since it started to rain, we stopped at about 10,500 feet. By then I was so sick I could barely move. We unpacked our tube tents, sleeping bags, mats, cooking utensils, cold water, hoping it would help my condition. My friend Marion suggested trying a sip of brandy. That was the worst idea anybody could have! My headache got a lot worse after swallowing the liquor. I was in doubt of making it to the top the following morning. It was raining all night. I let my head stick out of the tube tent in hope it would cool down my hot face and make me feel better. But nothing changed and it did not help one bit.

We got up at 2:30am. Of course, it was still dark. Then everybody got ready for a brief breakfast, dressed according to the weather conditions and packed a few items like energy bars and water for our big challenge. I swallowed a couple aspirin and was hoping that I could make it to the summit in spite of being sick. After a while we reached the 11,000 foot level of our mountain. Normally, that would have been the spot where we had originally planned to stay overnight. Lots of hikers were still sleeping, others got ready for the difficult hike. Now we started going up those infamous 99 switchbacks and could feel it pretty soon. My headache got worse and I had to walk a lot slower. Alex had to cut back too but at least he was not sick, just weak. After another hour, some people passed us going downhill. I was amazed how many people were climbing Mt. Whitney. It is quite a challenge and you have to be very fit. Once in a while I was considering turning back because I felt absolutely lousy. It really was very dangerous to keep going uphill suffering from this terrible altitude sickness. We made frequent short stops because Alex and I were huffing, puffing, perspiring, and just hanging in there. We were determined to make it to the top. Marion and Vivian had hardly any problems, but they were getting a little tired. I was proud to have made it so far. Finally, we could see the famous summit of Mt. Whitney. It was shortly before sunrise and the color of the sky had changed to a reddish-yellow. It was so beautiful. Many hikers had already reached the top of the mountain. Most of the people took pictures and waited for the sun to rise and then it happened. She slowly moved up behind some clouds and the new day had begun. Everybody seemed to be awestruck including us. This was the highest mountain I had ever climbed. There was a place with a booklet where everybody could sign their name, hometown, country, plus the day’s date.

The four of us felt like heroes – winners. We stayed up there for 30 minutes or so and then slowly went downhill. We actually started singing a German folk song and Alex even whistled. We encountered a lot of people approaching us from below. They were still looking forward to reaching their goal – the summit. We were very happy getting back to our camping spot. After some rest, we packed up and slowly started our long downhill. It now seemed so easy. My headache was not quite so severe. But I still felt sick. When we spotted our call all suffering was practically forgotten. We had done it! Then, we started diving back to La Canada.

A few days later I asked my doctor how I could prevent altitude sickness. His answer: “Stay in the Valley!” That was a cute answer and valuable advice, wasn’t it?

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