I lay ramrod straight as hail pelted the thin fabric of my ultralight tent, then jumped as a lightning bolt struck somewhere nearby. I didn’t know whether or not I was safe. As I was surrounded by metal poles, in the middle of a clearing before the summit of the tallest mountain in the continental United States, I was pretty convinced I was not.
Another rockfall boomed from a neighboring peak. My neighbor cried out in fear and frustration.
My experience on the John Muir Trail went mostly well, and remains one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Hiking the 210 miles or so took me three weeks, by myself to boot. However, I was rarely alone — I’d see roughly the same 20–30 hikers throughout the day for the entire length of the trip. At the end I formed a family constantly cheering ourselves on.
The biggest issue I had, until the end, was sickness. About a hundred miles in, I contracted what seemed like bronchitis, spending 4–5 hours every evening in my tent hacking up green goo before finally falling asleep. I still managed to hike 15–20 miles during the day, so I kept on trucking.
The mornings were always clear. Thunderstorms would roll in quickly during the afternoon between 2–3pm. This is typical, and why it was crucial to get up and over the many mountain passes in the morning (in which I had to climb to at least 12,500 feet — no small feat on its own).
I checked in with the Crabtree Ranger Station the morning before the Whitney summit and the day before I planned to finish the trail. While I met many friends and never felt like I was in danger while hiking, it was still prudent to check in with the rangers. Most importantly, the rangers also knew the up-to-date weather report.
“You’re going to have some issues: a thunderstorm is rolling in and there’s going to be another tomorrow. If you see stars though, go for it. You might not get another chance.”
A prudent person would have (should have) held off summiting another day for the thunderstorms to clear. I had an uniquely annoying schedule to keep— I needed to be off the mountain in time to get home to a green card interview for my husband. Interview times are set for you, they can’t be rescheduled, and our interview got scheduled months earlier than expected. Needless to say, I needed to get off the trail in time, and that meant I couldn’t avoid the storm.
The storm rolled in suddenly with no warning just after I reached Guitar Lake.
I just finished convincing a couple of guys join my camping spot. The rain started gentle, giving me and my campmates time to leap into our tents before the torrent started.
Thunder rang around us. The typical guideline of counting the time in between the flash and boom seemed moot as the two were nearly simultaneous. I watched worriedly as water rose up around my tent’s bucket floor, and I lay squarely on my air pad hoping it would both insulate me from the water, if it made it in, as well as hoping I wouldn’t be fried if my tent was struck directly.
It was only 3pm.
The storm seemed like a hurricane, with periods of intense rain, hail, and lightning interspersed with calm. In each of these periods of calm, there was enough time for my campmates and myself to race out of our tents to attend to an urgent task. During one such period, I only had enough time to hurriedly dig a moat around my tent to drain the water that was threatening to seep inside my tent. Another, I had just enough time to heat a bottle of water to throw in my sleeping bag for warmth. The temperature was dipping rapidly, and one of our campmates was worried about exposure and hypothermia.
During the stormy periods, there was nothing to do other than stare at the top of the tent and hope that the worst doesn’t happen. I reassured myself at the time that my tent might redirect a lightning strike away from me as I was not touching metal, only to find out later that lightning striking tents can and do kill people. The lightning was hitting within a mile, the hail (so innocuous looking above), sounding like it would rip a hole through my tent. I was afraid to move in case I touched water or metal. My campsites and I yelled encouragement to each other, and occasionally traded curses when a particularly loud strike would hit.
It was, quite simply, terrifying.
Slowly, the periods of storm shortened and the times of calm lengthened. 10pm we all tried to sleep, but none of us really succeeded. I set my alarm for 2am, hoping that I would see the stars.
I craned my head out at 2am. Clouds covered nearly all of the sky, and above, straight above, a tiny patch of stars.
I’m sure the ranger meant a much larger patch than the one I saw. But I had a schedule, it had been a few hours since the last lightning strike, and I was tired of laying in my tent dreading the worst.
I jumped into action, throwing on my boots (one of which had accidentally been left outside and was soaking wet) and packing up my tent. My campmates opted to stay in their tents and wait until 4am. I knew the next morning storm was coming though, and worried that it would hit before I was down the mountain on the other side, so I packed up and took off as fast as I could go.
A small band of headlamps moving up the side of the mountain meant I wasn’t truly alone. Knowing I had a group in front of me and a group behind me made me feel better as I picked my way through the boulders to the switch backs.
I quickly caught up to them, to my surprise. Big, burly men who looked very in shape had just gone on the trail a few days before and weren’t completely acclimated. With 200 miles below my belt, I was going a lot faster. I tried sticking with them for about a half a mile, knowing there was safety in groups. We were reaching the clouds draped over the peaks of the mountain ridge, and my friendly patch of stars had long disappeared. But hiking with them was too slow and frustrating. I worried about making it over before the thunderstorms coming in the morning, and getting down the mountain in time. I went on ahead.
I was now the furthest along on the stormy ridge of Mt. Whitney at 3am. Feeling completely alone.
I don’t think of much when I am hiking, especially when I am going up steep trails in high altitudes. I count to forty steps, take a small break, do another forty steps. My mind is nearly completely blank, a sort of exhausting moving meditation.
I was now completely enveloped in fog, only able to see fifteen feet or so ahead of me. The trail turned into snow. I was hiking up a ridge with a cliff to one side and the mountainside to the other, and occasionally I’d hear the rumble that would initially sound like thunder until I realized it was rockfalls from other peaks. I started to make sure I always had a largish rock that I could theoretically hide behind if a rockfall started where I was, glancing up at regular intervals to see if I could see anything (even though I never could).
I kept reminding myself that this is how “those” stories got started. Female climbing a mountain alone in the dark between storms dies tragically in rockfall, lightning strike, a misplaced step off a cliff.
Around 4:15am, deep within the clouds and trudging through snow, I finally found what I was looking for — a silhouetted sign indicating that I reached the top. Relief flooded my body when I finally reached it. To the left: the final 1.5 miles to reach the top of Mt. Whitney. Straight: the trail heading back to Whitney Portal, and the end of my trip. The wind at the ridge was blowing powerfully, it was still pitch black, and the trail was precarious. I chose to forgo the peak and get off the mountain. I ended up never fully summiting Mt. Whitney.
I thought the worst was over, but it wasn’t. The trail got harder, not going downhill like I hoped, instead looping around giant boulders and the wind got stronger — threatening to knock me off balance and down the side of the mountain. I found a nook between two boulders partially sheltered from the wind and wedged myself in. I was scared. My heart was beating fast. I was shaking. I stood there willing my fear to decrease. I thought about staying in that crack, waiting for the next group to come by so I wouldn’t feel so alone, cold, and vulnerable.
At some point I found the courage to leave my nook and start again on the trail, going slowly in the snow and making sure I always had sure footing. Suddenly, I could see the other side of the mountain, and started heading down the famous ninety-nine switchbacks heading to Whitney Portal.
It wasn’t until I saw the dawn that I felt safe, and the worst was over.
I practically ran down the eight mile trail. I counted each switchback, each one indicating one less and one closer to being done. The next storm was rolling in, hikers going the opposite direction worrying whether they’d make it to the top before lightning started again.
My knees, ankles, and arches hurt. My right foot was still wet from the soaking boot that morning. At 10:30am, I sat down with a platter of eggs, bacon, and pancakes at the small Whitney Portal restaurant, called my husband, and thanked my lucky stars that while I was closer to the worst than I’ve ever been, I made it through and I was okay.