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Redeeming the Crowds on Whitney

by John Welch

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Itís late August as the famous Whitney trail begins to fall apart into a maze of paths. I know I am near the summit. Itís been a fabulous hike and my wife, grandfather and I all walk the last few steps to the old stone hut and the cliff at the edge of the summit. From here we have the kind of unobstructed view that you can get accustomed to on the top of Californiaís mountains: to the south the rolling wide ridge of Mt. Langley, north over Mt. Russell to the summit plateau of Mt. Williamson and the sharp peaks in the Cascades, west along the beautiful line of mountains on the Kern river divide, and east to the Owens river valley and beyond to the Nevada desert. As always on this mountain, we share the moment with a good dozen people. As we begin the descent and pass party after party headed up the trail, my mind drifts back to a trip I took two months before. Although we were not more than six miles from here, as the crow flies, during the entire trip I saw fewer people than now sit on the Whitney summit. While I continue down the trail toward camp, through some of the most beautiful, and the most crowded backcountry Iíve hiked in, I start thinking about solitude and the nature of wilderness.

This is my fourth trip up "the mule trail," as it is denigrated by people who have never been plagued by altitude sickness while hiking it. I was reluctant to add to the already crowded nature of the Whitney wilderness by repeating the climb. But my grandfather organized the trip and I just canít turn down an opportunity to backpack with him. Besides, someone had to come who knew CPR. I made my first trip up this trail when I was eight. My grandfather also led that trip. Largely, this is a repeat of that trip. We even ate the same chili-mac for dinner last night and oatmeal with raisins for breakfast this morning. However, this time he is 79 and I am 28, so I carry the heavy backpack and he does not.

Beyond the trail and the food, the other similarity between the two trips is the people. When I was a kid I remember running into people on the trail, being awakened by people hiking through our camp in the middle of the night and meeting people on the summit. All of this is the same on this trip. We met lots of people on the trail. We camped last night at trail camp with at least twenty other people and ended up carrying out two trash bags full of other peopleís garbage. This morning we found another twenty-something-sized group of people on the summit itself, and now I must be passing at least one group coming up every quarter mile I go down.

All is in stark contrast to a trip I took two months ago. On that trip my friend Geoff and I entered the Sierras from the trailhead north of the Whitney Portal and climbed over Shepherdís Pass. From there we left the trail and headed South, scrambling through the talus of the Williamson bowl and then up the steep gully and short chimney that lead to the summit of Mt. Williamson. From the Mt. Williamson summit, we looked south and could clearly see the summit hut on Whitney. Although faint, we could almost make out the mass of people waiting to sign the summit log. The Whitney summit register, which looks more like the guest book at a royal wedding reception, is a little different from the summit log on Mt. Williamson. On Mt. Williamson the summit register consists of two 3X5 notebooks placed in 1989 that were still not full, even though most groups seem to make liberal use of the pages. In all, we spent four days on this trip, saw no more than a dozen people during the entire time and were almost certainly the only two people on Mt. Williamson the day we summitted.

One reason I like to backpack is that I enjoy being in the wilderness with small groups of friends and family. Wilderness offers a place for isolation and self-reliance that heightens the sublime experience of seeing tall mountains and deep valleys. It also allows space for individual discovery in a world that sometimes seems to have been explored and described to the furthest corner and cranny already. Being in the Yosemite Valley or the canyons of Zion is wonderful, but watching the alpenglow on an obscure Sierra granite wall, miles from the nearest road, trail or person, is an experience to be treasured.

All of this makes it sound like hiking with crowds is no more fun than shopping with them. While it may seem that the Whitney trail is over-run with people, Iím not convinced that this is necessarily a bad thing. Actually, I have enjoyed every trip I have made up Whitney, people and all; part of the pleasure is the fellow climbers and hikers I bump into. There are few places in the world where folks are as friendly and talkative as on the Whitney trail. While you can walk past anyone in any city and only occasionally get so much as eye contact, to pass a group of people on the Whitney trail without them at least saying "Howdy" is rare. Most groups want to stop and chat for a minute or two before they move on. On this trail there is a unique camaraderie among fellow hikers who are otherwise strangers; almost everyone encourages everyone else. As a kid, I remember no other time in my life when so many strangers congratulated me on my climb or encouraged me to continue to the top. It was a kidís paradise of adult attention. I am glad to return this kind of encouragement to the ten year-old boy and his father who pitched their tent next to ours at trail camp.

In the end, I believe that it is impossible to understand the sublime nature of wilderness until you toil through it. However, unless there are places where we as a society can exit our cities and experience wilderness, this reverence will be lost to us as a people. There must remain wilderness areas that we all can easily go to and experience. The Whitney trail is beautiful and the mountain canyons it traverses are majestic. If there is to be a trail that must be sacrificed to mass hiking, we ought to give them an area that is otherwise serene. I can only believe that it would be a good thing if we could get every US and California congressperson to spend a weekend hiking the Whitney trail. In lieu of that, let us allow their constituency to hike the trail instead.

And so I smile as I pass group after group and I encourage the father with his son and daughter as they hike past. I hope that some of these people will experience a sunset like none they have seen before. I also hope that they are all registered voters.

About the Author

John Welch is a graduate student at UC San Diego who volunteers as an Assisant Scout Master for the Boy Scouts and enjoys backpacking throughout California and Southern Utah.


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