“Hey! Matzah and I are planning on applying for the Mt. Whitney lottery. I’m not sure what you were planning, but if you want, we can put you on our application :)”
I’ve come to realize that when I get a text like the above from a friend, a big adventure is about to happen, even if I know little details at the time. I’ll never forget the message I got from my friend, Tess, asking about joining her and others on a adventure through the Grand Canyon called the Rim to Rim to Rim hike. And I’ll never forget the text from Lindsay asking if I wanted to join on an adventure up Mt. Whitney.
But first! The original name for Mt. Whitney was Tumanguya as given to it by the Shoshone peoples. It means “very old man” and it’s quite a fitting name for it. For the rest of this post, I will be respecting the original name and using Tumanguya instead of Mt. Whitney. Plus, Whitney never even summitted the mountain so why must this ancient behemoth of a mountain be named after a white colonizer who simply saw the mountain from afar? There is a big push to rename many other mountains and lands back to their original names given to them by the indigenous peoples and I fully support this movement and even hope someday Pikes Peak here in Colorado will officially be renamed to Tava, as that was one of the few names the mountain had before white colonizers arrived. Again, like with Whitney, Zebulon Pike never even summitted Pikes Peak.
I think it’s incredibly important to be respectful and mindful of the land you’re on. All of this land was stolen through lies, bloodshed, and genocide. That’s a legacy of America that will never and can never be washed clean, no matter how hard those in power try to do so. It’s a tragic and awful aspect of our history that we must recognize and acknowledge as we journey through these lands. Plus, uh… many of the white dudes these mountains are named after were virulently racist. Yes, even everyone’s favorite and beloved old-timey white dude, John Muir.
Now, Tumanguya is a very popular mountain. It’s just a few hours away from several major cities, the two that stand out being Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It’s the highest mountain in the contiguous United States plus Hawai’i. We don’t count Alaska’s mountains because they cheat. So, this distinction gives it a lot more attention than most other 14ers (a 14er is a mountain that is 14,000 feet or higher). Due to this popularity and ease of access from major cities, the Forest Service had to implement a permit lottery system to help control the crowds of people and to continue helping with protecting the mountain and the land around it. Only 30% of the people who apply for a permit actually win one. So, I feel like we got incredibly lucky to win permits on just our first try at an application for them.
Thursday, March 24th at 5:57AM is when I found out from Lindsay that we had won permits!
Wait, I have a quick little story. I had also sent in my own application for the same dates that Lindsay and Matzah applied for. Except they applied for overnight permits that would allow us to backpack and camp during the hike whereas I applied for day-use permits where we would have to hike the entire mountain in one day. My application had all the same June dates as they had, except maybe due to my excitement, I accidentally picked May for the date of the 23rd, instead of June. And I won permits for that day! Except May 23rd is way too early in the year for our tastes and skill levels due to high amounts of snow and ice that would still be up there. It also seemed impossible to traverse snowy conditions like that in 24 hours or less. But, we lucked out massively as Lindsay and Matzah’s application also got picked for permits on the correct dates and these would be overnight permits, so we could break up the giant hike into two days. I’m so, so, so happy my little mistake ended up not being an issue at all. Despite how much my heart sank when I realized the mistake and had to text Lindsay the, at the time, unfortunate news. Still, luck and favor was on our side somehow.
Now, it was time to prepare. Considering Tumanguya is 14,505 feet, it’s only 66 feet taller than the highest mountain Colorado and all of the Rockies, Mt. Elbert (I could not find the original indigenous name, or if it even had one), so I didn’t need to do as intense training as I did for the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim hike. Plus, I didn’t even have a lot of time between finding out we won the permits and then doing the actual hike. Still, I ramped up my hikes, pushed myself by hiking a bit faster than I usually do, purposely picking clockwise or counter-clockwise routes on loop trails based on how much of a climb it would be and so much more. Despite all this prep, and knowing I’ve done Mt. Elbert twice and several other 14ers so, on paper, I should be able to hike up Tumanguya just fine, I was still getting more and more nervous as the day got closer and closer.
I always get nervous before exceptionally large hikes and adventures regardless of what I’ve previously accomplished. But, the last two years of my adventures being much smaller and slowed down a lot due to the pandemic and the mental health effects it had on me made me even more nervous. In reality, I didn’t “fall out of shape” but I was still absolutely convinced I just wasn’t in the shape I needed to be in while I was driving to California to do the hike.
On the way to Tumanguya, you have to drive through Death Valley National Park. I wrote about my first and last time I had been there back in 2020. I absolutely love that place but, when I went in 2020, it was in November so the temperatures were much more tolerable whereas this was near the end of June. I had to stop at Badwater Basin really quick since it’s the lowest point in the contiguous United States at 282 feet below sea level but… it was also 120º and that’s a personal record for me of hottest temperature I’ve ever experienced outside. It was awful and I finally could understand how it’s so easy for people to die so quickly in conditions like this. Then, the occasional gust of wind would happen and it was a burning hot wind! Not a cool breeze like I am used to in Colorado.
Then, the time came to finally start those first steps and all my worries and nervousness washed away. I was with two dear friends and we were starting a brand new experience all together. I knew this experience, this adventure, would be one we would always remember for the rest of our lives. SPOILER ALERT: I was glad my gut instinct for this time was right because it did end up being something I know I’ll remember for a lifetime.
Once we got a few miles in, we reached Lone Pine Lake. A small but very pretty area to sit and relax and have an actual break while dipping our feet into the cold water! What was especially cool was, as we were leaving the area of Lone Pine Lake, we had ran into a few members of the Inyo County Search and Rescue crew. Thankfully, they weren’t up there for a rescue mission, but instead to ask hikers information on how they do their research for hikes and travels, what kind of equipment and gear they use for hikes, if they use GPS and emergency locator beacon devices, and so on. This was a part of their outreach to better understand how people get lost or injured and how they are prepared or not prepared for such situations. Most search and rescue crews are all on a volunteer basis so I highly respect and admire the people that choose to give up their free time and even risk their own lives to help rescue and save the lives of others. Needless to say, I was very giddy to talk with them and had to get a selfie. Follow them on Instagram at @inyosar if you want to!
We eventually made it to the last lake on the trail called, well, Trail Camp. Which is also where we decided to find some established spots and set up camp. It felt good to finally be able to have a little “home” for the rest of the day and night before waking up the next morning to finish our trek to the summit of Tumanguya. We relaxed, we ate dinner, and just talked. We ended up in our tents and I immediately struggled to stay awake as I wanted to wait to sleep once the night sky came. But, nope, as soon as the sun starting setting, I was out. I even downloaded some shows on Netflix to watch! But, oh well.
I have much better gear for backpacking than I have in the past so I had a much better experience sleeping. Well, as good as I could have experienced despite waking up a few times due to how cold it had gotten. I mean, I think we all know it’s not going to be warm overnight when you’re camping 12,000 feet up on a mountain. We really lucked out, though, with having no afternoon monsoon storms or high winds during our camping. Having little to no weather to worry about at that elevation and higher is not common! Which was especially nice considering the mountain was hit with a blizzard a few days prior that dropped over a foot of snow! But, all of that melted incredibly fast, thank goodness.
To be honest, it was a beautiful hike up to this point but still felt like a fairly standard 14er hike. Just the biggest 14er I’ve ever done. Yet. But, waking up the next morning knowing the truly big day of hiking was ahead of us brought back all my worries and nervousness again. I would look up ahead on the trail and could see how it would turn back into countless switchbacks going straight up the mountainside next to Mount Muir (I could not find the original name of this mountain) with all the hikers on it looking like ants. Because the last two years of drastically lowering my own standards for hiking, I was afraid I would be too out-of-shape to handle the last stretch of the trail.
I was wrong. I was so wrong. We got about halfway up the switchbacks and I finally got that feeling that I haven’t gotten in a very long time. I got the Hiker’s High. Maybe it was the diminishing oxygen but, despite going up a relentless ascent via many, many switchbacks, I was feeling GREAT! I really could’ve hopped up the trail if I wanted to. I was giggly and happy and feeling so, so good. Again, all my worries and nerves washed away and I was very excited to keep continuing on knowing we were all about to achieve a great feat. Looking back on it, that last leg of the trail, the final ascent to the summit of Tumanguya, was the easiest out of all the 14ers I’ve done and I know it had to do with how great I was feeling mentally and emotionally.
We reached the summit and just relaxed. I got very emotional, as I tend to do when I accomplish something so big and the reward is immensely beautiful, breathtaking views. And I got to share this moment with Lindsay and Matzah, which made it even better. Hell, I even got to share that moment with my mom as I saw another hiker on her phone and realized I somehow had service, too, so I called her since I know she worries about me on these adventures.
We rested for a while then headed back down. Now, this was going to be the truly long slog as we weren’t going to camp for a second night in a row. Which meant e had to go back down to our camp site, pack everything up, and hike the rest of the way down to our cars. I was enjoying the momentarily lightweight backpack going up to the summit of Tumanguya! But, going downhill with a heavy backpack is significantly easier than going uphill and fighting gravity along the way!
After a while of going down, down, down the trail, we decided to part ways because, well… I had to poop. I’ve pooped in nature before and it’s fine! I have no issue with it, but I knew if I could break off from Lindsay and Matzah and go at a slightly faster pace, I could easily reach the toilet at the trailhead before it became a DEFCON 1 situation. And a toilet is still a much-preferred way to drop the Browns off at the Super Bowl than squatting behind a bush hoping no one can see you for fear of accidentally exposing your turd portal to an innocent soul.
I think because I was alone hiking down, my emotional state finally felt safe to let loose and I cried. I cried so hard. Very thankful I had sunglasses on so I wouldn’t accidentally freak any other hikers out. I was coming down from that Hiker’s High and really, truly processing the adventure I was about to complete. This felt like the first real adventure I had been on since I was high up in the mountains of Grand Teton National Park way back in 2019. Yeah, I’ve had my vacations and roadtrips and really fun hikes and such, but the pandemic kind of changed the dynamics of my outdoor adventures for me. I took such a huge hit to my mental health that I feel I’m still recovering from.
But, what hit me so hard was that I hadn’t experienced that Hiker’s High since 2019 and it felt so goddamn good to feel that rushing through my body and veins. I was still obsessed with hiking in 2020 and 2021, but it got incredibly hard to maintain that obsession during those years with the passion I had in years before. I hit a real low.
Then, all it took was a single text from Lindsay to change all that for me. I hadn’t just done a hike, I had experienced an adventure! And this adventure was shared with Lindsay and Matzah! Not just a hike, but a fucking adventure. That love, that passion, all came rushing back and I got so overwhelmed with all the emotions and feelings. And I let it out by crying. This was something I have talked about a lot in therapy but couldn’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then I finally did on this hike down. I finally decoupled the pandemic and the world being on fire with the most foundational love I have.
I saved hiking for myself with the help of my friends and I have been excited, feeling renewed, refreshed, and just so goddamn happy like I haven’t been for a very long time. This whole experience was really good for my soul. I needed this when I didn’t realize I needed this.
Later that evening, I met up with Lindsay and Matzah and we inhaled our dinners while reflecting a little bit on our time up that mountain and slept very, very hard that night. I took off early the next morning to go back to my hometown of Las Vegas. Drove through the hottest areas of the world again, explored Omega Mart by Meow Wolf, had delicious craft beer from my favorite Vegas brewery, Tenaya Creek Brewing, forgot to gamble, and used up the last of my Buffalo Wild Wings gift card I had won at my work for my last meal in Las Vegas.
Then, the drive home from Las Vegas was a pleasant surprise in terms of weather. Throughout all of Utah and most of Colorado, it was cloudy and rainy and much, much cooler. Such a relief from the consistently 100º temperatures I had experienced most of the time I was out west.
Whelp, that’s my story. That’s my Tumanguya adventure. All my feelings, thoughts, experiences, and sights. I needed this so much without realizing I needed this. I love those kinds of surprises in life. I really hope that mountain can do for other people like it did for me. I hope other people have the dear friends to share this joy with like I was lucky enough to do so.