That was after.
My wife and I signed up for the REI Labor Day hike on the Western Trail to Mt. Whitney months ahead of time. As you probably know, Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, at 14, 505 feet—give or take, and depending on who’s measuring. And on the Sunday before the holiday we were to meet our group close to the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead. So we were there. We were on time and in the right place and looking for them.
We did see a group of women all gathered together with gear neatly stacked on an old grey canvas tarp at the pack station and there were horses and mules and a couple of cowboys hoisting duffel bags and heavy aluminum boxes. “Can’t be our group,” I said to Andrea. “Looks like some kind of women’s outing.”
A tall, young guy, lean and built like a rock climber—powerful forearms and sinewy legs—walked up to us. I noticed that his shoes were untied. “Do you guys need some help?”
“Sure. We’re looking for the REI group.”
“You found it. They’re all getting their stuff ready down by that big tarp.”
Was it too late to cancel? “Oh man; it’s a chick trip.”
Andrea stood silently for a moment and then her grey-green eyes went the color of a forest when a misty fog descends on it. She turned away.
I took her arm and faced her. “What is it?”
She nodded toward the group just below us. “No guys for you to hang with? I’m afraid you’re just going to hate this.”
Still, we toted our duffle bags over and laid them with all the rest on the dusty tarp. Now, I had done a total of 2 supported backcountry trips before, but generally when I say backpacking, I mean the real thing: full pack, my own backpacker’s stove and plenty of bad freeze-dried food to cook on it. Secretly, I felt that this trip would be almost cheating: packers would carry tents, sleeping bags and pads, and most of the food—and real food at that. Two guides would be along to show the way and also cook our meals. Backcountry plush.
We introduced ourselves to the ladies. There were 9 of them, and I forgot almost all of their names as soon as I heard them. I think I managed to memorize about three. There was Allison, but one of her friends said they called her POTUS (President of the United States) In Training. Allison was fifty-something, lean, solid and rather serious looking with her tortoiseshell glasses. I wasn’t sure, but her friends might have been serious about this POTUS thing.
Younger than the rest, maybe 40, very strong, blonde, nice face, was Zuzanna—yes; with two Zs. She had a foreign accent I couldn’t quite place—Eastern European maybe.
And there was Joyce. Warm, genuine, smile, mid-length light brown hair parted neatly on the left with a little curl across her forehead. I heard 6 other names in fast order but I wouldn’t have them all straight for at least 2 more days.
Our guides were Aaron, the young guy I mentioned earlier, and Jessica (“Jess or Jessica; not Jessie,” she let us know). Jessica is 33 years old; although I’m not sure she looked old enough to legally enter a bar in California.
“Aaron just broke the record for the Evolution traverse,” Jess told us. Actually, I didn’t know what that was, but apparently it’s a pretty impressive piece of mountaineering.
Gear was loaded on mules and the cowboys led them out.
And so we began. Day one took us for a short hike over Cottonwood Pass to Chicken Spring Lake. The trail was soft, deep sand under our feet; it’s pumice really, from an ancient volcano. My feet sank into the softness and a bit of sand got into my Brooks trail running shoes.
Except for our guide, Aaron, who was also wearing thin, light shoes, everybody else—meaning all the women—walked the trail in sturdy, heavy soled boots.
Like most Sierra afternoons in summer, this one was sunny and warm but you could see puffy white clouds dotting the western horizon and you could be sure that by late afternoon they would turn darker—even black—and that there could be rain.
I felt the ground turn to rocky hardness when the climb to the pass began. When the trail tilted upward, Zuzana, apparently finding the pace too slow for her liking, asked Jessica if she could go ahead of the group. Jess wrinkled up her lips and considered that for a second then told her she could. “But try to stay in sight. And stop at the top of the pass.” Zuzana took off ahead. After a few minutes I found the pace a bit slow too ran up to join her. Zuzana was trucking uphill fast—I’d say at about 15 minute per mile pace. I decided pretty quickly that she could out-hike, out-run, and maybe just out-hustle everybody else in the group. Cottonwood Pass is a bit higher than 11,000 feet and Zuzana hadn’t broken a sweat and was talking with me as if we were sitting on a beach.
I found out that she was from Prague, Czech Republic, but living in Manhattan. She had an MBA and was doing some pretty high level financial stuff on Wall Street.
I pictured the 80 hour work-weeks I’d heard about, and I asked her if that were true of her. “Oh, no. Not really. If I get my work done, nobody bothers me. And I get to go back to Prague a couple times a year. The federal regulators roaming the halls these days though, well, they’re a nuisance.”
We waited for the rest of the group at the top of the pass and after a short rest went down to the lake. The packers, Tyler and Clay, had unloaded our duffels and the tents, the food, and even a table and REI brand stools. Although most of the women were married, that didn’t stop their eyes from taking on a certain sparkle at the sight of Tyler, the tall cowboy with clear blue eyes and long side-burns that ran down in front of his ears under his Stetson hat. “Eye-candy,” some of the women called him.
Tyler led half a dozen mules in a train behind his horse. The food alone took up four or five big bear-proof metal boxes.
The end of the day’s hike meant…stretching. My wife, Andrea, is a dedicated foam-roller girl and had brought her own small stick roller to massage her calves and quads at the end of each day. She called her roller a Little Yellow Bad Boy. She found out that night that most of the other women were also using these little torture devices and that in fact they had a total of five different types of massage rollers among them.
Andrea was going to make a point of self-massage and stretching partly because she had sprained her left ankle a few weeks earlier and stretching and rolling seemed to keep her going.
When the ladies went to do their stretching, I noticed that Zuzana had painted her toenails pale blue, the same blue that used to be called Robins’ Egg Blue. And she had changed out of her boots into sandals, and the leather straps of her sandals were the same shade of blue.
Allison, watched her citizens line up for stretching and foam-rollering. She turned to me and said, “When you hike with guys, do you set up roller massage stations at the end of a day’s hike?”
“Well no. We usually set up a brandy and cigar station.”
One of the women went to POTUS and said, “Okay, we know that Andrea and Bill will share one tent, but the rest of us would like to rotate. How should we do that?”
“Oh that’s easy.” Allison produced a deck of cards from a deep pocket in her cargo shorts and fanned them as though she were a dealer in Las Vegas. “You each pick a card. High card bunks with low card, next highest with next lowest and so on. Then you just rotate for three nights and then you’ll draw cards again.”
Well, I thought to myself, this should be interesting. Three pairs of women, matched up with the draw of playing cards are going to set up campsites together. While Andrea and I set up our Kelty backpacking tent and then stretched the rainfly over it, I watched. What the heck was I expecting? Lavern and Shirley fussing and struggling? I guess that’s just not reality anymore. Three pairs of hands worked almost as one, flexible fiberglass poles bent into the corner grommets, the black plastic clips snapped onto the arched poles, tents went up, sleeping pads down, sleeping bags spread out. Three campsites done in about 90 seconds flat. Impressive. Who needs a man, right?
Did I mention food? Since we had the luxury of mules to carry the goods, we had fresh fruits and veggies as well as chicken. Aaron showed off his chef skills deftly and quickly making oblique-cuts of carrots and cucumbers. Andrea, who really is a trained chef, was duly impressed. Aaron’s specialty may have been Mexican meals and our first night featured giant-sized burritos with plenty of that American favorite smoked chili, otherwise known as chipotle. This was a big hit with the ladies—for all that is except for a tall, very fit looking Jannine who said she was allergic to chilies. She opted for a vegetarian meal.
Jannine wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “Finisher Ironman Brazil.” And I don’t think she borrowed the shirt.
At dinner, we sat in a circle on rather awkward REI stools. Aaron was present of course, but he didn’t sit with us for the meal. As I sat in a circle of women, I felt very much out of place. Uncomfortable. An interloper. An intruder. Maybe like a pacifist reporter embedded with Navy SEALs. A little circle of energy seemed to encircle the women like a cocoon; its shell seemed as hard as a hen’s egg. It seemed there would always be some impenetrable distance.
Maybe I was making that up.
“Oh, don’t feel that way. You’re perfectly okay here. We certainly don’t mind.” That was Joyce. Never a negative word, complaint or even an unpleasant facial expression from Joyce. I’d find out later that Joyce would maintain that wonderful demeanor through everything.
I had to wonder at my own discomfort and turned introspective. Am I a Raj Koothrappali, unable to talk with women unless lubricated with alcohol? No; I don’t think so. Did I feel threatened by women who obviously didn’t need a man around? Maybe there was some of that. I’d have to ponder that one. I wondered what John Gray would say.
I started to know more about the group that night. Six of them had known each other for years—they had met when they all worked at the same Silicon Valley firm decades before. Four had managed to stay in touch even though they had gone from job to job in various parts of the country.
It seems that everybody had an advanced degree: Jean, a small and compact athletic looking woman with short black hair, was a scientist with a PhD working for a biotech firm in Los Angeles. I saw that she had a small collection of souvenir T-shirts from the L.A. Marathon.
Karen lived in Boston and had an MBA. She worked as an executive recruiter for an East Coast firm. Oh, another Boston College MBA. Are you starting to see a trend here?
I was beginning to know their names. Lisa. MBA. Worked for Ernst and Young for a time but now was director of finance for a Silicon Valley firm. Didn’t look as strong or as fit as some of the others, but she had a personal trainer so I expected she could hold her own. She said she was fifty, but her skin had that smooth Ivory Snow look that belied her age.
Martha was another accountant. Once worked for Ernst and Young but now lived in the South Bay and I was a bit fuzzy about what she did, but I think she was a freelance consultant.
Allison was formerly in marketing and sales with a big Silicon Valley firm but was presently between jobs, or maybe she was retired. She wasn’t sure which and didn’t seem to particularly care.
I gathered that most of them were married and at least one had children still living at home. But, it was actually difficult to tell. Their language was rather marriage neutral. The words Husband and Wife were notably missing in all conversation. Did those words become politically incorrect when I wasn’t looking?
A psychologist once wrote that the songs that pop into your head have something to say about your own state of mind, and in fact your entire behavioral make-up. I heard Bob Dylan rasping, “Because something is happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you, Mister Jones?” inside my brain and I didn’t have to ponder too long what that meant.
Anyway, this sure wasn’t the cast from The Real Housewives of Orange County. If you watch the Evening Business Report on PBS, odds are good that you’ll see one of these ladies on your big screen.
On the other hand I also saw something new. When Lisa bent to massage her quadriceps muscles, tight and overly hardened from the climb, there was a flash of pink on her upper arm. I walked over to the roller station to get a closer look and saw that it was one of those “Hello Kitty” tattoos—the little kitten face outlined in black with an umbra of faint pink around it. Little black circles for eyes and cat whiskers and the words, “Hello Kitty,” in fancy pink script finished off the tattoo. It was pasted high on the upper arm, the same part of the arm where my cousin, Jack, has USMC tattooed. But his doesn’t wash off.
I soon noticed a proliferation of Hello Kitties decorating the six women who’d all started work at the same Silicon Valley firm years before. Sort of a tribal marking, perhaps. Only Andrea, Zuzana, Jean, and Gabi, from British Columbia, were not wearing them.
I decided that night that, although uncomfortable, it might be interesting to simply treat this week as an observation and experiment. Primate behavior, Mars and Venus and all that.
Dinner served, the group chatted quite amiably about their everyday lives: how to file for an IPO; which firms were ripe for take-over; which CEO was an SOB. Practical, commonplace things like that. I couldn’t tell who was conservative, who was liberal, who was an anarchist. It seemed the order of the day was practicality. Or opaqueness.
But it was early in the trek. I’d keep watching. But so far, if these ladies had been Boy Scouts they’d have made good marks for adhering to the Scout Law. I gave them at least an eight out of twelve.
“We do need a name for our little group,” POTUS said. “Can we all be pondering that? Maybe an anagram of all our names?”
After it got dark, Andrea and I climbed into sleeping bags with LED lights and a couple of books, Andrea with the hilarious Escape From Kathmandu and I had my ragged, dog-eared copy of Wordsworth poems—I was going to bring Nelson DeMille’s The Panther but decided the thing was too heavy. Wordsworth turned out to be wonderful company in the back country. It was in places like this that he had glimpses of the infinite universe and the nature of his own eternal spirit. Plus, the man loved to walk amongst the trees and streams and could describe everything beautifully. He even called himself a mountaineer.
Before lights out, Andrea showed me her ankle. It was puffy as a bullfrog and about the same color. It was the first time I wondered if she could complete the hike. Did I mention we were going to do close to 60 miles over 5 or 6 days?
The shorter, and most commonly used, route to the summit of Mt. Whitney is the 11 mile trail up from Whitney Portal. The Portal to the summit and back is usually a two day trip, although with good fitness you can summit and return in one epic day. We were on the much longer western approach. From the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead to Guitar Lake and then to the summit is close to 30 miles one way. We’d have the advantage of sleeping at elevations between 9200 and 11,600 feet for three nights before starting the switchbacks up to Trail Crest. Acclimatization is a very good thing. In addition to all that, you’ve got the foxtail and lodgepole pine forest, wildlife, beautiful lakes and streams and a mostly uncrowded trail.
The disadvantage—if it is a disadvantage at all—is that this route takes longer. You’re not going to do it in a day, and to do the route in 2 days you’d have to be an ultrarunner or fast packer. Our plan was three days to the top and three days back to the cars.
Our second day took us to Rock Creek. The ladies changed tent partners per the POTUS arrangement. Beside the constant murmur of the rushing creek, the tents went up, the sleeping arrangements put down and all I heard was friendly chatter.
I think the all-male group I’ve hiked with could learn something.
Aaron made tacos—full of spice and chipotle heat. Dinner was a hit with all the ladies, even though some made sure their tacos were vegetarian. It seemed to me that chipotle was becoming the fuel of choice. I began to think of our group in terms of smoke and chile.
I talked with Allison a bit. “I have done a number of backpack trips with a group of 14 guys. And, you know there’s usually some kind of argument going on. It’s an interesting form of recreation, really. Pick a topic and we could argue. PC versus Mac. Liberal versus conservative. Mandatory union membership versus right to work. Usually this is just friendly banter, you understand.”
“I think so,” she said, with just a hint of hesitation, caution.
“But one year, at 5th Lake up above Glacier Lodge, things got heated, so heated that 7 of the 14 seceded from the union: they pulled up their tent stakes and set up a separate camp a couple hundred yards downslope. I think the instigator was a local union boss.”
She looked genuinely surprised. “Really? That sounds like something women would do.”
“I was just formulating a theory that women would not do that. You know, based on what I’m seeing here.”
Allison smiled. “Well, you just don’t get it yet. Or get us yet.”
Our next day took us to Guitar Lake. We had a couple of good uphill climbs on the way. Once I made sure Andrea was doing okay with her ankle, I took off and left the group. Even Zuzana faded behind. When I got to Crabtree Meadow, I waited.
The area beyond Crabtree Meadows and up to Mt. Whitney is designated as a WAG zone. If you don’t know what WAG is, it stands for Waste Alleviation and Gelling. Based on one of the more useful technologies to come out of NASA, it’s a clean way to carry out your own waste—no leaving it in the woods in the Whitney Zone. That’s partly because, well, there are no woods—almost no trees at all above Timberline Lake, just rocky barrenness. Besides, human waste does not decompose at the high elevations we’d be hiking.
We arrived at the campsite above Guitar Lake in a cold downpour. And then the rain turned to hail. Aaron made hot cocoa for all of us—above and beyond the call of duty, surely. He told us that thunder storms were forecast on the summit after 11:00 am the next day. Therefore he advised that we be on the summit and back down early. “Look, I’m going to make the call. If conditions don’t look good to me, we’re not going for it. Understood?”
He told us that every summer there are about 30 rescues and three deaths on Whitney. “You’ll see people doing crazy stuff up there. But that doesn’t mean you get to. Not when I’m making the call. Clear?”
Of course we all agreed. No big speeches from this guy and none needed.
“We’re getting up at 2:30 and you’ll have to be efficient. Tents and rainflys down . Sleeping bags stowed and packed. Personal gear in your day packs. We’re going to be on the trail and heading for the switchbacks by 3:30. Get some sleep.”
That made for a short night. We woke up to a diamond sky; the ridge we’d be climbing a shadow high above against the stars.
Aaron and Jess had hot water steaming on the camp stove. Andrea and I took care of our tent and gear and then made our own instant oatmeal there in the dark, pouring hot water into plastic bowls by the light of our headlamps. Despite the clear skies, I packed rain gear, an extra sweat shirt and warm Patagonia puffy jacket. We headed out as a group with headlamps glowing in the dark. We marched past Guitar Lake then up the switchbacks toward trail Crest, 2,000 feet above.
A small number of hikers climbed the switchbacks above us; their headlamps seemed impossibly far up—surely this ridge can’t be so high! The lights above melded with the stars in Orion’s belt in the eastern sky.
The thirteen of us, the 10 women, 2 guides and I, all walked steadily upward. I stayed with Andrea, watching her feet and legs for a sign of a limp. Fortunately, though her swollen ankle slowed her some, she kept the pace and was climbing well. The rhythm of the march suggested the cadence of a song and I started hearing it in my head: James Taylor’s Carolina In My Mind, especially the line about this going on and on forever because that’s what this interminable switchback trial seemed to do.
We reached the junction with the trail from Whitney Portal, trail signs barely visible in the dark. The sign pointing our way read, “Mt. Whitney 1.9 miles.”
Less than two miles to go! I felt energized, optimistic. Our little group was almost there.
The last two miles though were less than easy or pleasant. The trail was littered with boulders the size of washing machines and refrigerators. Here, on Trail Crest, at 13,500 feet, there is exposure. Here, on Trail Crest and up on the summit, is the highest danger of lightning strikes. We all moved cautiously. The good news: all of us hiked steadily. Checking in with Jess and Aaron and with the 10 ladies it turned out that no one was short of breath, no one was suffering from nausea or headache. Whatever fitness regime everyone had used was serving them well enough. We were going to the summit.
At around 8:00 am we were on top. The summit itself is a jumble of giant slabs, like 50 foot flagstones. It was cold on top, in the mid 30s Fahrenheit, and the wind was blowing hard. The sky was mostly clear but occasional clouds misted the peak only to fly away like scattered ghosts, chased by the hard wind.
We signed the registry at the old stone cabin, crowded our way inside for snacks, went up to the peak and snapped photos, and then headed down. Soon we began to see what Whitney veterans call the “Whitney Follies.” These were people whose hike was over—and over well before they reach the peak. These were the folks with haunted, hollow eyes. They slumped on rocks, head in hand, turning various unhealthy shades of blue and green. They suffered severe nausea and vomiting. Some were dehydrated and out of water. Some were dressed in shorts and T-shirts and I watched them shiver in the chill wind.
“But most people on or near the summit this early in the morning do fine,” Aaron told us. “To see the real carnage you should be up here at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. That’s when you see the people who grossly underestimated this climb. They’ve taken too long. They’re too exhausted. Somebody may have told them that this hike would kick their backsides, but they never really knew what that meant. Until they were here.”
The march down seemed long enough. We bypassed our previous night’s campsite and walked the extra 3 miles to Crabtree Meadow and set up camp there.
I saw the backcountry ranger, who has a cabin at Crabtree Meadows, walk into our camp and he took Aaron and Jess aside and I heard them talking in hushed tones. I could not hear what was said, but I could tell that the mood was darkly solemn; I was sure something bad had happened up high. I didn’t ask.
I found out later that a man had fallen to his death on Mt. Whitney a couple of days before.
“We need a fire,” Lisa said, when we’d gathered in our circle of canvas stools. “Doesn’t anybody have a campfire app for her iPad? We could put it right here in the center.” It turned out that someone did have an iPad in her day pack, and even had the campfire app. But she was too tired to get it. An early bedtime would be the order of the night.
Jess joined our circle after dinner and talked about the Sierra Adventure outfit she works for. She told us that they were trying to put together a women’s group. “My boss wants to call it Sierra Belles. He’s even printed up brochures with that name already.”
She then made a rather unkind comment about his brochure, and someone else made a crack about the kind of clientele the ad would attract.
She looked from face to face in our little group. I knew what she was thinking. Certainly someone in this group of highly successful business women could come up with a good turn of copywriting phrase.
Allison said, “You should call it Chipotle Mountain Adventures.”
“That doesn’t even make sense. Why would I call it that?”
“I’ve done the market research. Put the word chipotle in front of anything and sales double. It’s a proven fact.”
Jessica wasn’t convinced. “Sorry, I don’t think I can use it.”
Allison’s suggestion gave me an idea, though, and I spoke up. “You know, one thing you’ve wanted is a name for your group. Bridging off Allison’s idea, how about Chipotle Women on Mt. Whitney?”
That got mixed reviews. Still, I thought it fit.
On Cottonwood Pass, nearly back to the cars, we broke for lunch. Allison sat next to me. “Well, what do you think of our little group?” she asked.
“I know your friends are joking about POTUS, right? I mean, you’re not really running for office, are you?”
“Maybe not. But you never know.”
“Well, I know it can’t really happen, but look: Zuzana knows more about economics than anyone inside the Beltway. You have more factual knowledge than the real President and the VEEP. Lisa could run the treasury. Karen could run the military. Hey, I say we fire the senators and congressmen, fire the President and Vice President and let the ladies on this trip run the US government. A constitutional monarchy with 10 ladies in charge. The country would be better off.”
Allison chuckled. “Actually, I agree with you. This little group could do that.
“By the way, thanks for being our male mascot.” I wasn’t sure whether I should feel offended. And then she went on. “You were the token male. We’ve all been token females in corporate America for decades. It’s an interesting feeling isn’t it?”