Slouching Towards Mount Whitney

“Stop looking at me!” I screeched as I crouched into a windbreak to clumsily remove a used tampon from my body with a sharp tug. My boyfriend, Ben, didn’t know how to turn off his joke faucet, especially on a long thru-hike, and he was darting from rock to rock like an untamed marmot. My nerves were getting raw. It was lunchtime on October 3, 2017, and the closest thing I had to comfort was a granite ledge perched 2500 feet above the Kern River Valley, wind whipping my face as I teetered, bloody-handed and sore. I couldn’t believe it was 33 degrees in the sun. I couldn’t believe that I was sick, depressed, and on my period, either. I squinted pathetically as a raven flew overhead, twisting my neck as it soared out of view. A sharp pain seized my stomach like a petrified child. Everything felt wrong, and the only way out was to climb over Mt. Whitney.

After years of backpacking and a well-stated love affair with the Great Western Divide, I had longed to complete the High Sierra Trail, traversing the Sierra Nevada mountain range from west to east and finishing atop the highest peak in the continental United States, Mount Whitney. The trail promised to be a leg-burner, with 15,000 feet of elevation gain looming inside of its 72 mile, serpentine pathway. It would be my longest trip to date, a seven-day expedition requiring careful planning for meals, water, and safety. I knew I needed someone experienced, strong, and just as foolishly optimistic as I was to pull it off, so I enlisted the help of the one person I knew whose Peter Pan Syndrome extended farther into the mountains than my own, my boyfriend and climbing partner, Ben.

The first day of my quest began simply enough; Ben forgot his wallet in the motel room, causing us to drive an extra 45 minutes back and forth to retrieve it. In the parking lot at the trailhead, I posed triumphantly next to the sign boasting that it would be 60 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney. I was ecstatic. I was going to spend a week alone in the woods with my boyfriend. No cell phone, no boss, and all the scenery and mountain sex that I could muster.

I reveled in the fire that burned in my lungs as we ascended steep switchbacks and gleaned better and better views from the land below. Having done the first 16 miles the year before and solo, I felt a sort of magnanimous tour guide presence come over me, as I pointed out the taller peaks and best spots to stop for water. I am the sort of girl who relishes a difficult task executed perfectly, and I was not going to make this an exception. I carried tuna and cheese with crackers for lunch, and I made damn sure that the conversation was jovial.

The ascent towards Hamilton Lake for our first night was a dream. Low hanging clouds clung to the top of Valhalla, a 2,000-foot tall sheer rock face that would make the Yosemite valley cower. The sun faded until it turned the entire granite cirque the color of strawberry sorbet, and a cool breeze licked my neck as I donned my down jacket. Ben cooked the best backcountry meal I have ever eaten, and I didn’t even care that a massive blister was forming on my left heel. I wanted to melt into the ground with joy as the moon rose.

I woke early and caught glimpses of the sun creeping over the Kaweah River Valley, camera in hand. The lavender-gray light of morning surrounded me as I sauntered over to the world’s most scenic pit toilet for my morning number two. Ben finally woke as the late morning sun nudged its way over Eagle Scout Peak, and I had two steaming bowls of oatmeal ready to be devoured. We packed up camp and started climbing a seemingly endless array of switchbacks, each one giving us a more sweeping view of just how far we had come.

Crunch! Splosh! Crack! We broke through shallow streams and waterfall ice as we climbed towards the Kaweah Gap, neighboring peaks soaring above us like watchful, fatherly obelisks. At the pass, I dropped my pack and boulder hopped to a large plaque at the base of Mount Stewart, snapping a dozen panoramas as I excitedly prepared to descend. To my left, a heart-shaped lake curled into the landscape, enormous against the Kaweah Range. To my right lay a massive valley dotted with ancient pine trees and our campsite for the evening: Big Arroyo.

The blister on my foot was worsening, feeling like an invisible goblin gnawing at my skin with every step, so I took advantage of the pleasant temperatures at camp to perform a bit of wilderness first aid before my surroundings turned frigid for the night. Then, I built and lit a fire before the sun was fully set, trembling next to Ben as I warmed my hands in its orange glow. I had never camped more than a single night in sub-freezing temperatures. I didn’t realize how emotionally daunting a cold tent could be after multiple full days of hiking, no comfortable opportunity to undress or relax.

After a couple of swigs of whiskey, Ben and I called it a night and retreated to our tent to burrow safely into our mountains of down. “Hey lover, can I cuddle you for a bit?” I asked. No response. “Well… can I lean against you to stay warm?” Nothing. My boyfriend had somehow transformed into a massive green burrito devoid of romance, and I shivered as I tried not to take it personally. I propped my Kindle between my stomach and the low hanging ceiling of my sleeping bag as I clumsily tried to read for an hour, nodding off in the stale, dank air of the tent.

Morning on the third day, I walked right into a communication breakdown with Ben as I tried to shake him from sleep. He hacked up a bullet of phlegm and writhed in his sleep sack, certain that he was getting sick. Then, my period sucker punched me with a wave of intense sadness. Hunched over my oatmeal like a flesh-covered gargoyle with fountains in her eye sockets, I wept, feeling spent and misunderstood and just fucking sick of being cold. I asked for some support or empathy, and Ben derisively refused, citing my bedside manner when I woke him from slumber as a reason to hold a grudge. “Some vacation,” I thought as I stared blankly at the coals from the previous night’s fire. The tips of my fingers were numb from cold as I packed up the tent between sobs, attempting to steady myself for the long day of hiking ahead.

It’s funny how much a mood can color the natural landscape when you’re just passing through. On day one, I smiled at invasive deer and laughed at burbling waterfalls, as though their playful crashing was a melody just for me. On this morning, however, the wind presented a deafening reverberation inside my already tired mind. The chilly temperatures emboldened my loneliness, and the wildfire smoke that blew in towards the valley turned my stomach into knots of anxiety.

I didn’t speak to Ben for the first 2 hours on trail. I was dumbstruck that a teammate could suddenly make a left turn, giving the cold shoulder while I was hunched over in pain as my organs bled and cramped. “Oh my god,” I whispered to myself, “I have to break up with him.” The thought lingered like a gentle aneurysm and spun inside my mind all afternoon. I felt sick. The one person I could count on for companionship was leaning away from me, and I didn’t understand what I had done wrong.

This was how I found myself squatting, bare-assed, near a 2,500-foot cliff face as I calmly dealt with my period, my nerves, and my heartsick. Gusts of wind roared down the canyon as I tried to tether my hat to my head. I was breaking. I had to force down dinner that night, sadness puncturing my appetite as I tried to jostle the inevitable from my mind.

Thank god for hot springs. My fourth day on the High Sierra Trail began with a leisurely morning in which I tiptoed across frosted grass to lounge naked in a cement tub full of steaming water, deep in the backcountry of Sequoia National Park. I felt like a goddamn woman again, clean skin and sexual innuendo permeating the energy between my partner and I. “This is my favorite! Yow!” I felt as happy as a kitten with a piece of string, curling my body against the waterspout as I sprawled out along the rocks.

“Only seven miles today,” I sighed to myself as we took off towards our next destination, me somehow falling into a rushing stream in the brief moments we actually spent hiking. I squished my way forward in soaked mountaineering boots, and a short hike brought us to the next campsite. I dutifully collected wood for a campfire and dried my wet socks and shoes on the granite stones that surrounded it. My heel blister did not look good. I could count at least three layers of skin that had peeled away from the center of the wound, leaving the middle part mushy and swollen like some strange, biological jello. I went to sleep barefoot and did not wake for nearly 10 hours.

At dawn on the fifth day, I broke. I was getting a fever, and a lingering hug with Ben turned into a nonstop sobfest that didn’t let up until sundown. Some combination of the cold and the loneliness and the physical exertion mingled into the perfect recipe for a huge breakdown. I had a one woman show called Crybaby, and everyone was invited.

I sobbed as I pulled the tent stakes from the ground, I sobbed into my pita when we stopped for lunch, and I sobbed whenever we paused for a break. I ate my own tears as I sucked back feelings of intense shame. I cried for lovers who were not present, who I knew would hold and console me. I cried at the futility of dragging my sick carcass forward. Most of all, I cried because I felt like a big, fat fraud. The levees of whatever sorrow my body had been holding onto for far too long suddenly burst open, and my exhaustion grew limbs and started pummeling me with them.

“I think you might be depressed. Maybe you should talk to your therapist when we get back,” Ben suggested coolly. He wasn’t even out of breath. “Fuck you.” I thought. No matter how unbearable my sadness felt, I sure as hell did not want to label it as anything concrete. Labeling it constituted a failure. I was not depressed. I was a girl who occasionally sobbed. To be depressed was to let the feelings win, a possibility that I was not willing to let happen.

There I was in one of the most beautiful places in the whole of America, and my emotions were loudly pushing the eject button on anything resembling happiness. I began to question my strong identity as an outdoorswoman. “But I love camping!” I thought to myself as I pushed my body further up the trail. “Backpacking is exercise that doubles as therapy, so why am I a wreck?” I felt like the villain in my own story. The manic girlfriend who sweeps in like a hurricane and wrecks an otherwise gorgeous trip. I didn’t know what to think. Maybe I was just a fucking phony.

When I was a little girl, I used to run solo through the forests of Sweden, disposable camera in hand, and try my best to sneak up on unsuspecting faery homes to snap a photo. As an only child, I was often alone and left to my own devices, devouring historical fiction and acting out elaborate pioneer scenes with my dolls and stuffed animals populating the covered wagon I inhabited along the Oregon Trail. I romanticized the world around me, because it felt full of magic and possibility. The trees and the birds seemed to swim through a harmonious rhythm as the seasons shifted. I wanted to believe that I could create things that would widen people’s eyes and bring them into nature, because it had always provided a spellbinding haven for my young mind to roam.

“Over-romanticism is a disease.” I thought as I coughed and then spat onto the gravel trail in the High Sierra. I felt the weight of my magical past turning to muck and ash inside my heart, becoming too heavy to endure in the harsh reality of a week in sub-freezing temperatures. I set up the tent as quickly as I could when we got to Crabtree Meadow and crawled into my down sack, whole-heartedly embracing a new novel on my Kindle before dinner and dreamtime. My eyes still wouldn’t stop leaking. I was a broken open raw wound for the world to lick. “Guess this is the new normal,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep.

I was fast becoming really sick. I’d had a fever in freezing temperatures for two days and was ascending to more intense altitudes as the trek continued. I hacked up phlegm like it was my job and could barely breathe out of my nose. To remedy this, I took ibuprofen in wee fistfuls and smothered my nerves with meditation exercises. “Past Emily was a genius for scheduling a mere three miles on day 6,” I exhaled as I slowly climbed my way towards Guitar Lake.

From the lake, we had a panoramic view of Mount Whitney and her imposing west face. I set up camp in slow motion and collapsed onto my sleeping pad before Ben convinced me to rise just long enough to stroll an extra half mile towards Mount Russell. As we walked, the sun turned the air a supernatural shade of pink as smoke from nearby fires crept into the rocky basin. Summiting seemed like such a far off concept that I couldn’t bring myself to scope out the mountain and find the next day’s trail. I tried to slow my mind and relish the fact that I had literally nothing left to do but rest and be silent. I reveled in the unabashed honesty of Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” as I burrowed into my sleeping palace, thrilled that stillness was literally the best use of my time.

At 4am, I woke to an alarm of gritty hipster garage rock in the subfreezing pitch black of the wild. I struggled to force down a frozen Clif bar that had assumed the consistency of a brick before popping my last ibuprofen. This was it. The final push of 16 miles and 3,000 vertical feet that would bring us to the top of Mount Whitney and back down to the car. I felt surprisingly calm. I was already in such discomfort that little else could go wrong, yielding me a wealth of confidence I seldom possessed. “It’s really only walking uphill slowly for an extended period of time,” I told myself as I donned my thick, wool socks and an assortment of every jacket I owned.

Headlamps fluorescent and glaring, Ben and I set off up the rocky trail, Guitar Lake shrinking as we ascended. The cool light of dawn began to kiss the towering Kaweah Range behind us, sun warming the landscape like a luminescent paintbrush. Before I knew it, we were at Trail Crest, 13,645 feet above sea level. From there, we turned left and continued up uneven granite steps, marveling at the view from the exposed ledges. Mount Whitney boasts an entourage of imposing stone spires, and she showed off every single one of them along the path to her summit. “There’s something sinister about the way the Keeler Needle and her towers break away into the atmosphere,” I murmured. It was as though the nothing had broken through The Neverending Story and gobbled up whole chunks of mountain.

Soon, I was standing on top of the summit, smiling. The wind subsided, and dozens of ecstatic hikers were texting their moms and taking prolific amounts of selfies. I had done it. I carried a 35 lb. pack to the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States sick, heartbroken, and on my period. “I had to shit in a bag and carry it around with me just to be here,” I mused.

Ben darted around on Whitney’s massive boulders, scoping out the mountaineer’s route and talking a mile a minute about summiting again but via a more technical approach. He was at once boyish and unbreakable, while my weary poet’s soul felt about a hundred years old. I didn’t know if I’d ever felt so alone. I sauntered over to the cliff’s edge of the peak, gazing out at the brown shadow of the Owens Valley, 10,000 feet below. I knew what I had to do.

I walked off the trail that day with the knowledge that I would leave Ben and that my life would never be the same. I sobbed when he put his hands on my naked body later that night in a cheap motel room. Starved for physical affection and intimacy, my fragile frame was overcome with emotion, and I shook in his arms for what felt like an hour, trying to make sense of the sadness. I felt as though a pack of wild dogs had rifled through my insides as I slept: battered and bloody and angry that a creature who had promised unconditional love had withheld affection and neglected empathy. When I was heartbroken in the past, I would have called up my climbing partner and worked it out in the mountains. Now, I had nothing.

The longer I commit myself to the outdoors and the sport of mountaineering, the more I realize that I’m addicted to feeling broken open and raw. I love the sensation of shedding a skin I thought I had wholly chosen only to have a new, richer version of myself burst through. It is merciless and invigorating.

True to form, I struggled to find the lesson hidden behind my bruised mind and blistered feet. I thought of Hunter S. Thompson and forced consciousness expansion and how life has a funny way of repeatedly ripping out your little heart, throwing it on the ground, and leaving you gasping on the floor without a roadmap. I realized that I had been here before, had felt these same sensations, and I stopped cold.

“Every time I think I’m bleeding out, I look back on it a year later with a fondness that only authentic growth can provide,” I thought to myself. It was true. In the last two years alone, I had lost 3 young friends, 2 jobs, and the man I desperately wanted to marry, yet here I was, stronger and more confident than ever, climbing towering peaks and planning bigger adventures.

I was too stuck on the relationship ending to notice the growth that was occurring. I sat with the thought for weeks, patient with my pain, and slowly, I began to feel tiny ripples of my upset subsiding. It was a little perfect, a little lonely, and it hurt like hell. I was watching myself become strong.

A good friend once told me that the trick is to enjoy being broken. To lean into the uncomfortable spots, embrace the chaos, and hold your own hand inside the mess knowing that, yes, you are unraveling, maybe we all are, and maybe the cure is in realizing that it’s ok.


“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” – Haruki Murakami

“Buy the ticket, take the ride… and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well… maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” – Hunter S. Thompson

15 thoughts on “Slouching Towards Mount Whitney

  1. Alex Gulsby says:

    This was awesome Emily! So much brutal reality and written so eloquently. I snorted at “massive green burrito devoid of romance.” 😂😂😂 Sounds like you guys crushed it!

  2. Nomadosauras says:

    I have spent the last 20 minutes utterly absorbed in this riveting description of your hike. Everything, right from the landscape and its changing appearance with the day’s light to feeling cold in the tent on frigid nights took form as I read the post. Brilliantly written!
    May you continue walking out of storms stronger than you walked in.

  3. Ellysa says:

    The trick of enjoying being broken – I wish someone had taught me this concept last year. I resonate so deeply with your statements: “I was too stuck on the relationship ending to notice the growth that was occurring.” and “It was a little perfect, a little lonely, and it hurt like hell.” I experienced so much pain and loss (both unavoidable and self-inflicted) in 2017, and I’m just now coming to the same realization that though it hurts like hell, the growth I have endured is extraordinary, and in an almost sadistic way, I’m so glad it all happened, and so glad I had the outdoors in my life to process it all. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your journey!

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      I’m so sorry to hear that 2017 was a rough one for you, and I’m simultaneously very glad that you seem like you’re now walking the exact right path. We can’t be immune to pain as we walk the earth and experience its gifts, but we can accept pain, minimize its pull on us, and move on towards something much brighter. 🙂

  4. Sara K. says:

    Wow. Dealing with emotions during a backpacking trip can be so hard.

    I went to the top of Mt. Whitney myself last year (via Pacific Crest Trail, with two nights in a row at Crabtree Meadow). It challenged me in a different way. I had just recovered from an illness, and during the hike, I discovered I had not recovered as completely as I thought I had (and if I am completely honest, I was in a bit of denial about my physical condition because I had been looking forward to hiking in the High Sierra last summer, I did not want to give up that dream just because of an inconveniently-timed sickness, and it was already September). Getting to the top of Mt. Whitney was totally worth the physical price I paid, even considering that it delayed my complete recovery. I did cut the trip short by ending the hike at Horseshoe Meadow (not the original plan), but I knew at that point I had pushed my not-fully-recovered-body a bit too far and that I needed a long rest, not just a day in town.

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      Wow. Congrats to you for finishing and for recognizing that you needed to allow yourself to heal more fully afterwards. Mt. Whitney is such a beast, and it’s fascinating to learn the different reasons why people flock to her from around the country to climb every year. Her lessons are invaluable, though. For me, it was the final physical/emotional push I needed to end broken relationship and start to get brutally honest with myself about my core needs. Sending big hugs to you on your recovery!

Leave a Reply