Somewhere near the end of my college career I remember sitting down with my then swim coach Gerry Rodrigues in his office alongside the pool deck at UCLA, seeking advice on how I should approach my path as a triathlete. Gerry was a guy that had been around the sports of triathlon and open water swimming (a former world champion himself) for a long time. After having swam with him for a few years and listened to his anecdotes and his general “approach” from between lane lines, I considered his opinion pretty valuable. He made a remark that resonated with me at the time, and has resurfaced countless times since then in so many other areas of my life. He told me that, “If you’re going to try and be a professional triathlete, you better enjoy the process. It’s a long road, and the rewards aren’t many.” Well the rewards are all relative, and as the need for financial stability out of college drove me away from really pursuing the sport further, I found that I could apply Gerry’s advice to just about every activity I’ve picked up since – and then to life as a whole – including a long couple days of hiking.
This past weekend two friends – Danny and Ryan – and I hiked Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Prior to Saturday morning the only experience I’d had with Whitney was on a family road trip as a kid, when driving up the 395 en route to Mammoth my dad pointed it out as a mountain to remember. He had the tendency to point out just about everything so as I usually did while growing up, I made a minor note then largely ignored the significance of having such a behemoth right in my backyard.
Then about a month or so ago Danny asked me if I wanted to hike Whitney (mad Rooted points), knowing all well that there was no way I’d decline. Apparently our friend Ryan, who has recently had the tendency to talk me into physical outings I’m completely under-prepared for (side note: I think in the last week through car rides and camping I’ve spent more waking hours with Ryan than his wife has), had applied for a Whitney permit and gotten it through the lottery system. So for the second Friday night in a row, we loaded up the car with supplies, waited out LA traffic, and drove off to a remote location – this time the Trails Motel in Lone Pine, Ca. When we woke up we got some bad coffee, then made our way to pick up the trail pass.
Mt. Whitney is not a technical hike, but at fourteen and a half thousand feet, it is up there. And with an elevation gain of about 6,000 feet over the 11 miles from the portal to the peak, Whitney poses a big day on your feet. None of us take (I say “take” as opposed to “get” because in reality we can all “make” the opportunity to do just about anything we want) the opportunity to go backpacking all that often, so instead of trying to rush through the experience and bang it out in one day, we decided to enjoy it for what it was worth and spend a night on the mountain.
Over the course of the 30 or so hours we were out on the trail, there was plenty of time to do some thinking, including thinking about what I think about backpacking. I felt as though having walked my way up to one of the highest points in the US, it was paramount (no pun intended) that I have some sort of great revelation. Although I was waiting for something new and profound to come into my head, whenever I was uncomfortable on the trip, it was older words, what Gerry had said about “enjoying the process,” that kept coming into my head.
Out on the trail I came to realize that as far as “hiking” goes, I am pretty indifferent. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and forget that your feet hurt a little bit and your shoulders are sunburned. The reward? Standing on top of the highest peak in the lower 48 is a cool feeling, though not life changing by any means. Getting bad sleep at 12,000 feet isn’t exactly “fun.” But when it came to the process, here is where I found satisfaction.
Taken as individual bits, there isn’t much about hiking Whitney that is fun. It requires driving, picking up permits, packing bags, hauling packs etc etc. But the process of it all is an experience, and without the process, I wouldn’t have been able to see the new and beautiful things that the Whitney trail has to offer, nor would I have been able to spend quality time with friends making the memories that we did. It’s unlikely I’ll remember another weekend doing the same old thing at home – but an adventure with buddies is unforgettable. Even with a weekend designed around a single goal – the summit – that will not be the memory that stands out the most. Nor will it be my sunburn or the light headache I had for a good majority of the time on the mountain. Instead it’ll be a collage of images (particularly when Danny vomited and a marmot later ate his barf) that remind me of the process, and how enjoyable the whole thing was.
Whitney was a great experience, and I could not overlook the fact that on Father’s Day I was standing at 14,500 feet on the mountain my dad had pointed out however many years before. I gave him a little shout-out as others made phone calls or sent messages (yeah, apparently cell phones work on the top of Whitney – though I opted to leave mine in the car), and considered myself lucky to be in the shape I am to allow me to do the things I do. I plan to keep it Rooted, keep it compelling, and keep the adventures coming – all the while enjoying the process.
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