Total Knee replacement does Whitney
This year was my 21st trip to the Sierra Nevada. It was special for many reasons; (A) a redo of my favorite JMT section (South Lake/Bishop Pass southbound to Kearsarge Pass/Onion Valley) but this time not solo but with friends, (B) a reunion on Whitney with my older son Seth who first climbed it with me in 1996, (C) a memorial service on Whitney for several family members, and (D) against long odds returning here at 8 months postop with a titanium and polyethylene total knee replacement.
I will tell the story with those four major themes. For me, the medical aspect was so all-encompassing that I will focus on it first. Medical people reading this may appreciate it, others may want me to speed up this paragraph. After right knee surgeries in 1994, 2002, and 2010, I had limped along bone-on-bone in August 2011 in the Sierras including Whitney but in Nov 2011 finally had my total knee replacement. Surgery was easy, recovery and rehab was a nightmare. I had a complication of severe neurologically-mediated quad atrophy that occurs in some people after this surgery or ACL repairs. My quad strength was down to under 30%, so building it back up, dealing with joint fluid swelling, doing stretching exercises to improve the postop flexion of only 70 degrees to a near normal 129 degrees, and so forth, were on my mind, body, and spirit. Would I ever get back to hiking? Most people after this surgery are happy just to walk to the mail box. I wanted, no, needed more. It was a close call achieving those goals at 8 months just in time to go to the Sierras again.
7/27/12 - Jesse, Carole and Andrew fly from Newport News. I fly from Richmond. We all arrive in Las Vegas to meet my son Seth for dinner and spend the night. Dan had already flown ahead to Reno.
7/28/12 - Drive through barren Nevada with our usual stop at the Beatty candy store, and the Sierra Overlook on the Bristlecone Pine Rd. Arrive in Mammoth and Sherwin Villas Condo.
7/29/12 - usual wonderful breakfast at Schat's Bakkery, obligatory Minaret Summit Overlook view of the Minarets, Ritter and Banner (that Seth, Reid and I climbed), followed by a 3 hr hike along the crest to Deadman's Pass and back.
7/30/12- Drive to Little Lakes/ Rock Creek for 5 hr hike to Morgan Pass and back.
7/31/12 - leave Mammoth town's 7,800 ft height for Parchers Resort near South Lake for a night above 9,000 ft to facilitate our acclimatization.
8/1/12 - start of backpacking; South Lake/Bishop Pass to Kearsarge Pass/Onion Valley. In 2009, I had done this section solo, hiking 64 miles, 16 miles daily for four days, climbing and breathing hard over five 12,000 ft passes, and without further crushing the cuboid bone that had given my left foot so much trouble the year before. I had some confidence back then: Reid and I had done something very similar over three high passes and I had now altered my arch supports enough to stop some of the hurt. The main key then was to go early, go long, and go lightweight; trimming down on spare clothes, taking no stove or fuel, use a half-size BearVault to store limited menu, use pills instead of water filter, lighter pad, lighter pack, and so forth. With this plan and tunnel-vision determination, I knew in 2009 that my 'make or break point' was day-two going over Mather Pass. This year in 2012 it was also a 'make or break point' on day three for other reasons.
The early a.m. climb from 9,700 ft South Lake is familiar territory and the miles click by easily. 12,000 ft Bishop Pass is reached early, typical of a cool, early-morning, fresh-body start. We are now in SEKI (Sequoia Kings Canyon) descending into Dusy Basin. Jesse and I had plotted each night's expected stop point, so we arrive at Dusy with a few drops of rain. The southerly wind flow, clouds, and heat indicated a monsoonal flow that would stay with us the whole trip, creating an unwelcome warm environment for backpacking, warmer than any other trip I had taken here. We never had a night below 40 degrees. Wait until I report a daytime temp below!
8/2/12 - Descent to LeConte Canyon. After hard-earned ascents to 12,000 ft passes and then these many thousands of feet of descents to lower valleys is part of the grueling nature of the journey. Reid and I had slogged uphill through here at the end of our longest day in 2007 and it feels better now to be fresh and going downhill. As usual, I am up first, packed up and headed off long before the others. Part of this is just 'early to bed, early to rise' but part is my hiking style (I would rather be hiking than camping), and then there is the spectacular reward of seeing the early morning colors on the Range of Light. On the footbridge halfway down the Canyon I leave a pile of sticks arranged as my initials. The others will see proof that I am still going strong, but slow. I wait for them at the bottom, and all head toward our second nights' stop 3 miles up Palisades Creek at Dear Meadow.
8/3/12 - Mather Pass day. Purple predawn light filters in, the early alarm is not needed. Today is 'make or break day' starting not with the itch of anticipation but more like a deliberate focus on the pilgrimage ahead. I leave before the others…. no trace - gone by 6:00. There is the long 3,300 ft climb to Mather Pass ahead, but at reaching the Golden Staircase I wonder again what all the dread is about in the guidebooks. I am rewarded with better lighting this trip, and really do get to see and appreciate the Gold in the Golden Staircase. Duh, it is not the stairs, it is the early morning light making the canyon walls around look golden. Magnificent.
Time of day and temperature is everything. Early morning 30s or 40s is good but the thermometer climbs quickly. Passing underneath the towering Palisades and alongside the Palisades Lakes, we meet many more people than expected. Seems crowded this year. Maybe it is because we are all slowing down and suffering together. It is a long slog to a hot 83 degrees at Mather Pass! Imagine that…83 degrees at 12,000 feet. Ugh. But Mather Pass is the entry to the beloved Upper Basin.
The Upper Basin refers to the alpine headwaters of the South Fork Kings River. It is here, lifting my arms heavenward, that I suddenly feel and know I'm going to make it. Any doubts about the effort involved, and my new knee, now disappear in the wonder and joy of just being here. Surrounding me on three sides are astonishing scenes of grandeur, the thirteen and fourteen thousand foot peaks of John Muir's Range of Light. Behind me is Mather Pass. To the west is a tall crest of peaks. To the east is the main wall of the Sierras. Just visible over that wall is Taboose Pass, a drier, hotter option that will not be needed - better to go out the long way to the original destination over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley. In the far distance is the Lake Marjorie Basin and tomorrow's high pass, Pinchot. The trail descends from Mather onto the flats, and a few easy miles to the treeline and camp 3. A wonderful evening surrounded by peaks.
8/4/12 - Upper Basin to Pinchot Pass day. Up at 5am again. Ready to go at 5:45. Early morning light softly paints the surrounding peaks. I am literally overwhelmed again, now shaking - just me and the mountains, the mountains and me. It is not just the splendor but the personal privilege of experiencing this beauty that is so powerful. I am lucky to be here and have written this before: you cannot get to a place like this except on foot. That's the way it should be. This area and further south at Bench Lake was the haunt of the missing ranger, Randy Morgenson, who once said that he owed the mountains his body, and so it came to be.
A few mammalian events made the morning memorable. Jesse saw a huge rabbit, a hare perhaps. Carole gets the prize, however. Her scream was a combination of surprise and incredulity. As she looked into her camp-bucket left full of water overnight, the face of a dead, drowned mouse stares back at her.
The morning climb to Pinchot Pass is uneventful, unless you rightfully consider my sentiments. It's the third of the five high passes. By now, it's easy, and topping out brings out more expansive High Sierra scenery. As usual, speedy Dan gets there first. I think it was this pass that he fit right in with the super-excitable Korean group. Dan had fun with another of their groups last year on Forrester Pass. There was some joke about their equipment sponsor named Kolon. Storm clouds gather, and as the wind picks up, we descend through 2 hours of light rain and a little hail. In 2009, the 3,500-foot descent to Woods Creek was hot, tiring and understandably plain after being in the alpine zone. We planned this time to break it up. Arriving at the junction of Taboose Pass trail and the JMT, the sun comes back out so we make sparse camps. Finding a spot for 4 tents required some work, I spend 30 minutes clearing small rocks to make my spot more habitable.
I should mention something about speed, or lack thereof. Our group historically is slow compared to younger or faster veterans in the area. Counting breaks, we generally average about 1 to 1.2 mph carrying a pack at these altitudes. So most days are 8-10 miles (unless I go solo and hike for 12 hrs instead). However, the slower speed is advantageous for my still-healing knee. Picking steps carefully, and watching the slow accumulation of more joint swelling, I gain confidence that I will finish this backpacking trip, and then go on to the Whitney part later.
8/5/12 To Rae Lakes. Another 5:00 am up- 5:45 am off for me. I want to get the long descent to Woods Creek over with. I remembered it as the plainest view in the area, but this time have a new-found better appreciation for it. Why? Early morning light… again. The others catch up. We bounce one at a time across the suspension bridge and begin the climb to Dollar Lake. Dan and Jesse jump in fully clothed. I press on to stake our claim at Arrowhead Lake. There is a (reason
(tomorrow) that I want to camp at this one particular spot again for the third time. All reach camp early this day, an appreciated blessing, time to wash, watch, and relax. A beautiful evening beneath Fin Dome.
8/6/12 Glen Pass day . I'm up again before the alarm and on the trail by myself at 5:45am, 41 degrees. I pass silent tents along the gorgeous Rae Lakes area - it easily lives up to its billing. This next factual description does not do it justice. The Painted Lady dominates the heights and the clear blue morning sky. As the sun sneaks above the ridges, the Painted Lady changes her colors, and she is reflected in the still waters below. Only the early riser gets this privilege; the changing colors, the first rustle of an unseen critter skittering in the bushes, the first ripple of breeze on calm waters, the first feeling of a newborn day.
The power and the glory of the High Sierra. Amen.
I stop at the Sixty Lakes junction for the others to catch up. All eyes are now on Glen Pass ahead. A trail crew is breaking rocks - we thank them for their service. The view below to Rae Lakes is so stunning. It is no wonder that this loved area was the first to require a permit to prevent over usage. The pass is reached - I think it may be my favorite. All rest at the top, and swap stories with fellow hikers. As usual we have too much food, happy to give away GORP to others who are running short while proclaiming they only have three (long) more days to go to Whitney. I will meet some of them on Whitney, but by getting there a different way.
Descending from Glen Pass, we see that the two larger lakes have water, but the 4 or 5 smaller lakes are bone dry. It was a very low snow year this year. Flowers and grass have been hurt; the Sky Pilots have crashed and burned, the Indian Paintbrush are discount size, the Sierra berries goose is cooked - I only see a handful of red gooseberries but thousands and thousands of browned blooms that never set fruit. Only minty Pennyroyal seems normal. Ranger's Buttons, however, seem to have exploded in growth. They have huge seed heads, larger than I had ever noticed before.
We turn the corner above Charlotte Lake to view Kearsarge Pinnacles and Vidette Meadow, last seen by our group just last year, and by me several times before, including with my son Seth in 1996 when we backpacked the southern quarter of the JMT down to Whitney. I have a sense of being safely 'home' already, but that premature security can be misleading - watch it. We elect to take the High Trail and its superior view of Bullfrog Lake, then drop down to Kearsarge Lakes for the night. Tomorrow will be a short day out.
8/7/12 Out Kearsarge Pass.
Up early again. The Range of Light does its magic as I climb early toward Kearsarge Pass. There is a horizontal rainbow-like display in the west - every color of a 20 piece crayon box is visible in the sky. Continuing higher, I have the world to myself at the top, just me and a scraggly Sierra Gooseberry clinging to life in a crevice at nearly 12,000 ft. The sun pops over the distant White Mountains. Now treading in my own bootprints from years before, I linger at this fifth pass longer than the other four, savoring the view in both directions, reluctant to break the spell, and feeling the bittersweetness. How many times have I been high like this, thinking, 'I was here once before, will I ever be here again?'
Dan catches up, as he usually does, and speeds on ahead. I know when I reach the 10,500 ft or so level because the scent of Pennyroyal fills the air. Clemmie had drawn for me on 4 pages of indestructible Tyvek a flower identification manual. Too bad the year was so dry, there just were not as many flowers to identify. I gently pace myself on the long way down, saving my knees for other days. We all reach Onion Valley and head back to Mammoth. Seth arrives from Las Vegas at 10 pm. We pack for our Whitney adventure tomorrow.
Just the two of us now, Seth and me, leave Mammoth to arrive earlier than planned at the Interagency Permit Station south of Lone Pine. Good thing. Maybe some rules have changed, and we get the last 2 of 3 permits to do an overnight trip on Whitney. We reach Whitney Portal, say hello again to Doug Thompson at the store. Doug and I joke about the weather - it does change, we know. Sure enough a rain, hail, and lightning storm develops 2 hrs later so we hang out at Outpost Camp, dressed in rain gear, but walking in circles for two hours within the drip line of a tall tree in the grove, and away from the waterfall, hopefully safe from electricity. It is now cool, thanks to the storm. While others may have cursed their fate for being turned around from the ridge high on their summit day, we enjoy the coolness to continue on to TrailCamp. At 12,000 feet on the east side of Whitney, most people camp crammed near each other along the Main Trail on bare rock. We use a sandy area just above TrailCamp, off to the left over toward Consultation Lake and set up shop for the night, all by ourselves.
Up at 5:30 to be sure we are ready AND to await the morning alpenglow as the sun kisses the east face of Whitney. Last year was a spectacular cinnamon-rose color, this year was less prominent. Being a natural phenomenon, we wondered what combination of time, light, clouds, dust, and humidity were optimal. Pictures taken, we hike on. The 99 switchbacks click by quickly. Others may dread them, we appreciated them. Done. Trail Crest reached. Popping over ridge, the full glory of the west side lay below us.
I actually prefer coming up from Guitar Lake on the west side. My description from a previous time sets the tone here, and I will modify it for this year. This description may be a bit confusing as it combines both the east and the west approaches:
From the west in previous years, the first hour was by trance and by headlamp. Looking back below in the dark I saw pinpoint white dots. Headlamps below me were like lightning bugs following a pheromone trail. An anemic dawn spilled from the heights, eventually unveiling John Muir's magnificent High Sierras - The Range of Light. There was absolutely no sense of work or strain or time or counting of breaths per step or stopping. One aspect of this sport is the mental space that one occupies when you know there is only forward. The summit itself was like a force of energy with me flowing upward towards it. This was easy - I was in the zone.
I had thought of my late dad so much on the build-up to this event. He died in March of this year. There had been a number of 'moments' that drove me onwards. You have heard the saying, when the going gets tough the tough get going. Let me tell you another version. I never felt the presence of dad when it was cool, or when it is easy, or when there were other people around. But when I was tired, or alone, or the way was steep, a feeling came over me. I thought of dad, or dad…not here. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I got mad, sometimes both. Several times I whacked my walking stick against a rock, then pushed on, breathing harder, straining my legs faster, going and going and going until the hurting stopped. We endocrinologists know about adrenaline, and it worked. We know about endorphins, and they helped. But there was more, much more. The Spirit of the Hills. Dad and I climbed these mountains together…. for the last time. And furthermore, I had my son Seth with me…first in 1996 as a boy of 14, now as a man. I am so proud of him.
Now here on the upper western flanks of Whitney, the days of panting, straining, and acclimatizing were behind me. Summit day was now just meant to be. The final ridge path was truly a walk in the sky, past fantastic rock pinnacles, and windows to the east. Following the trail on this year's snowless high ridge, we reached the top.
Seth and I spent 2 hours, longer than I had ever spent before on any summit. We were in no hurry, just soaking up the view, the experience. Other people were now arriving on the huge tabular summit. Wanting more solitude, we wandered off to the north edge for an hour. From this vantage point, it was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, calm nor terrifying, but rather just an inexplicably deep awareness of … being… of being alive. We looked down to the west and saw what was now behind us where we had been in 1996. We looked to the north and straight down and wondered how I ever came up that way in 2006 on the Mountaineer's Route. We looked to the east and saw what lay before us for later on the descent. All of this mattered less than what lay within. Then came the inevitable rhetorical question to ourselves, "Will we ever be here again?"
Although we had climbed Whitney by ourselves, we had carried the memories of others lost or losing the battle for life. This was no burden, but a privilege. We stacked rocks to make a memorial cairn and placed dad's obituary and picture. Looking around, I could see forever and ever over the ranges. As I lit a match to burn the picture, the ashes swept into the sky, signifying with my tears a way to say goodbye. I grabbed Seth by the arm and squeezed it tight. "Goodbye Dad" was all I could muster from my collection of Words From On High.
The same memorial event was repeated for Aunt Elsie who died this year, and her husband Uncle Andy who had died the year before. And then for my brother's wife Judy now in the terminal stages of cancer and who will soon depart this world. Requiescat in Pace. May they all rest in peace.
Now it was time to go down from this windy presence of eternity. The intensity and single-mindedness on the summit had started to ebb away. The prospect of returning is never as exciting as the start of an adventure, but gradually our thoughts were of home. We retrace the spur trail back to the junction. I made a conscious effort for a last mental image at Trail Crest's magnificent view west to Mt. Hitchcock and east to the Owens Valley far below. Then down, down, down, down, down. The infamous switchbacks eased our way. I was curiously content. We broke up the mindless long descent by stopping at our camp at twelve thousand feet. Why not break camp and just keep going? I had never dreamed this possible with my new knee, but all systems looked "Go!" We rapidly packed up our tent and other gear as another storm brewed up lightly. Perhaps that was another reason to keep descending. We left the land of rock and stone. The first signposts of green in the high canyon were the Whitebark pines with their limbs stunted by cold and storm. Next came the white firs, and the vanilla-scented Jeffrey pines. It seemed so familiar here even after many years that it was like turning down my own hometown street. I even recognized the spot where Reid and Seth and I camped at in 1993 on our first foray.
The call of a Doug Thompson Whitney Portal Store burger was on my mind. I told Seth to speed ahead with his young legs and be sure to get there before the store closed and place the order if I was too slow to get there in time. It turns out that I made it in time. Descending at last to the trailhead at Whitney Portal, rest came easier in the thick air at eight thousand feet.
The titanium and plastic had been placed expertly by Dr. William Nordt, the expert physical therapy advice had been given by Gary Sutton, and patient (me) had done the hard work to get back in condition. I should also thank my wife Clemmie who listened to me grumble and complain, and without her help I would never have achieved so much. Success was sweet. My great thanks to all for getting my life back.
Our last view of the toothy east face of Mt. Whitney was from the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine. It was amazing to think that we had been 10,000 feet higher just hours before. I felt blessed with fortune beyond measure and was already starting to re-live my time among the hills. Having tasted the rewards of mountaineering, the desire to go again was unmistakable.