When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he famously replied “Because it’s there.” In his mind, the mountain’s existence was a challenge to him, a challenge to humanity, an achievement waiting to be checked off. And it’s largely true: climbing a mountain is a great achievement, a do-at-least-once-before-you-die kind of thing. You do it so you can tell at least yourself that you have accomplished a feat few even bother to try and that you can add a superlative to your achievement. While I doubt I will ever have the financial means (or physical ability) to climb a mountain like Everest, the desire to say I had climbed the tallest something led me in the summer of 2005 to the Sierra Nevadas to climb Mount Whitney: the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, about as superlative an achievement as I am likely to check off.
Now, this is the kind of mountain that really fit people summit in a day, but with campsites scattered along the trail up the mountain, it’s easy to stretch the climb into a few days. After all, why not spend a weekend camping and enjoying the mountain scenery? To climb a mountain is to transition from climate to climate as you ascend, to watch the terrain change with the forces of geology, water, and ice. The trail up Mount Whitney follows a snowmelt creek from glacial lake to glacial lake, each surrounded by hardscrabble forests fighting for existence in fields of fallen rock. As the altitude increases, the flora becomes more scarce, the scree more prevalent, and at the base camp, tents are pitched on massive swells of rock and shielded from the constant wind only by walls of stacked stones.
The ascent of Mount Whitney is mostly winding trail, but it’s a mountain after all, and the last stretch of the climb is strenuous. The path is carved into the massive slopes of scree, 99 switchbacks they say, though I swear there were more than that, each wide open to the view to the east. Covered in ice and unmelted snow, even in August, it’s slow going as the air thins out. There’s a point where the climber melts into his or her fatigue, where the climber begins to question the wisdom of this particular trip, but the strong begin to see the truth behind Mallory’s famous quote. As the climber ascends, he becomes obsessed with the task at hand, the mountain has issued a challenge in the form of sheer rock, and as the amount of rock above dwindles compared to massing rock looming blow, the challenge seems less impossible and more attainable.
When you reach the top, or near the top, you cross a pass between peaks onto the other side of the mountain, a long slope upward covered in boulders. From here you attack Mount Whitney from behind, and before you know it you’ve run out of trail. Then, putting your pack down, you look out, out toward Death Valley, out toward Nevada and Utah and Colorado and the Mississippi River and the whole mass of the nation, and you can see for miles. What you can’t actually see is still present, still calls to you from the hazy distance, and you are glad you put yourself through this, glad you set a difficult goal, for reward is proportional to the effort, and that’s why mountain climbers seek the summit, that’s why you climb a mountain: just because it’s there.