What I Learned by Climbing the Tallest Peak in the Lower Forty-Eight

By Gary Huey

Climbing mountains has always been a lofty goal I’d tell my friends about in passing. I’d say, “I’d love to climb this and that mountain,” but never imagined it would be a reality. On my first hike, I attempted what my friends were doing and climbed the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail. I took many breaks, drank all my water, and although my body was sore for the next week, the feeling of getting to the top of the waterfall was indescribable. In my head, I had just trudged through uncharted territory and uncovered the world of the outdoors. I now felt I belonged to a community that I had once only observed from the outside. I could now comprehend why people would spend hours walking all day, persevering through pain, to simply stand at the top of a rock formation. In that moment, it finally clicked.

After being exposed to hiking for the first time, I had wild dreams and big goals of what could be next. At the time, I thought that the biggest challenge was the best, and so I set my sights on Mount Whitney, which is the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight.

Six years and many hikes later, I finally scored permits for Mount Whitney. I could describe this experience by explaining what I packed, how we slept at below-freezing temperatures, and how we attempted a sunrise summit, but that probably wouldn’t mean much to anyone reading this. So instead, I wanted to share five meaningful lessons I learned while climbing Mount Whitney.

1. Be patient, even when it seems unlikely.

Before we set foot on the trail, we arrived at the visitor center to pick up our permits. Immediately, we were met with smoke-filled air. There was a recent fire on the other side of the mountain range in Sequoia National Park, and the air carried the smoke over to us. The AQI (air quality index) was at 351, and I could taste ash in every breath. We couldn’t see the mountain, only an orange haze with vague outlines in the distance. Other permit holders were talking about turning around and heading home. We had already reserved a campsite at the base of the mountain, so we decided to stick it out for the night. The next morning, when we poked our heads out of the tent, we finally inhaled crisp, clear air. It was a slim chance that the winds would redirect the smoke, but it had become a reality. We won the weather lottery and taking our chances paid off.

2. The eyes say it all.

The evening when we reached the base camp, our group spoke few words to each other. Nobody was mad, nor were we all introverts who needed alone time or a break from one another. It was the altitude that required us to take two breaths to feel like one. We filtered our water, set up our tents, and made our dinner while primarily communicating through our eyes, and hearing each other through micro-movements. There was innate understanding through our other senses, despite not verbally communicating.

When one of us opened our eyes wide, we knew they were commenting on how frigid it was. When someone gazed up at the mountain, we heard the hopefulness, excitement, and worry of summiting the next morning. That evening I realized there doesn’t have to be a debrief of the day—we could say everything we needed to by being attentive to each other’s eyes.

3. Don’t look up…or down.

The next morning, we started hiking at three in the morning to make it to the summit. Shortly after, we reached the infamous ninety-seven switchbacks section. From our research, we knew this would be the most difficult part of our hike. During the day, you would normally see thousands of feet of elevation left to ascend, but at night, you couldn’t see anything except for what was right in front of you. At the time of our hike, it was so dark I couldn’t count the switchbacks below me, nor could I get discouraged about how many I still had left above me. Simply looking forward and being present took me further than I thought I could go. Sometimes, you just have to take things one step at a time.

4. When you have it, share it.

Spoiler alert: we eventually made it to the summit. I was there with my partner, some close friends, and a guy we met camping the week before. It would have been easy for me to keep the permit to myself, knowing that only a third of the people who attempt this hike make the summit. At first, I thought that I would have had a higher chance of summiting if I hiked solo than if I went with a group, but summitting with people that endured the climb with me made reaching the top that much better. The camaraderie that forms while climbing together makes these experiences more memorable and meaningful.

5. Dream big and believe bigger.

This milestone would not have been possible without dreaming beyond my mental limitations. But the dreaming of these lofty experiences is often where I find these dreams halt, for myself and for others. Belief is what carries these goals into reality. I didn’t have much experience climbing fourteeners, I didn’t grow up hiking or backpacking, and I certainly didn’t do it because I saw people like myself doing it. Seeing how far I’d come added to my belief in myself, and every other small stone I had turned over has added to that belief, as well.

When you take steps to believe in yourself every day, you can climb bigger mental mountains than you would ever realize. Whether it’s a large mountain or a job you want to attain, small bits of confidence in yourself add up every day. Eventually, you’ll look at yourself and see a mosaic that you never imagined was possible. You’ll have fostered the mindset that you can truly tackle any mountain, even if it’s 14,505 feet tall.