During the 1970s to the 1990s, I was a member of an engineering standards committee for aircraft hydraulics (SAE Committee G3). This committee drew its members from all aerospace companies willing to participate, and our committee chairman was Hans van der Velden of Boeing.
In 1982 (?) Hans organized an extra-curricular activity for committee members: a mountain-climbing expedition. Mount Rainier (14417 Ft) was pretty much in Boeing’s backyard, and that was to be our objective.
We checked into the lodge at the base of the mountain a day early, so we could go through their “mountaineering school”. Here, we learned to climb with crampons on our boots, and to use an ice-axe to stop or prevent a slide if we fell.
The SAE committee had met a few weeks earlier in Philadelphia, and we stayed at the hotel which had become infamous in 1976 for the outbreak of “Legionnaire’s disease” But they had put that behind them, and we had a good meeting. One feature of the hotel was a marble staircase extending up the several floors, and we used that to practice climbing. Hans was climbing and descending in every spare moment, and I probably should have practiced more than I did.
At the mountain, we set off with a couple of guides to lead us. The scheme was to climb for 50 minutes, then rest for 10. I tried to follow, but after a few hours, I found that I was arriving at the rest area well into the 10 minutes, so had little rest. At one of the rest periods, it began to rain, and the guide said that “because of the weather, we would have to step up the pace”. My pace was hardly receptive to being stepped up.
A couple of the other climbers elected to turn back, and I reluctantly decided to join them. Very disappointing.
The climbers who continued spent the night in a shelter at about 12000 feet altitude, then finished their climb the next morning, They returned to the lodge the same day. While waiting for them to return, I spent some of the time photographing the wildflowers on the meadows at the base of the mountain..
Almost in my back yard (well, 200 miles north ) stands Mt Whitney. It’s the tallest in the lower 48, at 14,497 feet, just a few feet taller than Ranier.
Sally, my “significant other” organized another mountain climbing expedition. There were to be five of us, including Corky and Nancy Reed, and another fellow who was a member of Corky Reed’s metal sales company. We tried to be more methodical in planning this trip. First, we had a meeting to discuss all the do’s and don’ts I had learned from my Mt. Ranier attempt. No ice axes, though.
Then, we set out a few days early and camped at Tuolumne meadows, in Yosemite National Park, elevation over 8000 feet. Here, we took moderate hikes to become acclimated to the altitude. It’s a great area for hiking, even if you don’t have an ulterior motive.
The day before the climb, we drove to the town of Lone Pine, then up Whitney Portal road through the Alabama Hills. The Alabama Hills are foothills of the Sierras, and have been the location of countless Western movies and TV commercials. We arrived at the campground at the Mt Whitney trailhead in the early evening. We had our wilderness permits, and we tended to our packing for the climb. Corky’s co-worker said he was taking some reading material for the times he would have to wait for the rest of us to catch up.
In the morning we got an early start, leaving the trailhead soon after sunrise. On Whitney, the trail is easily followed – there are even guardrails in dangerous areas. There was no snow to speak of. I was happy that we had no guide setting the pace. I could travel at my own speed, and rest when necessary.
Progress was satisfactory, if nothing to brag about. Surprisingly, our fifth climber, who expected to “wait for us t catch up” fell behind. We didn’t wait for him. The trail was well marked, and he could find us. Perhaps the most challenging stretch was a steep face on which the path made 100 switchbacks. It seemed as if it would never end.
We arrived at a designated camping area at about 12000 feet altitude, and pitched our tents. We ate, then stowed our food where the marmots couldn’t get to it. Our fifth climber trudged in after we had gone to bed. He had come down with a cold, and in the morning, he headed down the mountain rather than try for the summit.
In the morning, the survivors headed out, carrying only what was necessary. The thin air at that altitude limited one’s physical capabilities. We were walking slowly, but we made it to the top. Near the summit was a building erected by the Sierra Cub to provide shelter in case of sudden snowstorms or other weather activity.
A husband and wife team from the Materials and Processes engineering department at Douglas Aircraft were on the mountain. Neither group knew the other was making the climb. There was a moment of astonished recognition. Their group was perhaps a bit more sophisticated than ours: they packed a bottle of champagne and some stemware, anticipating toasts to their success.
The view was fantastic. We were on the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and could see to Death Valley, the lowest spot in North America. After we got our fill of the view, and had taken all the pictures we wanted, we started back down. We picked up our gear at the 12,000 foot level, then made it back to the trailhead by mid afternoon.
On the mountain, we had no sense of being dehydrated, but when we got to the little shop at the trailhead, Sally and I quickly dispatched a quart of orange juice. When we got to Lone Pine, we bought a six-pack of Gatorade, and made short work of that. We were back to “normal” after that.
Having conquered the highest point, and feeling quite invincible, we shortly decided to try the Grand Canyon. We made reservations to stay in the village at the South rim, and for camping and eating at the Phantom Ranch at the bottom. We scheduled our trip for April, which we were assured wouldn’t be too hot in the canyon.
From the South Rim, there are two trails to the bottom: the Kaibab trail and the Bright Angel trail. We thought it would be good to go down one trail and climb out on the other. In planning the hike, we asked a park ranger her opinion of the Kaibab Trail. “Like a highway,” she said, “Not less than 32 inches wide.” She neglected to tell us that for much of its length, it wasn’t much more than 32 inches wide and with no shade. The average slope of the land was moderate at first. At one point, we crossed a line where the rocks were greenish on one side and pinkish on the other. A sign told us that as we crossed that line, we were stepping back 2 billion years in time. Corky told us that he thought that was the first time he had done 2 billion of anything.
The temperature wasn’t too bad until we got to the Tonto Rim, from which point the slope of the land becomes much steeper approaching the river. Then we were experiencing 102 degrees. When we got to the Colorado River, Sally slipped out of her backpack and plunged into the water.
We pitched our tents and got settled in., then set about getting familiar with our surroundings while waiting for the evening meal. I saw a college student reading a book, and asked “What are you reading?” He replied, “It’s about chaos theory. You wouldn’t know anything about that.” I shot back, “Sensitivity to initial conditions.” His jaw dropped open, and he said, “You do know about Chaos theory!” I said, “Yeah, I know about these things.” and walked away. I didn’t want him to know that was the only thing I knew about chaos theory.
The second day, we explored the area, seeing an ancient Indian structure and going part way up the trail to the north rim. It hit 104 degrees that day. So we didn’t do anything very strenuous. We were told that some hikers go from the North Rim to the South Rim and back again in one day. Amazing.
We heard that it would reach106 degrees the next day. We arranged to have breakfast at the lodge before daybreak, then start the hike out as soon as we could see the trail. That way, we got above the Tonto Rim before the temperature rose too much. We returned on the Bright Angel trail, varying our scenery somewhat. We decided that the canyon was like an upside down mountain. Unlike a mountain, the easiest hike was first: going down. The hardest part was last: climbing out again. But we traveled at our own pace, and before dark, we were at the south rim. Our muscles were so sore we could hardly walk.
We checked into our motel, where a night’s sleep mostly restored our mobility. In the morning, as we looked out the window, we saw that it was snowing!
Hiking to the top of Mt. Whitney, and to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, are two things I never expected to do, and I did both after I was 60.