LONE PINE, Calif. -- Mount Whitney-14,497 feet of igneous gray granite. Eleven miles of twisting, turning, up-and-down trails. Its summit beckons to those who dare. Some do it just because, others to see if they can meet the challenge. It is the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States. It is a formidable opponent where even the strongest person can be turned away.
July 23 brought three Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School Marines and one civilian Marine to Lone Pine, Calif., and Mt. Whitney's pine tree-laden Portal. Major Dennis Teitzel and Carol Voneida were returning for a second attempt at reaching the summit. Staff Sgt. Ivan Ivakhniouk and Sgt. Michael Finley signed on in February when the lottery for trail spots allowed for two more positions. During the quota season for Mt. Whitney (May-October), only 60 overnight permits and 115 day-hiker permits are issued each day.
Teitzel and Voneida had hiked the mighty mountain in August 1999. Upon reaching the 14,200-foot elevation, Voneida was overcome by acute altitude sickness. Knowing the summit was within reach, she also knew that she needed to listen to her body, and she and Teitzel turned around to descend to a safe altitude, vowing to come back and summit in the future.
The July 24 ascent began with a 3 a.m. wakeup call. With all the hikers roused, well hydrated, well fed, and backpacks on, the four Marines headed for the 8,367-foot trailhead at the Whitney Portal. The 4:15 a.m. ascent seemed popular as there were approximately 50 other hikers ranging from boy scouts to college students to senior citizens preparing to ascend the mountain. With headlamps glowing, it resembled an extraterrestrial convention. Enough noise was made to keep the bears away that like to visit the parking lot early every morning.
A normal round trip takes 13 to 16 hours depending on speed and time spent eating during the strenuous 22-mile round trip. The elevation gain accumulated during a hike from the Portal to the summit is about 6,100 vertical feet. The MCCES group started with a slow methodical pace, allowing them to acclimate to the rise in altitude.
Carried on this trip were two special items: the American flag that Carol Voneida's son carried through Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom while attached to Bravo Company, 1st Tank Bn., and a Marine Corps flag that Teitzel had flown in Khandahar, Afghanistan, while stationed with Marine Air Control Squadron 4 during Operation Enduring Freedom. The hikers were going to fly them at the summit as a personal tribute to all those who have given their lives during OEF/OIF.
At 10:30 a.m. the hikers reached 12,000-foot elevation and the trail camp. This is the last source of water and the overnight camping location. All that remained was the infamous "99 Switchbacks" and the final trek to the summit. Following a 30-minute break, the four started up the grueling switchbacks wondering if the 1,800-foot rise in elevation would break them.
Prior to this the group kept watch out for each other and the telltale signs of acute altitude sickness. A sometimes fatal but easily treated condition, altitude sickness cannot be taken lightly. It can vary from a minor headache to a severe incapacitating problem. Headaches, nausea and fatigue are common, but the severity is what is important to note. In 1999, Voneida started to feel sick at approximately 14,000-feet, and by the time she reached 14,200 feet she knew something was wrong. Her symptoms included blurring vision, an inability to drink water and a headache that slowly grew from the base of her neck and spread into her head. Lethargy was very apparent, and an immediate descent was made. Upon reaching 12,000 feet, she immediately began to feel better. Her condition and remedy are very common among high-altitude hikers.
The group began to notice subtle differences in Finley from the 11,000- to 12,300-foot level: a persistent headache that started at the base of his neck, edema (slight swelling) of the face, and slowness in his movements. Prior to the trip the group went over basic survival rules and an intensive operational risk management discussion. Hiking in this environment should always be accomplished with a partner; partners can keep close watch on what is happening and never hide any conditions no matter how small they may seem.
The physical conditioning of an individual has no influence on susceptibility of acute altitude sickness. In fact, fit persons tend to succumb at a higher rate since they can generally ascend more rapidly. Aspirin, which is always the first line of defense, did not help Finley. Being previously afflicted with acute altitude sickness, Voneida discussed his symptoms with the rest of the group. After a thorough check of his condition and Finley's acknowledgement that his symptoms were getting worse a quick descent to a lower altitude was determined to be the best course of action. Teitzel immediately volunteered to be the escort, however, remembering that five years ago, Teitzel gave up his summit to escort her to a safer elevation, Voneida took over as the escort and handed the two flags to Teitzel and Ivakhniouk. Wishing them well and a safe journey, Finley and Voneida began the grueling six-mile downward descent, which most hikers swear is worse than going up.
Finley found relief at Mirror Lake, the 10,000-foot level. A ranger stopped by and praised them for the decision to descend. Year after year air evacuations are flown from the mountain as hikers press on beyond their physical capability. After eating and drinking large amounts of water and Gatorade, Finley and Voneida hiked two more hours to the Portal to await the phone call from the summit.
At 2:37 p.m., 10-and-a-half hours after they left the Portal, the cell phone rang and a jubilant Ivakhniouk and Teitzel announced their arrival at the summit. They said they planned to stay 20 minutes to take photos with the flags and sign the logbook in the cabin. Their plans changed. Estimating their departure from the summit to be around 3 p.m. Finley and Voneida knew it would take three to four hours to descend. At 7 pm, Voneida and Finley began to wonder what happened to their partners. The temperature cooled, campfires were lit and still no sight of Ivakhniouk and Teitzel.
Finally, at 7:45 p.m. the two, tired Marine arrived at the Portal to the warm and hearty congratulations of their fellow hikers. When asked what took so long, Teitzel and Ivakhniouk grinned ear to ear and told their story. As they were unfolding the flags, they asked a stranger to take their picture, other hikers began to inquire about the flags. When they explained the history behind the flags and what making this summit meant to them the other hikers asked to get their photos taken with the flags and the Marines too. Never being shy of bragging about or flying our colors, these two Marines obliged all the hearty hikers and ended up staying on top of Mt Whitney much longer than they expected. The praise and respect they received was overwhelming. Not wanting to disappoint anyone asking to get a photo they couldn't imagine leaving until everyone was finished with their "photo op."
With Finley feeling much better, Voneida knowing the mountain would still be there next year for yet another attempt, and Teitzel and Ivakhniouk overdue for a steak dinner, the group loaded their equipment into their truck and headed into Lone Pine to join waiting family members.
Sunday morning the hikers and their families made their way to the usual breakfast place. It is a favorite among Whitney's hikers. With stacks of pancakes, steaming slices of bacon, omelets bursting at the seams, and gallons of coffee and milk, the group dug in. From across the room, a table of eight hikers yelled over, "Hey, aren't you the Marines from the summit? Great job! How's your buddy? Any injuries? Hope to see you next year!"
With that the group from MCCES all smiled and said, "You bet, see you next time."