MOUNT WHITNEY, Calif. —
The grueling, daring, at times painful but personally satisfying climb up California’s Mount Whitney that Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) Technical Director Paul Mann did recently has left him empowered, encouraged, wiser and wanting more.
Mann joined NSWC PHD’s Lt. Todd Coursey, In-Service Engineering Agent of the Future military lead, and Air Defense Engineer Douglas Trafican, among others, in October to hike 22 miles in freezing temperatures to the Whitney summit at nearly 14,500 feet. The trail gains 6,134 feet in elevation to reach the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
While the trek lasted 19.5 hours of the 24-hour day on Oct. 11, the real experience for Mann included intense mental, physical and practical training and detailed preparations.
“I’m physically transformed,” he explained. “The day was concentrated, but it was actually a two-and a-half month journey. The day was the final thing.”
Hiking Mount Whitney, with its strenuous uphill climb, high altitude, potential for altitude sickness and tough weather conditions, is almost a rite of passage for serious hikers. Trafican and Coursey had each climbed the peak twice, most recently together in July.
“The last time we were halfway up by dawn, and witnessed one of the most beautiful sunrises you’ll ever see,” Trafican said. “The trail itself offers a lot of natural beauty. In July, there were raging waters coming down near much of the trail, gushing scenic waterfalls and pristine alpine surroundings.”
Coursey does Whitney to shock the body out of complacency by making it “uncomfortable.”
“It’s about understanding your perceived limits and pushing through them,” he said. “There’s a focus (euphoria, I guess) that comes when your body is screaming to quit, but your mind is telling you to go.”
Mann, however, is more of an occasional marathon runner than a hiker but has been interested in backpacking. He had set his sights on Whitney previously, so when Coursey mentioned he was planning the climb, Mann joined the challenge to push himself to start backpacking and get into shape.
“When I’m struggling in fitness, and I will say for the last year, I’ve struggled to be fit, for whatever reason, setting really hard challenges serves as a really big inspiration for me to get fit,” he explained.
Two and a half months before Hike Day, Coursey began coaching Mann. They ran 14 to 16 miles at a time, about 25 miles a week, and hiked steep trails such as Mount Baden-Powell in Angeles National Forest twice in a day.
On a Labor Day hiking trip Mann did by himself from the Whitney Portal trail head to Lone Pine Lake, he saw Mount Whitney looming ahead, and his heart sank.
“That was really hard for me,” Mann said. “I just looked up at that mountain and I said, ‘There’s no freakin’ way.’ It’s daunting. And I had it built up in my head.”
As the days got closer and the weather forecast remained good, the climb became more and more real.
Mann arrived at the hotel they were staying at during the trip two days early and took long hikes at altitude to prepare. This, he said, was critical in enabling him to gradually acclimatize to the high elevations on hike day and prevent altitude sickness.
It was just shy of 2:45 a.m. when the group of seven began hiking slowly but steadily so they could acclimatize gradually.
Just before sunrise at 12,000 feet, Mann took his gloves off while eating and lost feeling in his fingers. Another member was in similar trouble.
“I was in a panic for maybe 15 minutes,” he said. “I thought I possibly had frostbite. I probably would have had frostbite had I not taken action and had hand warmers. (I learned) just because you feel warm, you should not leave your extremities exposed.”
Finally, around 1 p.m., after a 10 and a half-hour climb—the last being 99 or so zigzags called switchbacks—Mann, Coursey, Trafican and two others reached the peak. The other two members had returned to the trailhead, providing end-of-hike support once everyone came down.
The happiness and sheer relief of accomplishing something that had intimidated him for months and taken all his attention brought him to tears, Mann said.
“It was so grueling to just prepare for and execute that when I made it to the top, I just sobbed,” he said. “I felt happy and emotional. I called (my wife) Yvonne and I couldn’t even talk. It was extraordinary.”
Having felt no altitude sickness or extreme fatigue on the ascent, Mann thought the 11-mile trip back down to the trailhead would be less difficult than the ascent, and he would be done by 8 p.m.
So, he ate and drank much less, and as a result, lost energy, became discouraged and slowed down. Then, the soles of his 13-year-old boots, which started deteriorating toward the top, disintegrated, leaving him to walk in only a couple of pairs of socks.
“It was horrible; I couldn’t stand upright, and could barely walk,” he said. “Todd (Coursey) for the last two miles carried my pack. It was rough, and this just shows my inexperience.”
Coursey took it in stride, saying every member needed help at some point, but each pitched in. When Mann’s boots gave way, another group member gave him extra socks to wrap around his feet.
“The accountability to each other was more significant than one or two instances of helping here and there,” Coursey said. “Together, those issues became manageable.”
The team reached the trailhead around 10 p.m., Mann called his wife but couldn’t talk because of exhaustion and pain.
The experience changed him, Mann said. It brought new value to doing things with people; gave him new understanding on the importance of staying fit and boosted his opinion of his capabilities.
“It gives me great hope,” he explained. “You figure out what it is you have to do, and there’s a process for researching and then preparing. And I really do believe there’s nothing I can’t do. And that translates to not just hiking or climbing a hill but in my professional life as well.”
He praised Coursey as an “amazing inspiration” for him, and credited him with the trip’s success.
“He was an essential, affirmative teammate for me from the moment we had the idea all the way through,” Mann said. “I had numerous crises and Todd would just listen and say, ‘All is well. Let’s just do this.’ It just seemed he had an answer for everything. He’s an amazing asset to the command.”
Similarly, Trafican and group member Seth Escobar exemplified teamwork by walking with him those final few miles and encouraging him, Mann said.
He learned several lessons—pack lighter; keep gloves on in freezing temperatures; continue eating and drinking while at altitude—and wear newer boots.
What’s next? Mann already ran the 26-mile Ventura Marathon from Ojai to Ventura Oct. 20; he hiked the short but steep Diamond Head Summit Trail in Hawaii; and he and Coursey are planning to hike the 20-mile, nearly 10,500-foot gain, Cactus to Clouds Trail from Palm Springs to Mount San Jacinto in California, considered the greatest elevation gain of any trail in the United States. And, he hopes to backpack the John Muir Trail and end it by summiting Mount Whitney—again.
“Things that are really valuable are hard,” Mann said. “But if you study them and prepare, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”