GREENFIELD — Just a little something to consider if the Muckerheide family of Greenfield asks you to join them for a brisk, invigorating hike: Make sure you know where they’re going.
Otherwise, you might find yourself 11 miles up the trail and 14,508 feet into the clouds on one of California’s “14ers” – any one of the state’s 15 mountain peaks punching 14,000 feet or more into the atmosphere – such as Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.
On June 25, Brian Muckerheide and his children, 11-year-old Luke and 13-year-old Sarah, set off at 5:40 a.m. on a day-long, 21.4-mile round-trip climb to the top of Mt. Whitney and down again. Joining them was Brian’s brother and his two children.
And lest one think it was just another walk in the woods, which do not even exist above approximately 11,000 feet, not even everyone in the Muckerheide expedition made it to the summit. For the record, that’s not at all unusual and in no way something to feel badly about.
“We ran into several 20-somethings on our way up that were turning around to go back down,” Brian Muckerheide said.
According to those who live and work around the mountain, walking to the top of Mt. Whitney is not something you just get up in the morning and decide to do.
“If you’re going to make the round trip in a day, you need to make sure you’ve acclimatized for elevation; you need to plan for a long day; and you need to be in excellent physical shape,” said Deb Schweizer, public affairs specialist for Inyo National Forest, where the Mt. Whitney Trail begins.
“We have several fatalities on Mt. Whitney every year,” Schweizer said Tuesday. “People get lost; they get disoriented or get caught in the weather.”
Just recently, a hiker died on the mountain after a fall.
“It’s the kind of terrain that if you get into trouble, you’re not going to get out of it easily.”
And so it was, in the soft glow of early morning sunlight, the expedition began its ascent. The group consisted of Luke; Sarah; Brian, 41; Brian’s brother, Kevin, 47; and Kevin’s children, Emily, 14; and Joey, 13. They set off from the Mt. Whitney Portal at 8,360 feet for a trip 6,000 feet into the sky.
But getting to the trailhead in June was a long time coming.
“My brother and I climbed Mt. Whitney in 1999 when he was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base,” Brian said.
It was a day trip the brothers never forgot, and they decided to build an extended family vacation around another climb, Brian said.
When Kevin returned to Edwards in 2012, high mountain fever struck again, and in 2013 they cast their lot into the Mt. Whitney lotto for a permit (only 100 per day are available during peak season of June through September).
That shot missed; however, their bid a year later snagged the group a handful of permits, and the training began in earnest.
Sarah and Luke ran track at St. Michael School in April and May. Brian and Sarah ran the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon on May 3. And the family hit the treadmills and trails at Hancock Wellness Center, Beckenholdt Park and several area state parks with full packs and boots to begin hardening for the hike.
Arriving in Los Angeles on June 20, the clan began training with daily hikes culminating with a six-mile walk on June 24 that took the family up some 2,500 feet of steep, rugged terrain from the Mt. Whitney Portal Trailhead. That arduous trek took Brian’s wife, Michelle Muckerheide, out of the running, she said.
At 4 a.m. the next day, the group struck camp, ate breakfast and, armed with several liters of water, Brian’s special trail mix, assorted snacks and a box of Slim Jim’s – Sarah and Luke’s trail food of choice – started for the summit under 15-pound backpacks.
Though he fared well on the previous acclimatizing hikes, with only a slight bout of altitude sickness earlier in the week, Luke began feeling the effects of the thin air about an hour after setting out that morning, Brian said.
The plucky eighth-grader continued to push. Past Lone Pine Lake at 9,900 feet. Past Trail Camp at 12,000 feet and past the 99 Switchbacks to the Trail Crest at about 13,700 feet.
It was 2:15 p.m., and Brian had let Luke push it as far as he would allow.
“He was looking pretty bad,” Brian said, and the decision was made to head back down even though the two were only about a mile below the summit.
Despite fighting the effects of altitude sickness, Luke will tell you in no uncertain terms there are not 99 switchbacks at that part of the trail, but 100.
“I counted them,” he said.
Sarah and cousin Emily reached the mountain’s crown at about 2:30 p.m., where she brandished a remaining uneaten Slim Jim over her head to mark the ocassion.
Kevin and son Joey joined the girls at the summit 30 minutes later, where they relished the view for an extra 15 minutes beyond the appointed 3 p.m. “turnaround time” set by the Muckerheide brothers to allow for the descent.
By 9:40 p.m., the group was back to Mt. Whitney Trail Portal.
But Luke wasn’t the only one nicked by the climb.
On the way, Sarah slipped on an icy rock and took a chunk of skin off her leg, and Joey went light-headed and fainted on the way down, Michelle said.
Speaking to them over trail maps and pictures at the dining room table in Greenfield, it’s easy to see Luke and Sarah’s sense of accomplishment despite the fact that they’re a fairly quiet duo.
Sarah has the T-shirt, literally, and Luke will click his watch and give the precise total elapsed trail time.
“Sixteen hours, three minutes and 10 seconds,” he said.
Mom and Dad simply smile the smile of proud parents who might share a bit of disbelief at what their kids have done.
“Even though most (three out of the four kids) had some kind of adversity (aside from the difficulty of the climb itself) none of them really complained,” wrote Michelle in an email.
While there’s no arguing the Muckerheide Mt. Whitney trip was an adventure with memories for a lifetime, Luke’s thinking something a little closer to sea level for the family’s next vacation.
Actually, a lot closer to sea level.
“I think Florida,” he said.
ABOUT MT. WHITNEY
What: Mt. Whitney, highest mountain summit in the contiguous United States, 221 miles north of Los Angeles in California’s Sierra Nevada range. At an elevation of 14,508 feet, the mountain straddles Sequoia National Park to the west and Inyo National Forest to the east. Some 20,000 people hike the Mt. Whitney Trail annually.
What to expect: Severe winter weather, lightning storms, high winds, high altitude, beautiful vistas and scenery.
Wilderness Permits are required year-round for all day trips into the Mt. Whitney Zone and all overnight trips into the wilderness.
Source: United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.