KNOWING WHITNEY- Somewhere between truth and fiction- By Matthew Doherty


Written on the event of my friend Antonio’s birthday
Aug 18th, 2016

“That’s some straight up Bushman shit,” Yo said.

We were two drunken monkeys trying to mount Whitney and live to tell the tale.

All summits look alike. A hostile pile of rocks broken up by some kind of earth shattering event a long time ago. I’m not a geologist but let’s just say they were violently formed.

Formed the way Greek heroes were.

When gods raped peasant women after a quarrel with each other.

I’ve never been to the moon, but it would be safe to say they have a lunar feel. And the view, as spectacular as it is, looks like many other views from many other mountains.

Most mountains are all mountains.
From the top at least.
Something I learned along the way.

And though the path up may vary in terms of incline, direction, or distance, they all produce similar reactions on the spectrum of human emotion and experience. Elation. Despair. Discovery. Fear. Ecstasy. Boredom. Regret. And Hope.



So, maybe it’s the lack of oxygen, but when you climb above a certain altitude, the world below looks the same.

But it’s not about the view.

Or the summit.

It’s about something else.

But you can’t explain that to anyone who hasn’t pushed themselves past all endurance and reason, shook down every single crazy fear imaginable and made it to the top.

Cause the top isn’t the top. The top is just the top.

And as the National Park Service advises, “the top is only halfway there.”

“Yeah summit fever can put a lot of people down. You got to take emotion out of it. It’s about reason.

“Distance and time.”

“Oh brother.”

My poles clicked on in silence as we made our way along the back face of Whitney’s craggy head.


“On Kilamanjaro the Porters tell you to be in the step you’re in,” Yo blurted out.

Be in the step you’re in.

“Look at us, one pair of sunglasses and two trekking poles between us…” I replied.

“But we’re prepared.” Yo reminded me as I passed him an energy block.
We were.


Not because we had worked out and worked up to the altitude in order to give ourselves the best chance of summiting, which we had, or because we had the right gear, and weighed in at 17 pounds and 18 pounds respectfully; we we’re prepared because we were surrendered to the mountain and moving at a speed not too slow and not too fast.

We were in each step. Every step. We were hiking our mountain.

“Yeah the body can do all kinds of things the mind tells you it can’t,” Yo spat out as we hunched over our poles and listened to our heart beats to see how we were acclimatizing. “Yeah you may think you know your limits, but it takes a mountain to show you them.”

Yo was right. We don’t have to summit to learn that. Something I learned on Gorgornio three weeks back when the lightening came quick upon the thunder.

To summit is not the goal.

Ultimately, summiting is a letdown. It always is. It has to be. It can’t live up to the time and distance it took to get there.
The true summit happens somewhere along the way.

Again and again.

And long after the day is done and we are all safely down the mountain.
Maybe we had already summited…?

Many times.


Maybe we did– Summit in our sleep. Even before we started. And when Antonio made the decision to make real his intention to climb and invited us.

We summited then and now. Hopefully, we will summit many times after. Even Z who wisely chose to turn back around reached the summit. Each step was and is a summit.

Maybe. Maybe the summit is ultimately a let down.

Trust me, I was so blind by the sun when we go to the top, I had to tie my black bandana– the same one I used for a snot rag – to shield my eyes.


I couldn’t even see the reward of “my” summit.

Instead, I fell back on that jagged lunar harshness and listened … while Yo laughed at my horse blind and said, “that’s some straight up Bushman shit…”

We ate our salami sandwiches, wondered about the probability of a trailside emergency from the mayo now soaked in the shepherd’s bread from Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, and laughed together. Laughed with Whitney as Yo proclaimed into the mean noonday sun, “shit, man, when am I going to learn my lesson…”

Yes. The lesson. What of that, huh?

Maybe it’s just me, but it’s hard to climb a mountain and not think of life and death. Cause it’s all there, laid out in the valley below and on every beaten down grain of sand on the trail you climbed to get up there.

The lesson.

That’s what I saw in the valley through my Bushman Snot Rag.
And I didn’t miss a thing.
Or to put it another way…


“The true summit is within,” as it declares in some vain postcard-y saccharine quote book one might read while waiting on a turd.
Yeah. Within.

“The rest is just summit fever…” I heard Yo recall what the Porter said…
Summit fever.

A state of being defined by a disparity of one’s own will with the will of the mountain…

You know what I’m talking about. It’s the thing that prologues any high altitude tragedy cause the people involved wanted only to get a picture with a sign or prove something to themselves.

So where is the line? The line between giving up and pushing on.
Cause, uhh…

Many things ended badly that began with a noble pursuit. Yet, many worthy enterprises were also lost because what was false looked real in a moment of despair. Or dehydration. Or loneliness.

Yeah. The mountain don’t care about our projections and attachments.
It’s much too old for that.

When I stared up at the alpine glow after zipping my headlamp in the pocket flap, the thought dawned on me…

“There is no mountain. I am the mountain.”

Ok. If that’s true, Whitney could be any mountain. Even if it proclaims to be higher than any other… blah blah blah…?

Every mountain claims to be something.

The highest in such and such county, the biggest in the Watchakatcha foothill range…

So, yeah, in this regard, Whitney is Denali, is Dana, is Wilson, is Washington, Lady Bird, Fryman, and so on…

Because the experience is the same…

There’s a hard part, a really hard part, a part where you think you’re close, the hopeless moment when you realize you are not, and then a moment of “fuck you” insult on the way back down where you have to go back up again.

So yeah each summit is every summit and every mountain is the mountain.
Maybe that’s why summits are so anticlimactic.

Why do we climb then?

I don’t know about you, but I climb to know myself.

To find what I am not and learn what I am.

Cause make no mistake: Whitney, like Dana, and any other peak teaches us what we are there to learn. For some it’s to not wear cotton, others (like me) a reminder to bring sunglasses next time, or, not carry so much water, bring more water, read the parking signs, allow for weather, allow for the unexpected, etc, etc, etc. And all of these so called “lessons” revolve around respecting the mountain.

The headwater of true wisdom can only be found in knowing and remembering that fact.

Cause altitude is something not to be fucked around with.

“Respect every step.” Is what Yo reminded me as we trudged. And I would counter, “and peace in every step.”

Respect. And Peace.

In the end, I think we learn what we need to learn from the mountain. And the lessons the mountain teaches us are not always the ones we anticipated. We may arrive at a trailhead with desires to test our endurance, get away from work or our families, or prove the existence of something, or ask the universe our place in it, but usually the lessons we get back are more practical. Like we all die. Lighten up. Or everything passes. I don’t know much but I do know this: things look different at night than they do at the daytime. I know this because the mountain showed it to me. It also showed me the importance of sunglasses.

If all this sounds too granola dreadlocked and full of hot air, don’t fret, sometimes the mountain speaks to us through others.

Others who have been there before…

Saying things like take small steps, start early, summit before noon, powder your balls, and so forth.

Up and down the trail from the top to the bottom, her experience is shared. By word of mouth. And you have to be there to hear it. But, for me, being there was not enough, I had to learn to be open to receiving them, too.

And I have learned through my first summer in the mountains, that no graph or chart or app depicting the elevation change, altitude, expected weather, mileage, or footpath quality will tell me how the trail will be till I put my feet on it and start walking.

These things can help me prepare, but my instincts and experience, if I have any, are a much more preferable guide.

So, yeah, when the alpine glow hit the cathedral face of Whitney as the sun peaked above the White Mountains to the east and crawled up the canyon, I understood that indeed there was no mountain. I am only grateful that I was quiet and open enough to hear it.


Some fifteen plus hours later, when Yo and I were literally jogging down the second set of endless switchbacks, blind to the beauty as well as the sun, cursing the inaccuracy of distance measured out in our minds, it was still the same mountain we travelled by sound and feel beneath a canopy of stars innumerable.
The same fucking mountain…

Was and is in as much motion as anything governed by quantum rules of physics. Despite outward appearance.

Another thing I “learned” was that in addition to possessing shape shifting capabilities, mountains, being obviously hostile places, will always attack you where you are weakest. The fears in your mind, the pain in your knee, or your IT band – all the faults in us bloom given enough time and distance.

I think the medical term is inflation.


The same mountain that creates its own weather, gives us water to drink and raise food, that literally hides the sun and moon will also effortlessly show us our own humanity. If you don’t believe me, look at a map, find the nearest mountain and climb it. Prepare or not, it will show you all of you. Including the parts you don’t like.

But, isn’t that the point?

If it was just about beauty, we could look each peak up in an index of National Geographic magazine, if it was about getting there, we could take a tram to the top. But it’s not about beauty or accomplishment. It’s about something else entirely. For me, it was about having a shift of perspective generated by my own effort.


So yeah, when I opened myself up to the lessons the mountain was there to teach me, I was changed.

I mean I already was changed, I am changing, same as you, but I became aware of that fact.

And when I look at the mountain and out from the mountain, behind the black snot rag, I see the truth: there is no mountain.
But what is there demands respect.

And love carries us forward much quicker and easier than any resistance or effort.

It’s the reason why, according to Yo, young men who live on powder protein and spend hours at the gym can end up running around in circles with blue faces screaming to their dead relatives covered in puke and ninety-year-old women with osteoporosis can “summit.”

Cause the former didn’t know themselves.

And the latter did.

But even that Blue dude steeped in protein powder in the puffy five hundred dollar North Face shell who paid 10,000 dollars to climb the Andes will walk away knowing more about what he is not than he did before he puked and turned blue.

Despite her cragginess, the mountain is gentle in this regard.

And each time I’ve climbed up her spine and learned her switchbacks I’ve learned more of the fallacy about what I thought I was.

So yeah there really is no mountain.

At least my mountain is no mountain at all. To you, the mountain may be more than a mountain, it could be the mountain, a depository for your father’s ashes, or place to exercise your biggest fear, or proof that you don’t have to prove anything, or a way to keep out of the doctor’s, or simply a place to explore and be…

Your mountain is your mountain.
That’s the way it is. I think.

So when we were headed back down, stepping light, small and quick, speaking respect with every inch, we were converted. And being thus, rightfully offered encouragement for some overnighters hoping to make Constellation Lake before sundown.


I looked at their state of exertion and spirit, found a spot to yield to the uphill climber and suddenly felt the mountain speak, in her gentle, yet honest truth.

“It’s farther than it looks but you’re closer than you think.”


To what, I might add, I don’t know. That’s between you and the mountain.


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