Young Sri Lankan architect Shikha Chandrasena was a constant visitor to the Sequoia National Park and the more he saw of the soaring mountains, the more he dreamed of climbing Mount Whitney one day. The highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is situated on the east side [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Conquering the majestic Mount Whitney

It took great concentration and determination for young architect Shikha Chandrasena to climb the highest mountain in the contiguous United States

Young Sri Lankan architect Shikha Chandrasena was a constant visitor to the Sequoia National Park and the more he saw of the soaring mountains, the more he dreamed of climbing Mount Whitney one day. The highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is situated on the east side of the Great Western Divide, a chain of mountains (the Sierra Nevada) that runs north to south through the centre of the Sequoia National Park dividing the watersheds of the Kaweah river on the west and the Kern river on the east, east of the town of Lone Pine. To view it one has to go south of the Sierras.

Shikha at the peak with the base camp in the background

Bitten all along by the great bug of adventure, Shikha, while in school, played basketball and soccer, and after moving to the U.S. used to go surfing in the summer, snow-boarding and skiing in winter. He has participated annually in the Malibu Triathlon. Fascinated by the majestic peak, he says he felt somewhat like the legendary George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest in 1924 -“Because it’s there”. Mallory died during this attempt.

Shikha also drew inspiration from Edward Whymper’s book ‘Scrambles Amongst the Alps’. In it Whymper writes, “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step and from the beginning think of what may be the end.”

Shikha and his friends Eric and Robert made their maiden attempt to climb Mt.Whitney on May 25, 2012, quite coincidentally the same period as Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay attempted Mt Everest in 1953.

Permission had to be obtained from the United States Forest Services. This involved an application and a lottery. They were informed in March 2012 that they were amongst the chosen few. Preparations then began in earnest. They climbed the local mountains, cycled miles daily, worked on the treadmill and stuck to a healthy diet.

Finally the day dawned. An overnight permit was issued on the day of the climb, at the Eastern Sierra Inter Agency at Lone Pine, the closest town to the Whitney Zone. On May 24, 2012, they got to the Whitney Portal (the closest you can go by car) at approximately 2 p.m., and had to start the climb the same day due to the storm approaching the next day. They set out at 2 a.m. on May 25 at 8,360 feet, bracing themselves for one of the greatest challenges of their lives.

They made Lone Pine Lake (9,960 feet) and Outpost Camp (l0,360 feet), with the beautiful Mirror Lake in the vicinity. But by the time they reached Trail Camp. Eric was not feeling too well. This was also was the last stop for water. “With cable switch backs and steeper challenges ahead, we proceeded,” says Shikha. (Switch backs are the route the trail takes to climb the face of a mountain in a zig-zag pattern).

The alpine scenery, the waterfalls and the granite giants all around were breathtaking. Extra levels of camaraderie were evident for Eric was slow and needed help. They braved this stretch reaching Trail Crest at 13,600 feet. The air was thinning and every step seemed to weigh them down. The remaining 900 feet were to be arduous. Moving from the sunny east face to the shady west Sequoia face, the temperature changed.

Standing in the east with a panoramic view from north to south

The two miles to go with the summit in view would take almost three hours. It was 2.30 p.m. and they were advised against proceeding to the summit after 3 p.m. because of the approaching storm front. Eric was suffering from severe altitude sickness. As his safety was uppermost, with heavy hearts they turned back hoping some day to return.

Never give up; go over, go under or go through was Shikha’s motto to one day accomplish this climb in the near future.
Shikha decided he would give it a second try. On July 15 this year, he left Los Angeles for Lone Pine. They had already been accepted for their second attempt, which was scheduled for September 2013, but Shikha was eager to do it sooner. He reached Lone Pine, collected the overnight permit and was on his way.

He reached the Whitney Portal at 9:30 a.m. The day was beautiful and he set out with a 45 pound backpack, proceeding to Lone Pine Lake at 9,960ft, Big Horn Park at 10,340ft, and Outpost camp almost at 12 noon at a height of 10,360ft. Stopping for a meal, he met John, a school teacher from Glendora, California who was on a relaxed three-day hike. Shikha went on, reaching Mirror Lake (10,640 ft) and Consultation Lake (11,680 ft) and was at Trail Camp at a height of 12,039 ft at 1500 hrs. This would be base camp for the night. He had already covered 6.8 miles of his 11 miles to the summit. He would soon have to face the ninety-nine switch backs, cables and trail crest.

He had a very restless night, his head aching. He woke up around 5. 30 a.m. on July 16 and felt he should go on. He had the advantage of knowing the landmarks and what to expect. The weather too was in his favour. He went through the cable switchbacks with ease and made his way to Trail Crest. Once again, like on the previous attempt he moved from the sunny east to the shady west of the Sequoia Forest. Reaching Trail Crest he made a visual survey of what was to come, now at a height of 13,600ft.This is where he along with his friends had turned back on their first attempt in May 2012.

He had two miles to go. The trail was hidden, with rocks from previous snowstorms and gales, strewn all around. One had to pay attention to every step. The incline was about a 60 degree angle. With every step the rocks would move. He arrived at the “Window to the World” at approx. 13,800ft – a crack between the two sister mountains, where one can view the east from the west side of the Sierras. At this stage of the trail, the progress is horizontal, following the contours of the mountain for 1½ miles gaining approximately 200-300ft till one reached a point below the summit. From that point, the remaining half mile was very steep- vertical switch backs to the summit.

The summit was only 45 minutes away. “With great concentration, determination and excitement I reached the summit of 14,505 ft at 9.45 a.m.,” Shikaha states. The temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a little chilly when he reached the summit. Bursting with pride but equally humbled, he logged his name in the book placed in a little hut at the summit. He then placed the Sri Lankan flag at the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Shikha says he lingered awhile to take in the phenomenal view of the Owens Valley on the east and Sequoia forests on the west. The granite giants he saw from the valley below had been conquered. He adds, “Pictures don’t capture the view and the expanse of it all. It certainly would be a geologist’s paradise.” He was exhausted but not too tired to enjoy his achievement. He was physically drained, but mentally as high as Mount Whitney or even higher. Through fatigue he found himself breathing harder, but had to remember that the hike was not over, he had to conserve energy to return.

“I began my descent at 10.30 a.m. Once again I had to watch my steps no different from what I experienced during my ascent.” At Outpost Camp, he heard his name being called. It was John from Glendora. He offered Shikha a cup of coffee which was just the boost that Shikha needed for the last few miles of his push to the Whitney Portal. He had three miles to go to the Portal, where his truck awaited him. This bit of camaraderie and the coffee was indeed a boost, to take him home safely.

He reached home at 10.30 p.m. on July 16 his feeling of accomplishment immeasurable. He said, “The 22 miles I covered was like a recording, resounding repeatedly in my mind. You have to climb it, to feel it.” He had done it. He had done his family and his country proud.

He’s not resting on his laurels though. Come September, Shikha hopes to climb Mount Whitney again, this time with his friends.

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