Mount Whitney

Last week I was going through old papers and articles, sorting them into piles: keep and toss away. The toss pile was winning, along with the constant question, “Why on earth did I keep that?”

The task was taking longer than anticipated, as it was a walk down memory lane. I found old schedules I had created back when I taught yoga at local gyms; newsletters that were cut and pasted before computers were in daily use; and articles with titles like “Why Smoking Is Bad for You.”

Then I came across a newspaper clipping from October 17, 1996. “Peak of Courage,” read the headline in Simi Valley Daily News. “Climbing Mount Whitney puts 19 on top of the world.” I smiled as I read, for now — 21 years later — I can fully appreciate that event (though at the time it was the hardest thing I’d ever done).

Inspiration comes in many forms, and one Sunday afternoon 22 years ago it came to me as I was watching a PBS special. It was a documentary about a group of women who were recovering from breast cancer and had climbed a mountain in South America. This film was to become a catalyst for a fitness program my husband Rob and I created.

At the time, I worked for a women’s gym here in Simi and watched women exercise in my classes and in the weight room — but to what end? They never used the fitness they developed, never put it to task. So why not give them a goal and hike up the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney?

“How many women do you think will attend the first hike?” asked my boss as I presented the idea.

“Oh, I don’t know, probably about 20.” My estimate was hopelessly low. By the time we set off on our first hike up Rocky Peak, 84 women had signed up — and Rob and I got our first taste of what the next 10 months would bring.

Every month we designed and led hikes in the local mountains, each hike longer and harder than the last. We also offered classes under the banner, “Get fit for Whitney, get fit for life” and awarded points for events attended. Participants had to accumulate points to qualify for the trip.

Ten months later, in October 1996, 17 women were ready for Whitney. They all made it to the top, and I watched them celebrate after struggling and achieving so much in those 10 months. But Rob and I couldn’t celebrate yet — we still needed to get them back down the mountain safely.

I can remember feeling unfulfilled in that moment. I was surrounded by elation and joyous abandon, but I couldn’t feel that in myself. Instead the responsibility of getting everyone home safely loomed large.

Now, I look at the smiling faces in the summit photo, and I’m filled with pride for them. We all got to know each other so well in that 10-month program. It was life-changing for most, and an affirmation of fitness and dedication for all.

As for me — well, a few weeks after our climb, I turned in my notice at the gym and became a full-time yoga teacher. Whitney changed my life, too, and now 21 years later I can celebrate.


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