Make Home while Backpacking

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Arctic blasts of wind slam us as a nuclear sun reflects off the snow to create an intense solar oven: At 12,000 feet in California’s High Sierra in mid-April, we’re in a world of atmospheric extremes. We stroll up to our “campsite,” a flat expanse of snow-covered ground below the soaring East Face of Mount Whitney. This will be our launching point for our attempt to climb the Mountaineers Route to Whitney’s 14,505-foot crown, the highest pile of rocks in the contiguous United States.

It will be also our home for the next 40 hours, give or take. I look around and think, Okay, time to turn this into some semblance of a home—even if it’s temporary.

As an avid and frequent backpacker, climber, backcountry skier, yada yada for about three decades and counting, I’ve slept a lot of nights on the ground way out in nature. I like it. A lot.

But I’m also quite fond of resting smartly and sleeping well—which help make physical challenges like climbing a mountain or carrying a backpack for many trail miles more enjoyable.

That’s where my camp strategy and gear come in.

Mount Whitney Camp

My 15-year-old son, Nate, and I have come to climb Mount Whitney with five readers of my blog, The Big Outside, and three guides. The guiding company is providing three-person mountaineering tents from a respected brand to everyone else on our team. But because Nate and I will sleep better without a third tent mate, we chose instead to bring the two-person Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2—a mountaineering tent not quite as roomy as the model the guides are using, but roughly half the weight and plenty spacious for two people.

After we get our tent up, I inflate my air mattress, a reasonably lightweight but very comfortable model. I’m a firm believer in backpacking as light as possible, but I won’t compromise sleeping comfort (and we needed pads with added insulation for sleeping on snow). I fold it inside a chair kit and plop down into that cushy mini-recliner to peer up at Mount Whitney. Our several climbing partners stand around enjoying the view—at least a few of them, I suspect, coveting my chair.

Life, at this moment, seems very good. I love climbing mountains. And when I’m not climbing mountains, I make myself as comfortable as possible in camp—to ensure that, when the time comes, I’ll have the energy for climbing mountains.

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