Scouts are no strangers to the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. An online search will reveal many stories and videos of troops backpacking to the top of California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney.
One such troop was Troop 1180 of the Orange County Council.
Last summer, a small group of 15- to 16-year-old Scouts and adults ascended the peak during the nearly weeklong trip — an experience they won’t soon forget. They also won’t forget what it took to get to the summit, namely three years of preparation and training.
More than half of all climbers who attempt to conquer Mount Whitney don’t make it, either from turning around after encountering bad weather, getting hurt or they’re not physically ready.
Troop 1180 wanted to succeed, but to do so required a lot of work and research.
Even though the Scouts didn’t need climbing ropes and gear for this trek, it didn’t mean this would be a cakewalk. Each Scout would carry 50-pound packs, trudging up multiple switchbacks, overcoming thousands of feet in altitude each day.
Over three years, Scouts planned 50-mile hikes in Yosemite National Park, San Bernardino National Forest and Sequoia National Park to prepare for such a journey. They trekked part of the Pacific Crest Trail and ascended San Gorgonio Mountain at more than 11,500 feet. Each trip built the Scouts’ endurance.
“Those preparation trips helped a lot,” Eagle Scout Jake Bowles says.
During the trips, the troop tested different types of gear: tents, water filtration systems, boots. The Californian peaks could still have snow into late July, so the Scouts also looked at microspikes for their boots to gain traction, Bowles says.
More importantly, however, the Scouts made sure everyone was taking the proper steps to prepare for the Mount Whitney trip.
“I thought Mount Whitney was challenging, but the biggest challenge was watching over other boys that weren’t as physically fit or had as much experience,” Eagle Scout Devendeep Brar says. “We need to be uniform in our goal. If you’re not cohesive, it’s not going to go well.”
When it was time to conquer Mount Whitney, most Scouts had accumulated 80 to 90 camping nights, many of which stemmed from backpacking treks.
‘Apex of Scouting’
After acquiring permits, the troop was able to start its journey to the top of the mountain, which took three days. But the pace wasn’t frantic. The Scouts made time to enjoy a card game, admire a babbling creek, go fishing and take some neat aerial videography.
For that last push though, they wanted to see the sun rise from the peak.
“It can be real tiring to wake up at 2 a.m., hiking to get there at sunrise,” Brar says. “The air was thin, watching everyone else get up those last two miles … we were happy and exhausted.”
It was worth it though.
“It’s just so rewarding,” Bowles says. “I think this is the apex of the Scouting experience.”
The journey tested their skills and inspired some to continue mountaineering well after their days as a Scout youth. Bowles is considering tackling mountains in Colorado, Peru and in the Alps.
“Scouts gets you hyped up for these kinds of things,” Bowles says. “Honestly, I want to do them all. I can’t choose which one I want to do first.”
Encourage your Scouts
A big feat like climbing the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states proved to be an intriguing challenge to capture the interest of older Scouts. Still, the amount of training involved as well as the exhausting trek itself did wear on some Scouts.
That’s where the adults came in with positive reinforcement.
“It was tough on all of us,” says Assistant Scoutmaster Harminder Brar. “Make sure they know they’re doing something incredibly challenging. It was very physically demanding.”
It’s a wonder what a pat on the back and a few words of praise can do for a Scout’s psyche, he says.
When a Scout is willing to try something new and step outside their comfort zone, it’s reason to get excited. If your Scouts want to tackle a big project, start small. As they progress, achieving goals, their confidence can blossom. And if they get discouraged along the way, remember the positive reinforcement.