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Turtle Don on Mount Whitney

Turtle Don on Mount Whitney

Turtle Don on Mount Whitney

Early on August 11, 2008 I began my climb from Guitar Lake towards the summit of Mt. Whitney along the final section of the John Muir Trail/High Sierra Trail. A short distance beyond Guitar Lake the trail passes another small lake and then begins climbing in earnest through the rocky terrain of the high valley to the west of Whitney. As I slowly climbed I caught up with a man climbing the trail even more slowly than I. As I pulled even with him I noticed that he was, shall we say, a bit older than the typical Mt. Whitney climber. In fact, if you saw him in more civilized surroundings you might take him for a somewhat frail, elderly man.

But you would be very, very wrong.

He wasn’t in a hurry so we stopped and talked a bit – and he shared parts of a story that I eventually discovered he shares with everyone he meets on the trail. He goes by the name of “Turtle Don,” a trail name he said he gave to himself while thru-hiking the Appalachia Trail (yes, that’s right!) recently. On a day when everyone seemed to be passing him he came upon a little turtle – the first thing going slower than he was on the trail.

I didn’t quite catch the whole story, but he has apparently hiked several other major thru trails in the US. Now he was/is working on the Pacific Crest Trail. He’s not exactly thru-hiking it (e.g. doing the whole thing in one uninterrupted rush) but he had already completed a good portion of the Southern California desert section and was now working his way north through the Sierra in 8-9 day segments, and meeting his wife between these intervals to stay in a motel and resupply.

Don is 74 years old. He gives me hope that I have more than a few years of backpacking left in my legs and lungs! Don is slow, but he seemingly cannot be stopped. After I left him – finally tearing myself away as he continued his stories – I continued on up the mountain thinking I wouldn’t see him again. Not so. As I took a break at the junction to the final two-mile traverse to the summit of Whitney there he was, slowly and steadily working his way up this very high and very exhausting trail. He arrived at the junction – where I made this photo – and we talked a bit more before I continued on to the summit. Later, as I was descending back to the trail junction, I found him still working his way towards the summit where he planned to spend the night!

Photography and text copyright G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.


August 20, 2008 - Posted by | Commentary

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