As Dr. Randall Howard was preparing to attend his son Ben's graduation from medical school he felt the usual sense of fatherly pride and a feeling of being on top of the world. So much so, that he declared that he would like to actually climb to the top of Mount Whitney while he was "still young enough to do so." The very next day, Dr. Howard got an email from Ben, an avid and technical mountain climber, showing a route and offering a timeframe for their father and son hike. The challenge was now laid and Ben needed to do the climb in the next year, before beginning his surgical residency.
At 14,497 feet, California's Mount Whitney rises higher than any piece of land in the United States outside of Alaska. Being an adventurous type, Dr. Howard never liked the idea of taking the easier trail route, but instead he was drawn to the forbidding steep face of the mountain.
Dr. Howard knew the endeavor would take some preparation, including losing 10 pounds, gaining strength and learning proper rope techniques. The Howards planned to "free climb" using only their bodies to ascend the mountain, but they used ropes for safety and to protect in the event of falls.
Ben completed medical school just a few days before they were to set out on their trek. At his graduation party, one of the new young Dr. Howard's uncles pulled him aside and said, "Ben, you are in charge now. You have to be prepared to make the tough call to pull out if conditions are bad." Ben took his role seriously and took control of the expedition from start to finish. The final day before they departed, Ben showed his father an instructional video on using an ice axe not only for walking on snow and ice, but also to for arresting falls. Dr. Howard found this a bit unnerving.
Dr. Howard Sr. recalls the actual traverse of the East Face was the easier part of the trip. Getting there was the challenge. He and Ben hiked four miles over a 4,000 foot incline just to get to the start of the climb. At mile one, they had to put on crampons and use those ice axes to improve their traction on the snow and ice, but after several hours the Howards reached their frozen campsite and found a dry patch to pitch their tent.
Seen from below, Mount Whitney's East Face appears as a sheer wall of granite erupting 2,000 feet above Iceberg Lake. People travel from all over the world to traverse these impressive ridges and stand atop this famous peak. The only other people they encountered were coincidentally, a pair of hikers from Stanford Medical Center. The father and son team completed 11 "pitches," each using 200 feet of rope, over seven hours. Dr. Howard Sr. said when he reached the summit with his son, he once again felt like he was on top of the world. After taking in the majestic views for some time, the two hiked down a 900 foot gully which is part of the mountaineer's route used by John Muir, camped overnight, and then headed home.
Dr. Howard Sr. said working as a team with his son to complete this expedition was the greatest accomplishment of his life. He particularly enjoyed that Ben took charge and played the "dad" role while he followed his son's instruction. Ben says that in order to excel at climbing, as in medicine, one must have skilled hands and the ability to focus only on what is happening at that moment. The Howards both share that level of skill and focus in their daily lives. Two days after their memorable climb, Ben started his surgical residency at the University of California San Francisco and Dr. Howard Sr. happily returned to Goleta Family Medicine, where he has cared for Sansum Clinic patients since 1985.