California Girl, 6, Climbs Tallest Mountain in the Country: 'She Laughed' and 'Broke Out in Tears'
A young girl from Berkeley, California, endured thin air and altitude sickness to reach the top of Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States — and when she made the summit, she couldn't help but smile.
In July, 6-year-old Eva Luna Harper-Zahn trekked up the 14,505 feet of Mount Whitney, home to the highest summit in the lower 48 states. The mountain, located in Central California, is a popular climbing destination for avid mountaineers and climbers with more than 15,000 people applying for a National Forest Service permit to hike up Whitney just last year.
Of the thousands who have traveled the 22 miles to the summit, only about a handful have been younger than 10 years old, reports show. Now, Eva Luna has now joined their ranks thanks to the support of her parents, who have long incorporated adventure into her life and those of her three siblings.
“Hiking and mountaineering are very significant to our family culture,” Eva's mother, Amie Harper, tells PEOPLE. “It means being able to explore and discover within nature and simultaneously explore and discover new things about ourselves.”
It was last fall when the family went on a trip to Mount Lassen, where Eva Luna's 3-year-old sister, Kira Satya, reached the top without needing to be carried by her parents. After seeing Kira's feat, Eva Luna began wondering what she could do to challenge herself as well.
When her dad, Oliver, brought up the idea of Mount Whitney, Eva Luna immediately knew she wanted to become one of the youngest to take it on.
“At first we thought she wouldn't be that serious about it once she realized how tall it was, coupled with the thin air at such a high elevation— and it would be a 22-mile hike round-trip for these little legs,” Amie says. “However, once my husband had mentioned Whitney, Eva Luna never lost sight of doing it.”
After extensive preparation — which included hiking with gear and sleeping at a higher altitude to get acclimated for the climb — the family set out on their hours-long journey up the mountain. But following a hike to Whitney's Consultation Lake at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, Eva Luna showed signs of possible altitude sickness just as the family prepared to continue the ascent.
“She felt sick and nauseous. Oliver almost decided they should turn back if she didn't start feeling better,” Amie recalls. “But then she took an hour-long nap on the trail, sleeping on top of Oliver's lap, huddling in the dark and leaning against a rock.”
After getting her nap in, Eva Luna was ready to hit the trail and was given some added motivation from her brother, Sun, 9.
“Sun encouraged Eva Luna the whole way — especially during times when she wasn't doing well,” Amie says. “He'd reminded her how much she had prepared for this mentally and physically.”
As Eva Luna zeroed in on Whitney's summit almost six hours later, she couldn't help but be filled with emotion.
“She was very cautious and focused to make sure she didn't fall as she approached the ascent. Just before they got to the summit shelter, which was literally several yards from the summit, she grinned and pretended she was doing to give up and turn around,” Amie says. “She laughed and then she all of a sudden broke out in tears because she was so happy to have made it.”
The family believes Eva Luna is likely the youngest girl of color to ascend Mount Whitney. Considering that Smithsonian reported that nearly 80 percent of Americans who participate in outdoor activities are white, this is an achievement that Amie holds dear.
“Even though Eva Luna is slowly becoming aware of how exclusive mountaineering and hiking can be for girls and people of color,” Amie explains, “she doesn't let confinements around authentic ‘girl-ness' or ‘blackness' confine her goals.”
With Eva Luna proving to herself that she can reach the top of a mountain, especially at such a young age, Amie believes this is just the start of many things to come from her determined daughter.
“She doesn't like being told that she cannot do something — even if she learns that she is part of a demographic that hasn't done something before,” she says. “It has been her personality ever since we can remember, when she was an infant and made it clear that she was quite incorrigible!”