Twelve days I had hoofed around the Sierra, my pack starting at 63 pounds simply because I was too lazy to arrange a resupply half-way through this excursion. My path was, indeed, a path; after all, it was my first extended solo backpack. I wanted to feel somewhat safe, perhaps to have another person come near enough to hear my cries if something were to go wrong. But nothing did, and I came back to the frontcountry a changed woman. Within 2 months I had picked up my life and moved to a small town in the high deserts of eastern California.
Looking back on that trip, I suddenly realized the parallels between it and the challenge lying before me now. The sleepless nights leading up to the start; awakening in the dark to heart rushing, breathing hard as if from some nightmare; the anxiety from pressure poured on myself to be faster, stronger, smarter, to know my mountains in and out; to tell myself time and again that keeping up wasn’t an option, to run my own race, hike my own pace and trust in my skills. I had persevered for twelve days on that grand adventure; the mileage and elevation gain moderately similar to the days ahead, only this time without the 50+ pounds on my back. Not much assuaged my anxiety leading into this, my latest self-imposed bout of work.
Nothing, except the months of preparation, training, learning, conditioning, and trust in my mountains, could calm the fluttering in my chest. The only thing standing between me and my goal, was, well, me.
“I don’t know how people get along without climbing mountains.” –Ruth Dyer Mendenhall
North Peak's NW ridge
Bob drove up to Saddlebag Lake Thursday morning to find Paul and I gathering our last few things together. I chugged the last few slurps of Monster coffee and carefully covered the coolers resting in the back of the TOF as Bob changed into boots. In the cool morning air we followed the winding path along the edge of the lake, turning northwest towards the ridge of McCabe Pass. Bob led us along the NW ridge of North Peak, he opting for the short sections of 5th class while Paul and I hunted out the bypasses of 3rd. The scrambling over before it had barely begun, Bob and I waved to Paul as he scrambled the last few hundred feet to North Peak, and we turned west towards Sheep Peak. I made sure to get at least one look down the steep north face to McCabe Lake, and Bob decided to attempt to stay true to the ridge on the traverse to the summit. I soon tired of the up, down, and around the giant blocks, opting to drop a bit into the looser sand and rock for a more direct approach. Just shy of the top, I heard a shrill whistle behind and above me, Bob waving and smiling as his floppy hat flipped in the breeze. Within seconds, it seemed, he was right up with me as we scrabbled for the summit blocks. After a short break we beelined across the slabs to the pass between North and Conness, scrambled down the boulders and scree to milky turquoise lakes, and headed back to the parking lot to find Paul waiting comfortably for us. Over beers and dinner, I thanked Bob in advance for the show that was about to start. With a warm-up hike under my belt, I settled into a fitful sleep near Twin Lakes.
“Let the rabbits run.”
Spires near the Incredible Hulk in Little Slide Canyon.
A single headlamp ambled towards me as I walked the parking lot, Bob’s friendly ‘good morning’ bringing a smile to my nervous face. I jumped into the group, shaking hands all around, meeting the 14 different Bob’s (or so it seemed), running to throw my canned coffee away before we gathered for the group photo. I turned off my lamp as I stood in the gaggle of hikers and we wandered in through the campground, searching out the trailhead. The line thinned as the light shifted to early grey, and I kept my steps slow and even to keep from tripping over roots and rocks. The climb began in earnest once we crossed the creek, some choosing to wrestle the branches of the downed trees, others finding the older logs with only stumps to maneuver around. The conversation faded as the dirt path wound upslope, shifting to boulders in the shade of Little Slide Canyon. Our first sunrise together flamed upon the towers of rock opposite The Incredible Hulk, torches illuminating the small creek still running strong. I couldn’t see the lead group any longer, and I tried, desperately, not to care. I hopped from rock to rock, spotting the occasional cairn stacked along the worn use path of climbers. I could hear the early calls from the monolith, voices at the base and in their camps. In a flat and sandy divot, I saw a trail branch to the right and up a grassy slope towards, presumably, Maltby Lake. I remembered the instructions, read last night as I struggled for sleep, to traverse the cliffs to the east of the lake, and I maintained my southerly course, leaving the grassy trail for another adventure.
Voices above me were startling, as they didn’t come from the angle of the Hulk, and I looked up to see the rabbits all standing high on the cliffs above. “Laura! You’re going the wrong way!” is what I thought Bob was yelling. Instead, it turned out to be that they had made the wrong turn up the grassy slope and were now looking down a few hundred feet of interesting scrambling. “Do you see a way down?” Adam called down to me. I looked, I really did, and called up that I wasn’t really sure what might be available. All of a sudden, the rocky cracks were full of downclimbing men, and I just had to smile at my luck of not overly exerting myself and wasting my precious energy on that silliness. I chuckled a bit under my breath, had one last look to make sure all were descending safely, and turned on my heel to continue my trek to the pass.
The rabbits caught me up there, and we wandered up the trail to the foot of the final boulder scramble to the summit of Finger Peak. Bob was in lead, but at a pace that actually let me maintain a conversation with the guys, so I was a little surprised when he jumped in to ask if anyone else was going to join him in the traverse between the three summits. He and Adam headed across the creek, the rest of us continuing up towards Burro Pass another half mile before watering up and starting the climb up. I couldn’t wait to reach the snow that hovered above the moraine, and as soon as we did, I donned my crampons and started right up the suncups to the saddle. Rough and grippy rock greeted us at the top, although the final 100 feet was delicate sand and loose boulders that would let fly as soon as they were breathed upon. The view south into the deep green canyons, offset by towering faces of granite, was breathtaking, but the summit beckoned. Matthew found the described ledge traversing the face and our group scrambled to the blocky summit, each standing on top in turn.
On the descent we pretty well stayed together, slogging slowly back up to Ice Lake Pass, then down Little Slide Canyon under the watchful gaze of The Hulk as we bounced and jumped between the boulders again. I stood in the cold waters of Twin Lakes after reaching the trailhead for about 15 minutes to cool my legs, washed the dirt and sweat and suntan lotion off my arms and face. After a sumptuous dinner at the Bridgeport Inn, I led a few cars to the Green Lake trailhead, reconfigured my mattress, got my pack together for the next morning, and curled up to try and get some sleep after a big first day.
“Make each day your own.”
Virginia Peak and building clouds.
I slapped the alarm Saturday morning and rolled over for a few more minutes of fitful sleep before rousting myself out of my sleeping bag. It was early, 0420 or so, and no one else in the parking lot was stirring yet. But that was on purpose: I had wanted to walk up this trail alone this morning, to breathe away a few painful memories and feel the woods and water around me as the sun rose to color the peaks above. Flowers crowded the trail, seeps and drips leaking just enough to turn the path to mud in places. I found a familiar rock outcropping, the upper reaches bathed in morning light, where I stopped for a few minutes to allow my settled stomach to absorb a few granola bars for breakfast. The white rock cascade tumbled lightly as I followed the trail up to Virginia Pass, it’s last few hundred feet of talus covered a bit by old snow. It was calm and cool on the Pass, a vast difference from the windstorm of my last visit. I found a perch where I awaited the rabbits as I gazed across the valley below.
Within 20 minutes the first few arrived, the ranks swelling to at least 8 by the time Bob showed up. I laughed and smiled at my fellow hikers, pointed out where we were going, and we dove down the other side. A few of us traversed, trying to stay high instead of dropping to the creek, but really there wasn’t much difference in the routes to Return Lake. Just up and to the north lay Stanton Peak, overshadowed by the grand red dame of Virginia Peak to its east. We all scrambled up the boulders to its summit from different angles, some opting for the ridge, others the face. Once I heard a rumble above me, only to see Vitaliy skipping away from a pile of boulders that had started to roll, but fortunately stopped on the slope before tumbling on my head. (And I’ll admit to wagging my finger at him on the summit some time later.) Eight of us gathered on the summit that morning, enjoying the view and calm air before moving on to other targets in the area.
Grey Butte beckoned to me a short scramble away, and at first I walked across the boulders and slabs with Bob’s Burd and Jones. But BB had another plan hatching in his mind, and he quickly accelerated on and up the rocks. BJ decided he had had enough for the day, and turned to head back to Virginia Pass. And so I continued my scramble, where I was joined by Adam, Vitaliy, and Ron Hudson. Ron and I decided to drop down the east face of Grey Butte, originally intending to pick up the trail to East Lake to make a loop of it. But by the time we cut across the valley, we realized how far we would have to drop, or have much soft earth we would have to traverse to get around Camiaca Peak to the south side, and we bailed back to Virginia Pass and the trail. Clouds gathered overhead, casting shadows against the rocks, the sun hot and blaring as it danced back and forth between the cover. Somewhere along the way, I lost Ron, so I threw on my headphones and jog-walked the remaining trail. Just as I dove down from Green Lake, rain began to sprinkle and thunder rolled down the canyon from behind me. I was exuberant as I stretched my legs through the flowers and mud and trees and needles, grinning broadly as I met a few friends back at the trailhead for a beer and relaxation before returning to Lee Vining, a shower, and dinner at the Mobil Mart.
“Don’t be afraid to strike out alone.”
Alger Lakes below Blacktop Peak.
It was silent at the trailhead the next morning. Of course, it was the wrong trailhead, sort of. Blacktop Peak lay just over Koip Peak Pass and above Alger Lakes, an area I had hiked a few years prior when I bagged Koip, Kuna, Parker, and Wood Peaks. While the trailhead for Mono Pass, just inside Tioga Pass, was higher, the mileage to reach the peaks was longer and meant I would go over two passes (Parker and Koip Peak) to get near the objective of the day. I knew this approach would suit my style better, being more gentle and gradual in the climb. I hadn’t hiked the Rush Creek trail out of June Lake, but I knew there was nothing but steep up in all directions there. No beta on the ridge between Kuna and Blacktop was available, besides that it was possible Class 3-4, so I’d have to see what presented itself that morning.
What presented was a frigid morning and bright sunlight reflecting off the frozen meadows. It had obviously rained hard the previous afternoon, as the meadows were soaked and the flowers coated in frost. I usually resist wearing my nano puff while hiking to prevent sweating too much, but this morning required significantly more insulation that my short-sleeved shirt and shorts provided. I practically begged the sun to come up over Mt. Lewis as I crested Parker Pass in less than two hours, and I shivered as I crammed down snacks and Gatorade by the stream before starting up the switchers on the north face of Parker Peak. The flat, slate-like rocks ahead were coated in ice, their edges adorned with spikes of frost crystals, my feet slipping every few steps as I wound my way towards the pass. Finding a mostly dry gulley in the rock, I stepped up to the summit of Parker Peak, gasping when I saw the drop to Blacktop on the other side. I hadn’t remembered it being quite so far down to the Alger Lakes.
I looked around for a register in the windbreak on the summit, but found nothing tucked in amongst the stacked rocks. I looked longingly across the pass to Koip and Kuna, then the ridge to Blacktop, but I couldn’t get a feel for what might exist. I turned to see a puff of cloud rise straight up from Mt. Wood, and I knew it was going to rain that afternoon. Down near the Alger Lakes, the long east ridge of Blacktop seemed to have a weakness in the black and crumbling rock, so with one last look across at the other bonus peaks, I dove into the drainage, running the loose rock and scree as fast as it would allow. I reached the isthmus between the lakes, looking up on my way to see the first group reach the summit of Blacktop. Ahead I could see a loose Class 3 weakness, so I scrambled up between thick bushes of columbine and black, smooth rock. From there I shot the ridge all the way back to the summit, occasionally hearing voices below and others strolling back down. I kept scrambling along the ridge among the rocks, nothing more than 2nd or 3rd Class, until I finally reached the summit, a moose call sounding forth after the long effort.
I took a long break there, deciding my next move, watching the clouds start to gather around the mountains. Hearing voices below, I gathered up my things and met Scott and Elena just below the summit, and arranged for a possible ride back to my car at Tioga Pass. With the incoming weather, I knew I would be in for a soaking if I tried to regain Koip Peak Pass. Down the drainage I strolled, finally meeting up with the trail just where it crossed the creek, Gem Lake in the distance. The dust of the trail, and the steepness of the faces I had descended convinced me, at least in part, that I had made the right decision for myself that day. I could imagine trying to walk up the trail with the herd of people, the air choked with dust and the smell of mule manure. Giving up a few bonus peaks for a nice hike sat just right, thank you very much. Gem Lake was much bigger than I had anticipated, the trail winding forever along its shore, and finally dropping through switchers too numerous to mention to the trailhead. The rain and thunder started again over my head, a light drizzle cooling me off and cleaning the air of the dust I kicked up with each step.
I looked around the parking lot for Elena and Scott’s car, but either was too disoriented or tired or both to find it. My cell phone was all the way back in Yosemite, but I knew my friend Ken and his wife, Elizabeth, lived near the Double Eagle Resort, one mile down the road. So I turned on my heel and strode up the road, trying to envision snow banks on the sides of the road, which had been the last time I had been over to Ken’s house. I turned up the street and, success! I opened the door to them both waving me in, offering beer and smoked oysters to this lonely and weary traveler. “I have the strangest request of you,” I said. “Any way I can get a lift back to Tioga?” After a shower and snacks, Ken happily drove me back up to my waiting car, refusing my offer of dinner as a thank you. “I’m just glad to be part of this adventure for you!” he said happily. My luck didn’t end there: Tioga Pass Resort had the most delicious breaded pork chop as their dinner special, and damned if I didn’t eat every bite! I talked with a few people at the bar, who looked at me a bit strangely when I told them about the day’s travels. “Are you a ranger?” they asked…
“Remember to take a few easy days.”
Volcanic Ridge lies just above Lake Ediza, an area that for the past three years I’ve visited and explored while climbing Mts. Ritter, Banner, and an “attempt” at Clyde Minaret. In fact, when my friend Charles and I packed in a few years ago, the ranger we met had recommended Cabin Lake, so I had explored the routes and rock below the summit. My friends Eileen, Nick, and Rebecca had driven up from LA the night before to Agnew Meadow (actually, Eileen is from Vancouver and had flown in from a conference back east), so we bunched together at the back of the pack and strolled out, while I played a bit of tour director as I pointed out the sights. This area is one of my favorite in the Sierra, and I was thrilled not only to be back but to show it off to my friends. We paused at Shadow Lake in the morning light for a sumptuous breakfast, provided by Nick and Becca, before we jumped back on the trail again.
I knew there was a use trail leading to Cabin Lake, I just didn’t know where it connected with the main trail heading out to Ediza. I eventually got bored with looking for it, and turned to my friends, making sure everyone would be ok with a little Class 3 scrambling. The rock was amazingly forgiving and easy to step up, we just took our time since the other three had little to no acclimation. Lots of breaks, drinking plenty of water, eating snacks and resting often was the name of the day. Finally at the summit, we met up with Matthew and his wife Nga, who were relaxing and enjoying the amazing views of the Minarets and Ritter/Banner. Matthew and I talked shop about the snow climb to the saddle between the two major peaks, and I razzed him mercilessly about the tattered state of his pants (for which Nga thanked me profusely!!). After a lazy hour, more snacks and chatter, and realizing that we were far from the last people to summit (others had tried to go and climb the north face and apparently the remaining ice had won the day), we headed back down with Matthew and Nga along. I picked a line that would head almost directly to Cabin Lake, and we all had a blast butt and boot glissading down the melting snow.
Nick and Becca were moving a bit slower than the rest of us, so Eileen and I waited at Cabin Lake for them to arrive. We searched for the “trail” heading down the face, but none materialized, so we simply picked our way down the green slopes and rock to the river. Once back on the trail, I turned to my friends, asking permission to go ahead and stretch my legs some, which I could tell were tight from the slower pace. With a smile, they waved me off, and strode it out to Shadow Lake along the familiar track. Before I knew it, I was back at the truck, cleaning up the mess and reorganizing everything, and setting off for home in Bishop. Just as I stepped out of the shower, I got the call from Eileen that they were in Mammoth grabbing coffee before heading down the hill. I ordered pizza, which arrived just after the gang got to the Moose Lodge. After 5 days out, I was back in my own bed for a long-awaited good night’s sleep.
“Look around you.”
Bright Dot Lake from the slopes below White Fang.
The line of hikers stretched across the sagebrush switchers as they gently climbed away from Convict Lake, the morning sun burning the umber and cream layers of Laurel Mountain. I had taken up my place near the end of the train, happily strolling along at my own pace up the canyon, talking with Bob about the last few days, listening to some of the other conversations as they came and went with the shift in the angle of the trail. A rumble and roar ahead signaled the crossing, and the edge of the creek quickly became crowded with hikers looking everywhere for spots to jump and keep their feet dry. Sean had leapt across to a huge and slick boulder, warning all others that it could mean a cold dip. Others wandered around the canyon to the right, balancing carefully on the shifting rocks. After a few minutes of watching the group, I gave up and simply waded through, shoes, socks, and all. I had spent four days with soaked boots and socks on a trip back in June, so the thought of a few hours with wet feet didn’t bother me at all.
The trail sidehilled across a loose moraine, the small rocks tinkling with each step, and I kept looking up at the slope above. While loose, it didn’t look any harder than some Class 2-3 scrambling, so I headed up to the base of it and put my poles away on my pack. Looking down, though, I saw the crowd continue further up the path, and I started, for some reason, to second-guess where I was going. Glancing at my map, this was the most direct route to Bright Dot Lake, but in the end I returned to the trail and the train. Bob gave me a sly look when we got to the turnoff to head up the impossibly loose dirt slope, and I knew I should have kept going in the original direction. “You were right on track,” he said. “You’d probably already be at Bright Dot Lake by now.” Dammit. Two dozen pumping legs above me started sending a barrage of rocks down the gulley as I came up at last, a fitting smack upside my head for not trusting my gut.
The group spread again, a handful headed further south to climb Mt. Baldwin, myself, and five others, slowly started the long, loose slog up to White Fang. “Just like any good WTC grad,” Ron smiled at me as I donned my brain bucket. The six of us paired up and spread out across the face, all headed for the white-banded ridge above. Glancing below, the amazing layers of color spread across the hills and through the lakes, their dazzling blue offsetting the ochre rocks. Once on top, we six gathered to take in the views, and I called to the group on Mt. Baldwin with all five guys chiming right in with me.
“Who’s got all five Challenge peaks so far?” asked Evan, and I cautiously raised my hand along with Jeff, who had 5 but not all from this year. They asked my goal, and it seemed simple enough to me. “Ten for ten,” I said. “No woman has ever done that.” I could see the wheels spinning in their heads as they inventoried the previous years and who had participated, and they all nodded and smiled at me. It was a pat on the back that I’ll never forget. I took a long look at the traverse to Morrison from there, and decided that I’d rather have a stick in the eye than deal with more loose crap. We descended the sticky slabs to Mildred Lake, picking up the trail back to Convict. After the crossing (wet once again), I opened my stride a bit, leaving some of the guys behind and I breathed in the sage and smell of aspen in the afternoon breeze. Jeff and Bobb caught me up just at the parking lot and we sat for a few minutes enjoying cold beers before all spreading out for the night.
“You’re stronger than you think.”
The snow leading to Royce-Feather Col.
I love Pine Creek: tall canyon walls, amazing rock, gorgeous waterfalls, mining history, flowers lining the seeps. But when you feel like shit, I don’t care how beautiful the area is, the joy dissipates into just plain work. At the back of the bus once again, I watched helplessly as the rabbits sprinted up the road and out of sight into the trees. My iPod wasn’t working right, I was fighting my usual morning nausea so I hadn’t eaten, and even the coffee wasn’t kicking in. Yup, cranky just about summed it up. With a frown (again, back of the bus so no one to have to put up with my grumpiness, which was on purpose), I still reached the first Pine Creek Lake in under 2 hours, which was the fastest I had ever done it. Relieved to be on flatter terrain, I caught a few of the other back-enders, including Karl, as we strode up to Honeymoon Lake. “So this is what this all looks like without snow,” I said.
I stopped to eat and drink just above Honeymoon Lake, making sure I downed as many calories as I could into my finally settled stomach. I had already climbed Feather Peak via its north couloir just six weeks prior with my friend Ray, and camped at Royce Col with both he and Paul, so the route was familiar. I walked up the slabs and rocks to the Col, gasping once again at the spectacular view of Merriam, Royce, and Feather Peaks all in a line before me, the lakes a greenish-blue and clear. Hopping the boulders around the lake, I heard voices ahead, but only saw one person in the snow chute leading up to the saddle between Royce and Feather. Damn, I thought: I’m so far behind there’s only one person left in the chute. Gonna be a long-ass day. With a deep breath I kept my progress forward and up to the rocks.
Then I spotted the group, some high and traversing, others low and staring up at the snow. Had I actually caught up to the rabbits? Why was everyone waiting? W… T… F… ??? I saw JD, Darija, and Vitaliy ahead, tentatively stepping out across the snow, but when I looked at their line, I wondered why they were cutting so high when the slope presented a fantastic staircase of suncups from bottom to top. A surge of adrenaline whipped me out of the slump, and I donned my ‘pons as fast as I could, axe in one hand and pole in the other. Can you say “home field advantage?” I had spent as much time as possible on steep snow or ice all winter, and all of a sudden my legs were kicking up a frenzy on the slope. I looked up to see Adam picking his way up the slope, and I yelled up that I was coming to get him. With my favorite music blasting in my headphones, I front pointed up the slope, 20 steps at a time, grunting and blowing and laughing and loving every minute of the climb. I caught Adam below the lip of the saddle, and for the first time looked back to see a long train of people climbing up behind me. I gave a loud whoop and headed over through the sand to take off my crampons and pile it with my axe and poles near the saddle to await my return.
The scramble up the chute to the summit was some fun Class 3, and I recognized a few of the dicey sections that Ray and I had rappelled back in early June due to rotten snow and ice. Without the white stuff, I felt like I was flying up the rock, still glowing from the run up the snow chute. Bob called and waved from below, having summitted and was heading back down to the saddle. Our group rested briefly on the summit, and I beamed as I looked over the north side at the couloir. Others were scrambling up as we carefully downclimbed, trying to stay out of each other’s way and not knock any rocks down. From nowhere, though, we heard something start to tumble, and a few above us called “Rock!” The cantaloupe-sized rock jumped and juked down the chute, Adam ducked right above me as it bounced just over his head and blocked back at me. I crouched and tried to block my head with my hands and screamed a bit as it came right at my head, but the ledge in front of me was just high enough to catch its flight and turn the rock back into the chute and down. I sat, trembling, for a few minutes, Adam coming over and checking to see if I was all right. Shaken, we continued our descent back to the saddle and I walked down the snow and across the rocks for home with my friends.
“Tired is a state of mind.”
My "horizontal summit pose".
I’ve lived in Bishop almost three years now and haven’t explored the Sabrina Lake Basin. There, I said it. I don’t know why I haven’t gone farther than Blue Lake on an evening workout, or why I only headed up to the Baboon Lakes on a failed attempt to “explore” Echo Col. For some reason I’ve just always made the right turn up to North Lake instead. Now, my chance was upon me, and all I wanted to do was keep up with some sort of group because the fatigue was really settling into my bones. Navigation by heels is definitely not my style, but one of the things I was coming to enjoy about the loose format of the “groups” of the Challenge was the ability to hike with or away from people at will, and not have repercussions about being left behind or ignored.
Ron and I talked a bit as we followed the winding trail up down and around the Basin, and our group grabbed a quick break at the Hungry Packer Lake junction before jumping on the ridge that would take us all the way to Haeckel Col. The slabs rambled ever higher above the lakes, the tower of Mt. Haeckel looming above us all. We scrambled the boulders to the shore of Lake 12,345, catching a fleeting glimpse of one of the rabbits just cresting the Col. In no time, we were over the top, gazing into the Evolution Basin and across the ridge leading to Mt. Spencer, the intended target. More boulder hopping led to an unanticipated edge and the reason that Secor recommends dropping straight down from the Col to the lakeshore below to the west. Just as we scrambled down to the sandy basin, we saw the lead rabbits making their way back. I smirked, still grumpy and just wanting the day to keep moving and be over. Seven of us crowded the summit, and I took my first horizontal victory pose. I did manage to smile, though, when I thought of the last time I had been to this peak, laden with a full pack as I traversed from Mt. Warlow and then down to Evolution Lake. With a wave and grin, I gazed across my favorite basin in the Sierra, then turned to start the long boulder hop back to the Col.
Halfway back, despite eating and drinking, my energy was really getting zapped. At one point I sagged onto the rocks, sitting with my head down and leaning onto my legs. Faith came up behind me and asked if I was all right. “I’m struggling,” I said weakly. There was nothing anyone could do, however, and after a few minutes of rest, I picked myself up and followed everyone up to the Col. We took a long break in the afternoon sun back at Lake 12,345, and I felt some of my energy returning after a good snack. We jumped back on the ridge, the group spreading out as we wound back down the slabs. At one point, Karl, Bobb, and Bob were just ahead, arms akimbo as they looked down into the basin below. “Where’s our resident expert?” Karl said, turning around to look at me. I snorted and pointed down below to the ramps, winking at the guys. Upon reaching the trail, I excused myself for a split break, once again donned my headphones, determined to break out of my funk. I set the repeat on a pump-up tune, and set out with long strides in an effort to get back to the car in under 12 hours. With the downhill trail before me, I felt stronger, momentum carrying me. A handful of hikers remained at the parking area, waiting others still coming down the mountain. Without much time for talk, I piled my grumpy but happy-to-be-done-with-that-day self into the truck and headed home for a shower and dinner.
“Let the call sound from the heights.”
Thunder and Lightning Lake from Vagabond Peak.
Sky Haven was going to be another relatively easy day, and I had explored the area a fair bit on a few trips up Vagabond Peak and Cloudripper, then down through Thunder and Lightning Lake. The key to the day was being to find and follow the old pipeline that traverses the hill between the South Lake parking lot and the trail to Brown and Green Lakes, thereby maintaining 10K and cutting out a fairly horrendous number of switchers that lead up the slope from Parcher’s Resort. A huge group had gathered for the Friday hike, and I was in the middle of the pack as they swept up through the back end of the lot… and right past the pipe. “See you guys later!” I waved back as I stepped to the right and up the pipe. Wait: was I getting sucked into being a rabbit? Since the line is flat, I relinquished the overall lead to Sean and Bob Jones as I took pictures from behind, and I gave them the cue to jump onto the trail when it appeared. Here I stopped to wave the throng up the trail, just as Bob had done back at White Fang. At the end of the train, I started slowly up again, smiling at how much better I already felt that day than the previous two.
I tanked up water at Green Lake, watching the procession on the interminably long switcher rising to Coyote Flat. The terrain on top is easy cross-country, and just before the old trail starts to drop back down, I cut right up the long slope that would take me to Vagabond. I just took my time, as this was another “rest” day and the terrain was familiar. A few hundred feet below the summit, I heard a call above the noise of my headphones, and turned to see Tom Becht heading up the slope towards me. Together we finished the ascent, Tom not believing me at first that Vagabond was over 13K. From the top, I let loose with two of the loudest and longest moose calls I’ve ever generated. I don’t know from where the energy had come, but others later told me it almost frightened them when they first heard the yell. I could have scrambled up to Cloudripper as well, but again I needed to get the day’s peak, and I didn’t want to expend too much energy with the biggest day of the Challenge coming up. So I bid Tom goodbye and scrambled down the ridge. Across the way I could occasionally see people standing on what I thought was the summit of Sky Haven (apparently I missed the major discussion of the true high point). In the final chute up from the ridge I finally ran into a gaggle of participants, including Bob and Ron and Sean, all heading in different directions.
On the summit I caught Faith and Scott, and the three of us descended down and around the talus and scree. After a bit of a roundabout route, chosen to avoid the up and down of the horrible boulder bowls of the lower face, we caught the trail and started the climb back up to Coyote Flat. At this point, I excused myself from them both, and started actually jogging back down the trail, catching the pipeline and smiling at the return of my energy, turning a corner, and the light reflecting off South Lake. I made sure to get to bed early that night.
“Step by step, inch by inch.”
Looking north from Cedric Wright.
I turned my headlights down to parking lights as I crept into the parking area at Scotty’s Spring, stopped the truck and leaned back against the headrest to close my eyes for a few more minutes. Bright spots started to stir amongst the cars parked in the dirt and trees, and I groaned a bit as I reached over for my shoes and to crack a can of coffee drink. This day was the big one: 9000 feet of vertical gain over roughly 17 miles, almost all of it cross country in a waterless canyon. The back of the truck had become a gathering point for the participants in the past few days, and Bob was gathering us all up for the morning photo. I heard a familiar voice in the darkness, and turned to see my friend Kevin stroll towards me. I wrapped him in a huge moose hug, then found out that my other friend Ingrid was there as well. “I wanted to be here when this all went down,” Kevin smiled at me.
As the sun crept up behind the Inyos to the east, a dozen silhouettes strode up the long mining road towards Armstrong Canyon. I kept my pace slow and steady, remembering back to when I had climbed the west ridge of White Mountain. With every step I was that much closer to the day’s goal, and I wasn’t worried about the next day’s hike. Bobb had asked if I would like to hike together that day, and I was happy to have the quiet company as we walked along. I’m usually not much for talking during any sort of uphill, since my breathing often gets in the way. So we all wandered up the road, some of the rabbits breaking free at last and sprinting far ahead. We could see them on the switchers above when Bobb turned to me and said, “Aren’t we supposed to turn off here? The directions had said turn on the road after 4 miles and we’re there.” I thought back to my own review of the route description, and, tilting my head to one side, called up to Adam, one of the few around who had been up Armstrong Canyon before. He turned and thought for a moment, then realized Bobb was, indeed, correct about the turnoff, and that the switchers above simply came to a dead end at a mine above. Quietly, we all kicked through the sage to the right fork of the road and wandered, giggling a bit into the canyon.
We rested at the true road’s end, and I got my usual late breakfast and Gatorade. About 10 minutes later, Bob came tearing up the road, a huge grin on his face as I looked up and smiled and shrugged. “Last time I missed that turn it was dark. I have NO excuses today!” Soon the other rabbits came straggling up behind him and we all leaned into the loose talus and boulders that would dominate the rest of the day. Sean, in particular, did not look happy as he whizzed on by me. I gave him a sidelong, sly glance when he looked over. “Don’t even start,” was the low response. Not to push too hard on one already annoyed, I kept it simple: “Sometimes it pays to go a little slower and read the directions.” I got a grunt and a half-ass smile as he leapt ahead and continued to plod, using my poles for support in the endless pile.
Cresting the first rise of moraine, a few foxtail pines stood yellow in the morning sun, offsetting the striped and crumbling rock of the surrounding cliffs. I was briefly awestruck, but since I had lost considerable ground on the entire group, turned my gaze down to make sure my footing was secure as I jumped from rock to rock. I heard Kevin cluck up ahead, and Ingrid and Bobb were nearby, as we reached the headwall at the top of the canyon. I had seen the rabbits slowly picking their way up the snow at first, then the loose rock, and soon Bobb and I were right behind them. We rapidly realized that we were in the worst positions possible: the end of the train behind a handful of people in a horribly loose chute. Rocks the size of sand to volleyballs rained down on us, Bobb once having to hug the face and cover his head, I practiced my sprinting traverses on loose dirt. I hadn’t heard any calls of rock from above, so I yelled up to get some more notice, but to no avail. While I’m sure those above were glad to get out of the chute at last, it was a pretty sloppy display of climbing to those of us below.
Crossing the crest, the route dropped back down a sandy chute to a small tarn, then up a small chute to the eastern ridge of Cedric Wright. Bobb had decided to turn around at this point, and I caught up to a small group at the tarn, and after a quick bite and tanking up, we pushed on through the chute and out onto the face of Cedric Wright. I gazed south to where Scott and I had camped six weeks before, trying to recall the snow slopes and ice on the lake below. The mountain looked completely different without the snow, the slopes revealing endless loose rock and scree through the entire bowl. The group scattered, each taking his or her own path to reach the ridge, Adam trying to convince me just how far back the summit truly was. “Sorry, dude, I’ve already been here,” I replied. I told him that I had left treats six weeks ago, though, so scurry off now and find them!
“Where’s the register?” Adam adamantly demanded as I scrambled across the summit blocks. “I can’t find the register. Where is it?” Calmly, I walked over to the seated rabbit, leaned forward with my hands on his legs, and said, “Hold your fucking horses!” I split his legs apart and reached beneath the stone upon which he perched, moving a few rocks away to reveal the plastic bags and rusty cans Scott and I had buried. Only something was wrong: the bags, which had held the treat, were around the cans, no treat to be found! And now there was a register, whereas six weeks ago we had been forced to use one of Scott’s business cards to leave a record of our having been there. Disappointed, we turned to the signing of the register, eating, and turning to start the long trudge back to the cars. I took one last long look around the amphitheater that I feel is the heart of the High Sierra and started back along the ridge.
Smoke from the Sheep Fire began to pour into the Woods Creek Canyon, quickly destroying our view and poisoning the air. My cough got worse and worse, my eyes burned as we slowly pushed up the sandy slope from the tarn. My voice was gone temporarily at the crest, and we were all looking haggard as we divided the group once again for the hairy descent down the loose chute. Kevin and I tried to pick our way down the good rock covered in marbles while the others tried their hand at the hard-pack dirt chute with marbles opposite our face. At one point, Vitaliy had looked over, confiding to me later that he swore Kevin and I were going to fall and die down the face. Luckily for us, it didn’t look as bad from our angle, and soon we were sliding down the snow to the moraine. The boulders seemed endless as we wove and jumped, my left knee angry with the big steps between faces. We searched for any sort of level ground, and finally reached the road below, a welcome sight despite knowing we still had over four miles to go. I jogged a bit, enjoying the easier steps and letting momentum carry me back to the truck, where Bobb and his girlfriend were waiting patiently. I left my sleeping bag and pad with Kevin, since he was waiting for Ingrid, and I headed for home for a hot shower and bed after a 14+ hour day.
“I’m not fast: I’m just incredibly stubborn.”
Me 'n Lil' Moosie on Morgenson.
Driving to the Portal early Sunday morning was like coming home. Eileen was in the passenger seat, and we sang along to the music as we careened south and then up the hill again. My friend Jim was waiting for me above the Store, and I was just as thrilled to see him as I had been to see Kevin and Ingrid the day before. We joined the throng huddling and talking excitedly at the trailhead, Bob snapping photos of the group and his and my little friends, Moosie and Dangles. The train headed up the trail just after 0600, branching off at the North Fork and climbing the steep drainage. I could have done this part of the hike with my eyes closed, and, in the back of the bus once again, I looked over my shoulder to Jim and said, “Sesame Tree?” He smiled and nodded, and we pulled over for a break as the last members strode past. From the north side of the drainage, we watched the other groups wind up the trail, photographing them from the Elephant Ear. Jim and I popped out right on top of Bob at the base of the E-ledges, and he was surprised to see us come from nowhere. “That’s cheating!” he exclaimed, but I countered with the fact that we ended up right next to everyone else, no further ground gained.
Above Lower Boy Scout Lake, everyone seemed to take different paths to climb the slope into the Carillon Creek drainage, and the groups spread out. I was exhausted, moving slowly, dripping sweat, but smiling at the familiar environment. Jim and I took plenty of breaks, ate, drank the cold water, watch people ahead of us flail and kick rocks down the Cleaver Col. I had really wanted to be on the summit with Bob and the rabbits that day, of any day, but it wasn’t to be. I still needed to walk my own pace and finish the day. We tanked up in Tulainyo Lake, then walked the boulders around to the drainage leading up and across the north face and bowl of Mt. Morgenson. As Jim and I stepped higher, I heard a cheer from above and turned to see Bob traversing with Sean and Rick towards Russell. I whooped back at him and waved to acknowledge his encouragement. Turning back to the job at hand, I saw Bob Jones and Phil descending the north rib, and soon they saw me as well and were cheering. I could feel the tears welling, but forced them back down, knowing I still had to finish this last bit.
Jim was right behind me the whole way, and we chattered, sucked wind, tried not to kick rocks, and scrambled to the summit ridge. I thought back a few years when I had first touched these stones, looking to great north face of Mt. Whitney, west to the Kaweahs, north to Williamson and Tyndall. How I had gripped their edges to slide across, whereas now I simply walked. I stood on the summit stone only briefly, a huge smile on my face, and breathed deeply a few times before leaning back, raising both arms over my head, and sounding the call to the mountain gods a cry of thanks for my safe return to the heights. With that, I sat on the rock, buried my face in my hands and lap, and sobbed. All the exhaustion, all the work, all the preparation of the months leading up to this moment came crashing down off my shoulders and tumbled into the Arctic Lakes Basin, and the smile – a giant, toothy grin – exploded onto my face through the tears. Jim hugged me tightly, high-fived with a laugh and cheer. This was it: 10 for 10. After eating lunch, enjoying the wind, I turned to Jim and said, with a tired smile, “I wanna go home.”
I walked down the face and around the moraine Tulainyo Lake, turning our sights up the north face of Mt. Russell, straining to see the guys making their way to the ridge and summit. Jim and I knew the descent on the far side of the Russell-Carillon Col was far easier than retracing our steps down the Cleaver Col, and we were laughing riotously about something or other by the time we cleared the saddle. Above us on the East ridge, their timing impeccable, Rick, Sean, and Bob were dropping as well. After congratulations from the first two, Bob came right over and wrapped his arms around me in a huge hug. “Thanks for everything, Bob,” I said as we embraced. The five of us met up again at the lip of the face descending to Clyde Meadows, and the scree race was on! I got a few steps ahead, only to catch a pole and tumbling onto my ass in the sand, Sean laughing at my error. Watching the guys descend, I slowed up, suddenly extremely tired and knowing I wouldn’t be able to keep a fast pace back to the Portal. Rick had offered to lead the guys down the slab route back to Lower Boy Scout Lake, so I looked at him and told him to go ahead, that I would take the old route back down. He cocked his head at me, asked if I was OK. “More than OK,” was my reply. At the base of the chute where the guys rested and dumped out their boots, I checked in with Jim, who knew what I was up to, bumped my fist, and I took off at a run through the remaining scree for the slabs below.
I dunked my head and hat at the upper slabs of Clyde Meadow, tromped down the loose dirt and rocks to Lower Boy Scout Lake. There, on the edge of the meadow, I perched on a rock in the afternoon sun, closed my eyes and felt the sun and breeze on my face for a few soft minutes. A few more tears wet my reddened cheeks, but a deep breath and sigh brought my shoulders back to tall and I stood, running my gaze from Thor’s pointed summit, across Pinnacle Ridge, up to Whitney’s grand face, and north to the Carillon drainage once again. The circle of the day’s travel closed, and with proud strides I made my way back to the Portal.
“Keep reaching for your dreams.”
It’s almost impossible to convey how I felt once this was over. The usual sense of accomplishment, of having tested my strength and will and skills over the course of the Challenge, was definitely present. But there was also an awareness that I had been changed somehow, that a new chapter of my life was beginning. This story, for me, was as intense an endeavor as I had ever undertaken. Born of anger and hurt, the process of training led to the exploration of both those feelings as well as the true meaning of why I run to my hills every chance I get. With as much as I analyzed and thought about those ten days since their conclusion, I kept coming back to the same theme again and again: set a goal; prepare yourself; try to achieve it. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, and the responsibility to train and prepare yourself is your own. I was reminded of my infinitely good fortune of having amazing and giving teachers who unselfishly offered their time and knowledge freely; of my friends and family who offered so much by just being there whenever I needed them, and who unquestioningly allowed me to explore the heights of the mountains and depths of my soul as I prepared myself for the test. There were so many times that I questioned my own motivation for choosing this goal, and just before I left to meet Bob in Yosemite, I finally figured it out:
The Reasons Why.
I go for my mother, lover of the outdoors, of the heights and meadows and flowers and lakes. For places she will never see, if but through my eyes. She asked me early on, “when will I see Tuolumne in winter?” My stride is for her.
I go for my father, so strong yet soft of heart, who taught me to be independent and to stand on my own. Who is terrified for his little girl but wants nothing more than for her to find a passion of her own to lift her high. My deep breath is for him.
I go for my friends, who do me the honor of sharing their love and hearts with me. Who indulge my writing and photos and bring encouragement in difficult times. On whose shoulders I lean while the hardest lessons of life are being taught. My reach is for all of you.
I go for the skies above, from the deepest of azure blue to darkened grey and rumbling, standing vast and unreachable yet gently embracing me as I reach for the heavens from every stance. My vision is for that.
I go for the mountains themselves. Those towers of scree and rock, trees and flowers, running water erupting from springs and tumbling on its happy journey. Providing challenge, humbling my efforts as needed, but welcoming me to their shoulders to play and wonder and dig deep within myself to learn the greatest lessons of all. My heart beats for that.
I go for my soul, that wellspring of confidence and arrogance, that which cannot be quelled by pettiness, bitterness, or jealousy on the part of others. That spirit that keeps my mind focused on what I need to achieve, that keeps my feet lifting and lowering after hours of effort. Finding the strength within that I never knew I had until experiencing cowardice and knowing I never wanted that in my life.
There is a phoenix in us all, waiting, deep in the ashes of our lost expectations, to rise in fury and glory and fire, and lift us into the next chapters of our lives. We each have a choice to bring this star to life, to reach deep within ourselves and experience the supernova of our souls in this time, this place. So many choose to let life pass, each moment floating and fleeting and missed for their opportunities.
I choose to fly.