(Originally published in the Wall Street Journal under the title, Some People Call This Fun. Some People Are Idiots.)
Day 1: It’s 5 a.m. and my friend Eric and I pull into a parking lot at the Mosquito Flat trailhead in the John Muir Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada after four hours of sleep. We’re here to take part in the fifth Sierra Challenge, a peak-bagging marathon: 10 mountains in 10 days. The warm-up day involves a 20-mile hike—about half on a trail, half cross country—and a 6,500-foot elevation gain.
Some people call this fun. Some people are idiots.
The sadist behind the challenge is Bob Burd, a Silicon Valley engineer who started the event on the theory that it would be more of a kick to climb remote mountains in a single push rather than the two or three days that most people spend attaining these peaks. That first year one other person showed up and Bob himself finished only eight out of the 10 peaks. This year more than 40 people signed up to participate in some part of the event, which on most days includes a list of bonus peaks for those who don’t find one summit sufficiently challenging.
Eric and I showed up with the idea of trying to complete all 10 days. Eric and I have a lot of dumb ideas.
On the first morning, 15 people are at the trailhead before dawn and set off with headlamps. After several hours we have to cross the first of several snowfields and then climb up to a col, or a pass, at 13,000 feet. By this time we have long lost sight of Bob’s vanguard group and instead consult the map he had marked, which shows us skirting a lake to the south to gain the start of the climb, another 2,000 feet to the summit of Mount Hilgard (13,361 feet). We follow the map and find ourselves making torturous progress across a boulder field booby-trapped with loose rock and deep patches of snow. The other side of the lake is flat and grassy.
After an hour we realize we are moving much too slowly and decide to turn around. On the other side of the lake we meet Bob and his group, which has just returned from the summit. “You didn’t follow the map, did you?” Bob asks. He tells us he had marked the wrong route on the map, which he immediately realized when he got to the lake.
On the way back it rains repeatedly and we get lost before finally limping to the car.
Elapsed time: 14.5 hours.
Day 2: Driving up to the parking lot for our assault on Merriam Peak, Eric and I notice that his gas tank is on empty and we have no idea if we will be able to get back to town at the end of the day. We turn around to refuel in Bishop and as a result wind up starting an hour later than the main group, around 7 a.m.
We don’t see any of Bob’s group as we hike to Merriam. We stay on the trail too long and approach the peak from the wrong side. We can’t blame Bob for this one. Since it’s getting late and we’re still at least an hour from the bottom of Merriam we decide to climb a smaller peak on the same ridgeline much closer to us. It starts to rain, but the climbing is enjoyable enough. A pleasant 10-hour day but no credit. On Bob’s Web site, our status is marked “DNF,” for Did Not Finish—initials with which we are becoming all too familiar.
Day 3: We decide to catch up on our sleep and snooze until 9 a.m. Then we spend the day drinking espresso and surfing the Internet in a café in Bishop, which are about the only things you can do in Bishop. Late in the afternoon we read Bob’s Web site giving his report on the day’s adventure. Bob had bagged a bonus peak on his way to the day’s objective, Pilot Knob, but turned around before he could reach the summit of the second peak. Eric and I high five each other.
Addendum: One climber gets caught on the descent trail at night without a light and winds up sleeping in the bushes before bumping into Bob in the parking lot for the next day’s challenge. His official time: 23.55 hours.
Day 4: We climb the right peak. The summit is another story. We manage to stay on Bob’s heels up some brutal switchbacks, but he finally dusts us just before a pass. We reach the col in time to see a couple of Bob’s vanguard running down a scree slope toward Mount Mendel. The clouds rising rapidly from the west look threatening and most of the group at the pass decide not to risk summiting in a storm. Eric and I plunge onward toward Mendel. We climb separate routes up a ridge toward what looks like the top. It actually turns out to be the first of a series of towers. Ninety minutes later I’m standing on the last tower before the summit, only a few feet lower, but a long down climb, traverse and climb from the mountain’s apex. It’s 1 p.m., our turn-around time. Eric’s nowhere in sight. I turn around.
Day 5: More espresso. I notice that Bishop has a hand and foot spa.
Day 6: Since we’ve been on the Challenge for almost a week without actually bagging any of the marquee peaks, we figure that maybe what we need is more of a challenge. So Eric and I decide to try to get up today’s peak, Isosceles, by one of its harder routes, a moderate technical climb that will involve lugging rope and gear. We start an hour before the main group and are sitting by a lake when they race past at 9 a.m. We’re sitting at the lake because it wasn’t until we got to the base of the peak that we realized there are two summits, the higher east one that Bob and his group are heading up, and the west one that Eric and I were supposed to climb. Will Bob give us credit if we don’t climb the same summit?
Eventually we head up the southwest buttress, which turns out to be easy climbing, no need for the rope or any of the gear we’ve hauled for seven miles. When we get to the summit we see that Bob and some of his group have already climbed the ridge to the even higher bonus peak. And, of course, they beat us back to the car as well.
That night Bob throws a barbeque at the motel pool and gives us credit for our first peak. We’re one for six. And the margaritas are good.
Day 7: Technically there are four more days to go, including the masochistic finale, Junction Peak, which involves a 25-mile hike and an 8,600-foot elevation gain. But a convenient work crisis calls Eric back to San Francisco. I briefly consider trying to find another ride back to the Bay Area or renting a car. Then I remember that I’ll miss a root-canal appointment if I finish the challenge. I’m in the car faster than I’ve moved all week.