If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all
-William Bell and Booker T. Jones
So one of my coworkers showed up to work in his motor-home and he's very drunk. He parked on a slight incline and decided to get another beer out of his fridge before entering the building. (He was actually on vacation that evening and so not on duty. He just wanted to wish us a happy New Year.) Anyway, he must have forgotten to put it in 'park' and to set the brake, because while he was fetching his beer, the huge vehicle rolled backward down the incline and across the parking lot. It missed several other cars and zeroed in on my VW van which was parked several dozen feet away in front of a low ivy-covered berm that separated our parking lot from the street.
The low speed impact knocked my van (which did have the brake set and was probably in gear) up over a curb and about 10 or 15 feet up onto the ivy-covered berm. When Drunken Friend staggered out of the driver's door- beer in hand and oblivious to what he had done- he was surprised that he wasn't where he thought he had parked, so he climbed back in and drove back up across the parking lot and somehow managed to set the brake this time.
A short time later, one of my other coworkers came up to me and asked why I'd parked my van up in the ivy. I smiled at him trying to understand the joke. He pointed outside and there it was- my VW van sitting up on that slightly raised ivy covered berm next to the street. What the...??? At first I thought that someone was playing a practical joke on me, but it would have been out of character for any of my coworkers to do something like this. We walked over and saw a vertical crease-like dent running from the rear bumper to the top of the van. The rear window was crazed with cracks. Shit! Someone must have hit it! A hit and run? At work?
We looked around and saw Drunken Friend's motor-home sitting at the top of an incline near the building. There was an aluminum ladder attached to the back for accessing the roof. The lower half was smashed in- a perfect match for the dent on the back of my van.
Drunken Friend was in denial at first, but the evidence was pretty overwhelming. Eventually, the truth leaked in through his alcohol addled braincells and he became very apologetic and offered to pay for all damages. He begged me not to involve any insurance companies. As a friend and coworker, I naively agreed. In hindsight, I wish that I'd called his insurance company and the police. (How would I have felt if he killed someone on his way home that night?) The a-hole never did make good on his promise to pay all damages. What a knucklehead!
I got in my van, started her up and reversed down out of the ivy and back onto the asphalt. It seemed to run okay, but what about the rear door? I opened it and it seemed to be functional, but when I shut it, the rear window shattered inward sending nuggets of safety glass all over my climbing gear. Shit!
You see, I was planning to leave from work at the end of my shift for the eastern Sierra; my 'xth' winter attempt on Mount Whitney. The weather forecast for that New Years weekend was flawless, and just to increase my chances of a successful trip, I even added one of my vacation days to the three day weekend to make it four days. Plenty of time to complete this adventure... But, now it seemed that all that good weather was going to be wasted!
A broom and a shop vac appeared. My coworkers to the rescue! They knew how important these mountain trips were to me and they were happy to help out. Once the broken glass was cleaned up, a piece of double thick corrugated was found and cut to the exact size for the empty rear opening where my window once was. We wrapped the cardboard with plastic shrink film and used duct tape to secure it in place.
It didn't look pretty, but it seemed solid enough. There would be a lot of freeway driving on this trip- about 400 miles or so from San Jose to Lone Pine via Walker Pass. How would this thing taped to my rear hatch hold up under all those 65 to 70 mile per hour speeds? Only one way to find out...
The flapping and rattling of the thing taped to my rear window made for a long noisy trip, but it was still there when I arrived at the Inyo National Forest Ranger Station in Lone Pine sometime after sunrise. After securing a Wilderness Permit, I stepped out of the Ranger Station and paused in wonder at the incredible sight of the two mile high crest of jagged snow covered mountains rising to the east: The eastern Sierra Nevada escarpment. It was hard for me to breath, but not from the altitude. (I was still only about 3,000 feet above sea level.) My heart and soul is here. I absolutely love this region of mountain and desert.
Eastern Sierra Nevada from near Lone Pine.
Mount Langley looms up beyond Rattlesnake Mountain.
Eventually, after a few stops along Whitney Portal Road for some photo ops, I reached the top of the massive Owens Valley alluvium at the base of the Sierra. A huge dirt turnout on the north side of Whitney Portal Road made an ideal spot to leave my van while I began the hiking part of my journey.
My van parked next to Whitney Portal Road.
I began pulling the gear out of the van (dutifully picking up a couple stray nuggets of safety glass that had fallen from my backpack onto the ground). Ice ax, double boots, crampons, water bottles... but, wait. I found one bottle... where was the other one? My mind immediately flashed on my Nalgene bottle sitting upside down in the dish drying rack in my kitchen 400 miles away. Drat!
Should I go back down to Lone Pine and buy a new one? Yeah, I should. I realized that even carrying only two bottles was kind of borderline inadequate, but I had a pretty good water management routine. But, one bottle??? I knew that staying hydrated in the winter was very important, but it was already much later than I'd planned for starting this long hike. I hefted my heavy pack up onto my shoulders and started hiking up the hill. I guessed winter water management was going to be a little extra tricky on this trip with only a single bottle.
As I left the car, I thought that it was strange that mine was the only vehicle parked there. This was on the cusp of a three day holiday weekend at the foot of the highest mountain in the state and, as promised, the weather was excellent. Am I really the only one in the world who had the idea of climbing here this weekend? The road was signed as closed but not gated. I wondered if other climbers had driven on up and parked at the Portal itself. (Nope, later I found no other cars parked up there.) Maybe there were avalanche issues? I had checked at the ranger station and snow conditions were 'stable'. This was a bit of a mystery that I still wonder about to this day.
Whatever... On with the hike!
The Big Push...
The views were spectacular and the hike up the road to the first switchback would have been a lot more enjoyable if my hips and shoulders weren't hurting so much from my heavy pack. I always seemed to oversupply myself in the winter- especially when soloing. Oh, well. If Norman Clyde could do it with much heavier packs, then why was I complaining? Anyway I knew from experience that eventually, my body would adjust to the burden and the pain would mostly disappear.
Boulder and sand on Whitney Portal Road.
Winter ice on the road bed.
Huge boulders had rolled down from the heights and rested upon the roadbed here and there. There were significant stretches where ice sheets had formed on the asphalt forcing me to hike on the sandy shoulder of the road- weaving through the chaparral.
A raven surveys his Owens Valley territory.
Looking up toward the first switchback.
As I approached the first switchback, I spotted a car speeding up the highway below. It zipped past the turnout where my van was and I was astonished to realize that it was coming on up the road. It was an ordinary blue passenger sedan. I could finally see it coming very fast up the icy section where I had had trouble walking without slipping- even in my lug soled climbing boots. There were several people inside whooping and hollering out the open windows as the heavy vehicle nearly skidded out of control on the slick ice.
Looking back at my tiny van (just right of center).
As they passed me, they were yelling incomprehensible stuff out the windows- maybe at me. I don't know. I raised my hand in kind of a weak wave and I saw a couple of half-assed waves in return. I'm pretty sure that at least one of them flipped me off as well. Loud laughter was heard over the roar of the engine as the heavy vehicle continued on its way up the steep grade. Shit. They seemed like a dangerous lot and they reminded me of the Manson Family or maybe of a bunch of cons who'd just been released from doing hard time.
They tore wildly around the curve of the switchback and, yelling crazily, gunned the engine as they continued up the hill toward the Portal. I took a couple of pictures of the Owens Valley at the curve and reluctantly followed them up the hill. It seemed that another encounter with these fools was inevitable on this dead end road.
Owens Valley and White Mountain Peak (center).
Looking up beyond the first switchback.
The road became snow covered just beyond the switchback. Up ahead, not surprisingly, I could see the blue sedan in the middle of the road- their engine revving and tires spinning uselessly in the snow. They seemed to be quite stuck. Normally, I probably would have laughed to myself at these 'flat-landers' getting what they deserved, but this time I felt a bit of dread. Should I offer to help these people? Normally, I would, but they seemed kind of scary and I really didn't want to become involved with them.
By the time I reached them they'd given up trying to free their car from the snow. The car doors were open and a couple of them were sitting on the seats, feet in the snow. A couple of others where on the trunk. Smoking cigarettes. They weren't laughing or yelling now. All were staring at me as I slowly lumbered toward them. I was very creeped out.
I greeted them with another weak wave as I hiked toward them, “Howdy.”
I heard someone answer my greeting with an unenthusiastic, “Hey.” The others just stared. Usually, I would never hesitate to stop and help a stranded motorist, but I was just a bit too weirded out by these people and their somewhat menacing nature. I just wanted to put as much distance as possible between them and me.
But then a small voice in my head set off an alarm. “You'll probably be safe, but what about your van? You know. The one sitting down there all by itself with the cardboard window.” Shit!
I stopped and took a deep breath before turning back toward them. “Need any help?”
They were three seemingly able-bodied men and a couple of women. They could have easily gotten out of this situation themselves. Why didn't they? Dave (my partner) and I used to get ourselves out of worse predicaments than this.
One of the men shrugged, “Yeah. Sure.” His tone made it seem like he was doing me a favor.
I let my pack down in the snow, grabbed my camp snow shovel and walked back to them. Their large heavy car was facing uphill- the snow was almost halfway up the wheels.
“Maybe we could put some gravel and rocks behind each rear wheel for traction,” I suggested as I began digging through the snow into the road cut for granite gravel and small rocks. I'd done this routine a few times before. It's not rocket science.
After a short time, with minimal help from these losers, each rear tire had a bed of coarse gravel and rocks to aid in traction. All they had to do was slowly ease the vehicle backwards onto the rocks and use the acquired momentum to reverse down hill and out of the snow. Usually a simple and effective solution. But...
The driver got behind the wheel and punched the accelerator while we prepared to push. The wheels spun uselessly spraying the carefully placed gravel all over our legs. One of the guys got the worst of it and let off an impressive burst of swears and f-bombs toward the driver- which was returned with more of the same. Were they going to fight? Geez. Everyone else laughed, much to the driver's anger. Normally, I would have thought this was pretty funny too, but I needed to get going! I decided to speak up, “Maybe you could just ease down on the gas very slowly. We'll push and do the rest.” A small voice in my head warned me, “Don't antagonize these clowns.”
“Shit! Whatever...” He glared at me and slammed his fist into the steering wheel. What was his problem? Anger and stupidity- a dangerous combo.
This time we (the two men and I- the women stayed in the backseat.) pushed as he steadily applied pressure to the gas pedal. The wheels once again spun around in the snow kicking up the rocks and gravel we'd just replaced.
“Goddammit!” I whispered and gave an extra hard push. My foot slipped on the snow and I barely noticed a small 'twinge' in my lower back as the damn thing finally began to move onto the gravel and started slowly backing down the hill gaining some momentum.
The two guys easily caught up with it and jumped into the open doors as it rolled backward down the hill. There wasn't a single word of 'thanks', but I didn't care. They were going, going, gone. I had pulled the thorn out of the lion's paw (I hoped). When they were nearly off the snow, (and out of earshot) I said loudly what had been on my mind the whole time: “Geez, what a bunch of f**king morons!”
There they go! "Goodbye, A-Holes!"
I limped (why was I limping?) over to the edge of the road overlooking Owens Valley- hoping to see their progress and my van. I couldn't see where I'd parked, but, after several suspenseful minutes, I finally saw their car- a tiny blue dot barreling down the road past the campground towards Lone Pine.
“IDIOTS!!” I yelled. How brave was I?
I was alone again. Thank goodness.
Looking down at the Owens Valley shortly after my encounter.
Winter snow on Whitney Portal Road.
I limped back to my heavy backpack laying in the snow in the middle of the road. My back was hurting. Why? Then I remembered that little twinge I'd felt while pushing the car. Great! I wasn't sure how this was going to play out. I hoped that I could pick up my pack again. I tried some stretching exercises. I pushed and pulled and touched my toes several times. Still the pain lingered. I bent my knees and somehow I was able to pick up my pack and swing it onto my shoulders. The pain wasn't too bad. I began to walk. It was bearable. I decided to continue up toward the Portal and Mount Whitney.
The road was already mostly in the shadows as I started heading up. Daylight was precious and short-lived at this time of year and I'd just wasted a significant amount of it. Damn. But the views of the desert and mountains were spectacular and I soon began to forget about my recent problems and I became enveloped by the soothing rhythms of hiking while I continued up the snow covered road.
Looking up at Mount Thor and Mount Whitney from below the Portal.
I had originally planned to camp at Bighorn Park that first night, but circumstances more or less compelled me to alter my plans and camp at Whitney Portal instead. Sticking with my original plan would have forced me to set up camp in the dark- something I really hated doing. Good thing I extended the three day holiday to four days by using a vacation day. I could still continue up to Trail Camp tomorrow, climb to the summit the next day and hike out the day after that. No problem as long as the weather held. ...And as long as I didn't have anymore weird incidents.
Zoom to Telescope Peak in the distance; Owens Lake below.
Approaching Whitney Portal
Looking up at cliffs above Whitney Portal.
Looking east from near Whitney Portal.
I arrived at Whitney Portal with only an hour or so of precious sunlight remaining. Actually, the sun itself was already long gone behind the towering cliffs and ridges that enclose this small pocket in the mountains. There was a lot of snow on the ground and I easily found a suitable flat area for my tent somewhat close to the trail head. I was probably camping in the parking lot of the store. Setting up my tent was no small feat. I never realized just how much bending over there is to pitching a tent until my back injury brought it to my attention.
I brushed the snow off of a flat rock near my tent to set my Coleman 'Peak One' stove on and began the usual routine of boiling water for dinner and evening coffee. My back was still hurting, but I seemed to be able to function and, at last, I was actually enjoying myself. The views of the surrounding cliffs and across the Owens Valley to the Inyo Mountains, still lit by the sun, were sublime.
Snow-capped boulders near Whitney Portal.
Late afternoon sun on cliffs above Whitney Portal.
It was already dusk after I'd eaten and cleaned everything up. Earlier, I'd found a safe access spot next to the creek where I could fill my water bottle and cooking pot. Not having to melt snow for water is a luxury. I sat on the snow for a final bottle refill just prior to turning in for the night.
I twisted the top off and set it on the snow next to me. Painfully I bent over toward the creek to fill the bottle. As I did, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. It was the lid from the bottle sliding past me toward the creek. It was upside down sliding on the frozen surface of the snow like a saucer sled. I lunged for it and was rewarded with a sharp twinge of pain from my lower back. The lid plopped into the creek and was quickly carried a short distance downstream to where it disappeared forever (well, until spring, that is...) under a snowbank.
I struggled to my feet staring at the snowbank realizing that the lid was irretrievable. I twisted and turned my back muscles trying to relieve this latest assault of pain that I was experiencing. Oh, well. Just a lid. I'll just replace the bottle when I get home. Probably only about $1.25 at Western Mountaineering. But...
...How was I going to store and carry water without it splashing all over me and my gear as I hiked? How was I going to keep it from freezing at night? On previous winter trips, I found that by putting my water bottles beneath my sleeping bag under my knees at night prevented them from freezing, but now that was certainly out of the question. How was I going to resolve this? Think, think... THINK!
...But I couldn't think. I was tremendously fatigued, a bit stressed out and my back wouldn't stop aching. Shit! I was on the verge of admitting defeat. I rummaged through my pack looking for some kind of solution. I found a heavy duty rubber band that I was using to hold my tent stakes together in a bundle. Hmmmm. I dug out an extra plastic food bag. Maybe.. maybe... I covered the top of the bottle with the food bag and stretched the rubber band around the threads- holding the plastic bag in place. I tipped the bottle to test the seal. Drip, drip, drip... Well, I won't be putting this under my sleeping bag at night, but this will work to help keep water from splashing out while hiking. I hoped.
That night, I managed to resolve the issue of keeping the water from spilling while keeping it from freezing. I removed the inner felt liner from one of my double boots and placed the bottle upright inside the plastic outer shell. I was able to wedge the plastic shell with the water bottle in it between my body and my backpack inside my tent. As long as I didn't toss and turn too much, it seemed like it would work. But, would this keep the water from freezing?
It did! Barely. The next morning, there was a little ice that had formed around the top of the bottle and there seemed to be a thin ice layer lining the inside of the bottle. I had to be very careful with the rubber band since the cold may make it brittle enough to break. I just needed this to work for just a few more days...
The next section of my journey. Looking above Whitney Portal.
My back was still aching, but the morning was glorious as I broke camp. This is what I lived for. Any thoughts of retreating were banished by my strong desire to continue upwards.
The snow was perfect for snowshoeing. It was quite deep and it had just the right consistency. The morning sun seemed to make the mountains glow with a brilliant internal light. I was pretty ecstatic. I kept marveling at the fact that I had all this to myself. How could this be?
If only... My back injury wasn't debilitating, but it kept nagging me. I had to stop fairly frequently and twist it a bit left and right. I pushed my lower back in with my hands and arched backwards. I tried touching my toes. None of these exercises were easy while carrying a heavy winter backpack. But it felt like it would be normal again if only I could get it to 'pop'. It wouldn't pop, though. It just kept on nagging me. Ai yi yi...
Soon the trail became lost under the snow and travel became essentially cross country. I climbed up a long steep open slope below Thor Peak aiming for a huge boulder. The slope was dotted with occasional trees sticking up out of the snow, so I hoped that the snow was somewhat anchored and relatively safe from sliding. I took a short break at the boulder where I ate some snacks and did my bending and stretching routines to try and relieve the pain in my back.
Climbing the slopes below Thor Peak.
Looking down from the boulder.
Shit, how I cursed those idiots in the blue car. ...And myself for acquiring such an idiotic back injury... and for forgetting my second water bottle at home... and for losing the lid for the one bottle that I had... and for parking where I did to get hit my my drunken idiot coworker. I cursed my bad luck.
Soon, my break was over and it was time for the somewhat painful process of picking up my hefty backpack and continuing up. To paraphrase Muir: It was time to get the good tidings of the mountains and let my troubles fall away like autumn leaves. Right? Besides, what else could go wrong?
I just had to ask, didn't I?
The angle of the snow slope eases up after passing Lone Pine Lake and I was quite impressed by the wild beauty of this section in the winter. I even forgot about the pain in my back as I became enraptured by this alpine wonderland. I was climbing through virgin snow with only the occasional tracks of small animals to mark the snow surface around me.
Virgin snow beyond Lone Pine Lake.
Snowfield below Bighorn Park
It was near the end of this long relatively level stretch that I began to notice that one of my snowshoes seemed to be coming loose. Every time I took a step, it would come off the snow at an odd angle and I kept having to adjust my foot angle in relation to the snowshoe after bringing it back down. These modified steps weren't doing my back any good, so I decided to stop and tighten my bindings.
I discovered that the bindings were plenty tight, but there was another problem. (Sigh...) The oversized square washers that hold my detachable snowshoe crampons in place had worn through the neoprene snowshoe webbing. Unfortunately, the broken webbing was not only the part that most of my weight rests on, but it was also the part that my bindings are attached to. At the moment, there seemed to be very little I could do to repair this. Bighorn Park lay just over a small rise, so I decided to continue on.
A view of Wotan's Throne above Bighorn Park.
A wintery view of Bighorn Park.
The luxury of unfrozen water in Bighorn Park in the winter.
View looking east from my camp at Bighorn Park
I found a nice flat section of snow near the eastern lip of Bighorn Park to camp on. The site promised a nice view of the Owens Valley and maybe a bit more direct sunlight in the afternoon. As before, I found that pitching my tent was a painful process with my back injury, but somehow I managed.
During my late afternoon ritual of boiling water for dinner and coffee, I thought about how I was going to repair my snowshoe. Maybe I could weave some of my nylon cord through the damaged area and reposition the binding. I stood to retrieve the nylon cord from my backpack. As I did so, a burst of pain compelled me to sit back down and make a slower, more careful attempt to stand. This was the moment when the message finally sunk into my thick stubborn skull:
This trip was over.
Except for the hike back to the car, that is. What a relief! Allowing myself to quit was one of the kindest things I've ever done for myself. I could now really enjoy the rest of the short evening gazing across the Owens Valley to the Inyo Mountains glowing red with evening alpine glow- my hands wrapped around the cup holding my hot drink. The pressure was off. Sometimes it's nice to enjoy the mountains without the stress and effort induced by my compelling need to climb them.
After the sun set, I struggled into my sleeping bag for a long restful sleep. I knew Mount Whitney would still be there the next time the opportunity presented itself. Hopefully, I would be better prepared and somewhat wiser... Oh, and maybe a little luckier too.
The Close Encounter...
In the morning, I struggled painfully out of my sleeping bag and ate a simple breakfast of granola and powdered milk with coffee. Overnight, the sky had filled with a layer of high thin clouds. This would have had me concerned if I hadn't been leaving anyway.
Morning view from near my camp.
View of Owens Valley from near Bighorn Park.
I made that attempt to repair my snowshoe that I'd thought of the day before, by using some thin nylon cord to bypass the damaged webbing. I also tried to secure the broken neoprene webbing ends to prevent them from unraveling anymore than they already had.
Then came the most painful part of all: Picking up my still heavy pack and swinging it onto my shoulders. Somehow I managed it and began my bittersweet retreat to my van far below. It was a long way to limp and wince. I repeatedly found myself wishing that I had turned back at Whitney Portal the day before. I had known that the chances of my back getting better during the course of this trip were nonexistent, but 'mountain fever' is 'mountain fever'.
Looking back at Thor Peak.
There were no new issues or problems to plague me on the long hike back other than the makeshift repair on my snowshoes needed tightening or adjusting from time to time. I was able to remove them altogether once I was a short distance past the Portal. Hiking in my own tracks or someone's old ski tracks helped to keep the post holing to a minimum.
Panorama of Owens Lake and the distant Panamint Mountains.
Eventually, I made it back to my van by late morning. I was relieved to find the cardboard rear window intact and the van untouched.
Surprisingly, by the time I returned, my back didn't hurt so much, but maybe it was because I was distracted by the pain in my feet. I wasn't quite used to those rather stiff and unyielding double boots that I sometimes used in the winter.
Since I still had another day left before I had to return to work, I decided to spend my last night camping in the Lone Pine Campground. I drove into town and picked up some fresh food and beverages and returned up the road to pick out a spot. I was the only one in the entire campground, so I got to be really choosy and found a nice spot at the eastern end.
Inyo Mountains from Lone Pine Campground
Southern Owens Valley from Lone Pine Campground
I enjoyed a superb meal- sort of a consolation for my failed attempt on Whitney. Burgers, salad and plenty of cold beer. Yum! The sunset was magnificent (no surprise). I consoled my somewhat damaged ego with memories of successful trips up some of the other peaks in the region. What a nice ending to a rather unpleasant trip, but I still had one more trial to face...
I set out my sleeping bag under the stars (easier and less painful on my back than setting up my tent). After I laid down for some much needed sleep, I heard something scratching and touching my cooking stuff which was nearby. A squirrel? Or a mouse?
I decided to scare the curiosity out of it by suddenly sitting up in my sleeping bag and giving a loud yell. This I did, but when I was about halfway through my terrifying yell, I saw that it wasn't a mouse or a squirrel after all. In the moonlight, it was easy to see the broad white stripe that ran down its back. What started out as a loud yell morphed into a loud expletive as I dove back down into my sleeping bag.
Surprisingly, the skunk didn't spray me and it seemed to have been scared off, so I shrugged feeling pretty lucky and laid back down to sleep. Mission accomplished.
Just as I was drifting off, something suddenly leaped up onto my stomach. SHIT! I jumped up in time to see its stripped tail disappear into the nearby brush. Maybe I watched too many cartoons for my age, but I swear I could sense that it was giggling. For god's sake! Are you kidding me?! This wasn't doing my back much good. I picked up my sleeping gear and placed it onto the top of the picnic table and carefully crawled in. Surely I'll be safe up there, right?
Wrong! As soon as I started to nod off, the damn thing jumped up and sat on my stomach again! Ever hear of such a thing? I almost rolled off of the table in surprise. Geez! I gave up. I rearranged my gear inside my van and spread my sleeping bag out in the rear (still finding the occasional safety glass nugget). That's where I spent the rest of the night- curled up in that cramped space. At least I wasn't bothered by critters for the rest of the night, but oh my back!
Zoom to Mount Whitney from Lone Pine Campground.
It was a long depressing drive home the next day- made all the more depressing by the great weather that seemed to be lasting much longer than predicted. Figures! If only a major winter storm had come up to help justify my failure. One last (and ironic) bit of bad luck...
In retrospect, I've had many trips where I've experienced some extraordinarily good luck- almost beyond belief. I guess the law of averages demands a bit of bad luck once in a while.
My dented and windowless van after returning home.