Skypilot And the Wild Kingdom – A Mt. Whitney Day Hike

Why not? Jim is an engineer at one of the companies I put in a lot of time at. About a month ago he asked about my past experience climbing Mt. Whitney, which I tackled 24 years ago with a good friend. Excited to share stories of time spent and the challenge of higher elevation, we had a good conversation. In the process he offered me his second pass to climb that wall of uplifted granite with him on August 30th, 2018. This being a mere 8 days before my planned journey of self-immolation at Tahoe 200 with Rebekah on September 7, I jumped at the chance to poke my sea-leveled red blood cells into early action in a sort of…taper tantrum last hurrah; a day long hike into the sky. R and I have climbed and run a few peaks this year, I’ve climbed Whitney before. Why not?

Planning was easy with a gear bag en guard with arm warmers and body glide, two thicknesses gloves and bars and buffs and a host of other accouterments always at the grab, and I employed a laid-back approach; Jim had done the paperwork (thank you Jim!!). As actual altitude went, with Rebekah and I having pushed our sea-level selves at Bishop High Sierra 100K in early June – where we spent the entire race at altitude with hours above 8K and a tap at 9,300 feet, before camping Tuolumne for a double summit of Mt. Dana at 13,000 feet in early July…my day-long volunteer session at Diamond Peak for Tahoe Rim Trail 50 while Rebekah ran the race, and our day-trip get-away where we traced the West side of Fallen Leaf Lake after a difficult scramble to the 9,700 foot summit of Mt. Tallac and down the backside to the West as we filtered from lakes and streams, Whitney seemed entirely plausible. The only additional planning involved water, as the Life Straw we used at Tallac took way too long to use in a race, so I planned to test-tap the Creek with the Steri-Pen I would use at T200, in case my 1.5L reservoir and two soft flasks came up short.

Special like nowhere else Working up to the evening before travel to Lone Pine leaves me with finite hours to pack and load, and I elect for 5 hours sleep to be up at 4 for final prep. Sleep? I’ll sleep tomorrow night, I think. The drive south from Pacifica is a race against rush hour, and after avoiding my worst rear-ending accident ever by inches in heavy stop and go in South San Jose, I make a run for it to I-5 tedium soothed by anticipation and the flow of music as I visualize a good hike to the nearest top of the world. With that eventual turn to the East along Hwy 58 and the climb past the wind turbines of Tehachapi, things start to get real…and when the heat increases and the Joshua trees appear and all is 14 before 395, with slowly rising granite on the left, it becomes undeniable: I can taste it again – adventure is close.

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Hot and bothered on the way to adventure

Speeding through the heat, I cue that originative first Bon Iver disc that narrated my journey through Carolina countrysides in years past, and pair its jangly emotional desolation with the stark volcanic beauty that is the Eastern Sierra, and eventually approach the turn to Death Valley – the inhospitable pit that forever changed my life when I was standing at the finish of my first trail marathon at the foot of Titus Canyon and Rebekah crossed at her finish practically right into me, and we first laid eyes on each other. And this near day-trip now resonates with memory and deep emotion; what is it about this part of the world, with its undeniable life-changing center of gravity?

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LP Lone Pine is stuck in time for me, but now with better cell reception. Same streets, a few different signs, same heat. Jim and his wife are cool when I finally make their little AirBandB. Backpackers of decades, Jane is now unable to withstand the stress of altitude, and they welcome me with gratitude that Jim will have a partner up in space.

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Enjoying the generosity of sharing their place, I am up until a bit after 9P.M., packing and repacking what I think I will need for the day, and with the alarm scheduled for 12:00 A.M., I finally do the math on the inside of my eye lids when I hit the pull-out: 8 hours sleep in 2 days? So what, I rationalize, I’ve gone 35-40 hours without sleep during and after a couple of races, and T200 has a 100 hour cut-off with maybe a few hours shut-eye possible, and if I can’t climb one rock on little sleep, I have no business toeing the line next Friday. But when the midnight alarm reaches into the void of my subconscious to pull me from REM, it does hurt, and brings with it a slight headache. At 1:00 A.M. I open the door before we head out, and it is a balmy 73 degrees. I surmise that with a sunny forecast we will see a warm day up top like the last time I did this, and I ditch my long sleeved shirt and shell for short sleeve with arm warmers and gloves in sleep-deprived faith in my preferred outcome. And when we finally enter the wooden frame of the portal illuminated by our headlamps at 8,360 feet at 2:00 A.M. in 60 degree air, I have high hopes for a good push at sunrise.

A hike with Mr. marsh One of the things I enjoy most about people, is their stories. As we make our way on the first leg of our journey in the dark, Jim shares about some of the backpacking trips he and Jane used to do, and I share stories of being raised by wolves. Eventually stories of Jim’s grandfather’s experiences in World War 2 spill forth as we climb into a night sky made the darkest shade of grey by a moon only a little more than half full. Jim’s stories of his grandfather are amazing and told with reverence, and I know he respects his grand dad as I do mine, still missed in reflection years after his passing. As Jim speaks of past exploits, his narrative nearly causes me to stop the hike twice in surprise as we ascend slowly at 17-20 pace and I ask him to repeat himself: He shares that after his granddad was captured as a result of a suicide mission at the Battle of the Bulge, where his C-O was ordered to remain in position as the germans closed in on 3 sides, he had to endure a death march that went on for weeks afterward. With little more than scraps and nearly no water, his grandfather endured hell, slowly watching his comrades drop one by one, some executed if they fell down or if they passed out from exhaustion. Jim offers that sometimes the difference between life and death for the captives was a single sugar cube thrown at them by the Germans. I stifle the urge to offer what I know about sucrose and glucose during an 80-mile shuffle; there is no comparison between an endurance event I have happily signed up for and marching to death at the end of the barrel of a gun. And suddenly my ideas of what tough is become a farce. 100 miles? 200? That’s a walk in the park.

As we climb we experience fluctuations in temperature as we move across intermittent open ravines or open expanses that allow colder air to sink past us, or as we cross streams along rocks and logs, where water radiates cold like an open fridge. I am in shorts with a race shirt, arm warmers, gloves, a cap, and a buff around my neck. This is okay to now, but begins to raise questions as icy winds descend now and again and prompt doubt: really, do I have any idea how it will be up there? It feels about 9,000 feet when groups or short lines of backpackers and hikers begin to move up behind us. We stop each time, courteously, and I begin to get antsy. We greet all with warm hellos, and as I stand there, sometimes for a minute or two, it becomes clear I have underestimated my need for layers and the inner voice begins to silently ask the obvious questions. As we hike along a stream for a while I try a little change on the fly and begin the fight to remove my warmer gear from my pack without stopping; I don’t want to slow Jim down any more than he wants to. The Houdini pants I bought for T200 are easy and durable, and I go for those first and pull them over my shorts, but if you can picture a guy holding his poles and pack while pulling his pants on and hopping on one leg in a flurry of dust and grunts while hikers approach him from behind because he refuses to stop, you might grasp the seriousness – and silliness of my want to keep us moving. This kind of feels like peeing while walking backward in a race so that your pace doesn’t drop to zero, and is silly and is a pain in the ass, but it works. Later I’m grateful for the effort spent on that extra layer as colder air rushes past us from miles above. Eventually, 20, 30 pass us. I wish them well. I share with a few that I will see them later, and finally, at the first hint of light and exactly 3 hours after we first depart, Jim cuts me loose for the climb of my recent life.

Fire In The Sky My headlamp illuminates my little world in that yellow halo of flat light. Rocks, the decreasing poke of roots as I move higher, and endless turns force lunges and leaps over and around and keep me constantly moving and breathing unlike the earlier slow hike up to my 10,000 foot launchpad. Left ankle tendons remind me of the 90 mile week I peaked my training with in reason that if I can’t run 20+ miles with 3,000+ feet of gain on each of four consecutive days after work and commute, I have no business toeing the line at Homewood on September 7th; of course, doubts of that logic prairie-dog now and again as I compensate my foot strike and push, with each sharp signal: when is any of this ever enough; when is it ever too much? Slightly dizzy now in a creeping, near-drunk haze with surging chemistry and low O2 as I approach those who last passed Jim and I further down the mountain, I respectfully either back off the push and wait for wider expanses to pass on the narrow outside shoulder with a cheerful hello, or offer a request to pass, announcing “with respect, on your left, when you’re ready”, and everyone is cool, if a little puzzled by the now-animated guy who earlier shuffled along further down trail. A slowly brightening sky begins to add depth to a widening world, and I intermittently steal glances out and away, which awakens me from fuzzy, half-conscious flow, and although the climb is relentless I feel powerful except for my constant breath: I can’t quite catch it.

Higher altitude for someone who spends 99+% of his life at sea level is odd; the math doesn’t work. That intermittent feeling of half-empty lungs that forces you to pull in the odd, extra breath in search of satiety, as if 1+1+1 now equals only 2, is unnatural. That you reach for that extra 3rd in an unconscious act before you suddenly notice it is underway, illuminates the amazing ability of the machine to compensate for nearly anything. Add that every so often now I feel an unfamiliar burn in my legs, which are heavier, like I’m trying to run up this never ending climb, which I am definitely NOT, and a sense of elsewhere permeates the entire effort: intermittently, I pull back to a more deliberate hike on these endless stairs. My exchanges with hikers are varied, with people today visiting from other states and other states of mind, two pair from San Diego, a few accents I can’t pin down, each with varying degrees of oxygen depletion: see enthusiasm. Eventually I pass all whom I stood aside for earlier, bristling with that satisfaction from somewhere within that drives me to do silly, competitive things like race and step outside of my comfort zone.

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First diffuse light

As I approach Trail camp through the diffuse gloom, I spot the first real flat below the lake and the approach to the 99 switchbacks. Now-visible towering granite teeth loom in the distance that are my goal, with trees having long-ago disappeared in the darkness somewhere below. And with split-second reason in a reach through increasing light-headedness, I break into a low-key trot past the few backpackers awake outside their tents who sit watching, unblinking at the brightening sky, as if riches will rain down upon them. The jog is real effort now after I have already processed that my legs had intermittently begun to radiate heaviness like wooden blocks maybe 500 feet below, indicating a lactic burn I never feel back home except during all-out runs, but now it is everything, and suddenly I am mortal and in my skin again and slightly weak as I consciously look for the end of the runway; in humble reflection, I ask: what the hell happened?! 

Deliberate now. Trail camp sits at 12,000 feet, below the infamous 99 or 97 switchbacks, depending on whom you read (I counted 97 as I studied a topo map, but whatever). 12,000 feet had earlier this year felt fine, but today is definitely something more, leaving this mortal man to make mental adjustments after forming now-crazy opinions from reading of FKTs and one guy’s sub-4 hour departure, summit, and return to the portal. Up to now, I have moved relentlessly but with decreasing pace as those intermittent 1+1+1 breaths have morphed into a constant rasp with no hint of the in-2/out-3 timing I try to maintain on runs at sea level. And I just put my head down to watch my strike and step because, oh man, if I TURN an ankle one week before Tahoe, my wife and race partner will freaking KILL me. And I ignore the brightening sky as I approach and unconsciously begin the ascent of the switchbacks.

“Oh my god, it’s so beautiful!!” I hear from above. This snaps me out of a trance of focus on the ground as I make my way upslope. My inner voice offers: what the hell happened to you, superman? Climbing out of the depths of my head to focus on what one could call the reality of the moment, I look up to see 5 guys further up the switchbacks I am suddenly aware I must have been climbing for a while now; I am a hundred or so feet above Trail Camp. The guys above murmur amongst themselves, their voices oscillating like waves that drift off into the infinite space that is our shared sliver of high-Sierra reality. As focus sharpens and I widen the perspective of my surroundings, I am now abruptly forced to reckon

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Fire ignites

with what grounds and motivates me in my life and especially on the trails, in one of those sweet moments of awareness that transcend the everyday and our modern, disconnected culture, and which lend meaning to breath and toil. And I turn now to see the sky on fire, and begin to laugh out loud in raw emotion, and everything suddenly makes sense – who I am, what I am doing to myself working so hard to climb into a sky suddenly burning with color and the energy that lends life to the near-Martian surface I have been methodically scaling for hours now. This is real, this is LIFE. This is what I live for.

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Moving again with purpose, I approach the group and hear of Chicago and North Carolina and SF when I ask, that they left at midnight, and six hours later have also seen something amazing halfway up the 99 switchbacks. After pleasantries I push on, and now my head throbs, which has never happened before at elevation and briefly scares me, considering what is on tap for September. And as I ponder again my vulnerabilities, just like that, the light changes, and

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color now leaves the world as if the plug has been pulled from a cosmic outlet by an unseen hand as the sun begins to rise into Westerly clouds to my east, leaving me to cast my minds eye in search of the sweet fire that now only barely sets the rock alight below me and above Trail Camp. And it’s suddenly colder, and with a shiver I move to jump into second gear to stoke the fire and reclaim momentum lost to altitude. And it’s no use. Every so often I stop, breathing, questioning my logic in charging so hard. What has changed? Is it the lack of sleep, 8 hours over two days? Maybe. The altitude? Rebekah and I had done two summits of Mt. Dana at 13,000 feet over one day, with more running than I have put in today, and that was fine, but was six weeks ago; any benefit from that train has long left the station. Was I in better condition? Was I trained up more completely? Did I over-train my peak week? Living at sea level can feel like a disadvantage, especially when reading of running exploits committed by those constantly stoking their fires in the sky.

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And now things change, and there is nausea, which is completely new; I have never been nauseous at altitude. My pace slows and doubts begin to percolate. This feels like mile 80, somewhere; no wayThe sky brightens as clouds pass, and with it comes a different lens, offering new beauty on which to focus, which does not take the edge off of my stomach or my head. Nevertheless, I take in this immense grandeur completely devoid of scale; the granite expanses are all so vast. Eventually, I begin to look for a place to chill, to just sit and close my eyes. Maybe a nap; yeah. This was not in the plan, but, when things change dramatically or break down, we make adjustments.

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To the top? I open my eyes. It must have been, what, ten minutes? Fifteen? I don’t know; I stopped my watch without looking. I’m behind a rock about 100 feet off one of the turns, barely warm in the thin morning sun at only 13,200 feet. Things seem normal. I’m not queasy, or spun with dizziness, although there is a dull ache where my headache was. I think I’m hungry, which is good, and I eat jerky and pull my buff up over my mouth again, chewing, as I grab my poles and make my way to the trail to assess my place in line. No one now below me was there when I crawled off to chill behind the rock; no one above is visible. Moving again is an act of deliberation, and I surmise that I will be warm enough if I can just get moving, and I again start the climb up the 99 switchbacks.

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Morning switchbacks

There are still pauses on the climb, and nausea ebbs and flows, but I’m trying to warm up, and movement is key; not really hungry, although I know I should eat more. As altitude plays with my perspective, I look up and feel as if I am looking down a cliff at a deep blue river with a ball floating by, currents and eddies swirling off the rock; it is, of course, only the moon, a weird near-hallucination that fades into and out of perspective.

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What am I looking at?

Eventually I make Trail Crest and the sign announcing the beginning of Sequoia National Park, with that vast expanse of the western slope of this part of the uplifted granite slab that is what everyone thinks of as Mt. Whitney. The escarpment of Mt. Whitney also includes Discovery Pinnacle, Mt. Muir, and Keeler needle, which you pass on the way up and across, with Mt. Russell and Mt. Carilion away and past Whitney peak to the north from Trail Crest – all mostly originated in the late Cretaceous period at 83 million years, and modified by glacial deposits. It is far above the tree line, and sublimely beautiful in its vast expanse with a scale that is hard to comprehend via the tiny aperture of most lenses. And today there is wind. The high clouds have blocked a great deal of available solar insolation, that penetrating warmth one enjoys through clothes on a cool winter day – or a Summer morning at high altitude; as soon as I make the crest at 13,600 feet, I am instantly cold. The icy teeth of the wind immediately bite through my gloves, which are now totally inappropriate and call into question my past experience up here on that big snow year of 1994 when, although the switchbacks were completely covered in snow, forcing Jeff and I to scale straight up to the crest, we were in shorts and t-shirts with no wind and mid-70s temps: where is that heat? I get my butt in gear and move forward extending and clenching my fingers around my poles in an effort at warming them to increase circulation.

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Trail Crest and that view

The trail from the crest toward the summit winds like a serpents undulating back, requiring focus to negotiate as it transitions from dirt to rock slab stairs and back, under and around jumbled scree and boulders that lay on the surface of the Earth as if the hand of God once emptied a massive bucket of a small, unknown landmass to roll across the landscape; it is endless in scope. I fight creeping hypothermia while still expecting to warm up, as I make my way. Hikers and backpackers come and go, singular or in pairs, congregating in groups that re-enact morning rituals, eating and readying for the next whatever-it-is they will do. I stalk past in my technical shirt, which is a snazzy way of saying: “thin free shirt given to runner for running whichever distance race”, with arm warmers and knit cap and hat on top of cap and gloves that are too thin, determined to ignore my poor, 2:00 A.M. judgment. Eventually I find a rock outcrop on the West side of the trail, but it is occupied by two guys chatting about something; I don’t care what; please just move on. When they do, I lunge at the sheltered space in relief as if it were magnetic. Every now and again, I look up and away to my left toward the summit of my objective less than a mile away, the Smithsonian shelter barely visible on the edge of space. Thoughts swirl – of my brother Eric, who, with his new bride Kate, once pedaled across Nepal on bikes loaded with gear on their way to Thailand on their honeymoon, at times up and over 17,000 foot passes, and I feel completely lame, like an armchair bandit menacingly brandishing proclamations regarding how fast or bad-ass he once was to any fool who will listen, the antithesis of how I regard my odd life rife with little adventures of intention. Eric is a little different, I remind myself – a guy who used to live to climb El Cap, and who once rode his bike from Alaska to Northern Mexico; I guess, though, I also inherited my own version of whatever it is that drives Eric from our dad, A guy who, at 76, spends a couple of hours each day in the gym and who still runs a 5K on the treadmill and enjoys 30 mile bicycle rides. I hope I am a close approximation of dad at that age.

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Whitney lurks in the distance beneath grey skies

“I have hands; why aren’t I turning this ship?” The question echoes as I work to arouse feeling in my fingers. Sitting at 13-700 sheltered by a rock and only slightly warmer, I judiciously shove calories into my mouth hoping each bite stays where it’s supposed to. This being a semi-sheltered location, it functions as a sort of cross-roads, where people unconsciously pause for a moment before continuing to and from the summit. I engage all who look receptive. At one point a woman comes past who has descended from the summit, and happens to meet a friend on their way up. They start to banter about Quad Dipsea, a storied, hybrid Bay Area race. She is stoked, and says she’s ready. I engage the conversation, and by the time we’re finished sharing inspiration and story, she wishes me luck at Tahoe, it’s a fist bump, and then she’s gone. And I’m still standing there. And 15 minutes rest and a little affirmation from a fellow trail runner/thrill seeker has suddenly given me the objectivity I need to make the call.

Voice: “What is the goal?” Is it simply to stoke the fire of my ego with another notch, another goal completed in rote exercise at any cost? Or is it to stoke the physiological fires of my red blood cell response for next weeks race? As I look over at the summit, I grab my poles with numb fingers that never really warmed up, adjust my pack, and head out on the descent back toward warmth and 12,000 feet, knowing full well what I have to do.

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Snow melt melts

After descending past Trail Crest, it is a mad dash lower; I want a nap in the sun. I am at peace with everything – with my first perceived “DNF”, the first time ever in my running life I have not achieved a perceived goal. I pass everyone I come up behind as I take in the perspective of daylight on the descent, eyeing the scree slope I somehow scaled on that deep snow year, glancing below at my goal of rest to finally rid my wretched stomach of nausea, head throbbing but with anticipation at calming everything before the final push to the car. It is still cold, and now I notice ice, which I didn’t see on the ascent, which confirms for me that maybe it actually is cold, and I was kind of a dumbass for not properly preparing for a high altitude trek; how in the heck did I miss that ice? What will I do to better prepare next time? Eventually I come upon Jim, making his slow and steady ascent, looking fresh and determined, and it’s a firm handshake and warm greeting and stories and confessions on my part. Jim looks good, and I am stoked for him.

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Jim and I meet on the switchbacks – and I’m still hypothermic

At the bottom, it’s Trail Camp. The early morning sea of tents erected by two-day climbers has long-since disappeared, leaving intermittent, smooth open spaces cleared of small rocks by endless backpackers, with small stone walls erected to block the wind: a perfect refuge. And I am ready for a nap in the sun.

Say hello to the wild kingdom “Hey! What the…..!”. I am awakened as the back of my head smacks the ground, which is the granite slab I was sleeping on. As I focus on the moment, I catch movement to my right, and as the sound of my sliding pack that was my pillow is now processed, suddenly I am under attack by a marmot. I lash out, grabbing my pack to pull it back, swinging, horrified that a hungry beast with teeth chomped down maybe an inch from my head and pulled my pack away out from under me, and oh man – did the little monster puncture it? What did it steal? What about rabies or plague or Hanta……

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So…..when’s lunch?

The beast has backed away, but stands there, staring at me, unblinking. Bastard. I grab my pole and swing at it, not intending to actually hit it, it being protected by a forcefield of fuzziness, an over-stuffed, beaver-like woodchuck-thing that actually looks like it is smiling at me in a relaxed, zen, mocking, sort of way – at me, a mobile meal delivery service. I yell expletives at the beast, grab my pack and stash it further behind the rock I was sleeping next to. And I stare at the beast. And It stares back. I toss a rock to its right. And it stands there, staring back at me. I swing my pole toward it. It stands there staring back at me. Finally, with enough directed faux-anger – which is difficult to muster, because, really, I actually kind of find this whole thing amusing, it slinks off out of view behind another rock, and I relax. Then come the chortles: a series of short, sharp, high-pitched chirping squeals. I sneak out from behind the rock to peer past my fortification and see the beast up on hind legs, facing me, mocking me with its woodchuck-thing insults; no, way. I am guessing it is throwing insults because I gave it a good fight. Yeah! I won! Eff-U, furry thing! Now I scrunch the pack up really small-like for a pillow, tucking all the bars and blocks and the last sandwich I can’t stomach beneath my head, and this is not by any means relaxing, but I am trying to reclaim my territory. Because I rule my own 12 square feet. Dammit. After a minute or two I begin to wonder where the beast is in the high alpine silence narrated by only the wind, what it is up to – and I stand up to find the beast creeping over the top of the rock I’m practically sleeping under..like it was going to pounce on top of me and gnaw my face off! It freezes, as if the act of standing motionless, caught, will somehow make it invisible. It is on the rock, nearly above my head, and damn it, THIS IS MY TERRITORY, SCRAM!

Expletive, expletive.

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Creeping, creeping…….

The beast finally beats a hasty retreat, apparently aware that I am not the easy mark it was hoping for. I toss rocks near it as it mocks me with the chirp from a ledge about 20 feet away, and then it stalks off, and I think I must finally be free and clear. My head throbs, my stomach turns, and I just want a nap…just a few minutes of rest before I head down the mountain. But as soon as I close my eyes, as I notice my breathing start to deepen in the warm sun, and just when I am close…beginning to drift…..I both hear and feel munching on my pack, AND HOLY COW, a chipmunk was chewing right next to my ear, no freaking way! Aaaaurggghh! I jump up, swinging spastically like a freaking madman, yelling at…a chipmunk…who sits there, calmly, as if in a zen, sort of mocking silence, watching me. And I cannot believe this is happening. And since 12,000 feet is not enough to lose the headache and the nausea, and because I have been set upon by rodents, I grab my crap and take off down the mountain with my head and my stomach in tow. “Just a nap”, I mutter…“for crying out loud, I just wanted a nap……”

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Dastardly co-conspirator

Down I’m flying down the trail. I’m hungry, with little in the tank, fully aware that to rid myself of apparent “altitude sickness”, I have to just get my butt down to the Portal. As I descend the trail, brief flashes of memory from when I hiked up and down years prior appear, and disappear, almost as quickly, and it feels like a scatter-shot of experience by shotgun, it is so deep and brilliant. Eventually, unrequited hunger metastasizes into my arch enemy. Keep. Going. I reach into my pack for one dark chocolate covered espresso bean, thinking I only have a few miles – not easy, but 5, maybe 6, all downhill, and I should be able to just deal with it. My head throbs. I pass people, I pass the bursts of purple that are Skypilot, that riot of color that lives mainly around 10,000 feet, bright against the speckled granite that is everything. Also now, there are small bunches of grass with spines that poke outward from crevices and from beneath rocks and that look like sea urchins, and as I impatiently wait on better breathing, I now envision myself under the sea of the atmosphere, descending to the bottom of the breatharian ocean. My left ham aches, and I reflect that I haven’t earned any gel with electrolytes today, due to so little real effort, and I take a pull of Roctane from my re-fillable soft flask, and am instantly rewarded by a stomach that does not want this sickeningly sweet, viscous goo anywhere near it. Endless stairs, now bushes, then trees. Down.

Nausea flourishes, head throbs. I banter at people whom I pass on their climb, or whom I overtake, but the distraction doesn’t help. After 20 or 30 minutes, as I descend to a level meadow with meandering snow melt streams, I pull over and lose everything. It must be only 9,500 feet now, but my head still hurts, and now…the other thing….

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Skypilot – that riot of color that somehow bursts out of the rocky landscape – photo: Wikipedia

Stories After the great reset, I pass each hiker as I try to outrun the evil twins to the bottom. I eventually approach a backpacker who floats with speed and dexterity. I greet him as the disembodied voice after I approach from behind in near-silence, trying to catch him, but he moves faster still, and I can’t, quite. He is wiry framed and strong and fast. We pick up conversation after I tell him he is moving at an unbelievable pace, and he shares that his name is Sean, that he lived on the Big Island intermittently for 4 years, and that he backpacked up and down Mauna Kea between lower elevation and the telescopes often, spending a great deal of time at 14,000 feet; no wonder his speed. He says that he has no idea what is going on out in the world when I ask if he knows about the 50+ inches of rain from Hurricane Lane that has just inundated the Big Island. He nearly floats downward with his big pack that started out at 48 pounds; he estimates it will weigh in at 34 at the Portal after eating only 12 pounds of MREs over 8 days out in paradise, the balance being water. He is sure-footed and exudes purpose as he moves with intention toward a burger at the bottom.

As I begin to peel back the layers of Sean’s onion to distract from obvious ills, he tells me he is a research scientist who just finished his PhD developing optics that will allow us Humans to see exoplanets in the infrared spectrum – that is, planets orbiting other nearby stars. I touch on science and how fact is no longer trusted by a crazy but growing minority of people who don’t apparently like reality and facts and science – reality as it is, so they make up their own facts and beliefs, with a creepy, creeping Orwellian rebranding to foster a safer and more secure flat-earth perspective. Eliminating funding for scientific initiatives, appointing a man who holds more faith in faith than science to run the space program, squashing scientific consensus for the quicker, immediate financial high at the expense of the safety and security of all our future generations, deleting information and even references to science and natural phenomena and replacing them with alternative “facts”. Fantasy land. He shares that there was initial panic as the new administration took control of the government, that space science hasn’t seen big cuts to funding yet, but that any initiatives related to climate science have been cut or are in doubt, with plans to shut down entire areas of research altogether. As if living in denial will make problems magically disappear. Uncomfortable, we change the subject, and he shares that after he returns from the wilderness to reality, he will go to Chile to hang out for 6 or 7 weeks at observatories resting at 17,000 feet, and I briefly question my life’s path, in respect to a cool story shared by a random, cool guy descending a mountain.

I’m breathing better as we nearly plummet toward the portal below, but my head still hurts. Eventually Sean tells me that he witnessed the end of Badwater 135 last year, and watched several badasses continue past the Portal up to the Summit, the annual extra-badass journey from Badwater Basin -142 feet over 135 miles to 8,360 feet, onward to 14,508 feet at the roof of the world – with a couple raising the bar by taking the Mountaineer’s route, which is basically a nearly straight-up climb. Whenever I hear of these kinds of exploits I am in awe, knowing full well what that sense of satisfaction must be like, or at least having enough experience removing myself from my comfort zone to envision it. As we descend, this tale of bad-assery prompts a flood of memories, memories of the first glimpse of my life’s true passion.

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The Portal

In my odd life riddled with synchronicity of nearly every kind there is one experience that stands out, or has returned time and again to inform my running life since the discovery of my love for the trails 8 years ago. Now, as Sean talks of Badwater, this sequence of memory returns once again as I take aim at Tahoe 200, only 9 days out.

On that heavy snow year of 1994, I first climbed this amazing wall of extruded granite that is Mt. Whitney with one of my best friends. We climbed straight up to Trail Crest when the switchbacks were buried, before descending to camp and stuff our faces with fresh, Eastern Brown trout at Guitar lake, which rests at 12,000 feet and below the west side of the summit. We spent 3 days acclimating ourselves for that eventual final push to the top – one where Jeff was ultimately debilitated by migraine and my vision was mottled by varied hallucinations, mostly of squirrels darting about out of the corner of my eye, animals that weren’t actually there. After that trek we descended in deep satisfaction at our own little conquering of this half-as-high-as-everst rock pile.

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I remember being full of myself on that hike down to easy breathing, my purchase of the wrong boots manifesting in shredded masses of fabric on my feet: oh, I AM a badass, just look at my boots; my 24 year old ego throbbed. We entered the Portal and turned to look for the car and comfort. And as we moved down the road, a strange sight fell into focus: a woman, in running shorts and moving with jaunty purpose and at a good pace, followed by cameras and a support vehicle made her way toward, and then past us; how weird. In a parking lot at 8,300 feet. I asked one of the crew what this weird thing was, and he explained what the Badwater 135 is. After a moment of contemplation, my mental lightbulb illuminated in a flash of inspiration and – I will never forget this…I announce with conviction: “oh, I could totally do that”. And I entertained, for just a moment, that amazing thing…before we got in the car and began our drive back to Santa Cruz, with its easy complacency, easy pleasures, good weather, and ultimate distraction from that now-completely obvious possibility.

I guess I wasn’t ready. I mean, I remember running effortlessly but without focus back then, taking for granted every molecule of power my mitochondrial engines allowed, playing hard and challenging myself on the biggest waves I could find each Santa Cruz winter, eventually traveling and pushing my limits in both extraordinary and tortured, un-healthy ways as I fought to take myself out of my comfort zone, to feel truly alive, once even to the point of near-death. But for finding the run, or for endurance running, I guess I wasn’t ready. Now, with Tahoe 200 closing in on Rebekah and I, I guess I am. Ready to see what lurks in my psyche, and ready to see what a really good challenge is all about.

– Alan R.

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