I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I wake up sometime around 5 AM in Oakland, California, in a tiny bedroom stuffed with colorful paintings and arcane cultural bric-a-brac. I am in a small compartment in a labyrinthine beehive of a dwelling that houses not only an absent artist’s lifetime of work but also his professional grade woodshop, his printing press, his library, and his computer command center—the whole thing being hollowed out of an abandoned factory space. The sheer resourcefulness of its absent owner makes me feel inadequate, even though I can’t say the stylish abstract paintings appeal to me and, to boot, I find the notion of an artist decorating his house with his own work a bit risky. I believe in hiding from my art.
I’ve been here for about twenty-seven hours, preparing with my friend David Brody for our eight-day hike into the wilderness. Dave doesn’t belong here either, strictly speaking. He swapped places with the artist for a month to give his family a taste of the West Coast. I don’t like the word hike. It’s too recreational for the epic journey I would like to think we are about to embark on. I don’t much like the word epic either, but it will have to do as shorthand for the tangled feelings of exhilaration and dread I bring to this enterprise. I cannot contemplate walking in the wilderness for eight days without imagining an entire roster of possible fatal, varyingly absurd, and unlikely scenarios that might befall me. People do die all the time on hikes, but their deaths are unremarkable; laughable, really. Death by heatstroke, death by heart attack, death by bug bite, death by allergic reaction.
Dying on a mountain is more like it. Even if while mountain climbing you die of a histamine reaction to a celery stalk (my personal Achilles’ heel), you are better off than being eaten by a cougar while hiking. I wonder if we will be in any areas where we could technically be called “mountain climbers” this week. We are going to the Sierra Nevadas, after all, and those are mountains. Yes, I am thinking about this as I brush my teeth, though I am eager to get on with our trip and the first small pleasure of the rituals: our last hot breakfast before the trail. I like eating breakfast in a restaurant. It’s decadent, like watching TV in the morning. Mornings are for getting ready for school.
We load the car in the cold dark predawn. As we make our final check for overlooked bags of gorp I hear Dave’s daughter Nikko wailing from her bedroom, “Don’t go daddy!” No such ties bind me. I am a free agent, but on the other hand no one mourns my departure like an eight-year-old child. What’s the deal with that?
We drive out of Oakland through empty streets, onto an empty ramp that connects to an empty freeway. The game is afoot. We are driving the wrong way, as it turns out. That takes some adjusting. Dave has an iPad, a sufficiently new and advanced technology so as to be indistinguishable from magic. It guides us back to the right road and points us in the right direction.
The sun rises on an endless line of car commuters coming in from the valley, crossing our path as they descend into the bay cities on their way to their tedious or rewarding jobs. We drive through the famous fruit orchards and then up into the mountains, through Yosemite Park, on our way to our trailhead. In Yosemite we stop to look at the vast stone mountains at a scenic overlook filled with Europeans on tourist buses and American RV drivers. The nice old lady in a smock and sun visor who has voluntarily stationed herself at the overlook for the day encourages us to run our hands over the three-dimensional cast bronze map of the valley that the park service has installed on the sidewalk. We can fondle the giant boob that is El Capitan while staring at it.
We press on, finally reaching Mono Lake and the ranger station where we pick up our hiking papers. We rent a bear barrel to supplement the one Dave has already acquired. Carrying bear barrels commits me to an extended speculation about what the bear barrel is supposed to prevent: being eaten by bears. This seems unlikely—being eaten by bears—yet since we are taking precautions, this must be in the realm of the reasonably possible. There are lots of remotely possible but entirely plausible disasters out there waiting. Why don’t we also attach lightning rods to our heads? Answer: because we are more likely to be eaten by bears than to be hit by lightning. Being eaten by bears is not the least likely thing that could happen to us this week. It is doubtful the bears in the park would eat us, but wouldn’t it be exciting if one did come into the camp and eat our food? Would that make a better story than if we never saw a bear? Dave told me that a bear once invaded a campsite of his in Montana and ate all his food. It lay on its back and leisurely munched on chocolate milk powder and tuna fish while Dave jumped around hooting at it. I would like to participate in a story like that.
We drive up to Bishop, the last town we will pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains before we get to the trailhead. Huge banners on Main Street proclaim the upcoming Bishop Mule Days. The town is very efficiently laid out. The fire department is next door to the police station, which is next to the town hall, which is next to the court building, which is next to the jail, which is next to the elementary school, which is next to the park, which is next to the end of town. Thirty minutes later we arrive at the trailhead parking lot.
I am so eager to begin the hike that while Dave is still changing his shoes I strap on my brand new backpack and charge into the underbrush beside the car. Dave politely calls me back from the dead end patch of weeds in which I am foundering. After more careful preparation we walk a mile up the road to the real trailhead. We march past an outer cordon of brown national park signs, enormous outhouses and campsites with picnic tables, outdoor grills, and bear boxes the size of refrigerators designed for car campers. We are serious hikers, though, and we, or at least I, sneer at the posers whose experience of the wild is limited to a thirty-foot radius from their minivans. We click with our trekking poles into the underbrush.
I have been worrying about the first steps of the hike ever since we made our plans. Three years ago, when we last hiked and camped together in this park, the first day’s hike began with a very steep rocky climb. After five steps I was panting and red in the face—I was convinced I was about to have a heart attack. I could not imagine lasting another seven days with this kind of stress. Uphill exercise makes me worry about having a heart attack. I was built to go downhill.
The first steps aren’t bad this time and I begin to relax. We walk along a relatively flat soft trail through the woods for a bit, cross a couple of tree-trunk bridges that pleasingly test our sense of balance. When the uphill begins, the familiar thoughts of death immediately begin to buzz around my head. Dying of a heart attack is my main fear, but there is also death by exposure, death by anaphylactic shock from one of my many allergies, death by falling, and death by getting-lost-and-never-being-found. I suppose there is also death by mountain madman in addition to death by mountain lions and brown bears, if you get down to it, but those deaths are far too baroque to grab my attention this early in the trip.
Death is my autopilot—a compelling but exhausting subject on the hike. Another thought, of a pesto-based lasagna, asserts itself, as does an existential preoccupation with the mosquitoes that have begun to swarm around me. I try to look at the trees and the babbling brook that runs along the path. I crane my neck to see the emerging outline of the mountains above us, but then I notice my throat is dry, and a crust of white spittle is forming around my mouth. I focus on my breath. Each step requires a conscious decision to go on, not to give up. I try to write my obituary in my head. What would they say? What have I done? Up ahead Dave continues to plow forward silently, a walking machine, a climbing robot.
The altitude is beginning to get to me. We began the day at sea level in Oakland, and drove without break to 9,400 feet. Now we are climbing higher than that. Each breath does not refuel the body. I am falling behind. Dave graciously stops once for water. He has taken pity on me, I think. I have happily surrendered all control of our trip to him. How tiring leadership must be! How lonely! We camp at a clearing near a pretty little crook in the path. There is water, a nice big rock, and tree shelter from the elements.
There is also, as it turns out, an enormous population of mosquitoes. We do not have a tent, just a lightweight fly supported by our trekking poles. It keeps the rain off and is light to carry, but it lets all the mosquitoes in without resistance. We abandon our shelter to lie on the rock in the hope that the mild breeze will protect us from the bugs, but it does not. There are so many mosquitoes I cannot wave them away. They create a permanent buzzing cloud above my head. Not being able to sleep is miserable, unlivable. It is nice to see the light of the next morning and to start all over.
Aug. 24: We Depart
Matt Freedman and I have driven a red rental Kia west from Emeryville, California, near San Francisco, across Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. We have descended east to the town of Lee Vining near Mono Lake, collected our wilderness permits at the Forest Service station there, and screamed south to Bishop. After gassing up in Bishop, I take the wheel for the first time, and we turn west to regain 5,000 feet of altitude on a recreational road angled like a missile launch up the abrupt Sierran backside. I am glad to be in control when we negotiate a final section of twists and hairpins bringing us to the trailhead. Matt is a man of such competence and cool as to be strangely indifferent to lane markings on mountain roads where a skid risks a 1,000-foot plunge. For my part, I flinch around every blind turn, expecting a careening truck or motorhome.
We have driven past a thousand wonders, from Olympian peaks to infernal cauldrons of dried fire. Artists intent on self-purification, we barely acknowledge these roadside vistas. They seem to us of no artistic merit, not having been won by sweat and labor.
At the Northlake trailhead we put on our hiking boots and say goodbye to the corrupting ease of civilization. At last underway, the weight of some sixty pounds astride our frames, we find ourselves relieved, bouncing with strength. The trail proper begins past a car campground, at 9,000 feet mean sea level, in a thickly forested grove of biotic confusion nestled in a wet mountain breach. To the east, behind us, is the vast California–Nevada desert; ahead is a long climb to a pass at 11,400 feet, beyond which is a landscape substantially untouched by the hand of man
After one hour and a half of steady walking, a clearing on a rock ledge presents itself as an oft-used campsite, complete with a bracing view of cascading rock walls inscribed with runic streaks of quartz. A convenient stream winds through a bog nearby. The early stop will give us a night’s rest to adjust to the effects of altitude.
If only rest were what we received that night!
After essaying a watercolor of the powdering erosion of a mountainside—very poor, but a start of sorts (one must become acclimated to mountain painting, as to mountain climbing)—and cooking our first meal on the butane stove (Kung Pao Chicken for two), we climb into our sleeping bags beneath the tarp, ready for King Morpheus. But the mosquitoes that had somewhat bothered us during our meal, and which I had assured Matt would be soon neutralized by the cold vapors of the mountain evening, do not recede. It is a long night; we end up under the stars and full moon on the crest of our exposed ledge, taking advantage of what little breeze blows there, sweating in our mummy bags which are closured to our nose and mouth against the onslaught of the buzzing, biting devils.
We walk to the Piute Pass. I think that’s what it is, but I am still woefully ignorant of my surroundings. It’s a high point. I remember rocks and lakes and trees and the occasional passing hiker. More thoughts of pesto lasagna, so persistent and elaborate they are becoming troublesome. I am gasping for air by the end of the morning, happy to be at the top of the climb, confused about the name of the place where I am. Is there a silent “e” on the end or not? Is there an “a” in there or not? Our last gas-tank fill up just outside of Bishop was at the Paiute Palace Gas Station, which was next to the Paiute Palace Casino. The Paiutes used to be the only people up here, apparently.
The pass is filled with hikers swapping stories. A middle-aged man wearing an elaborate sunhat and carrying an enormous and intricate backpack somewhat gleefully informs us that a major storm is coming in on Friday and will stay for the weekend bringing with it rain, wind, snow, cold temperatures, and mudslides. If it comes on schedule, this Friday we will meet the worst of it when we are up into the rocky foothills, which will provide only minimal cover. We could be stuck there for days, and might freeze to death.
An energetic septuagenarian leads a crew of pudgy, possibly retarded, hikers to the pass, then immediately begins quizzing them on the names of the mountains around us. She is similarly concerned with our well-being and knowledge base; she even goes so far as to follow us up a ridge, when we decamp, to make sure we realize that we are not going in the direction she advised us to travel. We leave the trail and find a dramatic slot between two rock piles on a high ridge to pitch our camp.
We are close to the base of Mount Humphreys, a truly noble peak, in the middle of a forbidding moonscape. I have a little leather-covered sketchbook to replace the elegant one I used on the last hike and then lost. I draw with a cheap Bic pen and, as usual, my first efforts to depict the landscape are hopelessly out of whack. The vast, dramatic valleys and mountain silhouettes are defined by endlessly complicated and detailed rocky surfaces and the combination of the two opposing detail scales is utterly beyond my capacity to depict. If I start with the big picture I end up with the drawing of an electrocardiogram, and if I start with the rocks I end up with a scribble of 0’s. We are small and vulnerable here, but it is a quiet and noble place. The fatigue is still challenging. Walking uphill with a heavy pack is becoming a sustainable routine, but taking off my socks sends me into a gasping fit. I can’t get enough air. It’s not the discomfort I mind. It is, per usual, the fear of imminent death. Death still stalks the highlands. It’s the second day. Six more to go.
Aug. 25: We Survey the Basin
We are almost underway the next morning when I miss my sunglasses, nearly invaluable in the unfiltered glare of the High Sierra. Our departure is delayed while I search unsuccessfully. Matt does not chide me for carelessness, any more than he did for my hollow assurances about mosquitoes. (As the more experienced backcountry traveler, I had recommended the weight-saving advantages of a tarp instead of a bug-proof tent; nor had I thought to bring insect repellent, given the season. In truth, I prefer the bugs to an ever-present chemical stink, but I keep this prejudice to myself, as it is not widely shared.) At last, we embark upward, the sun already bearing down as we emerge from the forest onto painfully glinting rock outcrops.
The trail is well engineered, suitable for stock, of which frequent signs are present underfoot. One such party passes us on the way up, a hireling muleteer with camp equipment in train, then a man and his wife bickering unpleasantly astride straying beasts. We approach and pass a large party of day-hikers, led by a spry, elderly woman who seems quite unaware of the strenuous demands of the climb. The wilderness begins to seem dishearteningly populous.
After a steep switchback, a charming loch comes into view. We break for water and gorp, then climb up a chain of small, nestled lakes until Piute Pass is attained with a final push. There we find several parties resting, including the spry lady, who is now lecturing her charges about hydrology. Conversation with another backpacker familiar with the region convinces us to make camp at the Humphrey Lakes, off-trail to the northeast from the saddle of the pass. Taking a compass heading from the map, I lead us up into unmarked stone and brush, which seems to part before our steps into a continuous logic. Though the footing and route are more precarious, the burden of travel immensely lightens once the trail is out of view.
The majesty of the vast basin defined by the ridges ascending to Mount Humphreys to the east—polyphonic, jagged, russet—and the massive gray granite of the Glacial Divide to the west, whose peaks were bullishly named for titans of evolutionary theory (Mounts Darwin, Agassiz, and Haeckel), can hardly be described. Beyond Humphreys’s jutting spires, the vast desert begins, far below; over and beyond the opposing redoubt is the famed Evolution Valley section of the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park, which Matt and I had traversed on our first excursion together, two years before. The National Forest wilderness we now behold—a rocky, lake-filled bowl some eight miles in diameter and virtually untrailed—exceeds in pure, undulating sweep any alpine plateau in the whole Sierra. Maintaining our heading, we eventually come upon a pair of fine lakelets, with a perfect campsite to be had in the rocky tableland nearby. We pitch the tarp among architecturally disposed blocks of stone that might be the ruins of an ancient forum. No sign of previous camping intrudes here, and we are free to imagine ourselves trailblazers. After a bracing swim, I attempt another watercolor or two, which fare little better than before, yet perhaps could be said to clear more ground with their failure. Mosquitoes gather in the afternoon stillness. Then clouds, threatening all afternoon, release steady droplets of rain, scattering the bugs but ending artistic perseverance.
While we had rested atop the pass earlier, a fit and proficient backpacker had arrived with a sobering report: according to predictions, a major front, more typical of late autumn, was approaching with high winds, soaking rain, and snow at high elevations. A storm of this magnitude would be no laughing matter, especially given our lack of an enclosed tent. (The spring-like clouds of mosquitoes are but another symptom of aberrational climate.) If the hiker’s prediction is accurate, these passing cumulus are but puffy harbingers.
The rain ended, Matt and I decide to climb casually into the layered ridges above to see what we can in the remaining daylight. Each ridge as we climb seems conclusive, egging us on with silhouettes of hanging boulders that appear to be pinnacles, yet which turn out to be but ripples in an ever-unfurling fabric stretching to the forbidding skirts of Mount Humphreys. High as we are where we stop, the lay of the huge basin below remains mysterious; a giant lake appearing on the map can’t be detected among the folds of landscape. I scan with binoculars, searching for the steep cliffs that surely lie like sprung traps along seeming routes of traverse.
When we regain our campsite, I gorge myself with water. Even the clear, glacially cold mountain lakes of the alpine West are said to be teeming with cysts of Giardiasis, spread by careless travelers and infected animals, but in such pristine remoteness I gladly forego chemical treatment. Despite a bit of nausea, whether from the effects of altitude or the intemperate gorging, I manage to enjoy my sparse dinner, and when night descends we retreat to our bags with anticipation of restful slumber. A bandana around the eyes defends against the moon’s brassy glare. The mosquitoes are cleared away by a steady breeze and cooler temperatures.
We take a long walk up into the hills without our heavy packs. This is our plan, the routine for the week. Long hikes from camp to camp punctuated by days of exploring. We make our way to Puppet Pass, which the energetic septuagenarian said has very dramatic views. The walk up is challenging, but the woman was right—the view of the valley is most gratifying. Over a sharp fence of rocks we look at six or seven lakes lying neatly on the plane far below us. It is all so flat and elegant. We take out our pads and begin to draw. My sketches are beginning to shake off their rust and to resemble something of the real thing, but somehow I always end up with a completely disproportioned image: a small peak that becomes huge or an overlooked lake that has to be entirely omitted. My landscapes are like a beginner’s drawing in a life modeling class that is all shoulders or breasts or genitals or feet.
The walk back from Puppet Pass turns out to be extraordinarily challenging. Dave always seems to choose the most difficult, least direct path home. My legs are slowly turning into lead. For a few minutes on the way back we get a little bit lost and I immediately begin to despair. I am walking without hiking poles, as mine are in use holding up the tent. This puts added pressure on the knees. My legs hurt and I pray that every rise is our last, but it never is. I make a show of reading the map with Dave as we plot our way home, but I really can’t understand what we are looking at. He wants to loop around a high lake, then drop into a small fjord. We find pink snow. Then two rises, each a half mile apart and uphill. Dave is confused when the camp fails to appear when it should, but he is not overly concerned. He knows he can solve any problem he gets into, can find his way home with his maps. I have the same comfort level with the New York subway system, but out here I begin writing our obituaries again as soon as trouble arises. “Hikers Lost, Wander for Days Before Succumbing to the Elements.” I have read stories of lost hikers so humiliated by their plight they refused help from passersby for days, evaded airplane spotters, and finally died alone in their failure. Will that be us?
Dave leads us to another rise then plots a new line of attack. I follow him up the next incline and look up to see him raise his arms in triumph. In the distance is a little orange rag tucked between two boulders: our camp. I give him a high five, mostly of celebration. Of congratulations is more accurate. It’s his triumph. If our safety had been in my hands, we would have wandered until we dropped to the ground in exhaustion and frozen to death where we lay. Darkness is mere hours away. Camp is most welcome. That night it really begins to get cold.
Aug. 26: Puppet Pass
Hot cereal and coffee invigorate us, and after securing our camp and personal hygiene, we take a northerly heading. Consulting map and compass, I mark a guiding peak across the basin. At last, at the top of a rise, we glimpse the pure, vast oval of Desolation Lake, a titan’s water bowl in a desert of rock. How could this enormous feature have remained hidden from yesterday’s survey?
The clouds of yesterday afternoon are re-gathering and thickening as the air heats. Rarely do such heavy, dark billows form so early in a Sierra summer day. Past the lake, we are now climbing the first ridge toward Puppet Pass, picking our way as efficiently as possible, following chutes and grains of rock, then cutting back to adjust our line of attack. A distant drumroll echoes through mountain and valley as we crest the ridge. Black clouds are approaching with the west wind. Matt and I take shelter behind a slightly overhanging rock complex. Rain is one thing; lightning another. Two deafening claps alarm us as the disturbance passes, not without first sprinkling a watercolor of Mount Humphreys with anarchic droplets, no doubt improving it.
The weather thereafter proves excellent, more typical of the season. Puppet Pass had been commended to us by the lady hydrologist as a fine day’s trip, and she was right. After traversing the basin we are rewarded with views down to a group of lakes nestled precariously on a jutting shelf high above the Pine Creek valley. From our perch it is evident that Puppet Lake is named for its contour in the shape of Pinocchio’s nose. I lose myself in conjecture, imagining what herdsmen and miners, prior to the cartographers’ tidier nomenclature, might have called it.
The afternoon’s mute return to our campsite allows us contemplation of the sacred isolation of the region. By degrees we notice more of the delicate web of life that thrives in crevices and seeps, feeding a thousand ground birds and fat scampering marmots; the circling hawks; the abundant track of deer and coyote and the occasional bear in the muds along with their fertile scat; the wildflowers in breathy fields, dominated by violet lupines which snap against their own greenery. Desolation? To a Muir, this would have been hale comradeship.
The route home proves difficult and disorienting; there are myriad small lakes that appear and disappear in the landscape, any of which might be the one that shelters our campsite. One can only scramble so long before succumbing to exhaustion—and the perils of exposure to follow—so it comes as deliverance when at last I barely spy, from the top of a projecting view-rock, the saffron orange of our low, nestled tarp. It would have been easy enough to wander a hundred yards off-course and miss it altogether. I try not to let on about the capricious margin of our success while Matt applauds my navigational skill. (Has he sensed the hint of panic in my mood?) The sun is still full when we at last reach home, and there is time for a dip of celebration, almost of baptism.
I take an ibuprofen tablet for a headache, perhaps induced by a full day without sunglasses. My toes are sore, as I had neglected to trim the nails prior to the trip and neither of us has a knife with scissors. I have forgotten my toothbrush. I was quite wrong about the tarp. Matt in particular still suffers from shortness of breath (though he trudges on admirably without complaint), and both of us still experience dizziness after sudden movements. A storm may pin us down, soak us, freeze us, drive us to distraction. But for all that, I feel a glow of satisfaction in our day’s hike, our circumnavigation of a mysterious region, and in the wealth of time ahead to further explore and roam. Sleep comes easily. When I awake episodically in the night, the sky is clear, and ten million stars would be visible but for the moon’s jealous gleam.
We walk down into the Hutchinson Valley and then up to Moon Lake, a long walk with our packs, but we are in better shape now. The week begins to take shape. Camp–to-camp walking days are physically demanding in mid-hike, but mentally relaxing. I do not worry about falling off cliffs or losing my way and dying of exposure. Heart attacks are another matter, but finally we are getting into shape and adjusting to the altitude. The valley is all downhill, and much as I enjoy that detail, I cannot help but ponder the dire implication of that fact: in a couple of day’s time when we are walking out, it will all be uphill. And it will be a hard walk. Over seven miles and we keep losing the trail. Other hikers appear at intervals, sitting at waterfalls and propped against trees. When we stop and talk, as we always do—people are suddenly extremely interesting creatures—we hear more stories of the big storm coming. We also find that we are helpfully telling them ourselves, to the point that every encounter results in a discussion of the coming bad weather and the trails and campsites that offer the best chance of survival. We pass a pack train of mules and two riders elegantly dressed as old style cowboys. They look a bit silly—greenhorn actors playing rancheros for the tourists—but later hikers tell us of a dead mule a mile up the trail, shot apparently after breaking a leg. Maybe they weren’t so silly.
We leave the valley trail and head up the mountain. An hour or two later we encounter a half dozen hikers, one of whom has sprained his ankle. They are looking for a horse to carry their buddy out. I misunderstand, thinking they are looking for the injured horse and do not know its fate. “You’re too late,” I say, happy to be the bearer of bad news. “Had to shoot it. Bad leg.” This creates for an uncomfortable moment the impression that I am suggesting that we shoot the lame hiker. Dave clarifies things with the men, who appear to be brothers; they all have identical gigantic chins.
Thirty bemused minutes later we get to Moon Lake, a small perfect oval of water set in the shadow on a low ridge of rocky outcroppings, and pitch our tent in the apse of a stone cathedral. We will stay here for a few days, and explore the distant mountains without our huge packs. That is good, but with the increase in mobility comes an increase in climbing options and, with that, an increase once again in the chance of willfully killing ourselves. We are almost 12,000 feet up now and it is very cold at the camp. A coyote yelps in the middle of the night. The sound is as unearthly as advertised—a screaming melancholy baby. The hair on my neck actually prickles and I suddenly have an unutterably nightmarish vision of a man climbing down a ladder headfirst.
Aug. 27: We Push On
The morning is clear. We begin to wonder about the veracity of the doomsayer-hiker’s weather report. There was much of the pompous veteran in his deliverance of bad news. To be caught exposed on this moonscape in a driving storm would be too imprudent, so that, despite our doubts, we decide to descend to a more sheltered spot by nightfall. Plunging steeply downhill to the west we rejoin the trail on its long descent from Piute Pass toward Hutchinson Meadow. We meet a friendly couple hiking out with no more on their backs than small daypacks, no room even for sleeping bags. Have we misunderstood, and they are camped nearby? Or are they practitioners of some new extremity of bivouac?
I had found my sunglasses hidden among my watercolor supplies that morning. Yet I had grown to appreciate seeing the world in natural light. Its harshness and headaches were, arguably, but the price of true vision.
We take a fork that keeps to the bottom of the draw, where lakes and campsites are to be found, while the maintained trail keeps clear of entanglements on higher ground. Our tributary deteriorates into troublesome footing and braids of cross-navigation before seeming to consolidate again, just before we would have given up and headed back to the point of divergence from the main trail.
As for finding a new base camp, the landscape gets quite boggy as soon as tree level is reached, similar in habitat to our first night’s camp. Given the continued clear sky, our fear of bugs trumps our fear of rough weather. Resting at a waterfall, we agree that a good day’s hike is just the ticket to set our mood to rights: we will descend all the way to Hutchinson Meadow at 9,500 feet, junction with the Pine Creek Pass trail going east, and climb back up to the lakes beneath Puppet Pass which we had surveyed with pleasure the day before.
There are miles that fly by and others that crawl; today, bogged down by broken trail, they crawl. When we arrive at the “meadow”—that is, a forest clearing more of stone than grass at a junction of valleys—it is with relief rather than satisfaction. No doubt had we kept to the improved trail we would have been here hours before. Now we must brace ourselves for the six miles of ascent, but at least the footing will be consistent. As in a cartoon, three carved wooden Forest Service signs, simple and rustic of style, are mounted on a dead cedar trunk. One points to Piute Pass, whence we came; another, downhill to a meeting with the John Muir Trail at the South Fork of the San Joaquin; and a third, uphill toward Pine Creek Pass, just before which we will cut back on a side trail to the lakes.
Proceeding steeply up the well-maintained trail, I of necessity fall into a rhythmic pace, breathing richly with each willed pump of the legs. When the ascent moderates I find I have earned a steady momentum. With minimal attention now needed for trail-following or boot placement, I lift my eyes to the lush bottom meadows that open through firs and alders as we climb alongside the creek, rich habitat for flora and fauna. If we are to encounter a bear on this trip, it would be here, among the ripe berries. A thousand perfect paintings come and go, as in a dream. Luminous greens beckon through a scrim of shadowed, deep-furrowed trunks. In wetter places, the sun-struck moss grows densely atop dark stream boulders in a procession of rounded feints and jabs from opposite banks, an image of organic life knitting together across the crevice of its mysterious source.
A repeating fragment of tune has been circulating around the perimeter of my awareness, and when I speak to Matt, there is a dizzying echo between the thought and the sensation—perhaps a lingering effect of altitude. Regardless, I am feeling stronger than ever, so that each stop at a stream for water annoys me, it seeming a pity to disrupt my excellent cadence.
If the morning’s walk down had been much harder than expected, the afternoon’s climb proves easier by the same degree, and we soon reach the junction with our trail up to the lakes below Puppet Pass. Now climbing steeply out of the valley, we pass a large party of square-jawed fishermen coming down. One had twisted an ankle, but he refused my offer of an Ace bandage, asking instead if we had seen stock on the trail that might ride him out. The doubleness of my consciousness becomes particularly acute as I speak to the strangers. The voice that utters the words seems not quite my own. When we resume I describe the sensation to Matt, who considers me fortunate. Perhaps he is right that being out of one’s body is an advantage during a difficult labor, but I am not entirely reassured, wondering if some artery to the brain might be overtaxed. Had I been of righter mind, at any rate, I might have thought to mention the Muir Ranch pack station near the junction with the South Fork to the injured man.
We are fortunate in our timing. The fishing party having gone, we seem to have the whole complex of beautiful lake-shelves to ourselves. At the second lake we come to, I spy a raised pad with good campsites, complete with rock furniture—kitchen and storerooms, tables and lounge chairs, clearings and terraces. The site is excellent, and even provides some shelter from the west wind, which has been blowing steady for two days, and whence bad weather will come, if it does.
This will be a major exploring day. Dave wants to do some serious painting and has been scouting out the rocky ridge above our heads for an ascent route. The only way up will involve using our hands, which apparently qualifies as actual rock climbing, even though Dave assures me there is nothing to it. When we get to it, it turns out that pulling ourselves up the steep rock incline is easier than it looks, and (hopefully) not as terrifying as it appears from below. I become casual and aggressive within seconds of the climb, pulling myself up with big surges of energy. I forget that there are overhanging rocks above. A particularly overzealous upward surge causes me to ram my head into a flat stone ceiling. The impact is rather severe, and stuns me to the point that I wonder if this is how some people end up falling while mountain climbing—by stupidly hitting their heads and knocking themselves out. To think that all this time I assumed the danger in climbing came from below.
Our level-three rock climb earns us a modest crest, from which we draw and paint pictures of the valley. I have some trouble concentrating, and spend the painting hour monitoring myself for concussion-like symptoms and trying to recall the details of the case of poor Miranda Richardson, who fell down fairly gently while skiing and then died within hours of a cerebral hemorrhage. Nothing like that happens to me, but the sports pages have taught me that tiny concussions eventually kill or disable many aging football players. Perhaps I have just signed my warrant for an early death or an extended run of senility. This is just too sad to think about, and luckily for my peace of mind the long anticipated storm finally begins showing signs of actually appearing, at least to Dave’s trained weather eye. He spots a dark cloud formation gathering at the far eastern end of the valley, blowing our way. We back up our tools and begin to contemplate our options—staying on top of this windswept ridge seems a poor choice if the storm is anywhere near as bad as advertised. While we are standing and pondering our options, a couple of fellow high Sierra campers amble into view, a couple from Vermont with whom we turn out to share multiple small-world connections. The husband’s son is a restaurateur from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, our hometown, and the wife practices Ashtanga yoga in the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, near the grounds of the MacDowell Colony, where all four of us have been: Dave as a resident artist, the pediatrician and his wife as guests, and me as an overnight guest of my girlfriend, a resident there at the time. The yogi is careful to point out the illegality of my brief stay.
We all comment on the smallness of the world, but I wonder, is it just the smallness of our world? Who else would be up on this mountain seeking transcendence in a nuanced risk situation but a couple of artists, a pediatrician and a yogi from the East Coast? We make our way down the mountain before the storm hits, but then the storm fails to hit. Dark thunderheads appear several times, but split apart as they drift over our valley, sparing us any truly bad and dangerous weather. In the late afternoon and early evening tiny round balls of hail fall on us and stay for awhile. We are worried enough about weather to stay close to the camp. Dave goes off to draw and photograph the patterns of the beads of hail on the ground and I make myself comfortable on a big rock and try to draw. There is little to distract me here besides the two small books we carry: The Invention of Morel and Myth and Meaning. I read them and my attention to the landscape begins to drift, awash in a stylish mix of magical realism, science fiction, and structural anthropology. It is very cold.
Aug. 28: The Storm Arrives
Today we must reconnoiter Puppet Pass, that cross-country route we had climbed from the east two days before, to see if it would be manageable with backpacks from the west; if so, we could save miles of trail-walking on our return via Piute Pass to our car.
We meet a couple camped at the head of the first lake, Elba, where we descend in search of the informal trail that fishermen must have beaten up to Puppet Lake on the shelf above. They recommend hiking around to the far end of their lake, where the cliff slopes more gently, but en route I see a passable Class 3 ascent up large blocks of wedged boulders. I telescope down our walking poles and bind them to my daypack; hands will be needed here to grip rock.
Matt has no experience with this kind of climbing, but he is athletic and instinctive, only one time banging his head on an overhanging rock. (I should have thought to suggest he remove his wide-brimmed hat.) My own instinct returns to the soles of my thick, rock-scarred boots, to the grip of my fingers, to acrobatic combinations of balance and counter-balance that keep me hoisting up, up. In younger days, before I was answerable to the sober responsibility of fatherhood, I often would challenge myself with exposed work up peaks and passes with no certainty of route, only a hunch, and can say that I found myself in high places, which, while perhaps unimpressive to serious initiates of climbing, were to my mind Everests and El Capitans.
Our little bit of rock climbing more than satisfies whatever urge for thrill remains in me; for when we crest the shelf at the margin of Puppet Lake, getting our first look at the pass from below, I abandon any idea of trying to climb it—not today, nor certainly on the way home with full packs. Matt, entrusting his safety to my judgment, would no doubt have followed my lead with willing zeal. All the more, I calculate that the instability of the steep, loose talus and the sheer overhang of the headwall look too forbidding, or rather, too random.
Instead we find wind-sheltered spots on an outcrop with views to the lakes below where we are camped, and devote ourselves to art. The day is luxuriously young, with no other task, and for the first time my brushes seem suited to my subject. The force-patterns of the mountains become evident; the flowing, ungraspable character of Sierra granite at last reveals its musculature, its architecture. Two hours pass in engaged combat between my inflamed vision and the defects of my hand, when, taking a stretch, I register with animal shock how the sky has changed.
A front is indeed arriving from the west, just as the veteran hiker had warned. I had never seen such threatening skies in these mountains, whirling complexes of black cloud gathering force, piling up over the stall of the high peaks. The howling wind has turned raw and quite chilly and the approaching storm is extravagantly tropical in its burden: a perfect recipe for snow.
I stow my painting materials and call out to find Matt, who has been drawing elsewhere on the outcrop. As I begin to convey my concern to him, the couple we had seen that morning by the lake saunter into view. The woman is from New Hampshire, where summer hypothermia in the Presidential Range is tragically common, and she and I agree that we must return to our campsites. But ten minutes later the four of us are still pleasantly conversing, having discovered, extraordinarily, a New Hampshire friend in common. With a certain abruptness, I interject that we should start down before it is too late. Matt and I are fortunate that the couple appeared at exactly the moment of decision as to whether to retrace our rockclimb, a more difficult and dangerous matter by far going down than up.
Further conversation as we travel provides an inkling of the comic side of our friends’ relationship. In searching for signs of their route off the shelf they disagree. The woman then pronounces the nickname of the man to be “wrong-way Rosenblatt.” Yet it is this mild pediatrician, originally from Flatbush and sporting the familiar accent of that region, who is always quietly correct about the heading.
My panic has receded somewhat, while the doctor is altogether unworried; in fact, the clouds have gotten no worse in the past hour, gaps of blue even showing here and there. “You ought to know how to read the weather,” I say, “coming from Big Sky country,” meaning the plains of Flatbush, and we all laugh bravely as they retire to their tent while we push on to our meager tarp. Now it is every party to its own survival.
Matt and I decide to stay put rather than retreat to the warmer lowlands. Though the clouds roil, so far they pass without danger. We notice a consistent pattern in the way the sudden widening out of our huge basin seems to split the weather between the surrounding peaks, thinning it below a critical density above us while impenetrable releases of precipitation obscure Mounts Merriam across the valley and Humphreys behind us. Those blue streaks of sky that continue to open to the west improve our mettle, so much so that I grab my paints and seek out a sheltered spot to work. The day is still young.
Two hours later, having spent myself wonderfully in a leathery, gothic upended stump; a mossy interlock of sharp, protruding rocks like dragon’s teeth; and a brook with a parade of guardian trees, I acknowledge the falling snow. As I pack my things, I realize how cold I’ve gotten sitting still for so long. Then I notice that the white stuff is not exactly snow, but perfectly round pellets of hail. They roll as they settle, finding the subtlest landscape folds, accumulating along seams. Minute by minute, the scenery becomes embossed with a ghostly draftsmanship. I perform an absurd solo dance in a little hollow, as much to get warm as to celebrate.
I run uphill several times also but am unable to stop shivering, so I return to the tarp and my sleeping bag. Matt has retreated there too, and we engage in spirited talk, zipped into our mummies, dry under our low, orange circus-tent of a shelter. Now that I am warm, I beseech Matt for the use of his compact digital camera. He enthusiastically complies. Outside, the little pellets accumulate steadily, but still roll away from the slightest rise. The ground, consequently, looks dusted for fingerprints, every impression edged with white highlights, as if raked with light.
Taking a camera into the mountains had long seemed inadequate to the experience, and worse, had seemed to interfere with experiencing the experience. But today I know exactly what use to make of this handy optical aide-mémoire.
The day’s highlight is a long hike followed by a slogging climb to the crest of a titanic natural earthwork near a formation called the Four Gables. We have been looking at this mountain, or hill, or rise, or whatever it is, for several days. We have wanted to climb it for days. It looked to be high, one enormous ramp up into the sky. The law-abiding yogi said it was an easy walk. She seemed to know everything. From across the valley, the formation’s blackness and severe triangular geometry distinguish it from its surroundings. It looks to me like Noah’s Ark turned upside down in a frozen sea. The closer we get, of course, the more it recedes and its stark profile dissolves into grass and loose rocks, until finally we are walking up on a long flat plane with no edges and no top. Two or three times we stop and resolve to turn around, but each time some tick of circumstance leads us to continue.
In microcosm, in miniature rather or perhaps in caricature, we are embodying the experience of true mountain climbers who must continually recalibrate new evidence of the life-threatening dangers of their climbs against their overarching ambitions. When we set out, we thought that it would be a relatively easy climb— past the trail and then up along that wedge of cliff, a gentle stroll that nevertheless nets us a 12,500 elevation. But the scale shifts on us once we approach, it keeps receding and growing with every step. I am not as out of breath from my efforts as on previous days, but I am acutely aware that with every step we are making ourselves more and more remote from the rest of the world, more and more reliant on our physical abilities and common sense, more and more vulnerable to chance disaster and miscalculation. A rockslide, a snowstorm–that ever-possible heart attack—anything could carry us away. We decide we have had enough, but a ridge beckons. We walk to the edge of the ramp and are rewarded with the sight of an incredible gothic spire jutting vertically upward from the valley floor, just fifty yards from the cliff on which we stand. Distant red and black hills, striated with massive lines of white stone, set off the frantic immediacy of the spire, dropping back from our perspective in rolling waves. I consider this view ample reward for the abbreviated hike and am relieved that Dave seems satisfied with the day as well.
We draw for few minutes, though, and he seems revived. We should go to the top he says. Who am I to argue. The stony incline is simple now, but endless, and deep, loose stone suck at each step like quicksand. We zigzag across the face of the plain to make the walk less arduous. I image that we would look like silly little bugs to someone, perhaps held aloft by a jetpack hovering a thousand feet above us in the sky.
I try not to look up so the distance ahead to the final elevation doesn’t seem so endless. Suddenly we are there. There is no more of the ramp left for us to climb. The small loose stones turn, astonishingly, in the space of a few feet, into house-sized boulders balanced capriciously on top one of another, the whole jutting out into sheer space in a series of gigantic spear points. Between these gable formations we see an even more amazing sight: two hundred miles of valleys, mountains, and deserts stretching out to the east. It is very satisfying, though we are too tired and preoccupied to properly appreciate what we have done, and we are a little chilly. And hungry. We remember to take pictures of ourselves, pictures that upon examination look remarkably like every other picture of an exhausted hiker or proud climber ever taken.
We walk down and then home across the glacier fields, avoiding all trails. We are pleased with what we have done with our aging old legs. We see no one else the entire day and we are glad of it—other people walking in our footsteps would just mitigate the circumstances for our triumph. We spill our dinner and eat the breakfast oatmeal with the last bag of tuna. This is truly an extraordinary day. The sky threatens one last time and though the storm never really comes, this time the hail turns to ice and the night is cold, very cold, and very long. I wear every stitch of clothing I have in the sleeping bag.
Aug. 29: We Bag a Peak
The morning is cold, with skins of ice in our water bottles, but the hail-snow has never returned, leaving only a thin layer of crunch underfoot. The weather continues to blow through, and looks to be clearing. This will be our last elective day; tomorrow we must hoist our packs and trail-walk back to Piute Pass, or further. So today we attempt what I call Slab Angle Peak, which according to the map, at 12,400 feet, overhangs a sheer, brute cliff. From there we might have a hundred-mile view across the Nevada desert.
We’re off early, and in an hour we have scampered up the trail to Pine Creek Pass, a low saddle from our side but from the other, the crest of 3,700 feet of ascent from the desert trailhead. From here we head off-trail to the east, ascending blindly through a labyrinth of deep rock furrows and ribs. I pile stones into cairns often to mark our way for the reverse trip.
At length, we emerge onto clear ground, and see the full measure of the work cut out for us. Scanning with binoculars, I detect no obstacles, but I wonder if we have the stomach for such exposed, unrelenting work. For now, we angle across to a cliff overlooking a plunging chasm into the Pine Creek complex. Exhausted, light-headed with the altitude, and unnerved by the vertigo of our position, the view astounds us.
Perhaps this is as far as we need to go, perched here above the abyss. Just below, splintering thousand-foot walls pinch into a razor-edged peninsula, a spiral that suggests Vladimir Tatlin’s unbuilt Monument to the Third International, writ immense. I point uphill to another prominent notch along Slab Angle’s jagged edge. I propose that we go there for the view, and when we have thus zigged and zagged a few times, always emboldened a little further by curiosity—behold: the summit now seems attainable. After consultation, we cast off on a trudging upward traverse, losing ourselves upon the slab’s vast, tilted steppe. The footing is so uniform that one can take any convenient angle upon the slope. Matt follows, content to leave the heading and pace to me. I have more experience in reckoning for the top, of course, but I wonder by his questions sometimes whether he has any common sense about where we are in the landscape? As some are good at recognizing faces, and others poor (I have been known to draw a blank on old friends), there may be a wide range of natural aptitude for the cognition of topography. Be that as it may, whether innate or honed by experience, I overestimate my own capabilities at our peril.
Dim versions of thoughts of this kind run concurrently in my mind with one of those droning fragments of melody looped to the driving piston of my breathing. It is hard to say whether I have withdrawn from bodily sensation or immersed myself in it, whether time passes more quickly or grinds more slowly, but when I started this pitch the top was barely possible, and somewhere along the way it has become inevitable. And then we are there.
The eastern escarpment, typically requiring ropes and pitons to attain—and we simply walked up it. In the distance are the immense, barren mounds of the White Mountains on the desert side of the Owens Valley. Views open up beyond to a hundred miles of shimmering badlands. We crowd as close as we dare to the sheer, tilted precipice of the titanic earth-mass, and mark warily how the boulders we stand on are part of a pile of exfoliating crumble, with thin air below. This is the source, the fountain, the birthing place of rocks.
I recall an event from years past in which I had almost been blown off a perch like this into oblivion and relate it to Matt. I had been standing over the edge of a hanging valley in the Washington Cascades, admiring a magnificent view, when a military jet came “balling the jack” over the divide behind me. Normally, our bodies unconsciously anticipate such a shock in the briefest sample of approaching noise, but here the huge roar of sound had been unable to keep up with the supersonic speed of the missile until it was directly upon me, all at once. It still seems miraculous, and makes me queasy, when I think how close I came to losing my balance, and my young life.
We brave the cold wind long enough to paint some, and by now desperate speed is my artistic ally. On the descent, the slab’s gravelly soil proves a perfect consistency for controlled sliding. Like astronauts bouncing on the moon, each boot step is worth three normal ones, and we are down in minutes what had taken hours to climb. Enraptured with our command of the landscape, we abandon our careful trail of cairns and head off to the southeast, hugging the mountain. We find our way around the cliffs that had scared me off earlier, bringing us down safely to the shores of sparkling French Lake at the headwall of the Mono Divide.
The uppermost of the chain of lakes leading down to our campsite at Moon Lake is at last achieved, and the rest is easy walking through rolling shelves littered with large boulders. Two nights ago, Matt and I had wandered hereabouts after dinner to watch the sun set before turning in. The isolated boulders, standing in the twilight among their cracked, fallen parts, suggested the eerie forms of sacrificial altars, dragons, and monsters. Hartley’s haunted paintings of Dogtown boulder fields came back to me with uneasy premonitions, and I was glad when we were safe at our campsite.
Later, at camp, inattentive while cooking our much-anticipated dinner, I commit a grievous sin, spilling a pot of vital sustenance. Had it been Matt’s mistake I doubt I would have taken it so well, but he quickly supplements the loss with extra oatmeal and our last allotment of tuna and pronounces it delicious.
That night we are awoken by the curling howl of the coyote. Someone unfamiliar with the sound would suppose a human child were being strangled. A minute passes in the dark before Matt asks tentatively if that was a coyote. Yes, I answer, a coyote howling at the moon. The moon! That means the night is clear and the weather has passed! —Dave
This was to be the last full day of the trip, but our plan to split the last two days evaporates after six hours hiking down from the Moon Lake campsite to our old friend Piute Pass. We sit on the ancient benches, huddling behind rocks to avoid the winds sweeping through the valley and pass on our week of accumulated nature lore to a couple of chubby fishermen here for their yearly manly adventure. As we gather our equipment for a short walk to one last campsite, it suddenly seems foolish to stop for one more night just to freeze again and eat the remaining bag of dehydrated food. The six miles that separate us from the trailhead on top of the fourteen we have already put down sounds trivial, really. It’s a nice round number; twenty miles on the trail sounds to me like the horizontal equivalent of yesterday’s climb—a modest but real achievement dynamic enough to command our attention. But those last six miles take forever, even longer than they did the first time. The view is different going down than going up. The trees, the lakes, the breezes are distracting, and there is no way to get into rhythm.
By the end we are staggering. The stony trail runs straight down and our tired legs keep leading us to the edge of catastrophe. We meet strange clusters of hikers as we near the trailhead, casually dressed day trippers with dogs—some of them big and hearty and others tiny and useless. What is to us an epic journey is, to these portly dilettantes, a mere weekend evening outing. The process of re-assimilation has begun. The mosquito-ridden first day’s camp is still mosquito-ridden. I wait, and wait, and wait for the end, but the tree-trunk bridges, when they finally appear, are nowhere near the end of the trail, as I had remembered. And then it’s over. The ring of big car camps appears, then the latrine and the signboard. Then the road. Somehow we miss the turn to the trailhead parking lot and we continue walking for another mile. Dave displays his first and only flare of temper. It’s less dangerous but more frustrating to be lost in civilization than in the middle of the wilderness. We finally reverse our direction, find the lot, slap the hood of the car, and change into clean clothes. Except I haven’t left any clean clothes in the car, and I stink. We drive back to Bishop, past the park, the school, the jail, the courtroom, the town hall. We find a motel, drive to a mall and buy vegetables. I buy clean clothes at the Kmart to replace my crusty trail duds. I lose my cellphone and Dave drives me around town in a futile attempt to track it down. Civilization is so challenging. Ultimately it turns up in the bottom of my backpack.
Aug. 30: A False Summit
Today I see no obstacle to hiking to the car this afternoon; we could drive down to a hotel this night. There we could shower (and by now Matt, who for some reason neither bathes nor changes his shirt, is in desperate need), eat fresh food, and most compelling of all, telephone our loved ones. Next day’s drive would be the more leisurely.
After a long day of descent, then climbing all the way back to Piute Pass, and then descending again, we at last reach our first night’s campsite. It is not so far from there to the trailhead, though by now the miles drag maddeningly. Matt and I are ready to celebrate when we at last reach the trailhead, but in our addled fatigue we miss the turn-off for the parking lot. Half an hour passes before we realize our mistake. Returning up the dusty, hard-packed gravel road is surely the most punishing mile of the trip, so that when we do reach the car, our mood is not so much celebratory as irritated. We have walked in excess of twenty hard miles today.
The Kia starts with a satisfying surge of power. Matt and I exhale with relief, having on our previous trip left the headlamps on at an extremely remote trailhead. (A pack station cowboy had been on hand to jump-start the car, but the drive down the twisting, one-lane mountain road was doubly terrifying, for the car’s transmission was manual; had I slammed on the brakes upon meeting oncoming traffic, as was natural around a blind curve, I might have stalled in a calamitous spot.) We stop to inquire at the first hotel we encounter, a workingman’s layover on the mountain-side of town, and secure lodging. Civilization frustrates more than entices, as both my cell phone and computer have lost their charge, while at the same time Matt misplaces his own phone. We drive into town to buy fresh groceries for a triumphal homemade salad, and see that we might have found any number of better accommodations. The hotel proprietor, in the confusion of an altercation outside our room, seems to think we are child molesters. We drive a second time to the supermarket to look for the phone, which finally turns up deep in Matt’s pack. Buoyant recontact a
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee