Eastern Sierra Blues
The following is something I wrote about a little trip up Mt Whitney a few years ago – Bryce
Golden light radiates over the mammoth peaks of the Eastern Sierra from the west. It floods the evening sky as the tired sun drops behind the crest. Fingerlike rays tickle the blue emptiness above. From distant alpine heights, a chilled breeze blows across the Buttermilks and steals the edge from this otherwise stifling high desert heat. Within minutes, the unbearable temperature slides towards retirement from its peak near the century mark. Crawling out from the shadows of a coarse granite egg, I linger in the silence of the hillside and gather whatever energy I can spare. It doesn’t strike me that I’m exhausted or running on empty but it would come as no surprise that I’m as tired as a man can be. My head is clouded. My muscles are sore. Distraction comes too easily. I hear a distant car door, a distant voice. A three-inch lizard scurries across the warm sand and disappears into the thorny shrubs. Is this all there is? The muted colors of shadows and dust slowly blur as my mind loses focus, and with that, my thoughts set off on a journey seeking something they cannot find.
Pes Viator emerges from the rocky, sun-warmed corridor in an exhausted state. Daybreak is mere hours behind us both, but like all Viatoris, he’s been on his feet for endless hours and the exertion at altitude is taking its toll. Such is life at 12,000 feet. The blazing sun is to his back and already I feel it warming my thick fur. I sniff at the air and wonder hungrily if he’ll feed me. All I can do is whistle a rodent tune as he crashes down beside the shallow watering hole that is too busy reflecting mons montis to notice him. His sitarchiae topples over. A subtle scent hints at the breakfast of champions encased within. Is it marmot instinct or simple desire that begs me to pillage? Desire can’t always win. I slip away from my burrow beneath the rocks and lazily lounge in the shadow of a boulder beside the chilly, antisocial bathtub. From my seat, the sight of his loneliness is clear, although I doubt he senses the truth. He’s too focused on this itineris, too lost in the sublimity of these vistas. With each glance towards the heavens, he wonders which pinnacle is the culmen culminis as he traces the ridgeline to the north. There is an air of fear surrounding him and to my rock-chuck eyes, every thought and feeling of his ailing soul is laid bare as if his entire being is transparent. I can tell he’s stubborn and fighting self-doubt at every step, but it’s impossible to gauge who will reach the promontorium and who will give in to defeat. Will he be the one out of three that succeeds or will altitude, exhaustion, or dehydration claim him? It’s obvious that he doesn’t want to leave, but would he be heartbroken if he turned back now? How do any of us cope with failure or defeat? Do we press on or retreat and what do our choices say about our soul?
From the shadows, a curious marmot watches as I struggle to find any sort of peace. Somehow, he knows. Trekking through the suffocating darkness of the predawn black can be an entirely lonely feeling. Emotional skeletons don’t make for enjoyable company and they have taken their toll. My glowing light didn’t cut far into the ether and just out of sight, memories, demons, and thoughts danced through the night. Is this where I belong? How far am I going to push myself? When will I grow up? The lack of answers threatened to tear me apart even as I wondered if it was fair to ask myself such things. Distant bobbing headlamps were the only sign of life outside of my isolated, insular world and although daylight has driven the dreaded demons away, I sit here merely a quarter of my way into this journey and a nearly crippling fear remains. Will this entire trip be for nothing? Why am I really here? I doubt myself at every step. Timidity creeps underneath my skin. Would I be any better off if I weren’t alone? If I knew the outcome of this day would it still be worth living?
My wandering mind snaps back from the sweet oblivion of the past. Somehow, it doesn’t seem real. Is it possible that everything is merely a dream? What proof is there that we’re even alive? Can our senses lie? Shadows slowly lengthen as the sun dips further behind the range. I down a swig of water and let the liquid wet my parched and horribly cracked lips. On my tongue, I taste the warm blood of numerous splits. Although accidental, the pain brings focus. Slipping off my black Shellrocks, I pull on a pair of climbing shoes and feel the gravel beneath my feet. The pebbles shift as if trying to escape my weight. I dip into my chalk bag and let the soft powder brush my skin. Relaxing further into a focused mood, I fondle every crisp crimp with my roughened tips in an attempt to wire a sequence into my heat-rattled mind. I’m either overconfident to the point of delusion or suffering from a brief second of clarity. Can we ever tell the difference in the moment? While the start of the problem appears mellow, a fall from the upper reaches will land me on a half buried rock slab. I hear the voice that demands I walk away, but in no way am I ready to acquiesce.
Azure emptiness surrounds me on this march towards the celestial kingdom above. Towers of gray and golden granite fill the horizon like ramparts guarding entrance to the sky. An unimpeded sol beats down with relentless fury, summoning sweat and parching my lips. Ice drips in the shadows and slowly expires. How harsh can this world be? Distant turquoise mirrors shimmer in the light thousands of feet below. In stark contrast to days past, there is scarcely a breeze to ripple their murky alpine waters. The dry air is crisp, trapped somewhere in flux. If it had a choice, would it mimic the stifling heat of the valley below or forever stay chilled in the presence of these rocky sentinels? From atop a rock at the edge of the world, I stare out over the abyss. Lingering in my mind is the first touch of the solar orb against the mighty granite buttresses, a gentle kiss of tender warmth and vibrant blush. What is the value of such sights if they can never be shared? The scorched earth of the Alabama Hills is a distant memory visible through the cleft of Whitney Portal. Remnants of the annual winter blanket cling desperately to the steep gullies of the mountainside as if terrified of freedom. Snow crystals sparkle in the light. Beneath my feet, the ridgeline of the crest deviously masks views to the west although sister giants jut up towards the heavens on the horizon. Given the grandeur of everything around me, I’ve lost any sense of scale. What stands out as obvious is my relative unimportance to the world and the feeling that I’m falling behind in more ways than one. Is this truly my place?
Cutting off the outside world, my focus returns with a vengeance. Despite the screaming of my fingertips, the silence of the Buttermilk Country is deafening. Wide open spaces have a magic all their own. My skin threatens to tear against the granite as I bear down and tell myself to breathe. Movements flow together as if I’m dancing with the rock. I’ll never understand why climbing always feels so pure. With my left hand locked off, I shift my weight over the opposite toe and stare up at the next hold. A moment of hesitation forces me to confront the fact that I can’t undo this decision. I can’t step down. I can’t turn around. Failure of any sort is going to hurt. Is this the edge that I so desperately seek to feel alive? Fear awakens our senses just as the rush of adrenaline makes us alert. Have I found my limit or am I merely flirting with something well within my ability? I’ll never know unless I try. Powering upwards, I miss the hold by a precious inch and gravity beckons me towards injury. In an outright refusal to lose, I fight with every fiber of muscle in my body and levitate towards my goal. First a finger crawls onto the crimp, then four. A wave of relief washes over me, but in no way am I safe. There is too much air beneath my feet. I stare down a rail out left and adjust my feet before tossing for it. Coming up short yet again, my entire body tries to barndoor away from the face. This can’t be happening. I won’t let it. Is this what I wanted? I tense up, latch onto something miniscule and surge again. The chalk from my fingers is long since gone. Am I in control or is it simply fate? Wrapping my digits around the incut edge, I breathe easier and momentarily lose control of my thoughts.
Massive granite cliffs like jagged fortresses of the alpine kingdom tower over chill aquamarine waters in the canyon below. Ancient pines struggle to appear as anything more than lowland stubble. Distant snowfields stand out as patches of burning white against the sun scorched rock while the mid-day shadows cower. What words ever truly express the sublimity of beauty? Beneath the unblemished blue, majestic peaks fill the horizon and breathe free in this rarefied air. I may be feeling the weight of my existence, but I’m not yet at my end. I wish I had a lighter pack, a lighter soul. Would the shedding of a tear ease my burden? Even with the summit in sight, I feel sluggish. I can’t do this. A winding path snakes ever upwards, but my leaden feet seem hesitant to travel any further as I’m being taunted by every honest mistake that I’ve made. How does doubt cloud our mind? I realize that I could have trained more, I just didn’t take the time. I’m not sure how much more of myself I have to give, but I’m unwilling to give in. Not yet. Not after so much. For whatever reason, the continued encouragement of those on their descent begins to wear on me. Is it jealousy? Where I struggle, they’ve already succeeded. A quick glance at my watch reveals that I’ve been on my feet for over ten hours. I’m not even half way. Time simply ticks away but almost has no meaning. The fourteen thousand-foot mark is somewhere below. Can I do this? Without having hiked since last spring, can I push myself to the summit of the highest peak in the Sierra? Deep down, I know the answer and I quicken my pace to unexpected consequences. Dry heaves give way to intense dizziness and the cycle begins again. I feel as if my body might finally collapse. Nausea and hypoxia are simply the beginning, but I tell myself that I know when to stop. Do I? Will I ever learn if I don’t? The summit hut rears its head over the rounded, rocky horizon and I can’t help but rejoice.
A mountain breeze blows away my treasured visions of the recent past. I exhale slowly after a steadying breath and my lactic enemy begins to weigh me down. With one final movement, I grasp a welcome jug at the lip and pull over onto the huecoed summit of the bloc. Standing on quaking legs, I realize quickly that my nerves are frayed. Why do I do this to myself? It’s a worthy end to a day, but I feel more lost than free and it’s a feeling that I cannot shake. Here I am growing older by the minute, but it doesn’t feel as if I’ve grown up. With age comes wisdom, but maybe I’m not ready for some of the answers. How many of us ever are? All of these pursuits are selfish and the only thing that they change is my perspective. I can’t help think that I’m trying to avoid the unwanted responsibilities of a life that I don’t want while I stumble through each day seeking anything that sparks something within. When will I feel complete or at least content? I cautiously scramble away from the edge before taking a seat. As I strip the black shoes from my feet, I breathe easy in the cooler evening air and stare out across the foothills. Who am I today? Somehow, I’m not even sure. I’m just another person in this world, quietly living a life with hope that I’ll become something more. I’ll always be a climber, but what else do I want from my life? I shake my head. I don’t think I’ve ever known. With a sigh, I stare off into the fading light beneath this darkening Eastern Sierra blue sky and let my mind run free. I may be trapped behind reluctance, but I won’t let this build up inside of me.