My first-ever backpacking trip was kind of a shit show. I carried all my supplies in a broken, black backpack that had been left behind by two Swedish Air BnB’ers I hosted, I smashed my body into a one-person tent alongside my boyfriend at night, and I had no idea what altitude was or how its effects can wreak havoc on the body. As I made my way up the well-worn trail that traverses the summit of Alta Peak in the middle of Sequoia National Park, I found myself gasping for air and stopping every five minutes to sit down or lean my unsteady body against a tree to rest. I fell in love with my first wilderness sunrise, creeping its miraculous pink fingers across the Great Western Divide, but, by the end of the weekend, I vowed to never let my body feel that terrible in the outdoors again. It was time to train.
About a month ago, I gathered a makeshift team of oddballs together to celebrate my birthday in the Alabama Hills. It was a Tetris game of wildly different personalities from nearly every one of my friend groups – the photographer, the mountain guide, the dude I met once from Facebook, the couple that picked me up at a goth club 6 years ago, and the weird kids in the back who really wanted to stay up late and do too much acid. We were a junkshow.
First, a loud whumpf roars through the valley, slamming my entire body with the malicious ferocity of a kick drum beat at an underground club. Next, terrifying silence as the slope gives way underneath. The snowpack crumbles before it turns to a mushy gunk the consistency of hand-cranked cement as it pours down the face of the mountain. I didn’t even see it coming. It is 10:45am on Monday, April 2nd. I’m three-quarters of the way up Sherwin Ridge, and my climbing partner, Ryan, is about to be hit by 1,100 tons of sludge.
“It’s probably negative 20 out, and I can’t feel my feet… but at least it’s windy!” Jimmy Chin is 20,000 ft. above sea level, climbing near-vertical snow and ice as his team pushes towards the summit of Meru’s Shark’s Fin, and he’s smiling. In fact, the one thing that most struck me when I re-watched the film, Meru, a few weeks ago was Chin’s unfailing ability to laugh at a situation, no matter how fucked up it got. It was remarkable; a mastery of the human spirit almost as difficult as the technical, mixed climbing he faced, and it got me wondering, “Why the hell am I not doing that?”
Instead of saying no, I found myself sobbing next to a creek in the Eastern Sierras. Fresh out of a fight with my boyfriend, I had traversed a cross-country approach to one of California’s highest peaks in the sweltering heat. I was terrified of climbing my first bergschrund, uncomfortable in my avalanche transceiver, and struggling to prop up the idea that I could make a great mountaineer. There was a bar fight inside my head, and I was losing.