Last weekend, I cruised up the 395 for over ten hours, doing the slow and awkward tire chain dance every few miles between Bishop and South Lake Tahoe. By the time I arrived, my poor minivan was practically limping down the road to my mom’s place in a full-on blizzard, flailing its one remaining cable chain and sputtering like a parrot on too much caffeine.
You hear a familiar crunch as your leather hiking boot bursts through a thin layer of orange leaves littering the trail below. You look up for a moment, startled by delicate footprints up and to your left, just managing to catch the tail ends of two deer before they hurriedly prance out of view. There’s a chill in the autumn air, and, if you look closely, you can see your breath manifest into a tiny cloud right before your face as you walk. At the next junction on the trail, a small, weathered sign leans squat against a tree. “Monarch Lake 1.2 miles | Crystal Lake 1.4 miles” – Which do you choose?
5:30am – The alarm on my iPhone ricochets against the dark womb of my 2015 Ford Transit. I lift my head a few inches to groggily peer outside at the tall, black spires of towering pines all around, dizzied by the carpet of stars surrounding them. Is it too early? Should I go back to sleep? My boyfriend, Brian, stirs in bed next to me, burrowing his warmth into my legs. I yawn and spread my toes as far apart as I can muster like a cat napping on a sofa in the sun, grumbling like an eighty year old man. Leaving this isn’t going to be easy.
The walls were moving, and I didn’t know where my guide was.
I was squatting, pants-down, over a pit toilet within a crudely constructed turquoise shed somewhere around 15,700 feet in the Andean foothills of Peru, trying desperately not to puke. The walls appeared to be having a rave of their own, swaying rhythmically to and fro like one of those inflatable arm waving men you see outside of used car dealerships. Mind you, the walls were not actually alive. They were static, as ordinary outhouse walls tend to be. I was the one collapsing. I was trapped in the psychedelic hellscape that only severe altitude sickness can bring, and I was terrified.
My first backpacking trip was a burly 12 miler that left me gasping for air as I crested the last few boulders on the summit block of Alta Peak. I was 28, hopelessly in love, and had a gorgeous assortment of all the wrong gear. Among the sundries inside my pack were: a bohemian leather jacket, a full-sized towel, and a child’s size sleeping bag from the sale bin at a suburban H&M. I was a mess.
“How much higher do you think that outcropping is from where we’re sitting right now?”
Justin was faded, nauseous, and swaying in the mid-day heat of the Eastern Sierra when the words fell out of his mouth. My head felt like an over-inflated balloon. Dumbstruck, I tried my best at a civil response, “Fuck. I don’t know… Maybe 50 feet? Is this not the summit?!”
Let’s face it, you’re on the trail so many weekends out of the year that you have a pet honeybee named Myrtle who lives behind your right ear and a heart with John Muir’s name on it tattooed across your left tricep. You knit sweaters from the leg hair you shave once a year before your family’s Christmas party, and you know how to create a fierce smoky eye out of nothing but a spoonful of mushroom spores you found in the forest. You are ethereal. You are muddy. Your favorite Beatle is George’s sitar, and you legally changed your middle name to Moab when you were 17. This one’s for you, sugarplum.
I awake to fuzzy hipster garage rock reverberating off the tin can that is my unfinished Ford Transit in the wee hours of dawn, downing a Clif Bar and a caffeine gel while praying for an extra 8 minutes to snooze in the comfort of my luxurious sleeping bag. I think I was having a sex dream about Alex Honnold. Ugh… Such strong hands.
Here I am, all five feet, six inches of tanned, golden-haired glory. I’m probably wearing yoga shorts and trail runners so clean you could eat a vegan acai bowl out of them. I smell like snickerdoodles and definitely don’t poop in the woods. My selfie stick rivals Gandalf’s staff in its sun-stained splendor, and I’ve got ninja-like skills when it comes to using it. You see that trail over yonder? It’s ready for its goddamn close up.
“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?”