Happiness || Satisfaction
In which we learn the value of making it not only to the tops of mountains but also back down them.
My dad and I recently climbed Mt. Whitney. We got into Lone Pine, the small town at the base of the mountain the afternoon before, spent the night in the back of the soccer mom inspired SUV, that my parents still inexplicably have, got up at midnight (we were doing the hike in one day), and commenced our climb by 1:00 am, in the dark.
The ascent was an incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring experience in its own right- hiking through the night provided the most incredible view of the sky, and we were nearly all alone in the wilderness, which lent itself nicely to all sorts of cute, aphoristic, Thoreau-ish thoughts. It was surprisingly warm, and we lamented the fact that we didn’t bring shorts for the hike down.
We watched the sunrise from a series of switchbacks on a rock face at nearly 13,000'. This was reminiscent of a stop-motion video- we would see a minute of sunrise, turn a sharp corner and face back into the night and the stars, and then turn again, into the dawn.
Around the same time, we became aware of the altitude, which presented itself not so much a challenge, but rather a slight shift in perception, and a magnification of focus on what was going on immediately around us (we were relieved it didn’t cause any problems, since we hadn’t acclimated in any sort of formal way, and we’d been hiking at a fast pace).
Less fortunately, the magnificent daybreak and thin air were accompanied by very strong, very cold winds. Despite new sunlight, the temperature dropped off dramatically. I went for a drink of water to find the tube of my Camelback frozen. The next time we stopped for a break, we realized that this (stopping, that is) was no longer a viable option because not moving was too cold a state to be in.
We traversed a narrow bit of trail and wrapped around the back side of the mountain. The landscape changed dramatically as we entered the final stretch of the hike- it became very surreal- dramatic rock spires rose up in front of alpine lakes thousands of feet below, and this eventually gave way to large, flat broken off pieces of white-ish rock, almost lunar in nature, especially under the sky, which was a dark, piercing blue, shot through with clouds.
It was cold and serene and beautiful, and I was experiencing a unique single-mindedness: the only thing I could think was: I must get to the top of this mountain.
Isn’t it lovely when your goals are crystal-clear?
Finally, we got to the top of the mountain, and much to our relief (it had gotten very cold), there was a small, simple warming hut. I ran a lap around the summit, and looked out, over the top of the Sierra Nevadas, and appreciated the new perspective (I’m looking at the tops of mountains! I’ve never seen these from above this close up, i.e. not in an airplane). I think I now have a new appreciation for the forces that shape tectonic lift as well…
I was very, very, very cold, and perhaps equally happy.
We went into the hut, and I found that my Camelback had gone a step further and now had dramatic icicles growing out of it, which I ate like a popsicle. (I’ve always wanted to eat an icicle, and figured this was probably my chance to consume one made of purified water.) We went back out to take pictures, and I decided that I wanted to get just a little bit higher, so I found the tallest rock I could and jumped straight up, and I greatly enjoyed the thought that I was definitely the highest person in the continental U.S. at that particular moment.
We began our descent after signing the summit log in messy, frozen handwriting- Sbrocca + Sbrocca.
We decided that we wouldn’t stop until we got back past the traverse around the side of the mountain, back to the side with sun, because we were so cold. This was about two miles.
As we climbed, the clouds became more dramatic, and the wind picked up to such a degree that on several occasions, I had to dig my trekking poles into the ground, and bend my knees and hunch over to prevent myself from being lifted off the mountain (it blew me a few feet at one point — I am a very small woman, but still, the wind was strong enough that it moved an adult person several feet).
We got back to the side of the mountain that would have been in the sun, had there been any, and were dismayed to find that it was much, much colder than the summit. We didn’t have a thermometer, but I was estimating single digits with the wind. We decided not to take a break.
A few minutes later, I noticed a foreign white thing on my glove, and then another one. And then, I realized it was snowing.
We were on an exposed rock face on the side of a mountain, holding metal poles, in a storm. We were prepared for a day hike, had no snow gear, no camping gear, no emergency gear (or plan), and food and water for one day. I was wearing a shell over a sweatshirt, cold weather running leggings, trail running shoes and thin gloves.
Of course, we assumed the snow would stop quickly because we were unprepared for it, and I think that’s our natural inclination as humans: to assume that things will work in a way that we are prepared to deal with. This, of course, is erroneous; it started snowing much harder.
I looked up at the peak behind us, and it wasn’t there; there was only swirling white, and out into the valley in front of us, which was equally shrouded in blowing snow. And then, then I looked down at the trail and realized that we needed to hurry, because snow was starting to pile up, and we had no GPS, and we had navigated our way up by sight, quite literally by looking at the trail, and when there wasn’t a trail, looking for footprints.
I was struck with the sudden realization that this had become a serious situation and that this was how mountaineering accidents happen. This was in parallel with the realization that this was really bad, and that we were all alone and very unprepared, and that we were going to have to act quickly and extricate ourselves from this situation.
We’d been going pretty slowly until this point, walking some yards apart from each other. I called out that we needed to hurry, that we needed to get down as quickly as possible before we got lost, or before it got colder, because we had no way to camp in the snow, no way to navigate if we got lost, and no way to warm up. After three tries, he heard me. He agreed.
We started doing the best approximation of running that we could- the trail had gotten icy- and tried to keep our eyes on the trail, but occasionally looked out into the whiteout swirling around us, and I tried to hold on to my poles with hands that felt like rocks.
We ran through the storm, racing it, trying to get out of it, or at least to outpace its worsening as it came down the mountain behind us, for several hours, until finally- finally- the snow stopped. We decided not to stop until we’d given ourselves more of a margin, even though we’d been hiking, running really, over icy ground, for hours and hours without the slightest pause.
The last two or three miles of the hike were the longest miles I have ever gone. We were out of the storm, but it was still cold and windy. We didn’t know how far we had come or how much farther we had to go, or if it was going to start snowing again. We hiked maybe 50 feet apart from each other, each of us lost in a weird together solitude as we descended. The altitude-enhanced single-mindedness of earlier to reach the top had been replaced with a new, even more, directed goal: to reach the bottom.
And, finally… we did.
The sense of accomplishment upon reaching the summit was excellent, but the sense of accomplishment on reaching the trailhead at Whitney Portal was so much more so - we had made it.
Reaching the top of the mountain was a moment of happiness: it was fun and light and enjoyable and fleeting. Reaching the bottom of the mountain was a moment of satisfaction: it was not enjoyable, but hard-won and valuable and enduring because of what it took to get there. Satisfaction, it would seem, is infinitely more valuable: it’s something you’ve had to earn, something that doesn’t come cheaply. This journey was a confirmation of the fact that climbing up a mountain is something that has to be done honestly- there’s no way to cheat- but also (as we so often forget!) that this applies to climbing down a mountain as well.
Our lives are so good and so easy. It is so rare that we are given the opportunity to truly test ourselves in way that is not safe and controlled- even the hard things that we do (that we do by choice!), the races we run, the mountains we climb, the things we decide to endure in the name of achievement are handled within a safe context of preparation. It is only when they go wrong, when the unanticipated creeps in, though, that we are truly tested. That we get to prove ourselves in ways we hadn’t imagined.
That day, through that experience, I found a new edge, pushed my boundaries farther than I have before. Before we left for our hike, a few friends pointed out to us that we may or may not be able to go, depending on when the first winter storm of the season was. Despite the painful nature of the experience, never have I felt that I’ve timed something so well: we beat the first winter storm (and end of the general climbing season) to the summit by something like two hours, and raced it down the mountain.
The majority of our descent was incredibly hard, painful, and scary. But it was excellent. It was an awesome and inspiring experience. I left with a renewed sense of wonder, and newfound knowledge of what I am capable of when tested, of what I can do when I have no other option but to do it (and also frostbite- but luckily the when your fingers turn red and the skin peels off like a molting snake kind, not the your fingers turned black and fall off kind).
My belief that subjecting yourself to challenge, that doing really difficult things and pushing yourself so hard that you leave with reparable injuries, but also with the knowledge that you’ve found the edge, found the boundary, and surpassed it, is incredibly worthwhile has been confirmed.
Because how else do we learn?