A humorous story of my backpacking trip in the Sierras. What else could possibly go wrong?
| Mother Nature Said No
My flight from Detroit arrived in Reno, Nevada and Jeremy met me at the airport to help with all my gear. Our objective was to drive about three hours to the backside of the Yosemite Range and backpack our way on a three day trip in early August to the summit of Mt. Conness, an elevation of twelve-thousand-five-hundred feet.
Jeremy, an energetic fun-loving twenty-six year old with a killer smile who lives in Reno, and will hopefully be part of the family someday (he's the boyfriend of my girlfriend's brother's daughter - got that?), along with his two year old Siberian Husky "Stoli" (yes, named after the vodka), and myself were the only ones on this wilderness excursion. It was my first trip to high elevations in rugged mountains. I can't say I wasn't concerned, me being twenty-one years older than Jeremy and worried about the effect the thinner air would have on me the higher we went. And oh yeah, forty-five years older than the dog. But my biggest worry was how Jeremy was going to get my body back down the mountain after I died. I don't think he gave that much thought. I'm sure he didn't give a shit.
The drive through the mountain ranges was absolutely beautiful, but the weather had been very unstable the past few days. Brief thunderstorms touched off numerous brush and forest fires throughout the western states, and we happened upon a number of them along the way. However, when we arrived at our trailhead there was no evidence of any nearby fires that would hinder our trip.
It was about two in the afternoon when the three of us hit the trail at Saddlebag Lake. Loaded packs on our backs, including a convenient sized pack for Stoli to carry on her own back, we started out under partly cloudy skies and a temperature of eighty-two degrees.
Jeremy led the way, well, actually Stoli led the way, while I trailed behind a few steps. Soon it became a few more steps. Half an hour later I was completely out of their view until I saw them standing a hundred yards ahead waiting for me. Okay, so I like to take my time. What's wrong with that? Actually, I couldn't keep up without thinking I was a running back for a football team.
The trail was very rocky, skirting the slope of a loose rock mountainside, and it wasn't long before I had my first casualty. Yep, I twisted my ankle on a stone that gave way under my boot. I didn't tell Jeremy because I didn't want to jeopardize our expedition, being that we were only an hour into it. After all, we had three days of hiking and climbing to do, I couldn't stop after one hour unless I was really crippled or something.
That was just the beginning.
The trail actually disappeared after an hour and a half and I had to rely on Jeremy's expertise to read the topographical map and direct us with his compass. Plus the fact he'd been here a few times before. I also felt compelled to look like I knew what I was doing, so I pulled out my own compass, the one I've had since I was seventeen and hunting with my dad. I never got lost using it and I knew that this special compass would become a family heirloom to be handed down to my own sons one day. It also had a thermometer inside and clipped on your shirt pocket for easy access. I flipped it open, read our bearing and noticed the temperature had already dropped six degrees due to the higher elevation. I then closed it and clipped it back onto my shirt pocket.
We continued walking and climbing alongside a mountain stream that eventually we had to cross. The stream narrowed to about six feet wide when Jeremy said,
"This looks pretty good to cross. We'll just tiptoe on those rocks and stretch over to the other side."
He placed his foot on one rock, then another, and leaped across, dry as a bone.
"Be careful," he said. "The rocks are a little slick."
C'mon, how hard can this be? I mean, step on a few rocks and jump, right?
I gently placed my left foot down on the first rock and...WHOOP!!! BAM!!! I was sitting flat on my ass on the bank of the stream with both feet almost knee deep in the cold, rushing water. Now, hiking boots, wool socks and feet soaked completely to the bone, I still wasn't on the right side of the stream. I figured I couldn't get any wetter at this point so I walked through the water to the other side like a deer in the woods. We all had a good laugh and continued on. Have you ever seen a dog laugh?
The climb was now getting steeper and more challenging, having to maneuver up and around boulders and walls of rock. Jeremy was masterful as he threaded his way up one crack and down the other to get through the mass of stone. I followed close behind so as not to blaze my own trail in uncharted territory. Jeremy slid down a chute between two walls of granite and I followed.
Well, sort of.
My feet slipped out from under me and I landed hard on my tailbone, immediately pinching a nerve in my lower back. Pain shot down both legs, not to mention the numbness in my ass. Again, I kept it to myself for fear of destroying our trip.
Don't go away, there's more.
Walking hunched over to alleviate some of the pain, I continued to follow through the maze of rock while we periodically climbed and descended to try to gain ground.
This time, while making a short three foot jump down to a sloping slab, the weight of my backpack shifted to my left side causing me to tumble down again with the full force of my body weight being slammed onto my left elbow. Thinking now that my elbow was shattered or upper arm fractured due to the driving pain, I started getting a little skeptical about this trip. Though nothing was actually broken, the first two hours of my first great adventure was turning out to be most memorable. I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next.
We took a break at a large boulder field when we saw dark clouds approaching over the mountaintops and through the canyon. Thunder was rumbling and flashes of lightning were getting closer. There was no place to hide in this boulder field, no caves or ledges to hide under and we were already above the tree line. We sat in the open on the side of a mountain, subjected to whatever Mother Nature was going to dish out.
As normal summer mountain storms go, they usually appear rapidly and are gone in half an hour or so. The heat from the valley rises in late afternoon to meet with the cooler upper air, touching off brief but intense thunderstorms. To our surprise, this was not going to be a normal summer mountain storm.
Jeremy checked the altimeter on his watch to see our elevation. We were presently at ten-thousand one-hundred feet. Actually higher than some of the storm clouds. But not enough of them. Thunderheads can rise to thirty, forty, fifty thousand feet. The energy packed clouds were still rolling in over our heads. I grabbed for my compass to check the storm's direction...the compass was gone. The compass I've had since I was seventeen, for thirty years, the sure-to-be family heirloom, was gone. It must have popped off my shirt during one of my falls, which one I'll never know, because we weren't coming back the same route. And I wasn't about to go back and look for it. Even though I really wanted to.
The storm was extremely close now, lightning bolts visible striking the canyon walls, waiting to zero in on our aluminum framed packs on our backs. Yeah, you're right. That's not a real good idea. Off the packs came and we tucked them under a boulder to get away from the weather. Since there was no place for us to hide, we sported our raingear and curled up next to a large rock to wait out the brief storm.
Brief my ass.
While Stoli ventured around looking for wildlife, Jeremy and I were getting concerned about our own lives. The storm was now overhead, intense lightning bolting down all around us and deafening thunder crackling only seconds from lightning strikes. The rain only lasted a short time before it turned to ice. You heard me, it started raining ice. The temperature dropped dramatically and if I had my fancy compass with the thermometer I could tell you what the temperature was. But let's not go there again, it's a sore subject with me. All I know is that I could now see my breath. No, not because it was bad and left a haze in the air, but because it was getting pretty damn cold.
Just when we thought the storm was starting to let up, another wave rolled in behind even more intense than the last. This pattern continued a total of four different times... rain, then ice, then rain, then ice.
We had to make a decision. The storm obviously wasn't letting up in this millennium, so should we continue on to Roosevelt Lake a few more miles and a higher elevation and knuckle down, hoping the storm would soon pass? Or should we turn and head back down the mountain and spend the remaining night in the back of the covered pickup truck? Let's weigh this out.
If we go on, the rocks and boulders are now wet with rain and ice, my boots are soaked completely through from falling in the stream and my so-called rain suit that I spent little money on was saturated, leaving my clothes wet underneath. With the temperature still dropping to who knows how low, hypothermia was a real concern if we went higher and farther. Turning back would evaporate all the ground we just covered and completely alter our plans of a three day trip up and down Mt. Conness. But we would be dry in the truck with the heater to help dry our gear and if the weather cleared by morning we could try it again, only making a shorter route.
Let's see, life...or death? Life...or death? Okay, I choose life. Back down we go.
The storm continued to batter us relentlessly for four more hours, rocks slippery from rain and ice and constantly losing our footing while we walked back down the mountain slope. We hiked another route back down around a lake so finding my lost compass was out of the question.
Rain and ice fell until we just didn't give a shit anymore. Bolts of lightning were striking within football field distance from us, which we did give a shit about. All we could think about was the metal framed lightning rods on our backs. We knew it was just a matter of time before lightning zeroed in on our location and blew us to Kingdom Come.
The dry trails from hours before were now running rivers with two, three and four inches of water, so the odds of surviving a lightning strike would be about as good as grabbing a high voltage wire while standing in a bathtub of water. I didn't like those odds. I'm not a gambler, but I knew I wouldn't win that one.
A couple of hours later brought us to the trailhead where the truck was parked. The lower elevation had turned the ice to solid rain with no end in sight. Wet, cold and hungry, we climbed into the truck and changed into dry clothes. Thinking for a moment about what food we had in our packs to rustle up for dinner, and about bringing out the cookstove and making something edible in the back of a covered pickup truck with a wet dog that was shaking and shedding, we said, "Screw this" and drove down the street to a nearby tavern and had ravioli, salad and garlic bread, topped off with a nice, cold beer. We mountain men really know how to rough it, don't we?
By nine-thirty we were all tucked in our sleeping bags in the back of the truck, warm and dry. Stoli curled up on her blanket in one corner and in no time we were all in lala land. If morning brought us good weather, we would give the mountain another shot, but a challengeable shorter version. We weren't whipped yet.
At two-thirty a.m. I awoke with throbbing pain in my ankle, but not as bad as the pain in my lower back. No, wait. The pain in my elbow and shoulder is worse. Strike that. The tailbone is killing me. The pinched nerve in my back was keeping me from acquiring a comfortable position while lying down, and the elbow thing now radiated into my shoulder and around my ribcage. I'm now thinking, "What the hell did I get myself into here?"
With all this pain and discomfort, there's no way I'm going anywhere tomorrow except home. My mind was made up. In the morning I'll have to tell Jeremy the trip was off.
At six a.m., Stoli decided it was time to get up. All of us. Jeremy dropped the tailgate and a blast of crisp air wafted across our faces, and there it was. Staring at us. Glaring at us. Daring us.
Mt. Conness, majestic as it was at twelve-thousand five-hundred feet, was drenched in early morning sunlight with nothing but a clear, deep blue sky as it's backdrop. Not a single cloud existed. I crawled out of the truck, sore and stiff, and knew right then it wasn't time to go home yet. We still had a mountain to climb.
I told Jeremy I didn't think my back would last carrying my pack on a two day trip up and down the mountain, so he suggested leaving my pack in the truck and taking only what we need for the day. He said we could make it to the top and back in a long day hike and he would carry the load in his pack. This long day hike required a shorter route. The shorter route meant no trail this time. We needed to tackle this baby head on, straight up the slope from the get-go. Reluctantly, and wishing I was dead, I agreed.
Stoli kept looking at us as if to say, "So what's keeping you guys? Let's get going!"
Now here's the thing about Stoli. She's a Siberian Husky, an absolute beautiful dog with piercing baby blue eyes and a disposition of just licking you to death. She's definitely a people dog. Many people, especially women, would stop us along the trail and ask what kind of dog she was, because her eyes made her look much like a wolf. If you wanted to meet women, which we didn't of course (I had to say that because of "other" people that will be reading this, if you know what I mean), the way to meet them was through Stoli. She was a good ice breaker. But anyway, the whole point of this was she was ready to climb a mountain. Again. And she wanted us to hurry up.
So we did. We packed some snacks, a rain jacket, a warmer shirt for the higher elevations and we were off, Stoli leading the pack.
A park ranger was sitting in his truck as we passed by on our way to the trail.
"Some storm last night, huh?" he chuckled. "Haven't seen one like that for a long time."
"Yeah, tell us about it. We were on the mountain."
"You guys made it through okay?" he asked surprised.
"We were forced back down last night."
"They called that one the Pineapple Express. Sucked up a ton of moisture from the Pacific and dumped it right on us," he said. "Worst storm in ages."
Boy, do I believe that. We were there. Eyewitness to it all. I asked Jeremy if he'd been in those often and he said, "Never. Not even close to that bad."
Oh perfect. Just perfect. Was I bad luck or something?
We walked the trail for about a hundred yards when Jeremy looked around and said, "Here. This is where we'll go up."
I looked up the long, steep slope and said excitedly, "Cool! Let's go for it!"
But my silent thoughts were, "Are you out of your fucking mind? You want us to go where? Climb what? It'll take me a week to get up this son-of-a-bitch."
I smiled and silently started up.
An incline of about forty-five degrees, no solid footing, just crumbled loose rock with most pieces the size of your fist, we headed up towards the top of the mountain that reached what seemed like forever into the deep blue sky.
Higher and higher we went, carefully placing each foot on wobbly stones, sometimes slipping and losing a little forward motion, but continually pressing onward to achieve our ultimate goal...the top. Jeremy spotted a large bush way at the top and said, "Focus on that. That's where we're going."
"O...(gasp)...K," I wheezed back at him.
I'd tell you how many rest breaks I took along the way, but I can't count that high. I don't think they invented those numbers yet. But you know, I wasn't about to give in to this piss ass mountain. I knew Jeremy could do it. He'd done it before. And Stoli had four legs to my two, so that's not even a comparison. Unless of course I started crawling on my hands and knees. Which I was about to do. But give up? Pain in my lower back, ankle, elbow, shoulder and ribcage? Surrender my old age of forty-seven to a twenty-six year old? Did you say quit? Not on your life.
A few hours passed before I could actually see the bush on the top. This suddenly became feasible to me. I could do this. Jeremy was already there and had to wait another fifteen minutes for me to get there. When the fifteenth minute arrived, so did I. I reached out and touched the bush.
The wind picked up dramatically here on top and the temperature dropped quite a bit. We put on warmer shirts and panned the vista around us. The view was absolutely sensational. Snow was at our elevation in pockets along the mountainsides and numerous glacial lakes were scattered throughout the range. We were on top of the world. A high granite peak off in the distance sparked my curiosity, so I asked Jeremy what that peak was.
"Mt. Conness," he said. "That's where we're going."
Wait a fucking minute.
I just spent all morning climbing this mother fucking piss ass giant mountain that the Almighty God himself put before me and I'm still wheezing. Are you telling me this was just a prelude of what was yet to come?
"We should be there by mid-afternoon if we keep pressing. It's a challenge, but we can do it and get back by nightfall," he beamed. Jeremy does a lot of beaming.
A challenge he says. For him or me? If it was a challenge for him, it was damn well impossible for me. He was young, fit and experienced. I was old, overweight and wondering what the fuck I was doing up here. Did you say quit? Maybe.
Clouds were beginning to appear over the high range and we were starting to become a little concerned. Jeremy was concerned, I was scared shitless. Scattered clouds? Possibly. But what if not? What if it was another storm front forming and bearing down on us, hoping to finish us off because it couldn't yesterday? Do you see how I think here? We couldn't know but we continued on.
The terrain flattened somewhat on a large plateau, so walking became quite easy. In no time we were trekking across snow and mid-summer remnants of winter glaciers. The summit of Mt. Conness peered down upon us from afar. Clouds continued to form.
Half way across the plateau Jeremy stopped and looked up into the sky.
"Okay, decision time again," he said. "If these are storm clouds moving in
and we're up there on Mt. Conness, we're screwed. We're not prepared for bad weather on the mountain. No sufficient rain gear, no change of clothes, no tent for protection. Could be a problem. But if they're just cumulous clouds, we'll have the time of our life. A moment to remember always."
Yeah, I'm afraid the only memorable moment will be people remembering how stupid I was for staying up here and dying in a storm. The bad part about all this is that we can see the summit from where we're standing, but still quite a ways off. Well, actually the really bad part is dying on the mountain because we were determined to make it to the top. Did you say quit? I guess.
Jeremy checked the altimeter on his watch again to see our elevation. We were at eleven-thousand one-hundred feet. The summit was twelve-thousand five-hundred feet. Close but no cigar. I think we did pretty good, considering.
Before we started back down we made a promise to try it again next year. We didn't accomplish what we set out to do. And being crippled and worn down to a mere glob of warm flesh, I didn't like being defeated - especially by this mountain. However, Mother Nature said no, not this time, and we agreed.
Going back down was much better than going up. We still had to be careful about footing, but at least it was downhill. Upon reaching the truck I dug out the blackberry brandy (a ritual on all my trips) and we toasted the mountain, ourselves, Mother Nature, God, life, family, friends, Stoli, clouds, grass, thunder, blue jeans, dirt, oh wait, the bottle's empty. By the time we got to the end of the bottle we didn't give a shit what we were toasting to. We packed our gear in the truck, took a nap to sleep off some of the brandy and headed back down the highway.
And oh yeah, within the hour the clouds cleared out and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful afternoons I've ever seen. We could've made it.