Saturday, August 31, 2013

* The Mountain Wins

There is a strange delight in driving late at night with the other two occupants of the car sound asleep, towards a destination where your and your friend's limits will be tested by mother nature...

Robyn, Jen, and I had been planning and preparing for this trip for months to hike/camp/climb the Middle Palisade. Our guide had been changed for the third time three days before the trip making us lose a little bit of the enthusiasm that made us say "maybe that is a sign... maybe we are not supposed to do this now...".

On August 16th, 2013, we met at Jen's place after work, left around 6:00PM to first get tested by the Friday evening commute traffic to get out of Los Angeles. Thankfully we had Jen at the steering wheel with her inimitable slalom-like driving skills to get us out! :)

I took over the driving task, hour and half away from Bishop - where we would be staying overnight - and made it safely to our motel around 11:30PM. Saturday morning, we reported to SMI headquarters 7:00AM sharp to meet our guide Tristan for equipment check and rentals for the climb. We unpacked and re-packed everything we needed plus the tents & food into our backpacks with Tristan conducting the whole schmang with the precision of an expert mountaineer. I liked Tristan right there because he tolerated my "I don't need that! I don't want this!" comments with a bright smile! :)

After devouring awesome breakfasts and caffeine next door at the Black Sheep Coffee Roasters, we set on the road following our guide's well-used truck to the trail head at 7800ft in Inyo National Park. The first part of the hike was pretty mellow and the ascent was rapid via switchbacks. We filled our water bottles from the streams, and I was pleasantly struck by the tastefulness of the melted snow. 

During one of our brief stops to snack and rest a little, I got stung (or bit) by an enormous bug on the top of my head and jumped to only fall back on my touche. It burned just like a bee sting but did not cause any swelling and the pain faded away within minutes. What I did not realize was when I jumped up, I twisted my right knee injuring the medial collateral ligament though not too badly. As we continued to climb up the steeper side from Brainerd Lake to our campsite, I started to feel the pain more and more on the inside of my knee.

We arrived at our campsite by the beautiful Finger Lake at 10000ft. in the late afternoon and setup our tents. While we explored our surroundings, Tristan started making an outstanding dinner for us. The Finger Lake is so beautiful with its light blue snow color reflecting the sky.

While waiting for dinner, rain started trickling so we got into our tents to rest and wait it out. But instead of passing, it first turned into pouring rain, then to 'lentil' sized hail, and finally 'chick pea' sized hail, trapping us in our tents for a good while before we could come out to have dinner. (Here I have to give credit to Jen for the food reference hail-sizing!). After dinner, Tristan briefed us on planning and strategizing for the next day's climb, we retreated to our tents, and fell into a restless and shallow sleep.

Sunday was our big day. We got up at 3:30AM, devoured the breakfast Tristan has prepared for us with some gourmet Starbuck's coffee while he filled up our bottles from the lake, and took a last bathroom break before we left our tents, and sleeping bags behind. All the while we had our eyes up at the magically twinkling milkyway above us slashed with the occasional meteors. We decided to come back next year during the Perseid Meteor shower.

We walked around the big rock and crossed the rushing stream, and that is when I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. My right knee was already hurting 5 minutes into the hike, and I knew it would only get worse if I continued to walk. Although I wanted and prepared for this climb for months, failing to listen to my body's signals would have me fail my friends and cheat them out of their climb within the coming hours. I stopped and asked Tristan to take me back to camp before we moved any further. He helped me cross back the stream, and gave me a big bear hug after he made sure that I was ok. It was still dark, so I crawled back into the tent and my sleeping bag and slept a good while before I woke to daylight.

My friends were gone for 13 hours and all that time turned into an unplanned retreat for me away from any humans, phones, and wifi (gasp!) resulting in serene contemplation and self-reflection in the midst of pure nature against a backdrop of most beautiful mountaintop views.

I sat there against a rock for as long as I never thought possible, focusing on the peak that has become unachievable for me for this trip. Everything that surrounded me was amplified - flowers were brighter, wind's whisper was louder, sky was deeper, and emotions were at peak. It was an uncalled-for cleansing of my senses from the constant chatter of artificial sources of information polluting my cognitive space.

Later in the afternoon, as the darker clouds moved in and the wind got stronger, I took shelter in my tent from the rain that was quickly followed by hail and semi-clear skies. I got into a thicker jacket as the sun moved behind the peaks and took position on the rock to watch for the return of my mates. As the hours passed, I started thinking of a plan in case they did not return. Thankfully, around 5:00PM, I caught a glimpse of three figures slowly moving along the lake shore in the distance. My brave and strong friends have made it back after an exceedingly long and hard day of hiking and climbing but there was no victory in their stance. They both got so very close to the peak but one was defeated by the elevation sickness at 12400ft (her personal best), and the other started the final climb all harnessed up but had to turn around at 13000ft (only 1000ft away from peak) to save enough energy to make it through the long hike back to camp.

One of the best things about my friends is, they never lose their high-spirits no matter what happens. Although, we had to lock ourselves into our tents that evening due to the pouring rain - during which we were served delicious chicken tacos in our tents by the best guide ever - and went to bed at 7:30PM, and we woke up to a tent floating in a giant puddle, the next morning was filled with joy with a surprise birthday celebration for Jen before we started back down the mountain.

Coming down was much easier - as it always is - and cleanup and change of clothes were conducted at a gas station restroom. We ate amazingly good gas station food, and said farewell to Tristan who was due to pick up another group that very afternoon.

This time the mountain won, BUT we did not fail. We all have the stamina, practice, and desire to make it to the top, and we will go back. We only need better planning and guidance next time, and turn it into a 5-day hike instead of 3 to traverse the great distances and heights in smaller chunks.

We shall see you again Middle Palisade, and will victoriously lift our arms to the skies cheering for us Three Musketeers!

One for all and all for one!

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