I first remembered that I am altitude-impaired while attempting to go over New Army Pass a few weeks ago. Something eerily similar took place in the 1990s in the Trinity Alps during a previous hike. How did I forget or discount this?
Realistically, the odds of my randomly cartwheeling off the trail in the wrong direction are pretty low. I have only fallen down one time on this hike, and when I did I landed flat on my ass.
And yet, knowing that one coordination mistake could result in a certain and ugly death, with broken neck and limbs and me left a bloody pulp of bone and flesh, is pretty scary.
As in freaking terrifying.
I wasn’t really feeling the deep, primal fear until I got near the top, however. That was when, hello, the trail more or less disappeared.
One of the people I met in camp at Long Lake, a guy named Brandon, had casually mentioned that there was a patch of snow with bootprints up the pass. He had just been up and down it by way of climbing Mt. Langley. Brandon noted that I’d be crossing that patch with a full load, and that any fall would be “serious.”
I didn’t give it much thought at the time.
So next day I clambered up the jagged granite face of this mountain, with increasing unease for a couple of reasons – the altitude, which results in about one-third less useable oxygen at that level, and the altitude, which places one on narrow, gravelly ledges over vast expanses of nothing.
The sun was pretty relentless, too. When the bright granite sand is reflecting the sun up at you, you’re basically getting cooked on all sides. I was huffing, puffing and sweating the whole way up. But hey, it’s the Sierras, right? This is the big leagues, so I had to be a big boy and suck it up, which I did.
Unfortunately, this penchant for suckage also applies to my outdoor skills, and I got myself into a bit of a pickle. It could have been reaaaalllly bad, but once again, the insanely good luck I’ve had on this trip carried the day. Here’s what happened:
When I got near the top, the trail basically stopped. The last switchback dwindled off into a pile of loose rock, on the other side of which was sort of a trail-looking thing, but not really. I couldn’t see where it led, but there was nowhere else to go, so that’s where I went.
I literally crawled across this scrum of rock, and when I got to the middle it started to give a little bit. I said “NO.” Apparently the rock was listening, and stopped crumbling.
When I reached what looked like a flat spot on the other side, the theorized path looked even less trail-ey. It sloped downward toward the deep granite abyss, and seemed to end a short ways off.
(Oddly enough, and by sheer coincidence, as I write this at The Hostel California in Bishop on July 7, I’m using a California Climber magazine to hold my folding keyboard on my lap. The mag has lots of pics of young folks free climbing at high altitudes. For them it’s a thrill. For me, it’s literally nauseating, even just looking at the photos. The ad for the Far North Climbing Gym in Arcata is making me smile, though.)
So there I am, Mr. Vertigo, sitting on a slippery, dead-end ledge at 12,400 feet wearing a fully loaded backpack, with nowhere to go. As you might imagine, a person in that position might have, oh, maybe some questions to pose themselves.
Like, how the hell did I end up here when this is probably my worst fear? Is this where it ends for me? What do I do next? Why does Jada wear floppy hats? And, where are those rescue helicopters? Because right now, I would love to see some big orange helicopters.
Seriously, I realized that my poor decision-making not only put me in peril, but possibly others as well – they who might have to save me, or pick up the pieces with use of a spatula. That’s not cool or funny, and can’t happen again.
Also, two people have told me there’s something similar in Wild, which I still haven’t read but really should someday.
Some of you are surely wondering why I’m making so much fuss and drama over a little trail mix-up. Those of you who, like me, suffer from acute vertigo and fear of falling aren’t wondering that at all.
I didn’t experience any of this “cliffy shit,” as I’ve come to know such frightening precipices, on the SoCal stretch or the first week out of Kennedy Meadows at the foot to the Sierras. Now look at me – the fool on the hill.
Lacking any other brilliant moves, I made a short video of my predicament. Seeing it now, I wonder why I wasn’t shrieking in anguish at my hopeless plight. Rest assured that inside, I was totally squealing like a drowning hamster, but with less dignity.
I knew though that the likely outcome wasn’t really hopeless, just terrifying and tedious. I was going to have to crawl back across the rubble, take those same perilous switchbacks back down to the trail, then go back out the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead and get back on the PCT elsewhere, wasting all kinds of time and energy.
At this point, I noticed two people heading up the switchbacks down below. As they got closer, I saw that it was another of the many young couples you meet out on the trail. I wondered what they’d do when they reached my level and found that there was no more trail.
Eventually, they got to the other side of the loose rock, and I waved cordially like the friendly neighborhood dipshit stuck on a cliff. They waved back. I yelled out, “Where’s the trail?”
They pointed straight up.
Almost straight up. In the wall of wet snow that clung to the top of the pass, there were indeed bootprints. I had never thought to look up, but that in fact was the near-vertical way forward.
The couple turned out to be Ethan and Lucy. Ethan, by an amazing stroke of luck, just happened to be a former park ranger from Alaska who has climbed Denali. He had alllll the skills, and for him, mighty New Army Pass was little more than a small mound in a sandbox.
Ethan nimbly flitted across the rock expanse to check out the faux trail beyond, and while he found some bootprints there, it didn’t go anywhere. He came back to me and asked, “Do you have any rope?” I did – some yellow paracord I bought at Murphy’s to hang my food and garbage in places where there weren’t bear boxes.
He said, “I’ll carry your backpack back over to the trail. You come back over, we’ll hoist you up to the top, then we’ll pull our backpacks up.” Yes – a plan!
And that’s just what happened. I’ll note that while I did have the rope tied around me, I managed to climb up that ridiculous wall of slushy snow without losing my grip.
I can’t describe how happy and relieved I was to reach the top of that pass. As usual I blurted out something inappropriate. I told Lucy that she should marry Ethan, because this guy is a total catch. He said, “I haven’t exactly asked her yet ...” But I do I think she was listening. Indeed, there may have been some smooching, none of which involved me.
There on that nice, flat mountaintop, we celebrated with snacks. I whipped out some Winco peanut butter crackers, and Ethan remarked how much he liked those, so of course I gave them to him. Lucy said in so many words that she eschewed them, but Ethan was munching away in PB cracker heaven. Me, I was glad not to be chunky red salsa being scraped off the granite boulders like so much graffiti.
On scarfing down the last of these 79 cent delicacies, Ethan looked over at me and said, “OK, we’re square, Kevin.”