Monday, July 21, 2014

Climb every mountain

Flush with the achievement of trekking miles across volcanic craters and climbing the hilly cobblestones of Edinburgh without mishap, I made my husband a proposition:

Me: How about we do that hike above Palm Springs on the 4th? The one at the top of the tram?
Him: Really? Are you serious?
Me: Absolutely! The kids won't be around, and we should get out of the house and do something. It's going to be crazy hot, so the mountains will be a relief.
Him: (Giving me a concerned look) Well, I'll check into it.

Later that night:

Him: OK. Here's the deal. It's 11 miles round trip...
Me: Great. Sounds perfect.
Him: (holding up a hand)...with an elevation gain of over 2300 feet. Mt. San Jacinto is the second highest peak in Southern California.
Me: But we start most of the way up because of the tram, right? No problem.
Him: It's a pretty challenging route. The last half a mile is all boulders. That you have to climb up with your hands.
Me: Boulders? Those are the round kind of rocks, right? No sharp points? I'll be fine.
Him: We'd have to drive out there early. No way of telling what the crowds will be like. And the tram costs like 25 bucks.
Me: It's a date!

The morning of the 4th, we load up. A veteran hiker and climber, my husband has a topo map, CLIF Bars, multiple liters of water, sunscreen, Chapstick, and several extra clothing layers in his pack. I have a tupperware with minted jicama, an apple, and my own custom trail mix, which includes chocolate covered espresso beans and these yummy dried mandarin orange slices*. I spend a good amount of time adding some mint leaves and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice ice cubes to my water sack, while he laughs his head off. At the last minute, I toss in a longer sleeved shirt, even though it is already over 80 degrees outside at 8 am. He puts hiking poles for me in the back of the car, and we hit the road.

After enjoying the miracle that is early morning traffic on a holiday in LA, we pull into the lot below the tramway and gaze at the craggy, barren rocks above. It's stunning.

The tram is packed with a mix of hikers (like us!!) and tourists, all snapping photos on their phones and marveling as we rise to 8500 feet above sea level.

We head down the concrete path from the upper tram station, and I'm feeling amazing. It is a balmy 75 degrees, with a pleasant, cool breeze blowing through the pines. This program of getting fit and healthy has made me a new person. An outdoors-y kind of hiking person who chooses to spend the day forging through the woods instead of grilling burgers and sipping margaritas. Due to a form of short term memory loss, I am recalling our 11 mile hike in Iceland as something of a comfortable stroll through the hills where I was more than keeping pace with my spouse**. This was my idea, and it was a damn good one.

We climb. Over stones, through trees, with the last of the season's wildflowers peeking out here and there. We chat aimlessly for an hour or so, but talk less as the path continues to wend upward, more sharply now. I'm finding it really challenging to breathe like a normal person, and begin to sound like a cross between my dog on a hot day and someone in the late stages of labor. Sweat is continuously dripping down from the tip of my nose in big, salty drops. Other hikers (real hikers) pass us easily as I make way and pause for them, gratefully.

My husband is kindness incarnate.  You're doing great, he says.  The altitude is tough for me, too, he says. We're in no rush, he says. I think we've already gone up at least 1000 feet, he says.  I'm grateful for the effort. We soldier on.

At least it is nice and shady, I think, as the air cools my damp skin. Actually, it's downright cloudy over there, I think, looking at a dark gray bank over the next ridge. Thank God for that. After nearly two hours, we reach a beautiful vista point, with large sunny rocks, picturesque conifer trees, and a view clear across the valley. I'm exhausted and thoroughly pissed at myself.

Me: (Barely getting the words out) I think I'll just wait here. Have my snack, listen to my book and wait for you to come back down. I can't go any farther, I just can't.
Him: Really? We're probably two thirds of the way done, but it'll still take me at least an hour and a half, maybe two, to go up and back.
Me: (Chest heaving). Really. I'll be fine. Look. I have a view, a comfy place to sit, food and water. Have fun.
Him: OK. If you're sure. I'll see you soon.

I pull out my jicama*** and sip my extremely refreshing citrus water, frustrated and disappointed. Who was I kidding? I am still massively overweight, with lungs the size of circus peanuts, apparently. I'd so wanted to be able to do this. Visions I had of my husband and I companionably following in John Muir's footsteps after both kids are in college crash and burn. I throw a delicious sesame covered cashew to my new chipmunk friend, who is subsequently very sympathetic.

My phone dings.
While digging for it, I realize I have left my earbuds in the car, and I can't even listen to my book. Shit.

Sighing, I haul the pack back on, grab my pole, and head off after him. I hit play on the Audible app, letting the story unfold out loud from my pocket as I go, alone on the narrow path. He was right. The trail has leveled off a bit, and is now traversing gently up the side of the mountain through lovely fields of low lying bushes and flowers. I am above the tree line and can see clearly in all directions.

I'm trudging along almost happily when the first raindrops hit. That dark bank of clouds is now directly overhead. I hear a clap of thunder, the sky opens up, and it is suddenly pouring. The spreading sweat patches on my t-shirt are instantly subsumed in the deluge of water that is soaking every inch of my body. I look in vain for a sheltering limb or branch, but see none. Now being above the tree line is a lot less appealing. Hikers are streaming down the hillside, staring at me slogging up with pity and puzzlement. It almost seems poetic when the hailstones start hitting me on the head.

Forty five sopping minutes later, I pass a small hut, just as the rain and hail stop.

Damn. There are the big ass boulders.
No husband, though.

I begin to scramble up the rocks with all the grace of a soggy cow. An older couple are nearby, having the same conversation I am having in my head.

Him: Wow! It's great up here, honey. Wait until you see!
Her: I hate this.  Stop talking.

Shivering uncontrollably, I pull myself up the last few feet. I have reached the top of Mt. San Jacinto, 10,834 feet high in the sky. The entire desert stretches out below me. There is an eagle-eye view of the storm moving away to the east. I am ready to concede. It's spectacular.

"BRI-AN!" I yell.
"I MADE IT!!!!"
Hmm. I pull out my sodden phone, take the obligatory selfie, and miraculously, I have a few bars of reception.

Just for fun, note how my hat and shirt, light gray in that happy shot at the beginning of this story, are now deep black with water.

Me: Where are you? I'm at the top of this mountain, looking for you!
Him:  (Breathing heavily)  I got a little lost. I'm not sure exactly where I am.
Me: What?!?
Him: Hey, good for you, babe! I had no idea you'd follow me up there.
Me: Are you kidding me right now?
Him: Look, when you head back down, be sure you see that hut. I missed it.

We agree to meet at the vista point. I pick my way down through the field of giant stones, and make a beeline for the hut, stopping briefly to throw on my extra shirt, which somehow stayed dry in the backpack. Defiantly, my teeth continue to chatter.

Wrapped up in an exciting deep space battle sequence in the book, the time and miles almost (but not quite) fly by on my way back down. I keep peering ahead hopefully, scanning for my husband. Nothing.

What seems like hours pass. I'm nearly at the meeting point. Ding.

Weak with relief, I make it to the vista area. My small furry friend is waiting for me, and seems delighted by the Thai Chili almonds I pull out. No sign of Brian and I barely have batteries or service on the phone. I sit and try to dry off.

Another hour goes by. The path is deserted. It's getting late. I've never felt so alone in my life. Did he pass me? Did I misunderstand his last text? I try calling, and get no answer. All I can do is wait.

If I thought hiking was bad before, this is terrifying.

Then, at last, he's there.

We talk as we head back, my frantic heart calming as we go.  He's hiked up and down two extra miles through thick brush to find his way, after going down the wrong side of the peak in the mist after he reached the top.  When we get on the tram almost seven hours after we started, I'm shaking and sore and so happy I almost cry****.

The obvious moral of the story is to never give up, of course. Mountains can be scaled by grumpy self-pitying people. Husbands can find their way back with google maps on their iPhones.

And I can still do this, one pound at a time.

* Since I don't spend much time on actual trails (obviously!), the proper name might be "snacking around the house mix".
** He was super sick at the time. Conveniently forgot that part.
*** Which was still cold because I'd used my colorful party ice balls to keep it chilled. Who's laughing now, smart guy.
**** In addition to being proud of both of us, I was elated because we were going from there straight to In N Out and I knew for SURE that I'd burned enough calories to even get fries and not feel guilty about it in the least.