We woke up in the sub-freezing alpine hours, when the sun was still asleep below the dark line of the horizon and the glow from my headlamp illuminated only the warm puffs of my breath. Our group was nestled in the trees by Dry Lake on Mt. San Gorgonio around 8000’ and we were getting ready to push for the summit.
“Why are we doing this again?” Sean asked in the dark.
As I fumbled around in my sleeping bag, my head brushed against the low, nylon ceiling of the single-walled mountaineering tent and condensation rained down on us. I shivered in the cold.
“Because we want to live full lives,” I muttered.
Grumbling and stumbling, we hastily threw on soft shells and goose down jackets over our softer, goose bump skin. Outside, I started jumping up and down trying to warm up. I repeated the mantra in my head, “Live a full life. Live a full life. Live a full life.” I was trying to convince myself that this was a good idea.
This was the Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge. Outdoor retailers like REI, Adventure 16, Sport Chalet, Zappos, Gear Co-op, and others send small teams of gullible hikers and ultra runners to race up the three tallest peaks in Southern California: Mt. San Antonio (10,064’), Mt. San Gorgonio (11,499’), and Mt. San Jacinto (10,835’). They were the three saints of the Southern California skies and the three devils in our hearts. In a single day, we do thirty eight trail miles and over 10,000’ of elevation gain.
I’m a bad hiker and a poor runner. On weekends, instead of training, I smoke Parliament cigarettes and drink too much beer with my friends. Somehow, I’ve stumbled my way through the race three times. And I have no idea why I keep signing up. It’s long and painful and hard and no fun at all. Every year I tell myself I’m never doing it again. And every year, when they post that sign-up sheet in the break room at the REI I work at, I put my stupid name on that stupid list and curse my stupid self. This year, for the 25th Anniversary, they decided to host a winter version. Same three peaks, in winter, with mountaineering gear and guides. And again, I found myself signing up.
I wasn’t like my tent mate Sean. He once did the 8000m Challenge by riding his bike between the peaks instead of driving. 100+ miles of road cycling in the desert with heat and headwinds and hill climbs between the 38 miles of hiking. All done within 24 hours. He belonged here.
Or like my fellow REI teammate Cyndi. She was an ultramarathon runner with long hair and long legs who has got to be in her mid forties, but looks like she’s in her mid twenties.
Or Mark, a middle-aged Brit who worked for Zappos and had just qualified for the Boston Marathon. He confesses to me that he’s never slept in a sleeping bag.
“This is so far out of my comfort zone,” he said.
“You qualified for Boston! You ran a seven-minute mile the whole way!” I replied.
“I’m happy if I can run a seven-minute mile for a mile!”
I think he’s got a pretty big comfort zone. He’s in shape and he’ll be fine.
I had no question about our guides. Like Amy, a strong looking blonde girl in her late twenties who had just spent a month in Patagonia putting up a first ascent with her boyfriend.
“What did you name it?” I asked.
“How hard was it?”
“5.12 C1, 20 pitches.”
Just like that. A 5.12 first ascent of a big wall in alpine conditions in Patagonia. No big deal.
And then there was Kurt. Kurt Wedberg was our lead guide and the owner of Sierra Mountaineering International. He was a tall, imposing man who was very much in charge. Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, he’d done it all.
The day before, we were taking break in the shade of some trees at South Fork Meadows when a boy scout had walked up to Kurt.
“You guys going to the summit?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Kurt replied.
“There’s a lot of snow. We didn’t have any snow gear so we’re heading back. If you have crampons and stuff, you should be ok. Are you taking the trail?” The kid is trying to be helpful.
We look over at Kurt. We were all thinking the same thing: “This teenager has no idea who he’s talking to.” Kurt looks at the kid a second before replying. We can see him trying to keep a straight face.
“We’re going straight up. Direttissima. Right up the throat of it…” he breaks off as he starts choking on his laughter.
We all laughed at this poor kid until he had left.
The moon was high and bright and threw thin shadows off the black trees as we hiked in the headlamp darkness toward the base of our snow climb. The dozen of us snaked in a single line of shivering determination and arriving at our climb, we pulled our ice axes and crampons out.
“Wait, how do we size this thing again?”
“Which way does the strap go?”
“Um, I don’t think this is right.”
We were new to this. We bent low, fumbling around with the nylon straps on our steel-toothed crampons, trying to attach them to our newly bought and not yet broken-in boots. The sun rose over us as we climbed in small rope teams. Our guides led us, switch backing across the low-angled snow, firm in the early morning cold. I could feel a little anxiety in my team as we moved higher and the slope got a little steeper.
To calm our nerves, I started singing. I am a terrible singer. I like to say that what I lack in talent, I make up for in volume. So I sang, loudly and badly, “Should’ve been a cowboy, should’ve learned to rope and ride!” Country music with its cowboys and truckers and the wide open spaces always seemed appropriate to the outdoors. So I sang Toby Keith in the rising morning sun on the side of this waking giant of a mountain.
I could feel my blood warming and my adrenaline rising with my off-key voice. We climbed steadily, kick-stepping our crampon points and planting our axes. “In-balance, out-of-balance, in-balance, out-of-balance…” I kept the mantra in my head. Looking down the slope, our camp seemed so far away and only grew smaller and smaller in the distance. Upward, the summit grew larger and larger until, suddenly, we were on top.
We stood together for a moment and zipped up our jackets against the whipping wind. The clear blue Southern California sky seemed to go on forever in every direction and only the other peaks broke the skyline. I could see San Antonio to the northwest where we had come from. To the southeast, San Jacinto rose up from the desert floor where windmill turbines spun in white circles. We’d be climbing it next. We had to hurry, so we snapped a quick summit photo and started down.
On the long hike down, I kept seeing that same tired smile on the faces of my teammates. It’s that familiar look I see at every 8000m Challenge I’ve been at. Somewhere between the pain and misery and cold and heat and dehydration and painful, embarrassing chafing, we find something to smile about.
I was blistered and burnt and dried out. My quads were sore and my calves were tight. My head hurt from the altitude and strangers laughed at my sunburnt, raccoon face. But the beauty of this event was that there are no pros. There’s no glory, no press, no spectators. We all suffered together. The mountain didn’t care who you were. Triathlete, ultra-marathoner, rock climber, or cigarette-smoking me.
I did this event because it was hard. Because it was a massive challenge with three towering mountains. Because I hate climbing San Gorgonio and love climbing San Gorgonio and have lived and loved and died so many times in my freezing-cold sleeping bag and my hypoxic altitude sickness there. Because I wanted to be able to come back and say that I did do it. Because of my blistered feet at the end of a headlamp finish atop a 10,000 ft peak with other blistered children of the mountain, of freezing in the beginning of hypothermic misery with others who are frozen in body, but burning in spirit.
Because it is hard. Because it is there. Because I’m trying to live a full life and because I’m going to go straight up the throat of it. Direttissima.
So when that sign-up sheet shows up in my break room at work, I’m going to put my stupid name on that stupid line. One more time. Because I want to live a full life.
But mostly because I’m gullible and have a poor memory.