A lucky joy…

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I’m tired and sore and stiff after a fourteen hour day at work. And I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with a cold or flu.

But despite that, I am incredibly lucky to be doing a job that fills me with joy and allows me to share my love of being outside with others.

I’ll never be a world-class mountaineer or a pro climber. I’ll never be on the cover of Alpinist or be featured in a Warren Miller film. But today, I get to teach a dozen or so aspiring mountaineers how to put on crampons and self-arrest with an ice axe. I know it’s not Annapurna or the Eiger or even the Sierra. It’s just Mt. Baldy. But for a few short and sweet hours under the Southern California skies, I get to be a mountain guide. And if that’s all I get, well, it’s still pretty damned good.

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8000m Challenge, Winter Edition

Baldy Bowl.

Baldy Bowl.

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.

Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge.

Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge.

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.

Sean looking epic.

Sean looking epic.

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.

Mark climbing on Gorgonio.

Mark climbing on Gorgonio.

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.
“That’s different.”
“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.

Our guide, Amy.

Our guide, Amy.

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.
“Plate Tectonics.”
“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.

Kurt Wedberg.

Kurt Wedberg.

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.

Headlamp start.

Headlamp start.

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.

Climbing by headlamp.

Climbing by headlamp.

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.

Gorgonio summit.

Gorgonio summit.

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.

pointing

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.

Starting up Baldy.

Starting up Baldy.

Training for Whitney

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

One-handed pushups on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

Ok, I’ve put in for a Mt. Whitney Permit. Now what?

Start training.

Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states. It is 14,505’ of quad-burning, ankle-turning pain. If you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking about tagging the summit. If so, say this next sentence out loud:

“EMBRACE THE SUCK.”

Yep. It’s going to be a long day. A VERY long day.

But you should do it anyways. Because it’s good for your body and it’s good for your soul.

Outside Ed’s Five Step Guide to Training

  1. Commit to Doing It.
    1. Be decisive. Decide as early as possible to commit to the summit. It’ll mentally focus you on the task at hand and give you maximum time to train.
    2. Deciding early also allows you to train with the gear you will be using. The most critical piece of gear on this trip will be your footwear. Get your shoes/boots ASAP and start getting your feet used to them.
  2. Train.
    1. It is 22 miles long with 6600+’ of elevation. You need to train for it. Start walking.
    2. Cross-training is good, but nothing gets you ready for a long hike like a long hike.
    3. Hiker smaller local mountains and work your way up.
  3. Train Some More.
    1. Get up early. Go for a run. Spend your weekends hiking. Get strong.
    2. If you want a good indicator of your fitness, go hike the Vivian Creek Trail on Mt. San Gorgonio. If you feel good on that, you’re probably ready.
  4. Acclimate.
    1. Get high. Get to altitude. Sleep up there. The air is thin, so you’ll need to get used to it.
  5. Do It.
    1. Be a beast and tag the summit.

5 Common Reasons People Fail to Summit

  1. Out of Shape
    1. This is a long hike. Don’t underestimate how arduous it is. Come ready for a long, long day. You’ll be doing a lot of elevation gain. Make sure to do plenty of training hikes between now and summit day. Try to do a trail with at least 5000’ of elevation gain to simulate this hike.
  2. Altitude Sickness
    1. The summit is at 14,505’. If you’ve never been up to altitude before, it can seriously kick your ass. You need to acclimate your body to being at higher elevations BEFORE you arrive. That means spending nights above 5000’. Your body will make more red blood cells to oxygenate your body while you sleep. So climb something local and spend the night on top. Do this in the months leading up to the hike.
    2. Ascend slowly. Walk at a slower pace than normal. If you’re overnighting, spend your nights at lower camps and allow time to acclimate. Ascending quickly further exacerbates the symptoms of altitude sickness.
  3. Dehydration
    1. Bring a lot of water and drink it. Refill at Outpost camp. Then fill up again at Trail Camp. Then fill up on the way down. FILTER YOUR WATER. The water quality there is horrible.
  4. Weather
    1. You’re in the Sierras. There will be weather. Be ready for it and turn around if there is any question. Don’t get killed for a stupid summit.
    2. Snow. If you’re shooting for an early summit date, be prepared for snow and snow travel. You may need ice axe and crampons to ascend. With snow and ice, the switchbacks section from Trail Camp to Trail Crest will be closed and you will have to ascend the snow chute to the right of it. If you do not have experience with ice axe and crampons, turn around. Learn to self-arrest and self-belay. It’s not a very technical climb and it’s not very steep, but it can still kill you.
    3. Thunderstorms. The Sierras are notorious for thunderstorms. They usually roll in during the early afternoon, around 2PM. You should be ALREADY DESCENDING by this time. Get an early start and be on your way down. If you see thunderclouds on the horizon, you need to abort your hike and turn around. THERE IS NO COVER ON THE SUMMIT AND SUMMIT AREA. The hut has lightning rods all over it. IT WILL NOT PROTECT YOU. People have died inside the summit hut from lightning.
  5. Injury
    1. It’s a trail. There are rocks. There might be ice and snow. You will probably slip and fall at some point. Be prepared for ankle injuries. Carry a full roll of athletic tape and learn how to properly tape an ankle.
    2. Blisters can immobilize you. Make sure you wear proper footwear and break it in before you get there. Make sure you’re used to doing long days in your shoes. Carry a blister kit and know how to treat hotspots before they turn into blisters.

Whitney is a pretty major undertaking. It’s big and tall and long. Don’t underestimate the mountain and show up IN SHAPE.

Good luck and go get it!