Chapter 1: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
The Cactus to Clouds hike up San Jacinto Peak is the 5th hardest day hike in America. A couple weekends ago I hiked the South Lykken and Skyline sections, which ascend 8400 feet from the Coachella Valley Floor trailhead at the end of Ramon Road to Long Valley and the upper mountain station of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
I felt great. I’m a champion of putting one foot in front of the other.
As the sun rose during the first few thousand feet, I turned every once in a while to appreciate the view (if you look closely, you can even see a wind front picking up dust – fortunately it wasn’t another haboob):
On this trail there is a point of no return. Apart from the fact that going down is harder on knees, ankles, and hips than going up, you won’t have enough time or water to deal with the daytime heat at the lower elevation. The only way home is up. The only way out is through.
Stay with me. This is about more than hiking.
“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” -Marcus Aurelius
There are two Rescue Boxes on this trail.
Lack of preparation can turn hiking the Skyline into a matter of life and death. That’s why they’re called Rescue Boxes, and not Boxes of Water and Food. This is the only help you’re going to get up here unless someone sends a helicopter.
The changes on San Jacinto Peak are deceptively subtle. The plants in the picture of me just below this paragraph look the same as the ones in the picture of me above. They are not the same plants. The plants in the picture below grow at higher altitude – that white thing in the background is the cloud layer in the San Gorgonio Pass between the San Jacinto Mountains and the San Bernardino Mountains.
As I looked past the clouds toward Big Bear, I wasn’t thinking about how the pass was formed by the San Andreas Fault, or how it divides Southern California’s Mediterranean climate to the west from the desert to the east, or how it’s one of the windiest places in the United States…
I just thought, “Damn! We’re above the clouds!”
That’s about when I started feeling the altitude. For a lifelong asthmatic, I have a pretty good VO2 max and I wasn’t feeling short of breath or tired.
I recognized the altitude because I started feeling anxious.
I was no longer excited about the views and I didn’t want to look down.
After the dryfall we had to navigate a traverse and scramble up boulders to Coffman’s Crag. The anxiety intensified.
The traverse wasn’t super technical or very long, it was just narrow, loose, and sloped downhill – and combined with the altitude, that was just enough to make me nervous. Every loose rock that tumbled away reminded me of what could happen if I made a mistake.
I started talking to the mountain. “Thank you.” I said that a lot. “Thank you for this foothold. Thank you for that root. Thank you for letting me hang out here today and get where I’m going in one piece.”
At the beginning of the hike, I was aware of the changes in the plants and rocks as we climbed.
In the middle of the hike, I was aware of the cooling temperature and the thinning air.
By the time we started seeing tourists wandering aimlessly near the upper mountain tram station, I realized that nothing outside myself had actually changed. The mountain is the mountain, at every elevation. You can only see a little bit at a time, but it’s always hotter down there and colder up there.
The real change was in me.
I love General Omar Bradley’s idea that courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. I believe this is a capacity we can build through practice. Why walk up a mountain when you can see the pictures on the internet? Doing difficult things by choice strengthens our capacity to manage our stress and do difficult things when they show up unexpectedly.
Chapter 2: Ain’t No Valley Low Enough
Sometimes we don’t choose our own adventures.
Five days after I hiked San Jacinto Peak, I was driving home from the pharmacy when my brain said, “Surprise!”
Suddenly I couldn’t pronounce words or speak in complete sentences.
In my head, Bob Dylan was singing: “‘Cause you know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is…”
I pulled over and switched places with my wife, who aimed for the nearest Emergency Room.
Four hours later, my CT scan was perfect, my blood tests were perfect, my speech had reconnected with my thoughts, and neither of us had any idea what the fuck happened.
I was miserable and I wanted to go home. All I could think about was how much I’d be charged for each minute I stayed there, each beep of the monitors… Just as I finally disconnected the leads and told a nurse I was leaving, a neurologist finally showed up.
“David,” she said, “let’s talk.”
Oh shit. I sat back down and prepared myself for the worst.
Fortunately, her diagnosis wasn’t a stroke or an aneurysm. My symptoms were consistent with so-called silent migraine headaches. Silent migraines come with less pain, but they involve visual effects and – this was new to me – they can interfere with speech. The doctor called what I experienced a complex migraine.
Earlier I quoted Marcus Aurelius. Over the last few years Stoicism has become an increasingly important part of my thinking. It’s a working person’s philosophy that doesn’t sugarcoat reality. I think that’s the most helpful part of any philosophy or spiritual practice. Deal with what’s right in front of you. One foot in front of the other along the traverse. Memento mori: remember that you’re going to die.
If that seems negative or even macabre to you, think of someone in your life who is unhappy. Then, try this gem on from Anthony de Mello:
“‘What is the secret of your serenity?’
Said the Master, ‘Wholehearted cooperation with the inevitable.’”
I try to avoid expectations that lead to the samsara of disappointment, frustration, or resentment. That’s why I’m careful about how I describe my life. I didn’t “conquer” the mountain or “beat” an illness. I just did some stuff and didn’t die. Yet.
Whatever you take on, and whatever takes you on, I hope you find yourself prepared, strong, and, most of all, understanding of the fact that we are all operating at the mercy of forces far outside our control.
Tomorrow is promised to no one. Have a nice today.