“WARNING!,” the notice read. “EXTREME ALPINE CONDITIONS. The following MINIMUM equipment, experience, procedures and skills strongly recommended by the US Forest Service and County Sheriff’s Department Search & Rescue Teams.” The list included winter mountaineering training, map, ice axes, helmets, alpine boots, and crampons.
We had none of that. But when you agree to go hiking with Bryn, that sort of lack of preparation does not register even as a minor annoyance. “It’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Let’s do it.”
I suppose this is what I unwittingly signed up for 21 years ago when she was born, but it would have been nice in that moment to have come prepared with a suitably exotic Plan B that might have dissuaded her from her purpose. But here’s the thing: Her original intention was to climb Mt. San Gorgonio—alone—at night—so that she could be on the summit at sunrise. That we were intending to climb Mt. San Bernardino in the daytime was Plan B.
How often have we read about people who disregard expert advice and common sense and venture off where they do not belong, only to be airlifted to the hospital to have their frostbitten toes surgically removed? That was about to be us. Or to be more specific: me. Bryn is a fit and fearless dancer and world traveler. I spend my days building PowerPoint decks and hiking to the Men’s Room.
We weren’t even a third of the way to the 10,700-foot summit when the trail became mostly covered in icy snow. We had to rely on the footsteps of previous hikers to mark the way—footsteps gouged with the unmistakable stab-marks of crampons, I might add. It was about that time that we came upon another hiker—decked out in the sort of regalia that would have filled the Ranger with a frisson of joy—who had turned back, she said, because of faulty footwear. It was like one of those allegories you hear in Sunday School about the angel who comes along to warn the unsuspecting of imminent disaster.
(You saw this coming): Nevertheless, we hiked on. On one particularly treacherous side-slope I remember thinking that if I slipped I could very well end up luging all the way to Yucaipa—unless, that is, I could MacGyver a handbrake out of my ChapStick and a protein bar. Fortunately for me (and my ChapStick) it never came to that. The first time I took a spill was while trying to cross a bunch of manzanita, so rather than becoming a human toboggan I merely sustained a puncture wound to the shoulder and several other bloody scrapes along my left side. That I could handle.
Eventually we lost the trail altogether. We made an earnest attempt to connect up with a different set of footprints in an adjacent gully, but the hiking there proved to be the most taxing of the entire adventure. When we could no longer confidently identify the peak we were supposedly climbing, the following words of Robert Frost passed through my mind:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And they never found my body.
Actually, I’m not sure about that closing line, but I guarantee you my friends would have paid a lot more attention in English class if Frost had written it that way. As it was, I knew that, although I had not reached the summit, I had reached my limit. I begged Bryn for mercy.
Reluctantly, she relented. We had fallen 1000 feet short of our goal, just as (apparently) others had before us. Now the only trick was to retrace our steps. I will skip the humiliating story of the spill I took on the way down that turned my sunglasses into safety goggles and my nose and forehead into hamburger. And on one other detail I will be appropriately brief: We spent most of the day hiking in sunshine across bright, white snow. We carried sunscreen every step of the way. We forgot to use it.
In all we covered over 16 miles of mountain on a difficult yet glorious day. And while my sunburned face seems to be decomposing like something out of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I have it on good authority that the damage is not likely to be permanent. Except maybe for that gash on the bridge of my nose.
So what’s my point? I suppose that, in the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, you might select from any of these familiar aphorisms:
- It’s not about the destination. It’s about the near-death experiences along the journey.
- That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—unless you forget the sunscreen.
- A journey of 1000 miles begins with the proper equipment.
- Nothing ventured, nothing broken.
- Just because you got away with it, doesn’t mean you’re not stupid.
To which I would add one other: It’s pretty great to be a dad.