It’s Almost Never Too Late

I originally titled this It’s Never Too Late but then I realized that never is all too often used in conjunction with some broad-sweeping platitude and that – in fact – sometimes it is too late. So an example would be that, while I know it is too late for me to be mistaken for Laird Hamilton I have tried surfing. Amazing how much saltwater ingestion the body can bounce back from. I also came away with a board burn but for about three glorious seconds I was Laird, riding giants (whitewash) and as I catapulted sideways off the board I enjoyed a moment of role reversal as my teen daughter (who’d been holding the back of the board) cheered me on like a toddler taking a first step. My vision of pro surfing future dimmed but my vision of pro fish taco eater brightened and all was well with the world.

 It’s the vision that sometimes stops us before we even get started, the one that has us peskily knowing that we are not pro material and then prevents us from grabbing even a slice of our version of adventure. Today, I say… “malarkey” (my late dad’s favorite expression). Malarkey to the idea of a vision because an adventurer is in the eye of the beholder. I know this due to the fact that I now behold myself to be an adventurer and I am the most unlikely of the unlikely to claim this title.

 Athletics was the bane of my childhood existence. I was that kid in PE that never was picked for a team because I was hiding in the bathroom, I was that kid that mistakenly joined the tennis team and had never played tennis – Hello! Finally, I matured and I was that adult that was put in charge of driving my dad’s golf cart and almost drove it off the course but damn if sports wasn’t finally fun. And then age forty rolled around and this mother of four first discovered depression and then happened upon a distraction from said depression by jogging (depending on your definition of jogging). This new sport was successful enough that I conquered the stitch in my side and upped the ante by stumbling clumsily toward a crazy idea of climbing Mount Whitney.

 I’ve talked about this before on the site but want to expand by sharing that I did not find my inner brave goddess, I ended up climbing Mount Whitney solo completely by accident. The hiker that was set to go with me backed out and I first tried drowning my disappointment in a half a bottle of wine, coupled with whining inwardly for the better part of several hours, and then I put the bottle down and had a tipsy yet lucid idea. I would go it alone. After several long months of prepping and reading up on Whitney, I felt a tiny glow of defiance and determination start to burn. I fanned that flame and about seven weeks later, gathered my supplies and drove to Lone Pine. I did not climb alone because I was courageous; I climbed alone because I was angry. I was mad at politics, religion, the world, and finally when the buck came slamming to a stop, I knew I was most profoundly mad at myself and had been for maybe my entire life. It occurred to me that for once it might be invigorating to channel my dysfunctional self-fury and lack of self-worth into some sort of force that felt constructive.

 My selfish mistake was in not telling anyone I was doing it solo, however, I was scared enough at the thought of climbing alone that I was even scared of being scared and I was certain the well-meaning, warning brigade that I knew would surface, would increase my terror to the point of backing out. What exactly could they potentially scare me with? Only everything from bears to mountain lions to serial killers to cereal killers (otherwise known as thieving marmots). I figured I would make it exactly two miles, be attacked by a serial killer – disguised as a bear or vice-versa – and then after I fought my way out of that one, I would stumble around starving to death while marmots scarfed down my trail mix. I had so many fantasies of derail that I finally decided to ignore Whitney and just focus on getting to the yurt I’d booked on a lavender ranch – yes lavender; people, this is California.

 Delacour Ranch was my home base and with its floral fields and yurts and cabin, it seemed innocent enough. Not so much. I spent night number one in a yurt that felt like a boat in The Perfect Storm as the wind whipped it hour after hour and then – hallelujah – on night two, the owners (at no extra charge) moved me to the delightful cabin that inspired poetry by day and pepper spray by night. I spent the better part of one hour practicing reaching for the pepper spray, unsnapping the holster, getting in position, and making sure I was aiming it away from my face. Yep, it was scary to be alone for the first time but two tail-wagging ranch hounds set up a vigil outside my door and that felt vaguely reassuring though I never could figure out if they were there to keep someone from coming in or keep me from going out. They witnessed the pepper spray study session.

 A little scairt? Yes but, finally out I went (armed with said pepper spray). Horseshoe Meadows, at ten thousand feet, provided excellent hiking, a trial run at altitude readiness, and a plethora of bear warnings. I had the bear protocol memorized and had taken notes and followed the advice on acclimatizing by hiking high and then sleeping low. Delacour is about eight thousand feet so this combo fit the bill. I hiked off and on all day – more off than on – reasoning that I needed to store up my energy. Sleeping at night proved elusive and I told myself it was a common altitude side effect while knowing that it was actually nerves. One courage-builder I had decided upon was to take a practice hike to Lone Pine Lake, which, at about four miles one way, ends at the entrance to the Whitney permit zone. I had the supreme luck of running across two men, loaded to the gills with enormous packs and taking on a multi-day ascent. As I shared my plan and fears they smiled casually and revealed that they had been friends for seventy years and were currently ninety. I suddenly felt better at the realization that surely bears and serial killers would target them over me.

 With a couple of my trail fears seemingly handled, it was now time to collect my permit at the ranger station and check the weather. I felt a little like a female John Wayne as I adopted a swagger, hitched up my six dollar, mens zip-away hiking pants and approached the desk. When I had the full attention of the uniformed mountain man, I shared that I, a lone female, would be taking on Mount Whitney without the benefit of a Sherpa. He stared at me unblinking, literally not a blink, and I wondered if he had been trained to do this as some sort of survival skill required for the job. Finally he raised one eyebrow and assured me that other women had made it up Whitney and lived to tell Oprah all about it but that I should get an early start as bad weather was expected. Mentally bracing myself for a four am start rather than six am, I asked what “early” meant and he said to be in the Whitney zone by midnight.

 “Midnight?” I stammered, all of my John Wayne bravado suddenly replaced by a desire to hide in the bathroom. “Meaning hike all night rather than all day?” I choked out. Yes, that was correct the non-blinker revealed and then added that to plan otherwise would find me morphed into an ice sculpture if the lightning did not take me out first. In one fell swoop I traded serial killers for becoming a Donner party popsickle or a lightning rod. So did I take his advice?

 I was on the trail at eleven-thirty pm after a terrifying exit from my car in a parking lot that I was certain was teeming with bears. My headlamp resembled a laser show and I almost wet my pants before realizing that the animal furtively stalking me from behind was my straw hat swinging merrily to and fro while tied on my daypack.

 Hiking all night turned out to be ok and no bears or killers appeared. The trail only got sassy and disappeared once but I circled for a few minutes (an hour), like some demented squirrel that had been bonked on the head by a car bumper, and then continued onward, passing a campsite and seething  with huge envy at whoever was snoring loudly. I felt many things throughout that night, nervousness, determination, calm, and at times giddiness. What I did not ever feel, was anger. It just evaporated and I was left with an enjoyable energy that lasted all the way until sunrise – at the top of the famed ninety-nine switchbacks – when my “newbie” adrenaline rush, courtesy of believing that the thirteen thousand mark was close to the summit, had me almost skipping. Even with the first hiker – age sixty – I’d encountered all night warning me that it was about to get tougher, I sauntered optimistically around to the back side of the climb and was instantly given a king size dose of reality.

 It was frigid. As it is, I shiver when it drops below eighty and this was a hateful, bullying wind coupled with a most powerful smug shade. I had hit this area before the sun did and berated myself for that yet I knew that the gathering clouds really left no alternative. I was aware that it was time for my big girl pants but damned if I could pull them up, as my hands were now stiff and in danger of frostbite. Adding to the equation was the onset of a headache and it was this moment my new and seasoned hiker friend gave me a directive that would end up delivering the summit. He explained that if I was getting an altitude headache, I needed to breathe deep and try and outpace it. If it started winning the race, I would have no choice but to reverse quickly in order to avoid becoming sick and possibly needing assistance from my non-blinker friend back at the ranger station.

 The next two hours were difficult but I finally stumbled to the top and caught a glimpse of the famed wooden hut. I felt queasy, had a nasty headache, and was past any point of real pride at making it. After a quick selfie, I threw it in reverse and got the heck out of Dodge. This decision to depart the summit ended up working in my favor when I slogged it through freezing rain, down the switchbacks, as lightning popped all around.

 This first Whitney trip left my muscles shredded but that also included my anger muscle and it did not grow stronger. I would be a silly liar or maybe a new self-help success – hmm…dammit – if I said this cured me of all of what ailed me, it did not. I returned with the same shortcomings I had been running from and there were and still are presently challenges to navigate. Some days I feel competent, at peace, and filled with grace but others dawn with self-doubt, turmoil, and major clumsiness.

 The thing that, that first trip up Whitney gifted me with was the simple realization that while I have not been delivered a cure to my own failings, there is a tonic to the turmoil. A vision of calm is found by going into the wild and being fully present to a stunning sunrise or magnificent sunset because for that – attainable vision – it is almost never too late.

 Feel free to “like”/share on Facebook and/or tweet if you wish. Always grateful.   🙂

One thought on “It’s Almost Never Too Late”

  1. Teri,

    Oh my gosh, kindred indeed! I can relate to so much of your story from the awkward, “never-got-picked in gym class” memories to the determination sparked by anger (spite and revenge for me, at times, I think).

    Great story- I think I had the same non-blinking ranger at the ranger station (the Oprah comment was hilarious!). I was laughing my ass off.

    Thank you very much for sharing it with me!
    I can’t wait to read more.
    -Carolyn

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