So I'm on a brief summer break before heading back to school and while going to see a close friend's beautiful new baby girl, I also had the chance to take some time off into the mountains. More specifically, the Sierra Nevada. Even more specifically, the eastern Sierra's. Further specification, Rock Creek Canyon and - running this joke to fracking depth - even grotesquely more specifically, the East Fork campground about 2 miles from Rock Creek Lake itself. Below will be some personal confessions. If you only read this blog for the rocket science, just skip this one. Though it does loop back. Eventually.
A brief history, if I may. I lived in Moreno Valley, California until about the age of eight and displayed pretty much zero interest in the great outdoors. My sister, my brother, and myself played a great deal of sports even at that young age and would grow up playing sports all the way through high school and beyond. And the sports we played were very traditional - lots of baseball (softball), basketball, some soccer, a brief year of football, even track. Our outdoor lives were pretty much limited to sport and this left little opportunity for camping, hiking, climbing, etc.
Now I happen to think that every child is born an excellent climber and they only lose that ability as their parents repeatedly remind them how a) expensive it is if you fall and b) that every single person in the history of falling dies from falling too much or too far. Its stigmatized as "unsafe" almost immediately and to be fair, most people do not climb so they don't learn how to do it properly. That said - I displayed the double negative of an early knack for climbing and a pretty slick set of tricks to get away with it.
We moved to the mid-west when I turned 8 so there weren't a whole lot of mountains to climb (read: ANY mountains) so I spent bored moments looking for places that were hard to get to and then going to them. This, in essence, is the "summit fever" mountaineers are all-to-familiar with. For me, it was usually found in tall trees or rivers/streams with difficult crossings. Finding a way up or across was a mental puzzle and early on put you in the unenviable position of trying to make your way back (having not given yourself a return route). You learn from a very young age when you're exploring (and are not supposed to be) to always plan an exit. The first time you make that mistake, you know how costly it can be - you could get spanked!
So while I was off wandering around school during daycare hours (parents both worked until at least 4, so we often had to spend time at school playing until they could pick us up), I would climb and occasionally find my way to the local high school (which was pretty far so that was usually time to turn back). Then we moved into the countryside...
Now is a great time to bring up my love of dogs. I've always had an irrational fear of predators in the wild - namely snakes, bears, and wild cats. Having a dog is by no means a guarantee of anyone's safety but it significantly improves your odds if something terrible this way comes. They usually hear it first and are quick to put themselves between you and danger (particularly if they are female). As a result, they give you a confidence to go just a bit deeper, just a bit farther than you would otherwise. My guide on those longer excursions in and around Smithville Lake, north of Kansas City, was an incredible Australian Shepherd / German Shepherd mix named Abby.
When we moved back to California, I had an explorer's heart but did not even know where to explore and with who. Abby was quite old by then and nowhere near the spring chicken she used to be. I didn't have any friends that hiked and was relatively clueless about what was around me. That changed when I started working for Sport Chalet (sadly, RIP) and met people that did pretty much everything.
Now my continued exploring and climbing was largely cut back as I had gained a considerable amount of weight since moving back here. I still climbed things on occasion, but most of my time was spent finding a trail (or scrambling up the side - one of the most incredible feelings in the world) and looking for a path to the top of something else. Do this enough and it becomes easy to say "yes" when someone says "hey, do you want to climb something bigger?"
A dear friend of mine approached me (during an exceptionally difficult time in my life) with just such a question. Now for you real mountain climbers, hold your giggles. He said he wanted to hike Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States). When he asked me if I wanted to join him in training for it, I weighed 275 lbs. I lost 35 pounds while we worked to get in shape for it (hiking multiple mountains in California in the mean time), but we were still pretty easily the two fattest dudes on the hill. That number, 240, is a weight I haven't sniffed since and the amount of thing we did during that time was fairly extraordinary for some fat kid who wanted the hills around Smithville Lake. We went into Havasupai (hiked into the Grand Canyon), Mt. Baldy, Mt. San Jacinto (admittedly I did this without him), a few mountains around San Jacinto (wherein we went up the wrong peak, got lost in the snow, and "glissaded" down some of it - if you wanted to know what that is, watch this cheesy but informative video.
That year was an amazing year and my explorer legs were fully functioning. Since that time I have slowly spent less and less time in the mountains but have never really lost that explorers mentality. You could make a (pretty bad) argument that it's why I want to help direct a Mars mission but it's not quite the explorer part of me that wants to lead that. It's time to define some terms - and why I've tried (I think successfully) to avoid saying "climb" and have instead used the terms "hike" or "went up."
To imply that you "climbed" something is to imply something utterly different to those that actually spend considerable times on mountains versus what the layman says. Technically, if you drive up a hill you say you are "climbing." But when you say you "climbed Mt. Whitney" that assumes you used rope (for at least one section), a harness, and a variety of rock-shaping tools. If you're unfamiliar but want to bag this peak - read up on some of the technical routes - Whitney has some 5.10+ options)
I have never been in a harness, but I want to share something that awoke within me on a camping trip I just returned from.
I'm a big dude (again), and when I sat down in my chair one afternoon and looked at the incredible "walls" of Rock Creek Canyon in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, I had a near-uncontrollable urge to go straight up it. It was this same urge that arguably injured my knee while doing Mt. Whitney a number of years before - not far from this place I went on a little hike on our rest day before trying Mt. Whitney in one day. I went up and up and got into a boulder field that was amazing fun but was also a bit of a labyrinth. I eventually made it back but it took far too long and I had clearly ignored my previous note of always leaving yourself an escape route.
But looking up at these walls gave me this uncontrollable urge and I immediately lamented the fact that I had let my body devolve into the shape it is. Now I have plenty of research to know that most of that isn't my fault (diet science, bitch), but a lot of the lack of exercise clearly is, though I've also had a damn good reason for not exercising - physics and calculus classes require you to spend a lot of time reading and writing.
Now that I'm back, I do what I usually do shortly after returning from a mountain and inspect all of my gear. Now a climber would be doing this to far more essential life-saving equipment (such as belay devices, carabiners, cams, etc.), but still like to make sure my tent has all of it's poles, stakes, guylines, and my packs are in good shape and I'm not missing anything critical (like my favorite headlamp dammit!). So I have a pack called the Trad by Mountain Hardwear. I originally bought it because it fit the description of what I needed for a somewhat length, single-day hike. It was 35 liters and had a lot of nifty places to hook things or slip things into the pack. I am fairly well acquainted with it, but clearly had not spent any considerable amount of time playing with it. Holy shit this thing is awesome! It does absolutely NOTHING to squelch this new fire that burns within. But now we're getting to the crux of this whole thing.
I recently watched a couple of excellent mountain climbing films. The first was a "sequel" of sorts to the excellent documentary (and book) Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. If you're thinking of climbing, it's pretty much mandatory reading. The second was the incredible film completed just this past year called "Meru" starring climbing superstar Conrad Anker.
Both of these films discuss, in extensive detail, the amount of preparation and mental planning it takes to bag a difficult peak. Routes are chosen primarily for their difficulty (as in 'the harder the better') but they are also chosen if they are actually doable. There are plenty of mountains that have faces that are simply unclimbable and mountaineers dream up any number of ways to climb them before weighing the risks and in both of these films that mental weight is featured prominently. So, too, is our thinking in the exploration of space.
Conrad Anker wanted to climb Meru (not too distant from Everest in the Himalaya) because it was possible now. 50 years ago it likely was not - but advances in lightweight technology made it possible. Our journey into interplanetary (and hopefully, eventually, interstellar) space is fraught with similar dangers and people who lead these missions have to perform the same mental calculus - an acceptable level of risk and reward - to achieve new exploratory heights.
In short, I want to continue my drive to become small enough to start climbing (again?), but I also want to look to the climber's approach - of using advanced technology to complete a very specific line of activity - when I continue to make my own choices regarding other peoples' lives in a seemingly unrelated yet fundamentally identical endeavor.
I hope I'm able to get back to the mountains in far superior shape so I can begin to have some experience planning some big mountain climbs and becoming rather deft at dealing with objections and taking people into my care. It is, after all, what I hope to be doing for a space agency in the future.
Thanks for reading!