Hike a 14er

What has been an unexpected surprise on this endeavor to expand my experiences is that some of the more interesting ideas have come from other people. I now make it part of my conversation routine with friends, both as a topic of conversation that never ceases to inspire compelling conversation, but also as a way to expand my checklist of life experiences.

Such is the origin of this list item.

List item: Hike a Fourteener.

I was having dinner with three “dad friends”, that is to say three guys I met because our kids went to the same preschool. Our preschool was small, expensive, and kind of pretentious, but the families we met there were, by and large, people we’ve remained in contact with. Very few of our kids ended up attending the same elementary schools, but we continue to have park gathering and even now that my daughter is in middle school and only really sees one of the kids she met back at this school, she is still a member of a group chat called, “best friends forever” comprised of kids who met there. The dynamics of social interaction are still a mystery to me, but all I can say is that these guys are some of my favorite people and our only connection was that our kids went to preschool together.

Anyway, there was this dinner. A warm early September evening of tacos and tequila-based cocktails. The conversation came up about my list and, after the obligatory, “running a marathon is a terrible idea” comments, I asked if anyone had any ideas. One of the guys, Dave, said, “You should hike a fourteener”.

I had never heard this term. I wrote it down, smiling and nodding in that dumb way I do when I don’t want to admit I’m clueless on a subject. A “14er” is a mountain that has elevation above (measured from sea level) 14,000 feet (or 4267.2M). There are 96 such peaks in the United States. California, where I live, has twelve of them. My first thought was that I have no interest in mountaineering, and this misunderstanding prevented me from even thinking about this list item for nearly a year.

In fact, it was almost exactly one year later when I returned to the list and started investigating. Turns out several of these peaks are reachable by hiking, no ropes or hand chalk required. Many of these peaks are found at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, a 3-4 hour drive from my house. This was sounding more attainable than I’d believed.

After further digging, I decided to target Mt. Langley, the 9th tallest (and southernmost therefore closest) peak in California. Part of me wanted to do it in a single day hike, but after reading the excellent chronicles of the hike in She Dreams of Alpine, I decided to make it a two-day backpacking trip. From there, it was a matter for getting the equipment and finding the time. Summers are notoriously busy at my work and our weekends were unnaturally booked.

My main problem was that, while I’m very equipped for traditional camping, I’ve got little in the way of backpacking equipment, where everything is built to be as light-weight as possible and designed for higher altitude cold temperatures. Also, it was already one week into September before I even started looking into it which is the prime hiking month, I had done no training for high-altitude hiking (in fact, I was suffering through a week of sinus headaches, something that would definitely exasperate via altitude). I wasn’t even sure I could get the requisite permits at that point (there is a limit to the number of hikers they allow into the area at any given time). In short, this one seemed unlikely. But I just kind of moved forward, hoping for the best (something that does not come naturally), another learning lesson from this whole endeavor.

Thursday, September 26. It’s on.

Day 1 – I ended up taking a couple days off work to make my Mt. Langley summit attempt on a weekday as I’d heard weekends can get crowded. Drove from LA to Lone Pine, the location of the ranger station where I needed to try to get a wildlife permit, from ~6am-~9:30am. There were only 4 permits left! Another hour-long drive from Lone Pine up a steep road to the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. I saw a guy setting up a hang glider on a turnout on the way up.

My destination.

This being my first backwoods camping experience, my pack weighed over 40lbs. That included 4 liters of water. The hike up to Long Lake, my camping destination is around 7 miles with a thousand feet of elevation. I also developed torn blisters on the back of both feet, the result of new boots and not wearing proper socks. Turns out wool socks are the way to go as they wick sweat away from the skin. All of this is to say that it was exhausting and this portion made me doubt the entire effort. In all my planning, this was going to be the “easy” part and it was a big challenge. All I could think was, “if this is the easy part, what is the actual summit going to be like?”

The ranger had warned that rain was expected that evening, so I tried to make haste. Still ended up getting rain and hail before setting camp, luckily I had packed a poncho! Once I had setup camp, I started doing all the things advised while camping in bear territory- finding a location for my food in a bear container away from my tent, looking for where pooping could happen (bury it deep, pack out the non-organic materials), and using my portable stove to make dinner, again away from the tent.

A feast for the senses.

I had passed maybe half a dozen people on the hike up and it was equally thin at the lakes. I had been afraid I might not find a spot for my tent based on some of the things I’d read, but there was no one there when I arrived. I could hear some people on the other side of the lake and then met a father and son who setup up around the bend. Later in the evening I heard a couple other guys show up, notice my tent and move further south. Unfortunately, they were close enough that I heard one of them coughing like a heavy smoker breathing fresh air for the first time in his life.

There wasn’t much to do up there and it got very cold, so I huddled-up and, despite being exhausted from the day, got very little, fitful sleep.

Day 2 – Woke at daybreak and started tending to my blisters, knowing it’d be a painful day. After making some Japanese instant coffee and oatmeal, I set out around 8am, leaving most of my gear in the tent and enjoying the significantly lighter pack made up mostly of water in my camelback. The first obstacle is a steep, 1,000 foot set of switchbacks that took up the first hour of my hike. After ascending that first cliff (this was the New Army Pass trail), the area opens up into a broad valley with a view of the peak in the distance. With no scale cues up there, it looks like a short jaunt, not the ~2.5 hour hike it will end up taking. Like trying to estimate walking distances in Las Vegas.

The hike was pretty uneventful and I summited ~11:30am. That included *lots* of resting during the last mile because it was difficult to get my lungs under my legs getting over 13,000 feet. On the way up I only saw one other person. I saw him cross my path as he came up the Old Army Pass and saw him several times up ahead, but actually met him as he came off the summit as I was nearly at the top. I asked him if it was worth it, or if I should just turn back.

14,042 feet at the survey marker

At the top, there’s not much. A survey marker and a weather beaten box that contains a sign you can take your photo with as well as a journal to sign your name. But the views were incredible. Lone Pine looks like a slight off-color on the plains below. Mt. Whitney, ~500 feet taller, can be seen slightly to the north. I inched my way to the edge of the cliff face and peered down the many thousand foot vertical drop. I could see the appeal of base jumping at that point. This would be the much faster way down. Where’s that hang glider now?

After spending a few minutes taking pictures and taking in the views, there’s pretty much nothing else to do but head back down. Man, is that easier than coming up! Ended up running into the guy on the way down, but passed him by, not wanting to get stuck having to make small talk with a stranger. What’s the point of solo hiking if you have to talk to people? This is where I made a mistake. First, my GPS had run out of batteries on the way up, my spares were back at the tent. Facepalm. And in my haste to distance myself from the other hiker, I took a wrong turn and found myself on a precipice with no idea where I was. Had I stumbled across a bear here, I would have been doomed. My social anxiety had actually gotten me into a a life or death situation.

I tried not to panic, and pushed away the memories of every “survivors in the wild” tv shows I’d seen over the years when somebody describes the beginnings of a bad situation starting exactly like the one that was unfolding before me. Using the landscape and position of the sun as my guide, and after maybe 20 minutes of being completely lost, I made my way back to the trail… where I met back up with the hiker I’d been avoiding.

He and I hiked down together for several miles, making the small talk I’d been avoiding and, of course, enjoyed every minute. We passed a dozen or so people on the way down, each in small groups, each asking about summit conditions and how long it’d taken us. We separated as he went back down Old Army Pass (telling me that there was no snow, the only reason I decided to do the New Army Pass). I continued back to basecamp, passing several more people and having the carbon copy conversation each time. Just before going down the steep switchbacks, I passed the father and son I’d met the night before. When I answered them about how long it’d taken me, the dad said, “damn! you were hauling ass!”.

Got back to Long Lake and packed up my gear, eager to get back to my truck where I could sit down in air conditioning. The hike back was faster and less physically taxing (being downhill and all), but I passed way more people. As it was Friday, I’m guessing there’s truth to the “weekends can get crowded” advice I’d read.

In all, from leaving camp at Long Lake, making the summit, getting back to pack-up camp, and making the hike back to the parking lot took 9 hours. Then I had a 3.5 hour drive home. If I were to do it again, I’d look for a hotel with a hot tub.

What I learned:

  • Investigate the right tools for the situation. Most jobs had specific tools of the trade that make all the difference between ease and frustration. Ever changed out a spark plug in your car? Hope you had the long-pocket socket made to remove them because if you used a general purpose tool, like a crescent wrench, you would have a knuckle-busting of a time. In terms of hiking, there are lots of must have tools to make the long distances easier. Walking pole are incredible. I used to see people hiking with this sticks and think how lame it looked. Now that I’ve had experience using them and know how they take some of the pressure off your legs to more evenly distribute your weight while hiking as well as acting as balance poles and, I’m projecting here, could act in a pinch as Little John’s staff when dueling on logs.
  • Do your research to limit unpleasant surprises. I am what the hill people call a “flatlander”, I don’t spend a lot of time at elevation. My house, where I spend most of my time, is 710 feet (216.4M) above sea level. Luckily I had read about many people’s experiences hiking 14ers. Several mention altitude sickness. Above 13,000 feet, everything is difficult. Headaches are common, it is difficult to get your breath under you legs. Since I knew from reading these accounts that it could be a problem, I took Advil before heading out in the morning to help keep circulation going and mitigate headaches. There was several points near the summit, when the path was extremely steep and I found myself stopping to catch my breath every 50 feet or so that I thought there was no way I’d make it. Somehow, the knowledge that it was the elevation I was fighting and not my body breaking down from exhaustion helped stay focused. In these situations, every step matters and you just have to take a step. Not knowing about the effects of being in thinner air, I might have given up, because if sure feels like you’ve gone too far.
  • Instant coffee- help or hindrance? This is super specific, but I’ll add it to my findings if for no other reason than for me to be reminded if I ever read this again. I boiled water in the morning to make Japanese instant coffee (cream and sugar already added!). I thought morning coffee was a necessity, as it would be in normal life. But it didn’t taste as good at elevation and made me burp up and relive the taste all day. In retrospect, since I was on an Advil routine to mitigate altitude illness anyway, I probably could have skipped this.
  • Talk to strangers. Unlearning this most basic survival skill from being a child in the 70s/80s, there has never been a point on trips like this where talking to strangers has resulted in a bad time. On the contrary, in this case, avoiding talking to strangers nearly got me lost.
  • Shared experiences are the best experiences. I feel like this one is hitting me in the face at this point, but for as amazing an experience as this solo trip was, it would have been more memorable and significant with someone (or someones) else there to share it with. Don’t get me wrong, it was fantastic and I would absolutely do it again, but the Care Bares taught me a lot about how Sharing is Caring.

Update: 2 years later

Along the hike back to my truck that day, I passed an older guy and we chatted for a bit (see ‘talk to strangers’ above). I told him it was my first “real” hike. He told me, “The first of many. You’ll see”. I gave him my smile and nod face. When I got back, my wife asked, “would you do it again?” and I said, “it was cool, but probably not” (it should be noted this was after the three and a half hour drive back home after waking early to summit and packing up and hiking 14 miles). Well, It’s now been two years. Last year was marred by covid-19 quarantine and, perhaps not unexpectedly, I’m thinking of hiking another fourteener. I even applied for the lottery to get a permit for ascending Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in America outside of Alaska), but was denied. There still might be some chance to get a last-minute cancellation spot, but it’s time for plan B. Have my sights on White Mountain (3rd tallest in California) and thinking of training by summiting Mt. Baldy once the snow melts. Guess that old guy was right. I may be hooked.

Update 2: 3 years later

The old guy was right. I’m hooked. I’d now consider hiking to be my primary get away activity. Some of my hikes are chronicled as part of the “Six Pack of Peaks” challenge, but I’ve also been doing other hikes, the most involved being Cactus to Clouds. I have not, however, made it back to summit any 14ers. I did drive up to the White Mountain trailhead, but after setting up camp and laying down to spend the night, a storm started kicking up (I knew it was coming, but it arrive a day early) and I decided to cut my losses and drive back instead of freezing to death on the mountain. This is a case of 50 Things unlocking a passion I never would have guessed.