Fear and Loving in the High Sierra

The following trip report was written by Greg Davis, outdoor adventurer and employee at Nomad Ventures’ Escondido store.


Light drizzle sprinkles my face, pulling a part of me back into reality. Small drops, ethereal and sparse, not foreboding or threatening. The clouds overhead had been posturing all day, it’s only fair they let their presence be known again.

I lift first my head, then my back, off of a smooth boulder. The landscape is much as it has been the whole day – beautiful, sharp, intimidating. I check my watch, squeezing sleeves past a Casio I picked up at a gas station in Olancha. It’s just past 5pm and there is still four thousand feet of elevation to drop, but our feet are back on land now. My friend Jeremy and I pick ourselves up from amongst the boulders at Iceberg lake and shoulder our packs, quite light now. The food is in our bellies, the water caked in salt on our skin and all manner of widgets hang lazily around our waists. Slings we didn’t bother to tidy caught themselves on every inundation in the mountaineers gulley.

I had spent the better part of 14 hours dealing – dealing with fear, problems, the unknown. I had no frame of reference for a peak this size, this far out, this high. Beginner routes at Tahquitz and bouldering in Joshua Tree had hardly prepared me for the realities I would face. Hiking in the dark had only been the start; the whole day had been wide eyed and on constant alert.

Starting the descent, we walk past the ‘obvious’ trail just below Iceberg, confirming that indeed we came up the wrong way. Continuing ahead I see no grass, no meadows, no sign that life is meant to exist here. Indeed I have been filled with the conviction that this is not a place where I am welcome – and I did not feel welcome. As we start to cross the shallow creeks below Upper Boyscout Lake I start to let my mind relax, I start to go over the events of the day. Looking back at Owens Valley as I scrambled up the Staircase filled me with horror. THERE was comfort, THERE was my element. I was meant to live my life amongst those things, the lines of streets and the squares of homes. HERE is not for me. HERE I am sick, I am scared, and I must get over all these maladies. I have not choices, not actions, only reactions to the horrible situation I had put myself in.

We arrived at Sam Mack Meadow with plenty of daylight to spare. It had taken a hair over three hours to get here with 35 pound packs and the scenery was hard to ignore. Opting for guaranteed water and soft sand we pitched camp and headed over to the turquoise stream to get some more water.

My partner is a fire fighter for the national forests. His job is to hike in the hills with heavy packs, and he fancies himself one of the strongest in his county. Only our second time climbing together, we push ourselves hard and love it. In the few years since my first Sierra climb things that were so foreign, so unreasonable became second nature. I knew I never wanted to let myself be unprepared or weakened by the scale of peaks, and I felt my training was on point. Our route was an easy climb, and though it was in an area I had not yet visited, I was sure it would give us little pause.

A lazy start of 7am gets the pair of us scrambling past the moraine. The map indicated no more than 2 miles, by my guess, from our camp at the head of Sam Mack Meadow to Glacier Notch. We press on, around sandy hills and up steep slabs, always gaining more altitude than we think necessary. I’ve got Iron Maiden playing in an iPod, quite loudly, but still my mind goes its own places. This can’t be right, we’ve been going for a while now. Maybe the snow field on the southeast side of the glacier has melted? We’ve got to be close.

Just last month I had been in the Whitney range three times. The last was a trip up the Whitney front trail with a friend of mine, whom I’d promised to take to the highest point in the continental United States. In the middle of a 2 month vacation in the hills, I had been above 13,000 feet seven times that summer before heading up the front trail. On the Whitney summit I felt none of the anxiety that had so crippled me when I was hauled up the East Face by Jeremy several years ago. Looking sheepishly at my dilapidated friend, who had neglected the acclimatization schedule I posed for him, I saw a bit of myself, but more importantly I saw my transformation. The high sierra, so long to me frightening and oppressive, was now no different than Joshua Tree or Tuolumne Meadows. I came here to play.

Gayley loomed tall overhead, diverting my focus, before BAM!

Passing over the short ridge we saw it. I had grossly misunderstood the scale of the Palisades.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was reminded of my first view from Glacier Point, the landscape felt more like a diorama lying just out of reach. I felt that if I could lean forward far enough I could pluck a stone off the top of North Palisade, yet at the same time I had to realize that the stone was a boulder perhaps twenty feet high.

Awaken with a new sense of adventure, Chris and I cross incredibly loose blocks just below Gayley. This was unreal! Nothing I had seen could prepare me for this. Just like Whitney, again I was out of my element, forced to come up with answers for so many questions, but with confidence that I could see myself through it.

Stealing a glance over to the U and V notches, I feel a tug, something calling me further out and further in.

Once I touched the rock, though, I was back into my element. Rock climbing was a sort of a safety blanket, at least in the easy to moderate level that I seem to find myself in, and all thoughts were consumed by moving swiftly, showcasing my skills to my new partner. Partnered with an incredible free climber in Chris, I got the rope up as fast as I could and would hardly hand him the rack when he would yell to me “On Belay, Greg!”

But there was more to it than this. The challenge of these peaks is always much more than I think.

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