I was taking in the view from 11,120 feet at Morgan Pass on Wednesday.
It was through the treacherous rocky landscape in the eastern Sierra between Mammoth Lakes and Bishop where workers 77 years prior braved heavy winter snow to use half-track vehicles to transport loads year round of the strategic metal of tungsten used in armor piercing bullets. It was taken from a high elevation mine just below the pass on the western side to support the American military during World War II.
Minutes later I was joined by another hiker. Although the approach through Little Lakes Valley had a healthy sprinkling of hikers, backpackers, and anglers they stayed away from the stark pass opting to enjoy nearly a dozen lakes between the trailhead and the last lake below where I was perched.
A retired state park worker and geologist by training who lived in Markleeville, he was there as part of a pilgrimage of sorts to honor the memory of the love of his life who had passed away several years before.
As he made his way to a boulder on the other side of the trail cutting through the pass to stretch out he told how hiking the trail we had taken to the pass as a young man changed his life forever. It was his first date with the woman who would become his wife. He called her “Ruby”, he explained as he pointed across the valley toward a ridge of mountains that led to Mono Pass. It was just below that pass at Ruby Lake in the shadow of Ruby Mountain where he feel hopelessly in love. He went on to share insights to the Sierra, his love of geology, and — perhaps without realizing — offered sage advice.
It came after we were trading information on various spots we had each hiked when he mentioned several lower elevation destinations. I confessed they didn’t interest me as I preferred to head to above the tree line where the views gave me perspective and a sense of peace.
“You’re preaching to the choir,” he said.
No, that cliché response wasn’t his sage advice but what followed was. He spoke of how hiking to places like Morgan Pass and scrambling up 12,992-foot Mount Morgan looming above us allowed him to understand who he was and allowed him to explore his limits.
I had passed him two tenths of a mile prior as he rested in the last bit of shade before ascending up Morgan Pass and to the treeless landscape beyond.
In that initial conversation he let on that he was 70.
After he had asked where I had been hiking that week and I mentioned I had trekked almost 15 miles round trip to reach Thousand Island Lake via Agnew Lake out of June Lake he said, depending upon my stamina, that he’d recommend a side trip I could take on my way back down and head up to Mono Pass at 12,075 feet.
That triggered a short exchange of how I wasn’t too sure I could add another six miles and 1,600 feet of elevation gain onto the 8 miles plus and 1,400 foot gain I was investing that day to reach Morgan Pass. After all, I said, I was eight months shy of 65. He stressed you never know until you try and added the view of the wilderness north and west of the pass was well worth it.
As I put by pack back on to head back, he noted it was time for him to work his way up the jagged rocky mess of an old friend that was Mount Morgan.
I rock scramble but it isn’t exactly my forte.
I had already done the main hike I wanted to do in six days of hiking — Thousand Island Lake — at the start of the week.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it took a bit out of me. I ended up running out of water — I had 3 liters when I started Monday morning — just over 2 miles left to go on my ascent.
My shoulder from the backpack had started hurting after the first three miles that were mostly uphill. My feet did their usual protest although enough moleskin to plaster a book made sure I had no damage. In short the hike almost defaulted into a trudge trek. That evening I wasn’t too sure my shoulder would recover enough or I’d be properly rehydrate to hike the next day. My feet were in the usual bit of hurt making me think it would be nuts to hike. I ended up sleeping in later than normal but instead of not hiking I opted for an easy 2.6-mile hike with a 600-foot elevation gain.
As I started ascending from Morgan Pass I realized my feet weren’t really hurting, my shoulders felt great, and that while I wasn’t going to be burning up the trail I was still moving at a respectable pace. I ended up heading to Mono Pass.
The added mileage proved I had sold myself short.
Do not get me wrong. While I don’t exactly move as slow as Uncle Joe of Petticoat Junction fame, I can move at a fairly decent pace.
People do pass me by with most of them having 30 years less on their body or else are well conditioned trail runners. I’ve always thought trail runners were superhuman since a 67 year-old who had base camped at 10,600 feet on Mt. Whitney ran up the last 4,000 feet. That was 30 years ago when I was 34 and the runner was as old as I am now.
Running along sheer drop offs isn’t my thing.
However I impressed myself being able to double the mileage Wednesday and then bounced back for three more moderate back-to-back day hikes.
That said I’m more impressed with the 70-year-old who scrambled up Mount Morgan, an 82-year old woman I passed two years prior going to and from Honeymoon Lake while she was still making her ascent, and an 81-year-old man I came across on switchbacks on the way back down from the 9,064 summit of Wild Rose Peak above Death Valley.
I was 54 at the time I came across the 81-year-old. Recalling how it “hurt” going up the switchbacks just hour earlier I assured him that the view on top was worth it.
Without missing a beat he replied, “It is already worth it.”
After the ensuing five minute exchange high above Death Valley with a man who said if he listened to those who said he was too old to be pushing himself, he would of ended up stopped learning more about the world and not understanding more about himself.
Not everyone climbs mountains per se but those who keep tackling “new mountains” as the years go by tend to keep finding out more about themselves.
As such life isn’t a race from start to finish but steady climbs toward passes and peaks that give you perspective to understand the valleys of life are not as important as the summit you strive to reach and the journey along the way.