Why do I hike? I was wondering that Monday as I was bypassing snow nearing the 14,232-foot summit of White Mountain, California’s third highest peak.
It was the only hike over six days that wasn’t in the high Sierra. It was in the White Mountains with the trailhead starting some 16 miles down a dirt road that cuts though the bristlecone forest that includes the tree dubbed Methuselah. At 4,849 years old the bristlecone pine tree is considered by scientists as the oldest living organism on earth. It wasn’t the hardest or more treacherous hike I’ve been on — not by a long shot. But the 2,908 foot gain over a round trip of 14 miles was grueling as the wind-swept, treeless route offered no respite from the sun.
This wasn’t a bucket list hike. And to be clear I don’t do bucket lists. Most hikes I do come from reading books and deciding a week or so beforehand what ones strike my fancy. White Mountain had come up on my radar six different times planning trips to Death Valley or the eastern Sierra but I passed. I was scared off by a story related by another hiker I met in Death Valley who developed car trouble at the trailhead. He discovered the hard way his AAA tow coverage excluded wilderness dirt roads leaving him with a $900 tow bill.
It was a silly fear especially since I have taken my 2006 Ford Escape on some roads in Death Valley where high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles are advised.
That said while the hike was exhilarating and entertaining given a 45-year-old woman heading up who passed us as we were coming down and later zoomed by us was tackling White Mountain on a fat-tire mountain bike. While there were stretches nearing the summit on the way up she had to get off and push her bike it established in my mind that I’m not as crazy as some people think. In recent years there has even been an unicyclist that tackled the trail that is essentially a closed dirt road to the top that has plenty of heart-stopping dicey spots for a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
My answer as to why I hike came partially on Tuesday as I was heading up to Honeymoon Lake with my 18-year-old nephew Garrison. It was a seven-hour round trip gaining 3,557 feet to the lake at 10,200 feet. Near the start we passed an older lady hiking and exchanged typical trail pleasantries. The hike up was a challenge. On the way back down we came upon the lady again. She had done perhaps 2.5 miles in the same 5.5 hours we had made it to the top and were roughly half way back down the trail.
She was taking a break sitting on a rock taking in the view that included a 600 foot or so ribbon-style waterfall on Pine Creek. We struck up a conversation. Her name was Karen, she was 74 years old, she lived in Santa Cruz, had been hiking most of her life, and had first hiked to Upper Pine Lake — a lake that crops up before reaching Honeymoon Lake — three years earlier.
Karen wasn’t the oldest hiker I’ve encountered but she certainly was one of the most determined who reveled in the joy of still taking on mountains.
Two days later heading up to Bishop Pass at 11,972 feet we briefly talked with a guy in his 50s heading down from the Pacific Crest Trail. He said the views were magnificent but he was cutting his backpacking trip short because he couldn’t get “the noise” out of his head for some reason on this particular trip. I was stunned. Someone else got how hiking mountains and up steep canyons clears your mind to the point that it resets things for you. I do it more for the mental benefits than I do for the physical benefits. The “epic view” from atop the pass looking down the Bishop Canyon as a handler of pack mules we passed on the way up told us we’d see by going off trail to the edge of a sheer drop-off of 1,200 feet or more is what makes hiking kind of spiritual as well.
I also had the question I asked myself while ascending White Mountain answered on Friday as we were coming back down from one of my favorite hikes up to the 13,057-foot summit of Mt. Dana with its sweeping views of the Yosemite high country, Mono Lake, and the Great Basin in a 5-hour round trip gaining 3,100 feet from Highway 120 at the national park’s eastern entrance.
A man in his 40s that we encountered earlier in the parking lot had stopped his progress toward the summit just before the scree covered switchbacks. We chatted for a while. He hikes with a friend from San Francisco every chance he gets. The friend he referred to as “the bearded guy” who — after summiting Mt. Dana — was hiking the saddle to the adjoining Mt. Gibbs that is slightly higher and required true rock scrambling skills before rendezvousing with him at their car.
The gentleman’s progress had been stopped short by issues he had absorbing oxygen into his blood stream from medication he took for high blood pressure. He said he’d retry summiting Mt. Dana later this season or next year.
Three good answers as to why I hike mountains best summed up with how each step toward the summit and other lofty destination lifts your spirits.
I get — and so do a lot of others — what John Muir meant when he wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”