The Mountaintop — Part VII: The Summit

We climbed for 8.5 hours before we reached the summit.

We started in pitch dark, with lamps on our heads, and climbed in meditative silence.  In my head, I had attacked this like a marathon — divide and conquer; deliberative focus.  I had gone through my typical pre-race meditations and ministrations.  The only things differentiating this from a marathon were the missing d-tag, race number, and mile-markers.  Oh, and the fact that this was a 14,500ft climb.

So, you know, a lot.

I tend to try to do things alone and do them my way.  I understand that this can make it hard to be friends with me; difficult to be in a romantic relationship with me — it made it impossible to be married to me.  But as we gained altitude, one thing became increasingly clear: what I had thought was my sole responsibility had only come about because of incredible teamwork.  While the seed for this batshit crazy adventure may have been planted by me, we would not have been on that mountain without each other.

We watched the sunrise at around 10,000ft, as if we were looking out over a Martian landscape; looked on in silence as the glow spread over the snowfields on the August mountain.  Our mouths were agape at the things bigger than us; greater than us; the moments and views for which our language could not capture the mix of thoughts and feelings.

Agape, of course, was a particularly apt state of being for that 8.5 hour moment: the idea of being “wide open.”  Watching the sun come up over the Sierras sucks the wind out of you.  As Strand aptly put it, “all that ‘stuff’ you carry with you [doesn’t] need to be there anymore once that sun rises.”  So we were cleared out, ready to receive what came next.  (Which, as it so happened, was 97 Switchbacks of Doom.)

The term “agape” as used in theology represents a pure, self-sacrificing, reciprocally divine love — and also one of mankind for each other.  And in the moment of sunrise, as the red, purple and gold echoed like noise through the crevass at 10,000ft, I felt a thing I had been missing, or perhaps never known: that I was not in this alone.

Whether you believe as I believe, or you believe that the stones and sun have meaning of their own and that’s their only meaning, I think we can agree that the parts of life that are greater than ourselves — i.e., knowing that we are part of a bigger whole, however you define that whole — are among the most valuable parts of this life in this big world.

Cognisant of time, we continued up the switchbacks.

(Switchbacks of Doom)

(Point at which Strand lost it.)

We reached the summit.  I did not doubt that I could make it.  I also had no doubt that Strand and Kat could make it.

But seeing a storm rolling in, I commanded that we shove peanut butter sandwiches in our hands and proceed down as quickly as possible.

(Signing the NPS Register before heading down.  Note the UCLA sticker.)

Down the mountain we went.  We reached the bottom in due course; the way down was a strange blur because we hadn’t seen most of it on the way up.  At the trailhead, my parents were waiting — my father had stepped out of the Portal Store as we reached the bottom, as if he had known the exact moment we would complete the journey.

The hike took us 14.5 hours overall.

Seeing my parents was never so lovely; a celebratory beer never tasted so good.  And to answer the question on everyone’s mind: no, none of us used a Wag Bag.

The next day at the barbeque my parents threw for us, the whole gang of usual suspects came out to party: family, friends, people from my college days and school days.  All of the little kiddos and new babies.  It was wonderful, and winesoaked — all of the great things that a party at my parents’ house always is.

But I had been somewhat irritable in the days, hours leading up to the climb, and had foolishly decided to insult Elvis and call into question Reagan’s actions with regard to airline deregulation, which is strictly verboten.  We do not insult Elvis, and we never question anything Reagan did.  We eat ALL colors of Jelly Bellys, and we ENJOY them, goddamnit.

So my father decided to confront me.  At midnight.

Just say you’re sorry.  And shut up, Jade advised.

We’re going to bed, Strand and Kat said.

I gritted my teeth and prepared for the worst.  My father and I are extremely similar, and very close.  I think we have a high degree of mutual respect; but sometimes, I just want to strangle him.

He confronted me about a variety of things — from my attitude to how often I come to visit to whether I was “happy.”  At the time, his words made me angry.  But upon further reflection, I think that he was trying to tell me where he was and ask me where I was.  Why are you climbing these mountains; running these marathons?  Are you going to settle down?  Are you happy? What’s next for you?  Do you want a family?  Do you want a husband?  How are you going to do this?  What comes next for our family and how do you want to fit into what’s happening here in California?

These questions were not so easily answered on the spot — they would be difficult, maybe painful to resolve.  They were certainly not answered in a vacuum on our patio at midnight, nor could they all be answered by me alone, or by him alone, or by any of us by ourselves.

And that was the discovery at the top of the mountain:  Sometimes the road to the top is lonely, and in some parts, it is covered with ice and snow; loose rocks; the footing is bad.  Sometimes, you’re the leader, and other times, you’re the orange backpack beacon.  What I am trying to say is this:  two months ago; two years ago, I thought that this was strictly a solo journey.  But when the sun rose on that Sierra morning, I realized I could not have been more wrong.

After all was said and done, and we’d been back in New York for a week or two, I found myself sitting in a bar on the Upper East Side with the same friend with whom I had had tea in San Francisco the week of the car accident.  I finally told him the whole accident story, and it was, after nearly six months…funny.

You didn’t tell me any of that! he protested.

I know, I laughed, I was way too much of a mess.  I thought I could handle it on my own.

And we smiled, and drank our drinks, and nursed our respective ailments — his jetlag and my Chicken Pox Part Deux, enjoying the standstill moment…together.

I climbed for more than 30 years before I even figured out which way was Up.

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