Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Hiking Hell

My boyfriend, son and I recently decided to enjoy a trail hike at Mt. Baldy that has been recommended by a few of my friends. One couple, Tami and Jeff, even did what they called "extreme hiking" -- that is, they went up as quickly as they could and raced down. Now, I already knew that they were nuts and that pushing themselves physically had become something of a goal, rather than the byproduct of a hobby. Still, Tami has a knack for drawing others into her manias and somehow making them like what they're doing. This is how I ended up with various pieces of body art and is also the main reason I ran a marathon. 

One blazing hot Sunday afternoon, Tom, Corey and I headed up to Mt. Baldy for a hike. We were heading for the Ice House Canyon trail, which is a shady dirt path that slopes gently in most places. The three of us had been hiking together before, and Corey and I had been up there quite a few times over the years. Corey brought walking sticks, a butterfly net and the carrier his fire belly frog came home in. As we approached the short turnoff for the Ice House, Tom and I decided to head up to the trail our friends had recommended. We didn't find out until later that it was called the Devil's Backbone.

We parked and headed to the bottom of the ski lifts, where the trail begins. A group of sweaty men were laughing and having a really good time -- they had just come down. I thought about how much fun they were having. I thought about the fun we could have on our hike. I thought about the fact that my thighs were already feeling the effects of the slanted road.

At the ski lifts we had to make a decision: Ride or hike? Anybody who knows me well knows I'm terrified of heights, especially if my feet are not set on terra firma or something attached to it. I love beautiful views overlooking valleys and cities, I just want to be on the side of a hill or in a tall building to see them. Add to that the fact that Tom and I hadn't brought much money and our decision was made: Hike.

So we started up the mountainside by staying underneath the ski lift. The conditions were less than ideal, but we wanted a workout as much as time spent with nature. Sure it was rocky, but big rocks were usually pushed into the earth far enough that we could propel ourselves forward. No, it wasn't the gently sloping shaded hike we had expected, but the most important thing was that we were out and we were moving.

After about twenty minutes I started getting out of breath. Thankfully, we'd all brought water to drink. Tom agreed to carry mine in addition to his, probably to stem the heavy breathing and grunting I'd been doing. Newly freed of the 32 ounces of water, I scrambled up the side of the mountain quickly, leaving Tom and Corey to stare in amazement from far below.

Hmm, it occurs to me that Tom may actually read this, so I'll try to stick to the facts.

I slowly made my way to a large rock and sat down to survey our progress. Tom and Corey came back down to me and we had a small snack of water and granola bars. We looked down the hill and tried to estimate how far we'd gone. I guessed 100 feet, but Tom thought at least 100 yards. In any case, we could clearly see the ski lift shack and, beyond that, the parking lot with our truck. Overhead people who had the sense and the funds to ride in reasonable comfort waved or said hello. They couldn't believe we were walking up. One guy, whose dirt bike was on the lift behind him, pulled out a gallon jug of water and poured it on our heads. We were grateful for his generosity and good aim. We hoped for more people like him along the way. Energized, we turned back toward the trail.

Then we looked up.

Looking up is always bad. When I have run up long hills without looking, it may have been hard, but it happened reasonably quickly. If I looked up at any point before the summit (yep, even from mere feet away), I felt discouraged and wanted to walk. It was no different with hiking. I looked skeptically toward the top of the hill and announced that I didn't have it in me to complete this particular trail today. In my head I was calculating the precise distance that would save me from looking like a wimp without straining my weak muscles.

Taking the two or three minute break was good for me and I was able to briefly move ahead of Corey and Tom. Of course they passed me by pretty quickly, but I was on my way. The terrain changed from a rock-filled sandy path to one covered in tiny shale rocks. We were trying to walk up a dusty gravel hill in ninety degree weather. Even the few big rocks were not pressed into the ground and did not offer traction or a suitable place to stand and catch one's breath. Trying to stand still meant sliding down hill backwards. Up ahead I spied a tree root that was protruding from the ground. My goal of reaching the tree was slowly realized.

Another short break (that left a permanent thumbprint of sap right on my rear end), another glimpse to the base of the hill and toward the top of the trail, another bout of self-doubt and we were on our way. Corey had found a long stick to aid his hiking. He offered it to me, but I couldn't justify taking on the extra weight since Tom was still carrying my water bottle. Corey offered it to Tom, who looked offended that someone might think he'd need a walking stick.

Around this time we had a choice of paths. One was steep, narrow and made of the loose gravel. The other was less steep and appeared to have more dirt than shale. I chose the steep shale path simply because I already knew what to expect there. Tom and Corey took the path that turned out to be shale over loose sand. Moments later Corey was climbing up to the trail I was using. Tom, however, was determined to use his route despite the obviously tough time he was having. When I looked over and saw him successfully using a walking stick that was about eighteen inches long (his trail was a lot steeper than we had realized), I was struck by two things: His amazing will to stick to something even if it's difficult; and that he could be a freaky new character in Heidi. I pictured him climbing the Alps in lederhosen and the hat with the feather. I would have laughed, but I didn't have that sort of energy.

After about ninety minutes of hiking that really looked like a Sumo wrestler's intimidating walk into the ring, we reached a short, but very steep hill -- the sort of hill that you just have to mount in order to maintain a shred of self-respect. When I reached the top I looked down, the parking lot was no longer visible, but the mountain valley below was, and it was stunning. Dark green trees, light blue skies, a few small white clouds in the distance.

Then I looked over to the right and saw -- to my utter dismay -- a dirt road, wide enough for two small vehicles to pass one another. My jaw dropped so hard my eyes watered. A sprightly, stout older man was marching quickly down. This road, I later found out, was the 'trail' my friends had raced up and run down. Having the road as an option made me want to finish the course we'd started. By this time, there was no more trail, there was just a Little House on the Prairie type hill that had a mix of pre-tumble weed bushes, wildflowers, and more of the shale and sand. This last rise was only about one hundred feet away, but rose up approximately sixty or seventy vertical feet, so it was pretty steep.

While Tom and I rested before the final push, Corey (who had alternately complained about being tired and then raced off ahead of us) found an almost vertical wall of dirt. He backed up, ran up as far as he could, slid a little, climbed a little, slipped some, and climbed some more. We all had goals that day, and his was to get as far up that dirt wall as possible. We watched him for a few minutes while wondering if he had somehow managed to take the road while we struggled up the gravel pit. A few minutes later, Tom and I were ready to move on.

I admit that I took advantage of some of those pretty plants on the hill. I stepped on them, hoping their roots went deep enough to hold them and allow me some traction to move upward. Tom was the first person to get to the top, followed a few minutes later by me. Corey took the longest time because he'd found a length of rope and a block of cement with metal rods protruding (about five feet below the top of the hill). Trash, you say, but to Corey it was his only opportunity that day to be a rock climber. He first tried to tie the rope to the rods or the cement, but had no luck. In the end, Tom offered to hold an end of the rope and let Corey pull himself up that way.

We went into the lodge, split a soda and debated whether to hike or to ride down. Initially, I didn't care which we did, as long as we got on our way. It was already 4:00, and the lifts were closing in half an hour. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to hike. Or take that road that (I found out later) my friends had traveled. Or wait until some new, non-ski lift sort of way was invented to get down the mountain. I'd ridden both up and down them once before and had no interest in doing it again, especially not down, as that meant looking down -- down to the ground, down into the valley that had once seemed so beautiful.

I was outvoted.

We headed over to the ski lifts (when you're going down, does it become a ski drop?) and Tom got onto his. Corey was very disappointed that he was going with me instead of Tom, but that would have meant that I'd be alone, and probably in a chair that was lopsided from just one person, so I'd be drooping, sagging toward the ground. That could not be.

Although I didn't want to, I told the attendant that I was afraid. He looked at me like I was an idiot and told me where to stand. I stood bouncing with knees bent and rear end pointing out in anticipation of the chair. I probably looked like Goofy getting ready to ski, but the hyuk-hyuk's came from the attendant.

For the first thirty seconds of the ride, I obsessed over how far forward Corey was sitting, and then I spent some time worrying about his being too far back in the seat. After that, I tried to be cool. I called to Tom, who turned around and waved at us. I wiggled the three fingers on my right hand that would be pried from the chair lift pole. Most of the way down, Corey and I enjoyed the view. Then Corey noticed the way the chair bounced as we went past a lift tower. He wanted to know if the chair could fall off. He wanted to know if we were going to hit that rock below. If we were going to crash on the other side of that cliff. How much longer it would be until it was over. Sometimes I think my son reads my mind.

When we reached the bottom and exited safely, the second attendant told Corey to come back in the winter and he'd teach Corey to snowboard. From the look in Corey's eyes, he will be waiting for first snow to have that man keep his word. My only hope is that he suffers selective amnesia when winter hits.

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